Leadership: Copperleaf CEO Judi Hess promotes women in tech

As head of software developer Copperleaf, Judi Hess favours a collaborative leadership style. But she isn't shy about pushing to hire more women in a male-dominated industry

Credit: Paul Joseph

As head of software developer Copperleaf, Judi Hess favours a collaborative leadership style. But she isn’t shy about pushing to hire more women in a male-dominated industry

Judi Hess supports affirmative action. Since becoming CEO in 2009 of Vancouver-based Copperleaf Technologies Inc., she has increased the number of female employees from roughly 10 per cent to about a third. Over that period, the company’s total staff rose from 29 to more than 120.

“I think it’s a big deal,” says Hess, who is slender, with a mane of blond curls and an easy laugh. “I overtly, to everyone in the company, support the value and the benefits of diversity.” She agrees with James Baldwin, the late American writer and civil rights activist, who said that people are formed by what they see: “so women expect men to be leaders, and men expect men to be leaders because that’s what we see. And men and women both expect there to be more men inside these technology companies because that’s normal. That’s what you see, so that’s what you expect—that’s what you absorb in your environment. I don’t accept any of those things.”

The Toronto native has worked in the tech industry since joining MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., a global aerospace and information company based in Richmond, as a software engineer right out of university in 1981. She has an honours bachelor of mathematics from the University of Waterloo and a minor in business administration from Wilfrid Laurier University.

In 1995, Hess moved to Creo Inc., a Burnaby company specializing in printing technology, where she held several management positions, ending with president from 2002 until 2005, when U.S.-based Eastman Kodak Co. bought the business for US$1 billion. She became a corporate officer and VP of Eastman Kodak and in 2007 was also appointed managing director of Kodak Canada.

At Copperleaf, which provides decision analytics software to help utilities like Ontario’s Hydro One Ltd., the U.K.’s Northern Gas Networks Ltd. and Essential Energy in Australia manage critical infrastructure, “I’m doing the thing that nobody likes—I would actively like to hire women,” Hess says. “Because I believe that diversity is your strongest hand, and there are not enough women in tech. If there were too many women in tech, I would try to hire more men.” In addition to promoting gender diversity, she feels employing people who are from a range of cultures and speak a variety of languages brings Copperleaf closer to its worldwide client base and contributes different ideas, concepts and ways of thinking that make the company stronger.

Hess mentions that when recruiting, “I’ll say, ‘Can we find a woman on that?’ and they all look at me with a frown. ‘Can we find a person of colour? Maybe we need more Hispanics or something.'” She chooses the person best suited for the position but feels strongly that a qualified woman is probably better than an equally qualified man in the same job, or she would not have been hired. “I would assume that for a woman to appear as capable as a man in tech, it is most probable that she is the better candidate given all the biases against women in tech,” Hess explains, pointing out that Charlotte Whitton, mayor of Ottawa from 1951-56 and the first female mayor of a major Canadian city, said: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.”

Her leadership style was also shaped by her experiences, especially at Creo, but is not related to gender. It stems from what she has observed to be more successful in a high-tech environment with smart, well-educated and highly skilled people. When Hess started in leadership positions, her style was more directive and “command and control.” Now she describes herself as an extroverted, demanding collaborator. With age and experience, Hess found that people are most motivated and connected when they can shape the organization and contribute to its vision “because a little bit of them is in it.” There many good ways to do things, and it doesn’t always have to be her way, she says. By allowing employees to drive the decision-making process, she has discovered that things she had thought wouldn’t work actually did, and very well.

Hess tells her staff that she didn’t hire them to tell her what she knows but what they know and think. “Otherwise I don’t really need you, because I already think that,” she says, “so I want you to speak out. I have a good overview of a lot of things, but I don’t know specifically about your area, so you tell me what you recommend.”

Working with many colleagues over more than 30 years in various countries has taught Hess that everyone is similar. “It doesn’t change with where you are or what gender you are or what race you are or what religion you are,” she asserts. “People just want to be appreciated for the effort that they’ve put in and what they brought to the table. I think that’s about as simple as it gets. That would be my key thing, is to appreciate people.”

Copperleaf Technologies is one of the fastest-growing software companies in Canada. How do you lead in an industry that is growing and changing?
You have to be very agile. You need to respond quickly. You need to have people accept change. Something’s always breaking, so when you’re growing really fast, I focus on making sure we have the right culture in the company to be able to say we accept change.  

What’s the best way to motivate people and inspire loyalty?
The people in the company have to shape the culture. If they don’t contribute, then it’s not their culture; it’s something you gave them. People want to shape things, and then they become loyal, and they become much more into the company and have that loyalty to the company.

What three things would you tell a young person who aspires to become a CEO?

1. If anyone asks you to take on additional leadership, your answer should be yes. They probably know better than you. 

2. If you take some time to grow into your leadership role over time in a more incremental fashion, that will improve your chances of being successful as a leader and as a better, stronger leader.

3. A collaborative approach to leadership builds in more resilience and more success and more happiness in an organization overall.