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Denyse Skipper (Fr 2006)

Denyse Skipper (Fr 2006) is currently the Go To Market (GTM) Program Leader at Canva and has returned to Australia after several years of living and working overseas. Denyse shared with us some of her memories of her time at College, as well as what it was like representing Australia as an elite-level triathlete.

After completing her undergraduate degree in Economics, Denyse pursued further studies in Chicago, earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA). She gave insight into the experiences she gained while working at companies such as Google, Amazon, Ancestry, and her current role at Canva. In particular, she emphasized the value of living and working abroad and the exciting opportunities that come with it.

Please tell us a bit about yourself – where are you originally from and where did you grow up?

I was born in Sydney to a Brit (Dad) and Australian (Mom) with two older brothers. At age four, the family moved to a small town just outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I was fortunate as a child to have a strong connection to Australia; my Grandparents lived in the Blue Mountains and we visited every year. Yet, growing up in Calgary immersed me in an outdoors lifestyle, spending most of my time through high school riding horses in the foothills of the Rockies and competing in Equestrian (Three Day Eventing). I can still vividly remember galloping, only my horse and I, over ridges in the mountains, with alpine forests and lakes far below.

    After several years of dedication, I rose through the ranks in Three Day Eventing. I was named to the Canadian Talent Squad (essentially the Olympic Long List for riders under 18 years) and traveled over North America to compete. I’d say this period laid the foundation for my mental model of “effort is highly correlated with reward”. While I no longer ride horses (mostly lack of time, not lack of desire), I treasure the life lessons I learned during that period of my life.

    Why did you choose to become a resident at St Andrew’s College?

    At the end of high school (in Cochrane, Alberta) I wanted to come back to my roots in Australia. After deciding on the University of Sydney, I knew I wanted to join a community to meet new friends and immerse myself in the undergraduate experience. Obviously, there are many places to meet people in undergrad: social clubs, classes and sporting teams. But the idea of living and creating my own place in the story of St. Andrew’s, an institution with such a rich history, was important to me.

      From my first meeting with Dr Porges, I felt at ease; like Drew’s was home. I loved hearing about the journey from a male-only to a co-ed community – it showed continual evolution rather than resistance to change – and the mix of students from all areas of the world. The co-ed community, focus on academics and sport, as well as established traditions drew me in (pun intended!).

      What parts of College life were you involved in? What was your favourite activity or memory from your time here?

      The culture and camaraderie at Drew’s created long-lasting memories. My favourite memory, by far, was the day when the fresher women won the Rowing Regatta for the first time (2006). I was in the bow and can still remember the roar of the Drew’s crows on the shoreline. The pain was vivid but there was instant relief and disbelief as we crossed the line first. The entire crew, Lexi, Mel, Tash, Gem and I, almost fell over with joy and excitement. We rowed back to the pontoon, unlatched our oars and walked through a human tunnel before being surrounded by a mob of chanting Androvians covered in blue and white paint. Will never forget that day!

        Another everlasting memory is centred around the Dining Hall. The room oozes history, especially due to the high ceilings and paintings hanging on the wall. From Haggis rituals, Father’s and Mother’s Day Dinners, Victory Dinners to the breakfasts after, I’m sure that room has seen many stories unfold. It’s a treasure in its own right.

        You did an undergraduate degree in Resource Economics and then went on to do a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Why did you decide to pursue your education further? What impact has this had on your career to date?

        I’ve always pursued opportunities for learning and growth. My undergrad degree taught me the depths of economics and using logic in decision-making. As soon as I graduated from Sydney Uni, I worked at PwC’s Economic & Policy team conducting economic appraisal of infrastructure, energy and water policy. I’ve always been interested in “why people make decisions” and “how can we nudge or influence decisions?”. Policy nudges are very common: in transport economics we consider modal shift (i.e. designing safer walking and cycling routes makes it more likely people will walk or cycle to work), in energy we try to manage demand (i.e. using variable pricing of electricity can spread energy demand across the day so we reduce risk of blackouts) and in marketing it’s about driving an action (i.e. giving people relevant and timely information through SEO and advertising). Nudges are embedded into our lives everywhere, you just need to know where to look!

