The Right Woman for the Job
As Dell’s chief customer officer, Karen Quintos is the only woman with a seat at Dell’s executive leadership team table. She’s worn many hats in the 16 and a half years she’s been working at the Round Rock, Texas-headquartered tech giant, so it’s no surprise she knows a thing or two about the issues facing both the company and the tech industry, everything from employee productivity and innovation to diversity and equality in the workplace. Four months after the company acquired EMC Corp.—a $58.1 billion deal and the largest technology merger in history—Quintos sat down to discuss her new position, how she got to where she is today and the power of treating people like you want to be treated.
There used to be an island, Karen Quintos is quick to point out as she surveys the now-seamless water of Lake Austin from her stately balcony perched high in the hills. She could be a queen.
Steam rises in wispy puffs from her coffee mug as she tells the story of her home’s original owners. They were a couple, she says. No kids, just two people new to town and in search of their forever home who fled—surprisingly disenchanted—just a couple years after giving Austin a go.
The air is crisp and cool, the sunlight impenetrable through the occluding cloud cover. Everything in view is cast in varying hues of blue. As swiftly as the hesitant drizzle turns into thick droplets of rain, Quintos retreats inside, first to light the fireplace in the living room, second to tuck her svelte frame into the cozy comfort of a couch cushion.
She’s lived in this house, 18 miles west of Dell’s headquarters in Round Rock, as the crow flies, for the past five-plus years.
As chief customer officer at Dell, it isn’t often Quintos finds a moment to sit down and soak it all in. It’s been four months since she started her new role, four months since Dell sealed the deal on an 11-months-in-the-making merger with Massachusetts-based EMC Corp. The acquisition—the largest technology merger in history— cost a jaw-dropping, record-breaking sum of $58.1 billion and made Dell the largest privately controlled tech company in the world. With the merger, the tech empire, which currently employs about 140,000 people globally and about 13,000 in Central Texas, according to the Austin Business Journal, also took on a new name: Dell Technologies.
“[Michael] realized that what had made us great in the past was not what is going to make us great in the future,” Quintos says of her boss, Michael Dell, and his reasoning behind the merger.
Declining sales of PCs throughout the tech industry, matched with a global trend of moving storage toward the cloud, the merger, which is expected to help Dell grow its commercial business, is “absolutely the right strategy,” according to Quintos.
“There is no question in my mind,” she says. “Look at what IBM is doing, where they’re selling off their hardware business and getting out of the server business. You look at HP splitting. Michael is betting on end-to-end. He’s betting that scale is going to win and he’s absolutely right.”
If anyone is qualified enough to know whether a company’s CEO is calling the right shots, it’s Quintos. For the past six and a half years, she’s reported directly to Michael Dell, serving as the company’s chief marketing officer, a pivotal role spent meticulously molding the public’s perception of the company.
“You think about seven or eight years ago,” Quintos says, reflecting, “and you’d ask somebody, ‘What do you think of when you think of Dell?’ and they’d say, ‘They’re like this consumer PC company.’ Now, dial the clock ahead seven or eight years: technology changes, Michael taking the company private, all of the acquisitions that we’ve done. Now you ask people about Dell, and they go, ‘Wow, they’re this company that’s really transformed themselves. They’re not just a PC company. They’re an enterprise.’ ”
It’s imperative to mention that, in Quintos’ 16-and-a-half-year tenure with the company, she’s spent the past six and a half years and counting as the only woman—one of 15 members—to have a position on Dell’s executive leadership team. Being the only woman at the table doesn’t faze her, though. It’s nothing new. Her resume is padded with promotions that put her in one management position after the next, a fact she humbly attributes to the foresight of those around her.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work directly for people that I feel saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself,” Quintos says. “I had people—you realize it over the years—that were just great advocates and champions for me. They believed in me and they were willing to take a chance.”
Raised in Pen Argyl, Pa., a small town with a population hovering somewhere around 3,000 people, Quintos says she used to jokingly tell her parents she felt like the entire town knew what she was going to have for breakfast before she actually ate breakfast. As one of four kids with an older sister and two younger brothers, she says life growing up was nothing short of awesome.
“I mean, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” she says.
Needless to say, the campus population at Penn State, where Quintos later graduated with a degree in supply chain management, came as quite a shock.
As fate would have it, Quintos met her husband, Tony, the summer between her junior and senior year. She was interning at Merck. He was there as a full-time employee.
