Wells Fargo's Debra Chrapaty on seeking change Within reach: Conversations with leaders on the front lines of the financial services industry

26 May 2020

The road to leadership is different for everyone. For Wells Fargo CTO Debra Chrapaty, it meant making hard choices, living unapologetically, and embracing her superpowers.

Debra Chrapaty: When I was a kid, I used to sit with my friends—I grew up in northeast Philadelphia—and my friends would say, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I’d always say, “I’m going to be an executive and I'm going to have a briefcase.” And they always say, “Really? So, when you’re an executive and you have a briefcase, will we have to make an appointment to come see you?” And I’d say, “Yes.” And actually, they do, which we laugh about it now that we’re, becoming very senior women and men.

Tanya Ott: What’s it like as a woman … in technology … in the financial services industry? We’re going to find out.

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I’m Tanya Ott and we’re talking to women in the financial services industry to get a sense of how they navigate that space and where they draw their inspiration. That woman you just heard—the one who really wanted a briefcase—is Debra Chrapaty, the chief technology officer of Wells Fargo. But technology was not her original plan.

Debra: I had this vision that I was going to be a great economist. I was reading a lot of Keynes when I was, believe it or not, a kid, which I guess officially makes me a geek.

Tanya: Yeah, it’s a geek or a nerd. I’m not sure which one, but one of the two.

Debra: It’s a little bit of both. So when I finished high school, I went to Temple undergrad, a local college in Philadelphia. I studied economics and then I went on to do my graduate work at NYU Graduate School of Business. In between, I did some work as an economist. And in the process of doing that, even though it was early days, I got my hands on a computer. That changed my trajectory quite a bit because I started to do forecasting and modeling. I guess, now we probably call them algorithms. Back then, maybe not so much.

So, I started my graduate work in finance, and I ended up completing it in systems analysis and design, and that kicked off my career as a woman in technology at a time when that wasn’t that common. We’re talking about like the 80s. I hate to say it, right? It was a little bit less common to see women moving up the ranks as managers in tech. But it was a great move. Sometimes the decisions we make, either intentional or unintentional, they define our career paths and trajectories. That really changed my trajectory because as technology became more mainstream—I mean, maybe not, because maybe I’d be a super successful investment banker if I stayed in finance, you never know! But that change was right in this era where women were in demand because there weren’t a lot of women in tech and companies were starting to look at their balances and how many women they should have in certain roles. There was quite a lot of opportunity for women in technology in the late 80s, early 90s. I took advantage of that opportunity. I had some really cool job opportunities throughout my career, including things like working for the New York Fed doing money-supply forecasting and analysis, which led me to work in the music and entertainment industry using computer systems to do demand and supply forecasting. Again, all on computers, which then led me to become the head of application development for one of those music companies, which then led me to a future opportunity as the chief technology officer of the NBA, at which point my career went back to finance and I became the president and COO of E*TRADE Technologies in the 90s. Took them public. From there, many other opportunities, some of the more pinnacle ones being corporate vice president at Microsoft doing a lot of the infrastructure design and development as we prepared for online, and then to Cisco as a senior vice president of collaboration, eventually going back to smaller companies as the CIO of Zynga, the gaming company, taking them public, doing a couple other things that landed me here at Wells Fargo.

Tanya: So, you’re pretty much a slacker, is what you’re saying, right?

Debra: I’m terrible.

Tanya: I got it. I got you pegged, Chrapaty.

Debra: It’s fun, but you know what they say. People go, “You’re so lucky.” I always say, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” That’s a good mantra for all of us, women and men. The harder you work, the luckier you get because paths open, paths close. But if you keep on your trajectory, opportunity does afford itself.

Tanya: You’ve woven yourself through several different industries. Technology seems to be the through line, but we’re talking about, early tech companies, NBA, the gaming industry. All of these at one time or another have had some real tough conversations about gender equity in business. I’m wondering why this is a topic that I’m [still] talking to you about today? What are your thoughts on sort of the broader issue of gender equity in business and what it’s meant to you?

