Laurie Schultz paints her Picasso

Architect behind $1B Galvanize exit and BC Tech Person of the Year sets her sights on what’s next.

Vision.

If you’ve been around business for more than five minutes you’ve probably heard more about vision than you’ll ever want to know. Yes, it’s important — critical — to business success. Leaders and companies without vision are working blind with no sense of where they’re going, no view to the horizon and beyond, no shared sense of what the group is trying to achieve.

Laurie Schultz is, without a doubt, a leader with vision. As CEO, she led the team at Vancouver’s ACL (later, renamed and rebranded as Galvanize) for almost a decade with a singular vision to become the dominant player in the global governance, risk and compliance (GRC) software space. When Galvanize sold to New York-based Diligent Corporation in March 2021 for USD $1 billion, that vision became real. Galvanize, a success story more than 30 years in the making, delivered one of the largest exits in the history of British Columbia and Canada’s technology sector (the valuation wasn’t on paper; that’s a $1 billion cheque — cashed).

But after spending time talking with Schultz and people around her, I was left thinking a bit differently about vision. I was thinking more mechanically, more ocular. The notion of vision as the ability to see, but also to be seen.

Laurie Schultz’s life and career are about both. At key points, champions saw in her talent waiting to emerge. And as a leader, Schultz continued to see both opportunity ahead and potential in people — many who might not have been the usual suspects or held certain positions in the org chart — who could help Galvanize deliver on the sometimes scary and daunting promises she made to herself, her team and the market.

Schultz grew up in Alberta, one of three siblings whose parents divorced when she was young. Living with her mother, brother and sister in Grand Prairie, she watched her mom work two jobs that still didn’t leave very much at the end of the week. Schultz and her siblings were bullied at school, something that continued when at age 12, she moved to Edmonton to live with her father. It was in Edmonton when a teacher by the name of Mr. Templeton saw Laurie struggling and made an extra effort to help her find a way to grow and thrive.  

“He went out of his way to notice me, to see me — and he didn’t have to — and encouraged me to try out for things: the basketball team, the badminton team, track. I learned how to get good at something and develop the confidence that comes along with that,” Schultz says. “He saw I was struggling, saw that I would benefit from being involved.” 

While she stops short of calling this a life-changing experience, she says it was incredibly meaningful to her at the time. It also provided one of her key leadership lessons.

“The essence of a leader, I believe, is to discover and enable,” she says. “And that has translated for me into having a large soft spot for the underdog, the unpedigreed person, who just deserves a chance. And he gave that to me.”

Discovering and enabling big transformations in the business — and the change agents who could make that happen — was central to Schultz’s tenure at Galvanize. When she took the reins in 2011 (the company was still known as ACL), the climb ahead was steep. ACL was a dinosaur in technology company terms. Its original risk audit software was invented by Hart Will while a UBC professor in the 1970s, and the company was founded by Will and his son Harald in 1987. The company needed to make a substantial leap: move from on-premise licensed software sold to a narrow group of auditors to a cloud-based subscription solution with a wider set of applications and customers.

Schultz began walking the halls and talking to people, using town halls and one-on-one meetings to solicit opinions. She was also able to see for herself the key and influential people she could call on to help her make the business pivot happen — people not always visible simply based on their title or position. One of those people was a product manager by the name of Kris Hutton.

“Egoless, smart as hell, brave . . . he kicked my ass and would challenge me,” Schultz says with a laugh. “He was able to command the room and inspire other people to act, even against things that felt really, really uncomfortable. That’s how we did this. We allowed normal people to have a say.”

Hutton says Schultz always made people feel safe, allowing them to share their thoughts, talk about difficult subjects and live their authentic selves. He also said her communication was clear and honest, so people knew what was being asked of them.

“She always made it clear what stage things were at; whether it was a brainstorm and I was free to vent or whether a decision had been made and it was time to get behind it,” Hutton says. “That allowed me to understand how and where I could help best.”

Hutton also says Schultz always put a priority on accountability and the need to be seen walking the talk, even when taking big risks. Like the time Schultz told the sales team they could “toss the senior leadership team off the side of a building” if they hit their growth targets. The team delivered and Schultz (dressed as the superhero Venom), her VP of sales Sean Zuberbier, chief product officer Dan Zitting (now Galvanize’s CEO), and board member Greg Wolfe rappelled down an 18-storey building on the corner of Burrard and Hastings as the whole company cheered them on. “Without a doubt, the scariest thing I’ve ever done; scary and awesome at the same time,” Schultz says.

“We saw she was willing to put herself out there, to be vulnerable,” Hutton says. “It made her feel real and we could trust her when she pushed us to go after things where we might not have had all the answers when we started.”