“The very first day I started, [our boss] said to Tony, ‘Keep your hands off the summer intern,’ ” Quintos recalls, smiling. “A week later, Tony and I were going on our first date to Windows on the World [the New York City restaurant that was located on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center], and it built from there.”
Quintos finished her senior year at Penn State, started working on her master’s degree at New York University, went back to work at Merck full time and married Tony a year later. She was 21 years old. It was an exciting time to work for the pharmaceutical company, Quintos notes. It was launching new over-the-counter products like Pepcid and Prilosec that are now commonplace on pharmacy shelves.
By the age of 25, she became the youngest executive to ever be promoted at Merck.
“I worked for a great leader at that time who decided to retire and he said, ‘I think you should take over my job,’ ” Quintos explains. “I remember going to him when we were transitioning and, because everybody else was older than me and they had been there so much longer, I said, ‘They’re going to quit when they hear that I’m taking over. What should I do? Give me some advice.’ He said, ‘Just treat people the way you want to be treated. If you remember that, everything else will just fall in place.’ He was right. Nobody quit.
“The best advice that I ever got around that [transition] actually came from my husband early on when we were married. He said to me, ‘You’re one of the most capable and smart individuals that I have ever met. Would you please start believing in yourself and start to put yourself into the bigger kind of role?’ I said, ‘You know what? You’re right.’ ”
She worked at Merck for about 12 years in myriad positions, from director of supply chain to director of new products planning. When she was promoted to director of packaging, the company gave her the opportunity to move back to a small town, this time to Wilson, N.C., to run one of the packaging facilities.
“I think there were a number of people that were kind of surprised on day one when I showed up. It was, for the most part, all men and then it was me,” Quintos says of her first day on the job. Being a woman working in the manufacturing industry never raised a red flag, though. “Once you’re in the door and once you’ve garnered employee confidence, [it becomes] a point of respect, a point of interest, a point of admiration.”
Running the manufacturing plant was probably one of the hardest jobs she ever had, Quintos says.
“I tell people all the time that, sometime in your career, you need to get large people-management experience where you have to stand in front of packaging associates who are working three shifts, engineers that frankly could care less about where you got your MBA and how smart you are. They care that you’re going to treat them right and you’re going to pay them fairly and you’re going to advocate on their behalf,” she says.
In the two years Quintos managed the packaging facility in North Carolina, her husband took a job at Citibank and started splitting his time between Florida and New York. The couple welcomed their first child, Alex, now 21 and a senior at Texas A&M University. She decided something had to give. It was too hard to raise a young child when living in different cities. So, she followed her husband to Citibank, where she spent the next three years working as vice president of customer operations. It was an eyeopening experience, Quintos says, when six months into her role, Citibank merged with Travelers.
“It was the culture. The differences were unbelievable. It was like oil and water. It was a very tough time for me professionally,” she says.
When Quintos went on maternity leave with her second child, Carmella, now a senior at Vandegrift High School, she decided she wouldn’t be returning to Citi.
That’s when she got a call from Dell.
“I told the person that called me, ‘It’s a great company, but I’m not moving my family to Texas.’ They said, ‘Austin is different. Bring Tony.’ And here we are 16 and a half years later,” she says. “It’s the longest place that I’ve worked in my career, and I was thinking about that the other day. It’s crazy, right?
“I still remember, to this day, my pager going off, and my assistant saying, ‘You need to come up here.’ I was in a staff meeting. ‘You need to come upstairs. There is a major crisis that is happening, and they are shutting down flights all around the world.’ ”
It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Quintos had just been promoted to vice president of Dell’s supply chain organization and was approaching her year-and-a-half anniversary mark with the company.
“You talk about putting a test on the world’s fastest supply chain,” Quintos says, “all of our components and all of our parts. My boss at the time was stuck in Brazil, so I was the most senior person working directly with Kevin Rollins, Michael and the executive team around how we were going to help our customers rebuild their infrastructure, rebuild Nasdaq, and the impact on Wall Street, the Pentagon and Washington. That was pretty remarkable. I saw what the full support of what a company like Dell could do. It was a great moment in my career.”
After 9/11, Quintos moved back into a customer role, holding an array of positions, from running Dell’s customer support centers to taking on tech support and marketing roles.
“I’m at my best when I’m in front of sales and in front of our customers,” she says.
When Michael Dell asked her to step into the CMO role six and a half years ago, Quintos says she only asked one question: Why me?
She remembers, “He said, ‘Because you are the most customer-centric executive that we have.’ ”
Sometime after the sea of job-title changes and before Forbes named her one of the most influential CMOs in the world, Quintos and her husband adopted their third child, Elle, now 12 and in junior high school, from Guatemala.
