From Fast Food to Fitness: Strava’s Chief Business Officer on Risks, Pivots, and Leadership

Career advice from Zipporah Allen, Strava's CBO
Published on
Jun 21, 2023
Written by
Elodie Huston
Elodie is a Senior Content Marketing Manager on the Content Team. She spends her logged off hours cycling, scouting out soft serve, and yelling about really good books.
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Zipporah Allen joined McDonald’s during a crisis point, led the digital charge at Taco Bell during the rise of mobile, and is currently Strava’s Chief Business Officer. Here’s how she thinks about career building. 

Zipporah Allen, Strava’s Chief Business Officer, is no stranger to change. She’s jumped into new challenges spanning continents, industries, business models, and technological changes. Not one to shy away from tough problems, Allen’s natural curiosity led her to seek out challenges at every stage of her career to learn as much as possible.  

Allen sat down with our Chief Marketing Officer, Sara Varni to speak about what she’s learned as she’s progressed in her career. She shares what international marketing can teach you about strategy, why you need a mentor and a champion, how to motivate your team in a remote world, and her biggest piece of advice for young professionals.

Listen to an excerpt of their conversation below, and keep reading for Allen's insights and top takeaways.

 

How taking (calculated) risks got her to where she is today

Allen began her career at McDonald’s, when the brand was facing a few challenges. The documentary “Super Size Me” had just come out, and consumers were skeptical of fast food. Then, the 2008 financial crisis hit. 

Despite all indications, her role at McDonalds was an amazing learning opportunity. Because consumers were looking for value during the economic downturn, quick service restaurants turned out to be extremely resilient. ‌Allen was tasked with the challenge of improving the brand’s health. She began working on solutions such as putting fruit in Happy Meals. The team was focused on delivering food that kids loved, but their parents approved of. 

Soon, Allen was ready for her next challenge. Her decision was part personal, part professional. Because she wasn’t able to study abroad during college, she wanted to create that opportunity in her professional life. The decision to move abroad was a major growth accelerant, too. "I moved to Australia for three years, and it made me so much more data-driven and consumer-driven as a marketer,” Allen said. “Because I was working for a brand that I grew up with, but in a completely different environment and competitive context, the strategies I used in the United States just didn't apply." She had to completely rethink her strategies, dig into data, and tell new stories to grow the brand. 

Allen applied that data-driven approach to her next role, when she came back to the United States to join a small strategy team at McDonalds. They were tasked with solving a core business problem: How do you personalize the McDonald's experience?

Solving that challenge ended up being the biggest pivot in her career. “It turns out the answer—which is a no-brainer in 2023—is digital,” said Allen. “But back then, it was like this big ‘aha!’ And that was actually the biggest pivot in my career—I started to go much more digital." Allen eventually took that experience to Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, driving the restaurants’ digital transformation throughout the rise of mobile. 

Her recent move to Strava is a further pivot on her digital axis. Allen’s goal is to one day become a CEO. Wanting to round out her experience and dive into general management, she decided to join the social fitness app as their Chief Business Marketing Officer before transitioning into the Chief Business Officer role. 

How a passion for learning will help you grow your career

The most important part of growing your career, according to Allen, is having a learning orientation. "I actually really haven't cared too much about title or status or really even pay,” she shared. “When I moved to Australia, I actually took a $15,000 pay cut and moved two levels back just so I could get an international experience. So having a learning orientation and taking on new challenges has really helped me." 

She recommends leaning into your curiosity to guide your career decisions. When identifying new opportunities, she asks herself: “‘What am I going to learn?’ or 'what am I going to add to my skill set?'.” 

Another key to success, according to Allen? Orienting yourself towards a specific role. "I want to be a CEO one day. That’s why I joined Strava as their chief business officer—it’s giving me more general management experience,” shared Allen. “I have a very wiggly line to get to the CEO seat, and I'm not done yet." 

Allen's last piece of advice is to seek balance. "I have two kids, so I'm in a season in my career where I'm prioritizing time with them,” she shared. “So I'm getting a little rest, and then I’m going to keep going. I'm still working hard, and I'm still doing my job really well. But I'm less focused on what's next, because I'm really happy with where I am."

Why you need both a mentor and a champion (and why they should be different people)

There are two professional relationships that are key to your professional growth: the mentor and the champion. Allen first came across the concept of nurturing these relationships through Carla Harris, an author, leader, and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley. 

“Mentors are people that help you think through career moves, business problems, and how you're showing up at work,” said Allen. “But champions are the people that advocate for you in the rooms where decisions about your career are being made.” You need both figures in your life to succeed, and Allen feels lucky to have had so many champions and mentors throughout her career. 

Why really getting to know your direct reports is key to motivating your team 

One of Allen's super powers is people management. "I take it as a huge honor and very deep responsibility that I get to help shape and coach people's careers,” she shared. 

She takes a customized approach to coaching her direct reports. "Nobody comes to work just for the paycheck. We all have different reasons for doing our jobs, and we all have different places we’re trying to get to,” she shared. “I spend a lot of time getting to know somebody—what makes them feel appreciated, what makes them tick, what makes them get out of bed and do their job. That part of people managing is usually hard, but knowing and leaning into what really drives people is key." 

Allen also recommends getting clear on expectations with your direct reports. Quoting renowned author, Brenee Brown, Allen shared: “‘Clarity is kindness.’ I am really clear, and we discuss: ‘What is the objective that we're trying to hit?’ and ‘What expectations do I have for you?.’ I'm also very clear on the feedback, sharing 'We're exceeding our expectations,' or 'We're not quite there,” and 'This is what I need to see differently.'"

Finally, Allen believes spending unstructured time with your team is key to a strong manager-report relationship. "Especially in this distributed world, spending time together in person is key. My team needs to know me as a person.” She believes spending time with your team outside of your day-to-day work is a great way to build a good rapport (which will also help you better understand your reports’ motivations). 

Her number one piece of advice for young professionals

When asked what her number one piece of advice is for professionals early in their career, Allen came back to the importance of having a learning orientation. "That's the thread that has really helped me through my career. Don't be afraid to take the job that nobody else wants or the problem that seems unsolvable. Because even if you fail, you're still going to learn a lot along the way." 

Allen has first-hand experience with embracing challenges. When she joined Taco Bell, she purposely took on a complex challenge to grow in her career. "When I took over digital at Taco Bell, people didn’t want to work on it because it was hard,” shared Allen. “We were figuring out how to get our marketing technology stack to work. And we were also figuring out how to grow our digital channels from 3% of our business to 50%. And I took on these challenges because I  felt like, ‘Wow, if I could solve that, that’s awesome. And I'm gonna learn a lot along the way." 

Looking to take the next step in your career? Explore our open roles. 

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