Schultz’s success at ACL wasn’t guaranteed. She had done a commerce degree and MBA at the University of Alberta before starting her career at TELUS in 1989. She took a maternity leave position in Red Deer after receiving “rejection after rejection, when I really thought I was the bomb coming out of University,” she says.

Working in “network services marketing” with TELUS, her boss at the time was a man named Gordon Tweddell, now retired and living in Victoria. Watching Tweddell in action, Schultz says, she got to see what a leader could and should be.

“When does this ever happen? We couldn’t wait to see the boss, that’s how much we loved this guy,” she says. “He was egoless, modelled servant leadership before I even knew what servant leadership was, took the time to get to know each of us, and had crazy ideas that he lined us up to believe in and go after.”

For his part, Tweddell says he saw in Laurie someone others wanted to follow, “not because she had formal authority, but because she could always see and communicate the desired end-state, the path to get there and what was needed from each person in order to succeed. She respected others and they respected her.”    

Following TELUS, Schultz had stops along the way with KPMG, Intuit, and Sage, a global ERP software provider, where she was running their North American operations. While based in Vancouver, her role as an SVP at Sage meant she was never here, instead, flying all over North America meeting with customers and her teams. That left little time to become rooted and well-known in the local tech community. When the ACL job came along, she was surprised to learn a company with global reach and heft was based locally and looking for a leader to make some big changes.

She put her hat in the ring, but still the odds were against her. She wasn’t a household name, was one of what she says was 120 applicants for the job, sat through 14 interviews, and was a woman in what was still very much a tech boys club in 2011. 

Eric Patel, who served as chair of the Galvanize board up until the Diligent sale, was with the company dating back to 2004. He was chair during the CEO search and remembers seeing a different type of candidate in Schultz (founding CEO, Harald Will, was unavailable for this story).

“No doubt, Laurie presented differently,” Patel says. “We had a lot of candidates with more senior roles in larger companies, chest thumpers who were all too quick to tell us what was wrong and what they would do to fix things. Laurie was relatively soft-spoken, wasn’t tooting her own horn, asked lots of questions. She was curious and very concerned about culture — something that came to be a theme during her tenure as CEO. But as often with people who put their egos aside, there was a quiet determination to get stuff done and we were attracted to that.”

Even after being hired, Schultz says “there were bets around town that I would get fired, that I would quit, that Harald would never give over the reins.” But failure wasn’t an option for Schultz or the company, and Patel says Schultz’s continued focus on culture, values and delivering on promises allowed her to move the company forward in achieving their vision to become a $1 billion global software company.

“I remember a conversation with Harald within the first six months of Laurie coming on board where I said I thought Laurie could become the best female tech CEO in British Columbia,” Patel says. “Now, I would have to take the word ‘female’ out of that conversation as she is among the best CEOs in BC, period.”

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But Schultz is female. And her career spans a period of time when technology companies didn’t consider ordering T-shirts in female shapes and sizes; one size was meant to fit all (as long as you were a guy). Even today, as a successful female CEO who has led a major exit, Schultz is among a very small and select group of female tech executives. Did she feel the need to prove herself in different ways? Did she have to find workarounds to make herself seen in a male-dominated environment? Does she feel the need to be outspoken around opportunities for women in the technology sector?

Schultz says for the first 20 years of her career, she wasn’t conscious of the challenges of being a woman; it just wasn’t on her radar. She chalked it up to what she calls the “grizzly in the closet” each of us has that fuels personal doubts and uncertainties.

“For me, I was always preoccupied of being too young or not pedigreed enough . . . that I wasn’t born into it. Those were the things in my head I was working against and when I encountered resistance, I just doubled down. I was relentless. Perhaps there was some gender stuff in there, but I really didn’t notice it and chose to label it [as something else],” she says.

It was only after joining ACL that she began to become more conscious of her position as a woman in a leadership role in tech as more and more people asked her, and expected her to talk about it. And, as a mother to her daughter Darcy, aged 20 (Schultz also has a son Ben, aged 24) she began to feel a greater responsibility to notice more, particularly around language.

“When people might call me defensive . . . or when I debate something the same way that a male might at a board meeting — there are words that are used, often unintendedly, that profile females’ behaviour differently and that’s something we need to aware of,” she says.

Jill Tipping, president and CEO of the BC Tech Association, says Schultz’s actions and achievements as opposed to her position as an advocate, show other women working in technology what is possible and what talented women can achieve.

"The norm isn’t to see women in CEO and founder roles, and that fundamentally needs change. In the meantime, great role models like Laurie are inspiring the next generation to aspire for that level of achievement, and as a fellow CEO and as a mother, I am really grateful for women like Laurie," Tipping says. 

