Merline Saintil is a force. She’s a senior technology executive with more than 20 years of experience in guiding companies to develop award-winning products for a global base of consumers. She’s on the Board of Directors for Banner Corporation (NASDAQ: BANR), a bank holding company in Washington state where she advises the company on cyber risk and technology trends and is a member of the Risk Committee and Compensation Committee. She also sits on the Board of Directors of Nav Inc., a venture-backed, late-stage pre-IPO company that helps small businesses build, protect, and leverage their credit data for access to streamlined financing.
As one of Athena’s earliest members and supporters, Merline holds a special place in our hearts. Through her partnership and leadership, Merline helped Athena secure initial investment through Intuit, and today she sits on our board. Currently, Merline is the Chief Operating Officer at 7 Cups, the world’s largest artificial intelligence (AI) platform for anonymous and holistic mental health support and emotional well-being. Prior to 7 Cups, she was a senior executive in the Product & Technology group at Intuit, a Fortune 500 company and maker of QuickBooks and TurboTax.
Business Insider recently recognized Merline as #6 on their list of the 22 Most Powerful Women Engineers in the World. Beyond this, she is recognized as a Women of Influence 2017 by Silicon Valley Business Journal and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Girls in Tech. And recently, Carnegie Mellon honored Merline with its prestigious “Return on Education” award.
Tell us about your early involvement in Athena Alliance. What piqued your interest?
There’s a significant gap for female executives, it’s the last mile that’s the hardest for them when it comes to achieving a board seat. The question is, how do you get high-touch, one-on-one connections? Athena helps executives shape a board bio, tell their story, and connect to the right networks to ensure you are in the right place at the right time —all of which are difficult to do when you’re super busy. Getting involved was a no-brainer for me.
How did you know a board seat was right for you?
In a theoretical sense, many people will aspire to be at the top. I don’t just mean CEO, because ultimately the true top is the board—the body the CEO reports to. It’s a big responsibility to serve on a board. You need to understand why you want to do it, what you can get out of it, and what you will need to put into it. I wanted to join a board for several reasons, but I think two reasons are important for others to consider. I wanted to have the experience that comes from the overarching stewardship of an entire business. Secondly, I wanted to embrace the duties of care and loyalty that come along with being a fiduciary of a company. It’s a level of accountability and oversight I really want to contribute.
How did you work Athena Alliance into your busy executive schedule?
I love that the program can be totally customized. For me, I was pretty aggressive and I just went through it. However, there were other members who were busy and it took longer, and some who fell in between. The fact that it can be tailored to each individual member is amazing. The flexibility of the program is one of the things most members will find appealing. Athena will go at your pace.
Were there any surprises along the way as you went through the Board interview process?
There was one good question that came my way. If a person is not retired, you’re called an operator. I was asked, “Merline, are you done operating?” All that question is supposed to elicit is if you understand the difference in being a board member with oversight responsibilities versus having a role in managing the company. You need to clearly understand the difference and it can be nuanced. If you can’t understand the difference between the two, you’ll trip up pretty quickly in the board meeting. As I’ve heard it described best “eyes in, fingers out.”
That must be a tough switch, to understand the different roles.
It was spot on; it was the best question to ask. Of course, there’s the basic stuff, too, like will you fit in, the culture, all the obvious stuff. But fully understanding what your role is, that unwritten rule about how to be successful or start to be successful is vital. For example, just like people can’t tell you that you’re talking or solutioning too much in a meeting, you need to have self-awareness about the dynamics in the boardroom. It’s a skill to move from solving the problem to guiding others to solutions with experienced and thoughtful questions. This need is magnified in the boardroom.
How do you continue to learn through this experience?
I constantly seek feedback. I ask board members privately: how did you think this went? I’m constantly looking for that feedback to make sure I’m balancing my self-awareness and other people’s perceptions of me. Athena also creates a structure for intimate ongoing learning through salons [salons are events that Athena Pioneers—members who have achieved board seats—host in their homes to share insights.] It’s an opportunity to learn how to approach and behave with respect to a variety of boardroom topics and concerns.
What advice about networking do you have for other members?
Just do it. It takes a lot of time and effort. But you just have to do it. [Editorial Note: Athena CEO, Coco Brown, just wrote an article on the importance of networking and staying top of mind. Read it here.]
How can current aspiring directors in the Athena program get the most out of their investment?
Taking advantage of the high-touch programs and tools are just table stakes. Leveraging Athena to expand your network is the harder part. It requires that you engage the Athena team to ask for connections to VCs, seated directors (board influencers and decision makers), and that you attend the events they host where these key connections are present as well. Most board searches—I think more than 80 percent—happen because of a network connection. When you’re asked to make a connection regarding a board search, people will have likely already done homework on you and they aren’t going to take you through a traditional interview process. Athena will connect you to Pioneer mentors who can help you prepare for what’s to come in the formal and informal selection process ahead of you.
How do you maintain confidence as a board member who is new to a company and new to the process?
We now have three women on the board, but at the time, I was just the second. And I was the first person of color. The average age is 63, and I am definitely younger than that. But I’ve never let my differences not let me be confident with what I bring to the table. They wanted me for my cybersecurity and technology experience. I was also in the California market, a market they were very interested in.
So, that’s what I lead with. They know I’m not a former CEO of a bank. People tend to get hung up that they aren’t the same, but it’s important to celebrate your differences. And—if board composition is done right—they are looking for different skill sets. Embrace who you are and lead with that.
Is there anything else you want aspiring directors to know to hit the ground running as a new Director?
Don’t wait to find your voice; that advice is passé. Find your voice immediately in the area that you were brought on to oversee, and use it. You can bring value on day one after joining a board.