          I moved to Chicago to pursue the intersection of Analytics and Behavioural Economics. Soon after I arrived, a friend introduced me to Chicago Booth and I was instantly drawn into the school. Chicago Booth is a world-class Business School and home to many Nobel Laureates. The school is known for its analytical rigour, financial programs and focus on consumer and business decision-making. Long story short, within 6 months I had moved to Chicago, written the GMAT and started my MBA.

          Overall, an MBA from Chicago Booth has definitely added a level of credibility to my resume. Booth has an incredible network across the globe and I’d say the education lives up to its name of an “analytical MBA”. In addition to the standard MBA curriculum, I took classes in building a new venture, machine learning and technical operations management – a rarity at the time for these classes to be offered in tandem with the likes of Marketing, Finance etc.

          You started out your career in the consulting industry before moving over to Google. What was it that drew you to work in the tech industry initially? And what is it that you enjoy most about this particular industry?

          While I didn’t set out to change careers from consulting to tech through my MBA, I credit my MBA with opening a door to the Tech Industry. At Booth, I was taught to layer my analytical “economist” brain with business acumen. I dabbled in marketing decision science, and organisational theory and participated in a new venture incubator (what Booth calls the “New Venture Challenge”). I became fascinated with everyday decisions and how the digital landscape has provided people with infinite information, but importantly exponential options and decisions. And where better to learn about the digital world than Google?

            I remember I was first exposed to the option of working at Google at an event at Booth, where Ted Buell (Managing Director, Google) gave a talk on the “ten trends in tech”. Long story short, but a fellow Boothie, collar stays and a nice note (it’s all covered in an article: gave me the opportunity to speak with Ted and members of his team about what they do in tech. Being hired at Google was honestly one of the happiest days of my life – I cried at the airport on my way home when I received an unexpected offer only an hour after my case interview.

            I’ve now been in tech for just over seven years. Even though I was a relatively “late comer” to tech compared to many other people, I feel the pace of innovation and immersion of tech in every industry is expanding every day. I love continually learning, trying new things and touching the lives of millions of people a day. For example, at Google it was understanding how the ad auction influences the individual and measuring the effects on millions of people. At Ancestry it was how we can use tech to enable people to discover, craft, and connect their family history. At Canva, it is empowering the world (and teams) to design. I’d say my insatiable appetite for learning and growth is perfectly suited to tech – at its core, tech is about giving people the tools and knowledge to enrich their lives, and make the best decision for themselves.

            You’ve worked across a number of roles and teams at Google, Amazon, and Ancestry. How has the diversity helped progress with your career progression and professional development?

            I believe the more you understand, the more you realise you don’t know. But the more you understand, the better questions you can ask. The choice of whether to specialise vs generalise is a topic I constantly revisit. Is it better to be an expert in a field? Or, be able to navigate a variety of fields with grace? Ultimately this decision is different for everyone. But I know, for me, the diversity of my skills and knowledge base means I can connect dots across a business, which few others can. I like to think of it as one ingredient in my own “secret sauce”.

              You recently joined the very well-known Australian-founded, tech company, Canva. Could you tell us a little more about the company and what you do in your current role there as Canva Teams (B2B) GTM Program Leader?

              Canva’s mission is to empower the world to design. My role is to ensure we empower every team to design, from small groups of individuals to enterprises. This is a new role in the business so I’ve been spending the first few months asking questions, learning and understanding the Teams business. I collaborate with Leaders across our Growth (revenue), Marketing and several Product organisations to define the strategy, design and implement operations and execute on our strategy for Teams (focusing on B2B). Canva is less hierarchical than other companies and highly matrixed, so on any given day I may speak with the head of Product Marketing, a product manager in Product Growth or an engineer on our revenue platform. This variation in elevation (strategy to execution) and breadth (subject areas from marketing to engineering), keeps my role interesting and challenging. Exciting things are afoot!