While the challenge to maintain a balance between family life and work responsibilities is not lost on Quintos, she’s quick to diffuse any pats on the back. Instead, she says, her attention is focused on targeting educated women whose children are older and who now want to get back into the workforce.
“People say to me, ‘You’re the role model.’ I am not the role model,” Quintos says. “The role model is the single mom who is divorced or her husband has left her, who is trying to raise a family. That, to me, is the role model.
“My kids tell me all the time that I’m a much better mom because I work. I think companies really have a huge role in enabling an on-and-off ramp. We really need to figure out how do we tap into that population of highly educated women that are now 30 or 40 years old? How do we create programs where they can come back in and they can work? If they’ve been out of the workforce for 15 or 20 years, it’s probably going to be hard to come back to the same level. They’re going to have to give up some things.”
One way Dell is making things easier for women to re-enter the workforce is through its Legacy of Good 2020 plan. Part of Quintos’ new role is to make sure the plan’s benchmarks are being met.
One of the goals is to enable 50 percent of Dell employees to work remotely by 2020.
“People love that benefit, especially the millennials,” says Trisa Thompson, chief responsibility officer at Dell and a member on Quintos’ team. “People want to work where they want to work and when they want to work.”
Thompson, herself, has been with the company for 18 years.
“We care a lot more about the quality of work than we do about where you’re doing it,” she says.
Nearly 75 percent of Dell’s workforce in Austin works one or two days remotely, Quintos says.
“When you think about that,” she says, “I mean, I’ve been at dinner parties here in Austin where I’ve had women come up to me who have said to me, ‘I was just hired back at Dell after not working for 10 or 15 years and I’m working from home. It enables me to drop my kids off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. I love this flexible work arrangement that you do.’ [The ability to work remote] has been a huge retention. It has been a huge reason that people will come to Dell.”
It’s been four months since Quintos transitioned from the role of chief marketing officer to the role of chief customer officer. In addition to developing new, high-value incentive programs for some of Dell’s largest global accounts, from hospitals to schools to government organizations, Quintos is also responsible for spearheading Dell’s entrepreneur program, as well as the diversity and inclusion team, both areas of personal interest she has championed for years.
“When Michael and I first started talking about the chief customer officer role,” Quintos says, “it was largely around [the idea] that our customer relationships, at the end of the day, will be the ultimate differentiator for Dell.”
Explaining her new role, Quintos says she thinks of it as a blend of the left and right brain.
“You’ve got to be great at branding,” she says. “You’ve got to be great at messaging. But you’ve also got to be great at data, analytics and process. And I think that’s where the whole world of big data, personalization and one on one is going. In the chief customer officer role, [I have] the ability to bring my marketing, customerfacing and operational experiences together.”
In 2002, Quintos, along with Thompson, founded one of Dell’s largest employee resource groups, Women In Search of Excellence (WISE), which was dedicated toward women. Now called WoMen In Action, the group claims a presence in more than 40 countries, and acts as an internal meeting place open to women and men in which Dell employees can discuss workplace challenges and opportunities. In return, the goal is that Dell is made more aware of ways to help nurture and develop talent. IT is Not Just for Geeks is a product of the program. Launched out of Dell’s WISE (now called WoMen In Action) branch in Ireland, the initiative is aimed at getting more women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, a topic of high interest to Quintos and likeminded tech leaders looking to ramp up diversity efforts and change the maledominated landscape of their industry. (According to the National Science Foundation, white and Asian males make up 84 percent of working professionals in the science and engineering fields.)
“[Our Irish organization] said, ‘We need to change the dialogue because technology isn’t about just computer programming anymore. There’s so many more opportunities in technology.’ So, they developed a program and took it into the local school district. They’ve now done this program for thousands of girls in middle and high school,” Quintos says.
The program is a catalyst to change and to the kind of encouraging, female-driven growth Quintos wants to see more of in the STEM and entrepreneur fields.
Last spring, in a partnership with economic data-forecasting and analytics firm IHS Economics, Dell released a report recognizing the top 50 future-ready cities in the world. The report evaluated each city’s human capital, infrastructure and commerce capabilities. Austin ranked seventh on the global list, a position that, according to Quintos, would severely falter were the number of female entrepreneurs factored in.