Debra: I’ll take that deep breath and I’ll go (breathes deeply). The reason I do that is because I’ve been at this a long time and sometimes I see the more things change, the more they stay the same. When I think about some of the topics I talk about today—I’m on the Diversity and Inclusion [D&I] Council at Wells Fargo. I ran diversity and inclusion in 1997 at E*TRADE. And what I see over and over again is that some things change, and a lot of things stay the same, including some of the numbers. You know what I mean? When I look and I think back—and I don’t have the numbers in front of me, you probably do—but, in 1997, I would imagine women in tech, in managerial roles, were something like 20-something percent. What are they now? Twenty, 25, 29 percent? This is with all this effort, all this focus. Think about the billions of dollars companies spend on diversity and inclusion. And yet we still don’t see big moves in the numbers. I’ve looked at a couple of studies, just because I’m on the D&I Council and, we’re seeing more women in managerial roles or women being more effective in managerial roles. But when I look across the decades that I’ve spent on this, it can be a little disheartening sometimes. I look at all that stuff and all I can say is [big sigh], right? Because the more things change, the more I feel that they stay the same.

I think the common thread for me is just being resilient through it. I don't allow myself to be pulled into negativity. If there’s an unusual situation that’s inappropriate, I avoid it. I don’t take it personally, because it’s generic. It’s wrong. I just try to walk away from difficult situations and manage through my career and not walk away from my career. And I know women executives that have walked away from their careers.

Tanya: Because of one frustration or another, yeah.

Debra: They’re so frustrated. And my thing is, in my mind, I remember when I was a little kid and I said, “I’m going to be an executive with a briefcase.” I’m very much about embracing the choices that I make. Recognizing that many of the choices we make in life, they’re not easy choices. To be successful, regardless of what the obstacle is—whatever the challenges are, we all have to power through them. That doesn’t mean that it’s not important to surface inequity, which I’ve done many times in my career; but to not allow it to be a deterrent, at least for me, for my personal path.

Tanya: If you’ve got an example that you think illustrates this, that could be really potentially useful.

Debra: I have lots of them, from many years ago and from not that long ago. My favorite example: I was quite young, my late 20s, early 30s. That was a long time ago. I was the chief technology officer of the NBA. I was running a pretty large division of the company— I ran all of tech. I won’t give vendor-specific names, but we had a sports marketing person from a particular vendor. He wanted to do some tech innovations that were completely wrong. He wanted to use old data technology that would feed his sales marketing pipeline, but that would have been the absolute wrong decision for the NBA. So, being the CTO of the NBA, I said, “Absolutely not. There are lots of interesting things that we can do together, but using this particular technology is the wrong path for the league and we’re not going to do it.” This particular person was with the commissioner and looked at me and said, “You know, my relationship with the NBA was perfect until David hired a little girl to run his technology department.” That’s what he said.

Tanya: Oh.

Debra “Until David hired a little girl to run this technology organization.” And I was like, “Well, you know what? I might be a woman, but I also control the budget and I control the technology decisions. So when you’re ready to apologize, my office is down the hall and to the right.” And I got up and I walked out and I slammed the door.

Tanya: Wow!

Debra: I was a young person. How I had the audacity to do that, I don’t know. Maybe it’s in my DNA. There are things I’m going to tolerate and there are things I’m not going to tolerate, and I control the budget, I control the decisions, and at a certain point, you’re the vendor and you’ll come to me because I have the decision-making power. But it’s hard, very hard.

Tanya: I imagine over the years that you’ve been in this business, businesses I should say, you’ve had the opportunity to interact with a lot of different types of leaders. Is there a person that maybe stands out in your mind that you went, “Yeah, this is it, this is how I want to be as a leader. These are the qualities that I want to inhabit.”

Debra: I’ve worked for many amazing people in my life. I’m pausing because I know it’s recent, but the person I work for right now, it’s just absolutely incredible. Probably one of my best working experiences.

