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How (Not) to Ask for Permission (w/ Polina Ruvinsky, CEO & Founder - Hype Her)

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:00:00]:

If you spend enough time in the corporate world, you learn how to ask for permission to pursue certain projects to hire and fire. So much of our corporate lives are determined by the things we have or don't have permission to do, and it's one of the first things we unlearn as entrepreneurs. When Polina Ruvinsky stepped into a leadership role at Disney, she received an unusual and life changing piece of advice to not ask for permission to do what she felt was right for the company. And as it turns out, that was all Polina needed to hear. In 2018, she formed a women and tech employee group at Disney. What started as a kind of experiment turned into a tight knit community, allowing women at the company to come together, brainstorm and offer support. The ripple effect of Polina's community can still be felt. The group is now designated as a business employee resource group, or Berg, one of the 100 bergs across Disney today.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:01:01]:

But bringing together women at one company didn't solve all of Polina's problems. She continued to run into biases in the workplace, all the while hearing stories of other women colleagues who faced similar challenges. She also struggled with impostor syndrome, a lifetime issue for Polina. So in 2022, she found it to the she power to offer mentorship, coaching, and career services to women in transition. And now she's working to launch Hype Her, a platform to revolutionize how women gain visibility and support each other while uplifting each other and having fun while doing it. This week, I talked with Polina about how she gave herself permission to create new opportunities for women leaders. How did she learn to trust her gut? What was the key to creating a community that's endured for so long, even after she left Disney? And how did she deal with what she calls egregious leadership decisions during her corporate career? I'm Katherin Vasilopoulos, and this is And So, She Left the podcast about incredible women entrepreneurs and the wisdom they gained beyond the corporate world.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:02:30]:

When I first heard Polina describe her company and the hype, her platform, I was intrigued. Of course, it's important to build meaningful communities for women leaders, but it's also important to make it fun.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:02:42]:

It's a gamified experience, so it's fun. We have leaderboards and challenges, and at the core of it, each member will go to external platforms and amplify other women and gain some rewards from that. And then you can redeem the rewards and be amplified yourself.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:03:02]:

During our pre interview chat, it seemed obvious to me that Polina would pursue entrepreneurship. She's outspoken, articulate, and candid. But oddly enough, back in 1998, she never saw herself becoming a founder.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:03:18]:

Going back to 1998, I started my career in tech, and I was a junior engineer without a computer science degree, surrounded by people who I thought were smarter and men who I felt belonged in those rooms much more than I did. I was learning so much, but also, I was spending so much of my time feeling like an imposter. And impostor syndrome wasn't something that was talked about widely the way it is now, but for me, it was something I really lived in fear of others discovering that I didn't belong there or I wasn't good enough. And I spent so much of my time just kind of keeping my head down, and I wasn't stepping out, making relationships or really seeing a path where I was going to be advancing. Lo and behold, it turned out I was doing a lot more, and I was catching a lot more notice than I realized, because at some point, others saw something in me that I didn't even see myself. And the first time someone said, my manager said to me, we want you to be a lead on this project, honestly, I was stunned, and I remember exactly what I said, because I said, I'm not your most technical person on this team. And he said, well, that isn't why I asked you. That isn't what I'm looking for in the lead, and you have what I am looking for.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:04:47]:

And that was the first time that I even imagined myself in that capacity. But over the years, it came so much more naturally to me than I realized. And eventually, I led much larger teams, and I actually really found it very exciting. I found a passion for it. And also, the same thing that started happening when all of a sudden, I started to see myself in a different way is that I started this community of women in tech at Disney where I worked, because I thought, well, wouldn't it be great if somebody got all the women together? It's like, no one's doing it. No one's doing it. Oh, I can do this. I can just say, well, I don't have to ask anyone's permission.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:05:31]:

I could just come in here and just say, hey, this is what we're doing, and see who joins me right now. It's funny to even think about, but that was such a new feeling for me that, oh, I could just start creating what I want. I don't have to have someone either tell me or give me permission. Tell me why you felt like an imposter. I mean, they hired you. You were qualified. What was going on? Well, one of the key things was that I didn't have a technical degree. To have most of these jobs, you don't actually need a technical degree.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:06:07]:

But at that time, I really felt like I was the only one who didn't have that. Many people I worked with had master's degrees in computer science, and I was just self taught. For me, I thought that that was something I couldn't even really talk about. And I remember a conference I went to many years later where they had a panel of all these really successful women who talked about how they didn't have degrees. And that was the first time where I thought, oh, hey, it's okay to acknowledge this. I thought this was supposed to be my. Don't ever talk about this little secret. No, don't tell anybody.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:06:43]:

Yeah, exactly. But now I really support this idea, and I try to spread the word about it. And the women I mentor who are starting out, they all feel that same way because they come in and this person went to Carnegie Mellon, this person went to Yt or whatever. And the. So how are you supposed to feel like, as someone who did a one year program, that you can compete with that? So they need a lot of encouragement, because, really, the practical thing is that most of what you pick up in these degrees is really theoretical. And most of what you need as a day to day software engineer is just really hands on experience. I see. The fact that you were self taught means that you were able to apply this day to day practical part, as opposed to having all the theories, which are only useful in academia, really.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:07:37]:

And once you leave and you go into industry, you realize, oh, I have to learn what's happening in this market and in this job and these processes and these people. That's what happens. You leave academia and then you realize, oh, my God, everything in that textbook is just good. It's a good base, but it's not going to help me do this job. I have to just reprogram myself to actually fit into this new job. So I find it interesting that you said that you had to redefine or you had a different self perception, that, hey, I can start a woman's group, I can be a leader in this thing. Because your boss saw leadership qualities in you and you didn't see them yet. So I want to discuss more of that.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:08:16]:

What was your process of discovering that you had leadership qualities and that you changed how you perceived yourself? I mean, part of it was just that over the years, I had gotten comfortable with feeling so uncomfortable right. I felt so uncomfortable so much of the time that stepping into something else that was going to make me feel uncomfortable was just an extension. Right. And just that idea of having that positive feedback loop where you do something and it goes well, and then you think, oh, okay, now I'll do this. Oh, that went well, too. So then that's really how, for me, gaining that confidence was really a step by step process. And I think it's that process that's actually served me really well now as an entrepreneur, because every day is full of things that I've never done before. It's new surprises, new challenges, and you realize, oh, I can rise to the occasion.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:09:18]:

I can actually do this. And you find to do something, and then that's one more tool in your tool belt, and you can just keep moving forward that way. Yeah. I think when we were talking before, we talked about advice, and there is advice that I got, which was during that same period, which was really such a game changer, and I had this manager where my immediate manager left, and so I was reporting to the director of software engineering, which already I felt intimidated by that. And then he asked me to work on a special project. I'm doing this project, and every day I go to him and I say, oh, I said this. And they said this. What do you think if I do this? And I just felt like, okay, I really had to clear it with him because are there some kind of political implications? Like, could something go wrong? And finally he said to me, look, he said, you're in here.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:10:13]:

You're asking me what to do, but I she that your judgment is good. And he said, the key for you to go to the next level is that you start just doing the things that you know are right and not asking me. He said, this is what's going to take you to the next level and being a good leader. He also said, I'd rather cover for you if you make a mistake. So he was encouraging you to have that self assurance. Stop asking me every step of the way. Just know that you're good. Know that your judgment is good already.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:10:46]:

Just go for it. Tell me about what the experience was like for you to form your first women in tech group at Disney. Of course, we were always busy. There was always projects, and you'd see people in the hallways. And I'd been there for a long time. I worked on different teams, but I had quite a lot of relationships, and there was never time to catch up with people. And there was another woman who did a session, and I just enjoyed it so much. We all shared ideas.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:11:16]:

I felt inspired. I felt connected. We learned from each other. And I thought, God, that was so great. I hope she does that again. And then time went by, and she had other things she was doing, and she didn't do it again. And an uncomfortable moment for me was saying, okay, I have a theme. I'm going to get some people together, and we'll just see how it goes.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:11:40]:

And I had that feeling of, I don't know if you have that, if you throw a party and, oh, is anyone going to show? Yes, but they did. And then next thing, I had others saying, like, let's plan these things together. Oh, well, now we can do events once a month. How about twice a month? And what ideas do we have, and can we get a sponsor? And so it took on a life of its own. And it's amazing because I left Disney in 2020, and people I connect with now, they still say to me, I miss that community so much. Actually, when I left Disney, that was one of the most difficult things was leaving that community. I really felt like I was letting people down. That was hard to leave.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:12:25]:

It was really something that was very special for me.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:12:27]:

Can I ask why you had to leave? What happened there?