“I think the challenge in Austin now is how do we do for women entrepreneurs what we’ve done for entrepreneurs? Women have got these great business ideas. I see it all the time,” Quintos says, adding the two biggest gaps she sees are a lack of female entrepreneur role models and access to capital. “In my role at Dell, one of the things I can at least do is help to enable them and create capabilities, investments, networks and programs like we’ve done through Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network. “The thing that I’m probably the most proud of is the work that we have done around women, diversity and entrepreneurship, really helping to build the soul of Dell. I really believe that people work for companies because they have a soul. I really believe that customers do business with the company because they have a soul. They believe in something bigger than just the products and the technology. That’s where legacies are left.
“People don’t say great things about people when they leave a company because they rolled out a great product. They say [great things] because they’ve left their thumbprint on either a team or a culture or an aspect of the company’s soul.”
Thompson admires the refreshing attitude and attention Quintos brings to the table.
“She is a very passionate, engaged leader. She really cares about women in business and women in technology. Just like different people with different experiences and backgrounds, we all bring different perspectives and value. Being a woman, Karen has that different perspective,” Thompson says. “It’s good to have an advocate up there at the top. She provides a role model for women coming up through the pipeline.”
There’s a popular saying in the tech industry: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s an aspirational quote, one intended to motivate more women to not only knock at opportunity’s door, but to go ahead and knock the door down. Quintos, a humble yet strong, collected yet fierce tour de force, serves as that pillar of resonation so many women in the workplace need. Because where women see her, they can also see themselves.
So, Quintos carries on, attending an entrepreneur’s conference in Turkey one month and meeting with manufacturers in Bentonville, Ark., the next. She does it all because she knows there will come a day when, just like the island lying in wait beneath the surface of Lake Austin, she too will be remembered for how much she changed the landscape. She too will leave a legacy.
Karen Quintos’ Tips for Achieving Work-Life Harmony
“It really does take a village to raise children and keep all of this in some proportion of harmony. I like to think about it more as work-life harmony because there are many days where it’s not balanced. It’s not easy. I don’t always get it right. There are times where you do this oh-crap moment where you realize that your department’s holiday party just got scheduled right on top of a band concert.”
SHE REALLY BELIEVES IN:
A strong support culture
“There’s no way I could do my job today if it hadn’t been for my husband, Tony, my family, friends, my team. And, frankly, Michael [Dell] is a huge proponent. There have been many times where I’ve said, ‘I can’t go to dinner tonight because I need to go to a sports banquet,’ or something like that, and he’s like, ‘Go.’ ”
Prioritization. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
“I’m a huge believer that you have to do that looking out 12 months. My son will graduate from Texas A&M this May, and my daughter will graduate from Vandergrift High School this June. I’ve already told the team, ‘Don’t plan on anything in the month of May for me to go anywhere.’”
In the Words of Michael Dell, Karen Quintos is…
“One of the most dedicated people I know. Karen is smart, analytical, results-oriented and tenacious, a very powerful combination. And she doesn’t quit, no matter what. She’s a great one to have on our team, and Dell is a better company for her leadership.”
Rapid Fire Q&A With Karen Quintos
Healthy habit: “I’m a runner. I’ve been doing it since I was 17 or 18 years old. It’s more fast walking and running than it is straight running, but my very best days are when I can come into the office after a 3-mile run.”
Resolution for the new year: “To do more to help the local Austin community. I’m blown away at the amount of homelessness happening here in the local Austin community, especially given the affluence of the city and how fast it is growing. I want to get more involved in the direct impact, more than just how do you donate to an organization.”
Her husband’s New Year’s resolution for her: “He would say it should be to slow down, tell the kids I love them more often and don’t talk to the kids like they’re in a Dell operating review.”
Go-to apps: “I’m a big Spotify junkie. I’m a big reader, so also Twitter and LinkedIn. Twitter is a great place for me to get short sound bites from people whose opinion I respect, and LinkedIn has done a brilliant job in targeting the professional audience. It’s a place where you can engage in meaningful dialogue.”
Favorite quote: “You spend the first 40 years of your life trying to be successful and the next 40 years of your life trying to be significant.”
Karen Quintos’ Business Advice for Budding Entrepreneurs
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your role models
“There are so many that are willing to help and provide guidance and advice.”
Invest in a strong business and financial plan
“I see so many entrepreneurs—not just women, but also men— who have a great idea and a great product, but they don’t really know the market they’re trying to serve. What’s the market? What’s the need? How does your product or service fit into it?”
Have the courage to take a deep breath, jump in and do it
“I have so many great ideas for businesses. [My daughter] Carmella and I talk about it all the time. One of the biggest regrets I have, when I sit with all these Dell women entrepreneurs at events, is [I think], ‘I should have done it.’ ”