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August 29, 2019

Emily Downs on building out Plaid's HR team

Madeline Perretta

Updated on November 19, 2019

Photo by Kevin Hu

It sounds like your responsibilities are pretty extensive. What’s keeping you busy at the moment?
I am currently the HR business partner for our GTM and Ops functions. At a very high level, that means I am the designated HR person for a subset of Plaid functions. My goal is to help ensure those functions are running as effectively and efficiently as possible. That said, no two days are the same, and I don't think they ever will be. I typically get in to the office between 8 and 9 a.m. to enjoy the hot breakfast Plaid provides and a large glass of cold brew. I usually spend the first 30 to 45 minutes of my day going through my emails, and then I’m off to meetings. Right now, we're rolling out job leveling, so I’ve been meeting with managers to help build the leveling guides for their teams. I am also the HR person for our European expansion, so I’ve been spending a lot of time setting up benefits and onboarding new hires in the UK and the Netherlands. We just finished our mid-year reviews, and we're about to get into our health insurance renewals, so up next is planning for the year-end reviews and analyzing our health insurance plan data.

You recently hired an HR team. How would you describe your managerial style?
When building my team, I focused on bringing in high performers. As a result, my managerial style is relatively hands off. I feel it is important to empower my teammates to find creative solutions to problems that may arise rather than being told what to do. Each week, we carve out time for one-on-ones and Q&A time, and then I generally leave my team to their own devices. I try to make myself available to answer questions whenever they come up, but I set expectations early that it’s most efficient to consolidate, because I'm often away from my desk, and it can be hard to find me to get those questions answered.

When you started at Plaid, it was growing quickly, and its HR function was pretty new. How did you step up to the challenge?
Without anyone to officially onboard me, I spent quite a bit of time tracking things down: Who manages our systems? Who are our account representatives? What are our insurance plans? Who is involved in onboarding? In my first couple of months at Plaid, I made adjustments to our onboarding process for all new hires. I created and built out our immigration program. I also advocated for a new health insurance plan, which was risky, but it worked out. We saw a 33% decrease in cost with our renewal that year.

Have things slowed down at all since hiring your new team?
It seems to have only become busier! Earlier this year, I was running point on all things HR for our acquisition of Quovo, which took us from 180 employees to 270. Then, just when I thought things were calming down, we decided to move into Europe! The constant throughout my two years at Plaid has been that things move really fast, and there's a huge learning curve, which is my favorite part. I have had the unique opportunity to gain exposure into how a business truly functions from within. There has been a lot of hard work and trust building, which, in turn, has allowed me to take on more responsibility and become autonomous in a good majority of decision-making.

Where do you get the energy to tackle all the work on your plate?
I'm competitive. This competitiveness most likely stems from playing sports growing up and swimming for a Division I team in college. But also—and this is something William, one of our co-founders, actually pointed out to me—is that I feel like I have something to prove. I come from a very academically impressive family, but I was never as comfortable or engaged in academic environments. Once I made the transition to the working world, I realized, "Oh. I'm good at this.” I think once I recognized that I was good at my job, I had this newfound energy to continually prove myself and to always come in ready for the next challenge.

What do you like about working for Plaid?
It’s cliche, but the people. The people that I get to work closest with are incredible. Everyone at Plaid is so smart, it’s almost intimidating, but they are always willing to help out and answer any questions that you may have. We’re also a very engaged group. It is super cool to work at a place where everyone is passionate not only about their own projects but also equally interested in learning about what you are working on and how you are helping build Plaid. It motivates you to bring your best self to work each day and meet each challenge head-on.

What have you learned in two years with the company?
I’ve honed the skill of asking the right questions upfront, which often takes time to figure out and can be a challenging skill to learn. I think that most humans are prone to imposter syndrome, and that can make speaking up intimidating, especially in a room filled with C-level executives. But I've learned that if you don't ask certain questions upfront, you're only hindering yourself, and you are going to have to come back and ask those questions later anyway! Asking questions is not a negative. You come across as a person who is engaged and committed to doing high-quality work.

What is one thing that would surprise people to learn about you?
As a child, my family spent two years living in Kenya, 45 minutes outside of the capital, Nairobi. It was awesome. We lived in a safe community, where my siblings and I could leave in the morning and my mom would say, "See you for dinner," trusting that we’d be fine walking to and from school and running around with friends in the afternoon. We were regularly exposed to different ways of living and had the opportunity to travel all over the continent. It was a really impactful time for all of us.

How did that experience change you?
I went through some of my young transformative years in Kenya. When we moved back to the United States, everyone was talking about Good Charlotte, American Idol, North Face, and Uggs, and I had no idea what any of that was. I didn’t know what clothing to wear or how to do my hair (and there are plenty of pictures to prove it). At the time, it was a really hard transition. Looking back, I think it was invaluable to spend some years growing up around a completely different way of life. Our time overseas put a lot of things into perspective. We spent our days outdoors running around barefoot, trying new foods, helping to build homes and churches, and interacting with different communities. I'm sure I've been completely polluted by pop culture at this point (hah), but I feel lucky to have started off with a much more worldly perspective than a lot of middle schoolers.

What are you passionate about?
Access to good public education—making sure that our teachers are well-equipped and as strong as they can be to teach young people. I also care a lot about the environment. Those are two things that get me riled up and that I can talk about for far too long.

What drives you personally?
I feel like I just don't know enough, and I'm constantly trying to know more, whether through podcasts, reading articles, reading more books, or calling my friends to learn about what they're doing. I'm trying to be a little more thoughtful.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

What makes you proud?
In all honesty, I’m proud of the person I’m growing into. Since graduating college, I've been financially independent. I moved across the country. I have found apartments to live in. I did not have friends when I moved to San Francisco, which made me very intro- and retrospective for a while. Because of these experiences, I am significantly more comfortable with who I am and more trusting in the decisions that I make short and long term. So, I think I'm most proud of getting to where I am now and where I can go from here.

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