Polina Ruvinsky [00:12:31]:

Well, there's a theme, and the theme for me, it's no accident that I'm trying to build something to power women, because I started, as I mentioned, this very junior person, and I was just focused on my own little world. But over time, as I stepped out and I became a leader, and I really started to see all these biases that were all around us and experiencing them directed at me, seeing them directed at others, it started really to make me angry. Right. And that was also around the time that I started the community. But what happened in the last, probably about a year of my career at Disney and more than 20 years I spent there total. But one of the things that happened there at the end was that there was a reorganization that happened, and I was moved under a group that's part of ESPN in Bristol, because ESPN is part of Disney. And I was really excited because they're kind of a big deal.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:13:41]:

And they brought a bunch of us in leadership out to Bristol, Connecticut, for a big summit. I was super excited, went out there, and I entered this room, and there was 60 people in it, and it was me and one other woman. So the numbers there were so beyond everything that I had even seen that I couldn't notice it. And then I started to hear more about how things happened there, what types of issues the women in that office had encountered. And it started to pile up. I started to really see that now I was part of a different organization that had different culture and different values, and I started to question if I really wanted to be part of that, if that was the kind of place I was going to feel inspired. I was trying to inspire them to start also a women's group, and they were having pushback from folks in HR saying, well, it has to go up some channel and get approved. So over time, I just really was finding it wasn't feeling like the kind of place I really wanted to put my energy that I felt really inspired by.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:14:59]:

And so back in the day, I know now the job market is not great, but back in the mean, you would get many people reaching out to you to try to recruit you. And one day, someone I used to work with at Disney reached out and started trying to recruit me. And at first, well, you know, I have my women's group, and what are you offering? And he really kind of worked on me for a few months, and then he said, okay, well, I will create a director position for you, and I want to have women at the director level at Rosetta Stone, where I went. And he also said they were starting a diversity equity and inclusion program, and I could be part of that. So finally, that moment came where, after more than 20 years, I made that jump. So the experience of seeing the bias there, the gender bias, it was so clear to you, right? You couldn't escape it, and you could hear the stories coming through as well, and that just didn't feel like the environment that you wanted to be part of. Did something happen specifically to you? Is there an example that you want to share? Well, in that first business trip, this was so stunning to me. There were women who just came up to me.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:16:26]:

We were doing like, a social, I don't know, happy hour or something. And these women I'd never met before came beeline for me, because really, yes, it's a sports focused organization, all that, but you can't not feel that as a woman when you're there and you're, I don't know, 5%, 2%. And I was already used to being, I don't know, 15, 18%. But that was just so egregious. And the stories they told me, the talked about how the CTO at the time had decided to have a meeting with the women, and that after they mentioned a lot of very legitimate complaints, such as they weren't being invited to certain meetings, like conversations were happening that were relevant to them, that they weren't even being invited to. No one was being promoted into leadership roles. They couldn't have these women's groups, so they brought some of those grievances to him. And then he was so angry that he was put in this position where he had to listen to a bunch of people complaining to him that he demoted the person who organized this whole thing, which I just thought was not only stunning and 20 years behind where we were at that point, but also probably not entirely legal.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:17:56]:

So I was very concerned coming back from that trip. I traveled out to Bristol with two other people who were based in Seattle with me. My immediate manager and his manager were both great. I had great relationships with them, and coming back on the plane, they were both like, oh, they were really excited. And I had to be like, look, well, this is my experience. You're excited about this, but this is what I saw. I agree with you because I've had conversations with people who've been to the exact same event, but they happen to be men. And they're like, this was amazing.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:18:29]:

And I saw this person, or whatever it was, and I've had a different experience, and I'm going, do I bite my tongue now and say nothing, or do I tell them, well, when you're a woman, sometimes you experience something that men don't have to go through. The fact that you decided just based on that experience that this is not the environment for me says a lot about you and your leadership quality. Absolutely. And that you went into something that you really believed in. Yeah. Thank you for that. Again, looking back at that sort of timid person starting out, it's amazing to me because I think at this point, I just, like, I'm not taking it and I'm not staying silent. And that's honestly what I want for all of us to be able to really express authentically the experience that we had.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:19:17]:

But the amazing thing was that I left. So this great manager recruited me. I went to Rosetta Stone, and then within, I think it was like, six or seven months, he got pushed out. I only wanted to work for a certain type of person, and he was like that. And then the guy who took over, I lasted just over a year at Rosetta Stone, and part of it was the pandemic and all the challenges. Also, Rosetta Stone was sold twice in the year that I was there. There were a lot of other factors, but the biggest piece was this guy who really managed in a way that he felt like, well, why don't you just tell him what to do. Just make him work extra hours like one of these.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:20:02]:

Do as you're told. And within, like, an hour of me meeting him for the first time, one on one, he said, I don't see you operating as a leader and you're not operating at a director level, and why aren't you doing this and do this? And after three months, he gave me this, like, you're not performing review, which had never happened to me before. And my annual review with him was really contentious because, like I said, I don't really stay quiet anymore. And it went on to say, what do you mean? Can you define what leadership qualities you feel I am missing? And basically it all came down to where he said, well, you just need to manage up better. And I think you're just telling your team what the want to hear. And it was so outrageous. I honestly almost quit that day. But thankfully, I held on to collect my bonus, which I think was the smart thing to do.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:21:02]:

Smart girl. And as soon as I got that bonus, literally the minute I confirmed it was direct deposit, it was like, I'd like to resign. Thank you. And I didn't have a plan. I knew that I wasn't dealing with any more of that BS anymore. And even at that point, I wouldn't have thought I would end up as an entrepreneur. Even at that point that I was thinking of, okay, maybe something that has to do with diversity and inclusion, something culture related. I want to volunteer for women.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:21:41]:

But it wasn't until a year later that I actually reinvented my vision of myself yet again. I think it's interesting what you said there that you didn't imagine that you'd be an entrepreneur. And then at what point does that come into your head? And at what point do you say, you know what, I'm going to try it. I got nothing to lose. There's a pandemic. Let's try. How did that work out? Well, I was living off of my bonuses, which I have to say, obviously, it's a privilege to have been in such a high paying job and have that opportunity to know. I was traveling, I was in Panama when this other job that I had applied for, I didn't get.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:22:26]:

And then something that I'd heard from my, by the way, male mentor, he said to me, I want to see you thinking bigger, is what he said. And again, that was another version of that same advice that I had gotten in the past. And I thought to myself, like, yeah, I'm still kind of doing that. I'm still throttling myself. And what sounded more scary at that point than just saying, okay, well, I'm just going to start my own business, right? Not having that safety net, I guess, of a paycheck of the corporate job, of my regular bonuses, my vacation time, all of that. And for me, that's what thinking bigger was in that moment. And I remember that I was in Panama on vacation. I thought, okay, I think I have to start my own business.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:23:14]:

And that was the very first time in my life I never had this secret desire of one know. No. Because I thought it was something I didn't want to be someone who was married to their work. And that's what I thought was the only option of being an entrepreneur. It is a lot of work. We can't lie. It is a lot of work. And at the beginning, especially, you're like, I need to make my payments, and I have to make sure the bills are paid, and I have to make sure there's enough income and all the other stuff that goes along with that.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:23:44]:

So what do you feel like now you're your own boss? You're the boss lady. What does that feel like? So many things I can say. Well, first of all, I have the small team of all women developers who are building my product, and I feel so proud, like I've created a culture for them, which is exactly what I wish I would have had myself. They are encouraged to bring their ideas, question things. They have each other to support. They're not surrounded by others, men who are out talking them or intimidating them, whether intentionally or not, but they have that support from each other, and they have the safety, the psychological safety, to make mistakes, to learn all those things. So I feel so proud of that. That is so exciting to me.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:24:33]:

It's so exciting to spend every day just focused on my own vision and not on somebody else's vision, and not to be in that kind of the futility which I finally saw, that futility of that corporate hamster wheel where you spend so much, all these random reorganizations and things that you're spending so much time and energy on now it's all about my vision, and really, I want to make an impact for other women. So the vision of that really is so exciting for me. Tell me about some advice that you have for people in the industry or who are thinking of starting a business. So for me, I think that moment when I decided to bet on myself was just, I don't know, it was like an act of self love. And so if you're thinking about something different. Bet on yourself. You know more than you think you do, you have more value than you think you do. And when you really commit, I truly believe when you really commit and your passion is there and your focus is there and you're bringing your whole self to something, you are going to succeed or it's going to be a stepping stone for a future success.


Polina Ruvinsky [00:25:57]:

So that's what I would say.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:26:01]:

Thank you so much to Polina Ruvinsky. You can learn more about HypeHer through the link in the episode description. If you like the show, please rate, review and subscribe to And So, She Left wherever you listen. Your feedback helps us better serve current listeners and reach new ones. We also have a new website. Head over to for full episodes, transcripts, an application form to be on the show, a list of upcoming guests, and more. And so she left is made by Cansulta and Ethan Lee. Cansulta connects entrepreneurs and leaders with the global roster of over 150 pre vetted consultants and experts like Ethan and I, who can help organizations in any business area, from hr to finance to sales and marketing, and even people management and technology.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:26:47]:

We'll be back next Wednesday with a new episode. Our music is by correspondence and Chris Zabriskie, edited for your enjoyment. You can find a list of all the songs you heard here in the episode notes I'm Katherin Vasilopoulos and thanks for listening.

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