                You have lived and worked in Australia, Canada, the US, and Singapore. How has living in a range of different countries and having to adapt to different cultures impacted and helped you professionally and in day-to-day life?

                I encourage everyone, if they have the opportunity, to live and work abroad. Even though the US, Australia and Canada are more proximate in their cultures than other countries, there are nuances. For anyone considering working abroad I would recommend The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. It provides helpful frameworks for understanding different cultures and how reference points affect how individuals assess different cultures. While it’s been hard to repeatedly reinvent myself in a new city and new countries, I feel it’s helped me build resilience and adaptability. Luckily many of my moves have been enabled by my employer at the time and I have cherished the opportunities.

                  Having just returned home to Australia from a number of years living overseas, do you have any key tips or words of advice for people looking to move and work overseas, and more particularly to the United States?

                  While I enjoyed living and working abroad, I would encourage people to question “why” they are entertaining living overseas. Is it to gain exposure in your existing business? To learn a new skill set? To accelerate wealth? Or something else? The reasons are endless but having a clear line of sight as to your goals can help illuminate the best path. I would suggest a simple framework when moving overseas: it’s easiest when you change only one of the following – location, company, or role. Changing all three can be stressful since you need to simultaneously immerse yourself in a new life, a new business and a new set of expectations.

                    We know you are a passionate athlete and have represented Australia in triathlon. Could you tell us a bit more about your sporting endeavours? Is this dedication to sport still something you like to do outside of your work?

                    Being physically active has always been a key part of my life. And I’ve “peaked at high levels” in many: Equestrian (mentioned previously), rowed for St Andrew’s and Sydney Uni, then went to the ITU World Championships in Triathlon (sprint). This isn’t to boast about any accomplishments, but instead draw parallels with my career – both are a winding journey. Like my career, where skills accumulate over time, movement teaches proprioception, resilience and tolerance of pain (being uncomfortable). Then it’s a matter of mastering the movements specific to each sport. Notice the similarity?

                      I’ve since stopped competing per se. Ever since a pretty serious back injury a few years ago, I prioritise preservation and prevention. Now I focus on the enjoyment and meditative state, that activity brings. I love Lagree, mountain biking and hiking. Given the time, I would spend at least 3 hours a day being active in nature. I often laugh with friends: mountain biking for me is like meditation. I must focus 100% on the trail, let all other thoughts go, or else I’ll be off the bike and trail!

                      What else do you like to do outside of work hours?

                      I tend to spend the majority of my time at work during the week, but make sure I exercise every day. On the weekends I try to leave Sydney and head to the south coast to ride my bike or hike. And I try to go out with friends, an alumni event or industry event 1-2 times every week as well.

                        What are you reading/ watching/ and or listening to at the moment that you’d recommend?

                        I walk to work every day, so I devour podcasts. Anything related to business, leadership or current news is on my playlist queue. If you were to look at my podcast playlist right now, you’d find Grit (with an Operating Partner from Kleiner Perkins; explores what it takes to create, build and scale world-class organizations) and TBOY (“The best one yet”).

                        Do you have any words of advice for young Androvians just starting out in their careers?

                        When I look back on my career, I’m in a completely different industry, role and specialty than what I studied at university. And if I recall advice that’s been shared with me, it’s wildly inconsistent. So instead of giving advice, I’ll share some sentences that resonate with me. Hopefully, they resonate for at least one other person as well:

                        View every job as an opportunity to learn something new.

                        Treat every person you meet as a potential door to a new opportunity—personally or professionally.

                        Keep an open and inquisitive mind; you may find that you really enjoy something you never imagined would appeal to you.

                          Is there anything else we should be asking you about?

                          No, but always happy to chat!