I mean, I really enjoyed working at E*TRADE and I worked for Christos Cotsakos. I really enjoyed working for Christos because he was bold and visionary, and he was a lot of fun. He was the person who liked to bring play into the workplace, which was perfect for a young startup company. It was a real opportunity to work with him and for him.

At Microsoft, I had the opportunity to work for Steve Ballmer for a while, which was equally incredible. Brilliant guy [who] ran a very complex organization with a lot of passion and with a very strong mindset around the numbers.

But I tend to be a very empathetic leader. So I’m very direct and clear on where I want to go, but I’m sort of a love-them-and-leave-them kind of leader. I’d like to really get to know people and bring out the best in them and inspire them to their path forward. Recently, we hired a new leader at Wells Fargo named Saul Van Beurden, and he’s just one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked for. It’s his combination of high energy—and I’m very high energy—aspiration, and ethics that really drive me forward. And those are the things that I value the most. I like when I work with someone who’s bold about change but can do it in a way that brings everyone along for the journey and creates a very inclusive environment. It’s also important, particularly now—people tend to pull back a little bit on bringing their full selves into the office, whether it’s a woman or other diverse candidate. We’re working hard to create that inclusiveness. And he’s just that person. He says he’s Dutch, and Dutch means “be honest.” So I really like the Dutch mentality. At my age, I didn’t think that I would really get to enjoy and also learn so much from a leader. I kind of thought, I’m long in the tooth and I know it all. Working with Saul, I’m realizing that I actually don’t. And that’s OK. It’s important that we all be learning leaders and we remain open to new approaches and new styles. I picked up a lot of different skills from different people.

Tanya: I know that you are really passionate about what you call, superpowers.

Debra: That’s right.

Tanya: What are superpowers? You got a cape or something in that toolbox?

Debra: Well, in addition to my wonderfully female diverseness, I also have a wonderfully female wife. She in and of herself is my superpower, because she’s incredible. She taught me the word superpowers because she, for a while, was an executive at Amazon. It’s a great concept that they have when they hire people, to say, really hone in on what makes you special and that is your superpower.

I’ve thought a lot about mine throughout my career. And people have told me this: One, I’m very high energy. I’m very positive. I’ve gotten positive feedback for that and negative. It always comes back to balance in how we bring even our superpowers forward. I had one boss say, “You’re always so positive ... how am I going to know when things aren’t going right or you’re always so positive about your people, how do I know when they’re underperforming?” That was feedback I took and I baked it into my superpower to show that I can be discerning about what I’m positive about.

But one of [my superpowers] is that I really see goodness in everything and I see potential in everything. Right now at Wells Fargo, we’re doing a giant technical transformation. For people that follow me on LinkedIn, I use the hashtag #letstransform. I use it everywhere. It’s part of creating that momentum, creating that excitement, bringing people along for the journey, helping them see their potential and see themselves in what we’re doing. I’ve heard people say, “When you left, all the energy left the room! You bring so much energy and then when you’re gone, it’s like it feels empty.” Which, I guess, I take as a compliment. I don’t mean to leave groups feeling empty. I hope I do my transitions with thoughtfulness and respect. But they say, “Oh, it feels like the energy is gone.” And I’ve heard that a couple of times. Definitely high-energy, transformation that drives being future-facing and what’s possible. It’s one of my superpowers and bringing people along for it, which I love. I get a lot of energy by giving that energy.

Tanya: That’s great.

Debra: The second is, I’m very well organized. I always say I’m outwardly casual and inwardly rigorous—a phrase that I got from Christos. It’s important for me because I’m a relaxed person. I always laugh because I say, if I were at an ATM machine in front of you at Wells Fargo, you’d probably never think I was the CTO at Wells Fargo. Especially if I drove up in my Subaru with my dogs barking. But I’m really casual, right? My other superpower is I can take an enormous amount of complexity and process it and simplify it and make it tangible for everyone.