Schultz’s crowning achievement as Galvanize CEO was the March 2021 sale to Diligent Corporation — a privately held company with more than USD $500 million in revenue last year and almost one million customers using their software. On one level, the acquisition came out of nowhere. Schultz was on record saying Galvanize was looking to go public and she and the team were working to ensure the company was “public company ready.”

But in 2020, as the global pandemic kicked in, interest in companies like Galvanize working in the GRC category went up a notch as shareholders became acutely aware of the need to ensure business continuity and address other governance and risk concerns. Being the top-tier CEO she is, Schultz also knew that in addition to being IPO-ready, her job was to create choices to allow her Board and shareholders to make the best deal possible.

“There had been some discussion that by stating we planned to go public, Laurie may have boxed herself in,” Eric Patel says. “But, in keeping with her style, she was very open to other options and a willingness to change based on an informed understanding of the opportunity.”

Both Schultz and Patel talked about the strategic fit between Diligent and Galvanize, with Diligent providing the Galvanize solution to a key customer category — boards and directors — that Galvanize had been having trouble breaking into. And as an example of like-minded companies coming together and how business gets done in a COVID world, the billion-dollar private deal was buttoned up without any in-person meetings. (When I first spoke with Schultz in late September, she was in an airport hotel returning from the closing party in New York; the first time she had met any of the counterparties involved.)

While employees weren’t able to participate in the upside of an IPO, Schultz says all option holders were paid out (Galvanize ending up as part of a public company is something Schultz says still might be possible; Diligent is private). As someone who made it a point to watch, observe and incubate a new generation of leaders, she is excited to see what her team does, both within the merged company and those who spin out and become part of the next wave of BC tech companies.

People like Kevin Legere, a member of the product team who spent more than a decade at Galvanize. He is now a founder at Skwirl, an online trading platform for collectibles. During the months leading up to the Diligent deal, he kept his plans for Skwirl under wraps, telling Schultz only when he was ready to make the leap.

“She literally rained her support on me as soon as I told her,” Legere says. “Because of the importance she placed on people and culture, she said it was almost like a trophy in a trophy case to see somebody grow up with the company, see it through the acquisition and then take that experience to start something new . . . she saw it as personal victory to be part of my growth in that way.”

And what lessons is Legere taking with him from his time working with Schultz? He says she hammered into Galvanizers that time is their most precious resource and they needed to develop the skills to focus on what’s truly important each day while letting the small stuff go.

“She always said, ‘what’s my Picasso for the day?’ . . . the one thing that she was going to do to materially make a difference in the journey to achieving our ultimate goal,” Legere shares. “And that in working on her Picasso, she was going to forgive herself for everything else she was not going to get to that day. I think about that every morning; what can I do to make Skwirl better today and to forgive myself for the other balls I might drop.”

With the sale to Diligent finalized, Schultz exited the company on April 30 of this year. She and her life partner, Wheaton Precious Metals CEO Randy Smallwood, spent a couple of months boating in northern British Columbia and Alaska, exploring ghost towns and abandoned islands and taking time away. But it would be a mistake to think Schultz will fade into the woodwork, as she feels a strong sense of personal responsibility to give back to the technology ecosystem that fostered her success, as well as to the community where she lives and works.

In addition to supporting Galvanize alum as they launch what she hopes will be another BC tech unicorn and serving as a board director with a number of technology companies, she recently joined the Board of First United, a non-profit serving Vancouver’s downtown eastside. She says they are seeking to raise $35 million to build a new facility to help house, feed and support people in the neighbourhood living in poverty.

“Sometimes as we drive through the neighbourhood it can seem a little invisible,” she says. “I hope to play a role in making it more visible with corporate audiences and help the people I hang around with to see how they can make a difference.”

And then there is the mark she wants to leave behind, her personal dent in the universe.

“I have had for some time what I call a leadership shingle, which outlines what I believe in as a leader,” she says. “And on that shingle is a personal mission statement: to personally and meaningful impact one million people. Personally impact. And having the time to think about how best to do that is really exciting.”

She talks about establishing a family charitable foundation, something she has just begun to explore with her daughter and son. “I feel a little inauthentic talking about this when we’re still in the early stages. I know it will focus on the underdog, recognizing and helping those groups or people that might otherwise be overlooked. And I really want to involve the people I love in doing this work. We’re not there yet, but I can tell you I will do it. You can hold me to that.”

If the last 30 years have told us anything, nobody should be surprised at what Laurie Schultz will accomplish once she set her sights on it.

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