From 50 Employees to an $11 Billion Valuation, This Lyft Exec Has Seen It All
In 2013, Veronica Juarez left a longtime career in state government to take a chance with a one-year-old ride sharing company called Lyft. There were fewer than 60 employees, all working from a converted garage.
Juarez was tasked with helping the company scale, and scale quickly. Her role as director of government relations was built around helping state and local governments understand the unique value proposition Lyft offered their communities and citizens. So, how did it go?
Today, Lyft has over 2,600 employees and more than 1.4 million drivers across the United States. And last year, they raised $2.1 billion over two funding rounds.
Juarez was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss the early challenges she and her team faced in scaling the company, how she sold the idea of Lyft to 50+ markets nationwide, and what opportunities she’s seized as a female executive in a male-dominated industry.
Selling the Idea of Lyft
When I asked Juarez what it was like being one of Lyft’s first 50 employees, she said, “Lyft was growing quickly and becoming more popular by the day. It was a time of very intentional innovation — and shared desks!”
Juarez was tasked with helping local governments understand the unique benefits Lyft could bring to their constituents and hometowns. “I had 10 years of experience in politics coming into the role,” she explained. “I knew communities and cities across the country were trying to better understand transit challenges. I was able to open that dialogue and share a vision of how we could solve those issues together.”
Juarez was clear these conversations didn’t just revolve around Lyft. “It was about working with bike shares, public transit, and local businesses to form a comprehensive plan making their cities more accessible to all residents. Once governments determined we were on the same page, it was much more of a collaborative process.”
Knowing the audience
“Because of my background, I walked into these rooms as someone who understood government official’s day-to-day schedules and challenges.” Knowing her target audience so intimately gave Juarez the ability to structure conversations from their point of view.
“I understood their pain points,” she remembers, “Transportation is a barrier for policymakers’ most vulnerable communities. These constituents need convenient transportation to access healthcare, jobs, and childcare — and they need it to be affordable.”
Transportation is still one of the highest expenditures for state and local governments. And because of that, Juarez was able to present Lyft as a less intrusive, more comprehensive solution to transportation needs, say, rather than building new highways or toll roads.
The Challenges of Growing an Enterprise Business
After more than two years in Lyft’s government relations department, Juarez tackled a new role as head of enterprise initiatives and, more recently, as senior director of Lyft Business’s Initiatives.
“Our biggest challenge has been to operationalize for scale. Lyft has driven 60% quarter-over-quarter growth since early 2017. All of our people and resources need to be in place and ready to achieve operational excellence.” Building that from scratch hasn’t been easy, she clarifies, “You must identify where there’s organizational friction and immediately move to remove it. This doesn’t happen overnight.”
But, Juarez says there’s one part of business development that feels familiar to her. “What I didn’t expect is that growing this business would be like working with policymakers. We must understand an individual organization’s transportation challenges and work together to solve for those challenges.”
She explains this often happens through conversations. “We talk to many senior executives managing transportation for their companies. Their buildings might not have enough parking, and the challenge is getting employees in and out of work without a personal vehicle.” In this case, Juarez and her team work to find commuter solutions.
Another challenge they assist companies with is logistics for large annual meetings and events. “If a company is bringing thousands of employees to an annual event, coordinating shuttles and transportation is a huge challenge.”
Lyft meets their needs by creating unique solutions tailored just for them. “Ultimately,” says Juarez, “We want to meet the needs of companies by integrating ourselves into their business travel, recruitment process, and events.” This approach positions Lyft as a full-service solution for companies across the country — an attractive offer for enterprise clients.
When in doubt, listen to your customers
When asked what advice she has for sales and business development folks looking to grow their businesses, Juarez replied, without hesitation, “We’ve enjoyed the growth we have because we listen to our customers.”
She continues, “Really ask yourself if you’re listening to potential clients and truly understand their challenges. If we were to come to the table and say, ‘Our solution is for you to use Lyft in this specific way for all your business travel needs,’ that wouldn’t work. They know their challenges better than we do. It’s our job to understand and articulate those challenges and present possible solutions.”
There’s one piece of feedback Juarez receives from clients again and again. “We’ve been told over and over that our ability to listen and collaborate is a key differentiator in working with us.” She explains, “That’s important, because it’s part of our culture and it has been part of our business from the beginning.”
Tailoring products to meet different needs is something Lyft is proud to do well. “Our concierge product was developed for healthcare institutions who needed to dispatch Lyft for patients unable to do so for themselves.” Lyft Concierge allows healthcare patients without smartphones or transportation to get to and from appointments with ease.
The product was such a success, it’s been expanded for use with the International Rescue Committee, which uses Concierge to shuttle newly arrived refugees and asylees to important appointments. This ensures newcomers have ease of access as they begin to navigate their new communities, including connecting to a family doctor, enrolling their children in school, and interviewing for jobs.
On Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Profession
When I asked Juarez what it’s like being a woman in tech, and in the male-dominated world of sales/business development, she replied, “I see it as an opportunity. I have a platform to speak up, not only on behalf of my team and other women, but women of color, the Latinx community, and single women in the workforce. I find that many of these identities come into play as a leader.”
She continues, “There’s a duty to continually use your experience and position to speak up on behalf of others. I sometimes find myself asking, ‘Am I beating this drum too loud or too long?’ But I must speak up every time an issue arises.”
She recalls a situation in which a male colleague was leading a Q&A session with a large group. Juarez noticed that as the session ended, her colleague had only called on male team members for questions, even though several women had their hands up the entire time.
“I quietly pulled him aside and let him know what I’d seen.” She recalls, “He had no idea he’d done this and was so horrified that he extended the Q&A period and answered each of the women’s questions. I could have waited until the next day to say something — but then he wouldn’t have had the chance to fix it.”
Advice for women new to the workforce
When asked what advice she has for women just beginning their careers, Juarez was clear. “Get mentors, and make sure you have several of them. They don’t have to be women — or even work in your field — but the opportunity to learn from someone with experience is invaluable.”
She also has advice for anyone scheduling coffee meetings. “I get asked to coffee all the time, and that’s great, but I want you to know why you’re meeting me.”
That advice extends to any coffee meetings you set up with mentors or industry connections. Juarez recommends breaking down why you admire this person’s work and what you want to learn from them. “Then I know what’s expected of me, and what the goal should be. This allows me to put together a six-month plan for us to work through together.”
Advice for women working towards an executive or leadership position
For women who’ve put in the work and built an impressive resume in their field, Juarez had similar advice. “Same, find a mentor or executive coach. Lyft has always supported me in this way. I had a coach throughout my first two years with the company, and then I partnered with an executive leader. Her experience and mentorship has been crucial to my success.”
She also feels strongly that all leaders or aspiring leaders should enroll in personal and professional programs. “Examining limiting beliefs about yourself is so important. Confront your blind spots, where your fear of failure stems from, and how you’re moving past it. This allows you to perform at a much higher level.”
On Diversity in Tech
In a 2017 presentation at WNORTH, Juarez told the crowd Lyft was “Rewriting the rulebook of diversity in Tech.” I asked her what that looks like today, and how she continues to push diversity forward at Lyft and the tech industry at large.
She said, “Diversity means inclusion as well. One of the things we’ve proven at Lyft is the ability to tackle larger social issues while also being successful as a business. If our product is something we want communities to enjoy, our internal team must reflect the diversity of that community.”