Tanya: You mentioned that your wife was formerly in senior leadership at Amazon, so that means you two are both pretty driven, right? I always hesitate about asking the work-life balance question. But you’ve got two hardworking, driven women in your household. How do you navigate, whether you call it work-life balance or I’ve heard recently the term work-life blend, which I think probably works a little better in my schema. How do you wrap your head around that? How do you think about that?

Debra: I mentor a lot of women, I have throughout my career, and I always get the work balance question.

Tanya: It’s annoying. I know. And I asked it.

Debra: No, no, it’s an important one. I know for me, I can work and not take care of myself if I’m not careful and then I’m not taking care of my family. I’m not taking care of my firm, because I’m not taking care of myself. So within my context, there are two things that are really helpful. One, I believe in the concept of flow. My days can be long, and I don’t try to bifurcate them. I do what I like to do when I like to do it, as much as possible. And my schedule doesn’t afford it that much because I can have days where I’m back-to-back. But if I wake up and I really feel like doing a little workout, I do that. And because I love my job and I get so much energy from it, it’s easy for me to be here and get absorbed in it. As long as I’m really enjoying it, which is most of the time, I stay in that flow. And then when I come home, I try to flow into my family. I’m deeply connected to my wife and my family and my friends. So I try to create a nice balance where I follow my own energy levels through the day and that fuels me. I find balance in that, even though most people think I have the most insane days they’ve ever seen in their lives. When people visit, they’re just like, “Is this really how you live?” and I’m like, yes! But for me, it’s a natural state. I encourage people to find their own natural state where each thing they do leads them to more positivity, more energy, as opposed to less. Then again, that’s not always possible. I have days where, something comes up either at home or at work. And it just flattens the whole experience out. And that’s normal. But most days I pretty much flow through it.

In terms of balance itself, what I tell young women when they say, “Do you have work-life balance?,” I’m really honest with them, and some people don’t like to hear it. But if you want to be in a senior executive in a major corporation, please anticipate before you make that decision. It’s like, watch what you wish for, because a lot of your time is going to be focused on work. I’m sorry. It’s just the way it is. I used to be less appropriate when I was young and I was like, “If you want work-life balance, don’t be an executive in a major tech company because it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish.” There are many young moms who are striving to be executives that are feeding their babies with a laptop on the kitchen counter, trying to do both and trying to do everything. That’s not a perfect balance, but it’s the tradeoff that we all make. We all look at our lives and what we want from our lives. And that requires tradeoff. Some of the tradeoff is you don’t get that work-life balance that much. Sometimes, but not as a regular diet, not for me. A majority of my time is spent focused on Wells Fargo.

And when you give that much to work, well, we all have limited resources and some of that comes from family time or personal time. It’s OK if people don’t want to give that much and they choose slightly less aspiration. But the best Olympic athletes devote their entire time training, running or cycling. That’s how they win world cups. They don’t have work-life balance. If you want to be a top executive in a top firm, you’ve got to train for it. Then you’ve got to be high performance. That’s the tradeoff.

Tanya: I want to change gears for a second. I want to talk a little bit about policy. I think you’re based in Seattle, right? Or am I making that up?

Debra: No, you’re not making it up. My home base at Wells Fargo is San Francisco and I traverse between our home [in Seattle] and the Bay Area.

Tanya: So you’ve got a foot in California. In 2018, California passed a law that requires all publicly held domestic and foreign corporations that have their principal executive officers located in the state there to have at least one female director on their boards. That law went into effect about two months ago, I think. Companies that don’t have a woman on their board are fined. I would love to hear your thoughts on using that kind of tool in order to bolster gender equity in the workplace.

