Even before arriving at Wharton as an MBA/MA joint degree student of the Lauder program, Tereza Nemessanyi C92 G97 WG97 knew what she wanted to do. Having served as employee number one at central Europe’s first regional television station — a venture-backed initiative with more than $400 million in funding from investors that included Wharton alumnus and benefactor Ronald Lauder W65 — Tereza moved to Philadelphia with a clear plan about what she wanted to major in: corporate entrepreneurship.
Having co-founded a successful startup in eastern Europe, she went to Wharton with an eye toward conceiving and building new businesses on behalf of large companies. The fact that the school did not offer a concentration in the topic at the time did not hold her back from creating one from scratch.
Post-Wharton, after a nine-year stint advising large companies on their technology strategies as a management consultant at PwC, Tereza shifted gears and moved into launching and advising tech startups, where she played various leadership roles from chief revenue officer to CEO. Nearly a decade ago she moved to Microsoft, where she is now part of a team that manages the company’s relationships with some of the top venture capital and private equity firms in the world.
Outside of work, when she’s not spending time with her husband and two daughters, Tereza continues to play an active role in the Wharton alumni community, serving as judge to Wharton’s annual venture competitions and advising students on their business plans. She’s also the moderator of a WhatsApp group where her classmates engage in spirited debates around the latest developments in geopolitics and the global pandemic (and occasionally exchange the requisite funny memes).
I spoke with Tereza recently about the work she’s doing to promote greater diversity on corporate boards, and asked her advice for today’s Wharton students.
Glenn Leibowitz: What’s your day-to-day role at Microsoft?
Tereza Nemessanyi: Our goal is to look at their emerging unicorn companies who aren’t doing everything they can with Microsoft. They may have been born on other platforms and have not yet done work with Microsoft. We look at really big, expansive ways that we can partner to drive their scale and growth.
We have unique assets and tactics that can drive that unparalleled global scale both from the technology side and channel side. I spend my days talking to investors with large bets in fast growth companies.
I’m at a company with incredible brand recognition, amazing engineering, and broad and deep reach. I have advised hundreds if not thousands of companies over the years across all different industries. These are companies that are digitally disruptive and looking to change the world. One example is a company that’s teaching data science programming in an interactive online platform to grow data scientists globally. Another example is a white label insurance underwriting service that uses AI-powered computer vision to ingest, analyze, and ultimately spit out quotes for small businesses and auto dealers.
GL: Tell us about your work promoting diversity on boards.
TN: One question I constantly have been asked both by the investors as well as the CEOs of the portfolio companies is about diversity and inclusion. For a decade or more, I’ve been trusted and sought out by CEOs who are trying to do better around diversity and inclusion and want to do that within a real business framework. It’s been an informal topic on the table for years that has only ramped up.
CEOs and VCs have been increasingly asking me, “I need women. I need diverse people. We need to address diversity in a really serious way.” The first thing I always ask them is, “What’s the composition of your board?” More often than not, it’s all white and male. I will then typically say, you can work hard to bring in your first female executive and maybe a second female executive, but if the tone from the top isn’t there, and it’s not baked into your governance, then it’s going to be really hard to convince anyone of the authenticity of your intent.
Some companies are starting to hit a wall where a number of countries are requiring a certain amount of diversity on boards. Nasdaq has proposed that new companies that enter Nasdaq need minimum composition of diversity on their boards. There already are minimum requirements being rolled out in the E.U. and the U.K., and California is proposing it right now. A number of government bodies and oversight bodies are either already requiring, or moving toward requiring, greater diversity in order to represent the world that they serve.
GL: Why board diversity? What drives your interest in the issue?
TN: As my career proceeds, being in governance is the appropriate next step to increase the scale of my impact. Microsoft fortunately has a history of being supportive of its executives serving on boards externally.
As I’ve been talking inside of Microsoft about diversity, I’ve been getting quite a bit of support around my journey through the ecosystem. I’ve been meeting with the different players that are involved in bringing the supply of diverse, board-ready candidates to the companies that may be seeking to fill board seats.
My entry into this topic is because I’m a woman. Ten years ago, however, I quickly saw that this need is shared by all kinds of diverse entrepreneurs and executives who seek a seat at the table. Black entrepreneurship has always been an important issue for me; I’ve spoken with many that don’t get what they deserve.
GL: How have you tapped into the Wharton network to support your efforts?
TN: I had always thought Wharton must have a big part to play in this journey, but I just wasn’t seeing or hearing it. A few years ago, I wound up at my 20th reunion where I met with Cara Costello, director of alumni services at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. She talked me through the resources they were recommending for Wharton alumni to leverage the network to move into board positions.
It was interesting because it happened to be in parallel with Adam Grant starting to write a lot more about the different experiences that people have as they journey through the same situation. And so, a spark was happening, but the “what” wasn’t quite there yet. In the interceding time I was doing market research. There still wasn’t a group from Wharton doing it.
I then met Coco Brown, a Penn alumna from my undergraduate class of 1992 who started an organization called the Athena Alliance, which does a lot to help prepare diverse women for board service. Then just a few months ago, a new group was created called Wharton for Boards, led by Maria del Carmen Garcia Nielsen WG89. The group has quickly attracted hundreds of members.
It’s really about information sharing and networking. What we really want to do is build a culture that solves for diversity and inclusion through our Wharton networks. We know our networks have a supply of board seats. We also know diverse graduates of Wharton are best in the world at serving those needs.
My hope is this emergent community stretches across Wharton and the various parts of the business ecosystem, whether it’s startups run by or invested by Wharton alums, or the big tech companies that are potential acquirers. All of these entities have fabulous Wharton alums we want to have on our team as we shape the composition of leadership for the future. [Ed. note: To add your resume to the Wharton Alumni Board Resume Book or access a variety of board search tools, visit the MBA Career Management website.]
GL: How can a Wharton or Penn alumnus get involved?
TN: Anyone reading this: if you’re a Wharton or Penn alumnus that is either investing in a growth business or currently runs one, and you really need to modernize and up-level your board, we’re here and we’re ready. We sat next to you at Wharton and we’re ready to go.
Diverse Wharton grads should be constantly asked for this, but the funny thing is, we’re not. We need to help our fellow alumni build that muscle so they start thinking of their classmates for these opportunities.
Glenn Leibowitz WG97 leads communications and publishing in Greater China for a global management consulting firm.