Debra: When I heard about that, I had very mixed emotions about it, a very mixed reaction. One reaction was extreme circumstances require extreme measures. Why I say that is because we started this conversation where I did the [big sigh] right, in all this time that I’ve been focused on women in tech and trying to help, to lead and to see the numbers move, and we don’t see them move as much as they should. A couple years ago, I got involved with a group in the Bay Area, which is focused on women on public boards. But [they’re] really trying to move the numbers. How can we get focused on moving the numbers? For me, from a heart-and-soul perspective, driving numbers really comes from true transformation and true change, which means that as a company, you’ve made the change to embrace diversity, to embrace connectedness with your customers because your customers are diverse, and a willingness to bring that forward at your leadership table and at your board table without being forced to do that. We see many companies making wonderful changes. Satya Nadella at Microsoft is really driving that change internally. Marc Benioff being one of the first at Salesforce to really look at equity and female compensation and a broader view of women in tech. When leaders lead that way, not by demand, but by creating a culture of inclusiveness, that’s when you see fundamental and sustainable change.

When you drive it based on, the old word was a quota or a target, it’s difficult. It’s difficult because it sends such a mixed message. It’s difficult because even when that woman is put in that seat, she comes in, potentially, with a diminished credibility. The old, “Oh, well, she was only put here because they needed a woman.” That’s the worst way to bring anyone into any role, male or female. So, the intent was good. It’ll drive the numbers up by almost a draconian approach, but will it really drive change in company culture? And in an open seat at the table for women, board and/or executive? That remains to be seen. It really remains to be seen.

Tanya: If there was one thing that you could change in business, what would it be?

Debra: The thing that I would change in business is the thing that I would want to see changed in the world in many ways, which is to strip away what we look like, our gender and our color and our sexual orientation, to almost allow people to be identified by being deidentified. Meaning, really look at people for what they bring, for their intellect and their capability and their energy and their joy, and less about what they look like or who they love or the color of their skin, to create a real business environment of inclusiveness. I know because I’m not just a woman. I represent multiple diversities. It’s sad, but a lot of people still don’t feel safe. And when they don’t feel safe, they don’t bring their whole selves to work. When they don’t bring their whole selves to work, companies lose out. Customers lose out. Their peers lose out. Everybody does. So here we have this amazing, incredible light, this resource that we spend a lot for, and then we diminish their ability to have impact because they’re afraid. I would love to see that change. What I do every day is I try to be an example of that. I’m very much myself, and in all ways. On Halloween this year, I dressed up as Wonder Woman in a bank. I was the only one dressed up.

Tanya: You were the only one walking around the bank, dressed up as Wonder Woman or dressed up as anything? That’s bold.

Debra: Pretty much. Hardly anyone dressed up, at least in this office. It was funny! I put it on LinkedIn. I really have fun with it. I get on stage and talk about [my wife] Ramona freely. I’ve gotten emails from people at Wells Fargo saying, “I’ve never had a senior executive talk about their same sex husband or wife on stage in my entire career. Thank you for doing that, because I also have a husband, and it just made me so happy to see that.” Now that person can bring his whole self to work.

As a woman, being the CTO of Wells Fargo, it helps other women see that they can be fun, zany, whatever ... compelling, demanding, driven, inspirational. Whatever they are, they can bring it and be their whole self. That would be my hope for people. I think, the companies would do better. Customers would enjoy the benefit of authentic capabilities, because everybody is different and our customers are different. At Wells Fargo, we see that every day, and we try to embody that in our diversity. Our numbers are quite strong around diversity. We’re continuing to make that a major focus because it’s important, because our customers are diverse. And we want to reflect them in every possible way.

Tanya: Debra, it’s been so wonderful talking to you. Bringing your authentic self not only to the world, but to this conversation. A lot of people, a lot of our listeners are going to get a lot out of it. Thank you.

Debra: My pleasure.

Tanya: Debra Chrapaty is the chief technology officer of Wells Fargo. She’s one of several women in leadership in the financial services industry that we’re talking with on the show. You can find more of the interviews on our website, deloitte.com/insights. You’ll also find reports, videos, and all kinds of other resources.

We’re also on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight, and I’m at @tanyaott1. So glad you joined us for today’s conversation. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be doing this again in about two weeks. Don’t miss it. Subscribe to the Press Room podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. It’s easy and free.

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