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Coming from an impoverished background in rural Missouri, Christal Bemont, CEO of data management firm Talend, is used to adversity and overcoming obstacles. She started work at 13, cleaning houses and selling ice-cream, in order to support her siblings, and was the first person in her family to go to college, taking out a loan to fund her education.
How much has that background – which is unusual in the upper echelons of enterprise software management – shaped her?
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” says Bemont. “It’s not just about being resilient, but more about obstacles being in your way and dealing with adversity. And I think coming from that type of background of not knowing where your next meal will come from helps you to overcome obstacles. At one point, I would go as far as to say I maybe felt ashamed of my background, so I am being candid now about feeling very proud of it.”
Bemont spent 15 years at travel and expense management firm Concur, before and after its 2014 acquisition by SAP, most recently as its chief revenue officer. She worked under Steve Singh, who was chairman and CEO of Concur, which he co-founded, from 1993 to 2017, and who was chairman of Talend from 2016 to 2021. It was he who persuaded Bemont to take the CEO role at Talend.
Talend stands out doubly in the data integration field by being based on open source software, unlike competitors such as Informatica and IBM, and being French, not American. It was founded by Bertrand Diard and Fabrice Bonan in Suresnes, Paris.
Bemont joined Talend in January 2020 just as the Covid-19 pandemic was getting started, and she has taken the positive from that coincidence.
“I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity to lead this organisation during Covid,” she says. “I wouldn’t have wanted it to be my first foray as a CEO, but I’m very fortunate.
“When you’re going through something tough, let’s be honest, you’re just thinking, ‘Why me?’. Why I feel so blessed about this is the same reason that I look back at my childhood and think, ‘How lucky am I to have gone through the things that I went through, because they taught me so much – and made me stronger’.”
Nor does she feel this to be a matter of individualistic effort. “The other thing it taught me is that how you get through difficulty is maybe more important or just as important as getting through it,” she says. “And that, to me, is where the people aspect of it comes in. Because it’s a lot easier to get through these things when you have people by your side, or you have the ability to come together and work together to get something done. When you’re alone, it’s very, very difficult.”
Women and data management
As well as coming from a working-class background – her mother cleaned houses and then later opened a small craft shop in Kansas City, Missouri, and her stepfather worked at a paint factory – Bemont is also a woman in the technology industry. And for all the rhetoric about improving diversity in tech, the industry remains male-dominated.
Does she think data management and analytics offers a comparatively promising area of the industry for women?
Christal Bemont, Talend
“It’s possible,” she says. “It could be the thing that brings more diversity into tech. But I’ll say I worry that Covid has set us back quite a bit with women in general. We’ve got a long way to go.
“There are a few things happening with more diversity on boards, with a little bit of a ripple effect of creating diversity in different areas of the workforce. I do think it helps, because then you have boards that are looking to create more diversity within the organisation – and that leads to more diverse thinking.”
Bemont adds: “I had the great fortune to work for Jen Morgan when she was the co-CEO at SAP. She’s amazing. She is a great example of how to be a wonderful leader. The same with Elena Donio [president at Concur in 2015-16 and an executive there for nearly 19 years], a very strong technologist. I’ve learned so much from her. But we are far from where we need to be from a diversity standpoint.”
Pillars in the pandemic
Bemont says that when the pandemic hit, she decided on “three foundational pillars” by which to make decisions. “One was the physical health of my employees, mental and emotional health, because I’m a big advocate in that area, and then financial health,” she says.
“We didn’t have to furlough or lay off anyone, we’ve really tried to make sure we could take care of people in lots of ways, and the company has done extremely well financially.”
Talend reported 2020 revenues of $287.5m, up from $247.8m in 2019.
Bemont feels she grew up with Concur as it went from startup to being part of SAP. Its pattern of growth was top-down, starting with large corporate organisations, then working down. Talend, by contrast, started out from the open source approach of bottom growth, being adopted by data integration specialists in companies.
“We serve very large customers [at Talend], but I think this idea that they had of open source is something that’s very special,” she says. “The thing that I learned at Concur was that what I believe informs our future is the groundswell of people with their feet on the street. Some big decisions may be made in C-level corner offices, and at some of the large Fortune 100 companies that is for sure, and we serve them well.
“But I believe the future of what is going to be expected and required comes from the bottom end of the spectrum, because they’re agile and athletic, and they have expectations that are different. And so I think that the numerous people who contribute to open source creates a very important lens.”
Pivoting a business
Bemont also sees a certain reframing of the business as an inheritance from Concur. She strongly credits the leadership there, specifically Singh and Donio, currently a board member at Contentful, Twilio and Databricks.
“They lead in a way that allows people to bring their best selves to work,” she says. “They built an organisation on an incredibly high standard of high-functioning, accountable and empowered people. What that allowed us to do was to become entrepreneurs within the business.
“It wasn’t just about creating an expense reporting process, because that was just about efficiencies, that was just about automating something. They stepped back and said, ‘Let’s take that part and do away with it’. And I was thinking, ‘Isn’t that the part that we make money on?’ And they said, ‘Let’s challenge that thinking. What if we get in front of the expense report, so that no one has to create one?’”
That management team also shifted Concur from on-premise software to the cloud, at a time when that was less common, and which entailed a revenue model shift from user to transaction-based licences. The upshot was, on Bemont’s account, to shift from being an expense report automation provider to being a firm that helps organisations control their travel expenditure intelligently.
“There is a plethora of data in business now, but the crux of the matter is for it to be the right data”
Christal Bemont, Talend
At Talend, she is putting an increased emphasis on data quality in the context of a general shift to digital delivery, and alongside a shift of the business to the cloud. “When I talk to the leaders of companies that we serve, being data-driven is at the heart of everything they do to stay laser-focused on how they serve their customers, where they meet them,” she says.
Bemont cites Estée Lauder as an example of a customer whose transactions started, before the pandemic, in a vast majority online and then ended up in-store. “They’ve found a hybrid way of meeting their customers where they’re at,” she says. “But what’s really important is they’re very personalised, so their whole mantra and brand is about personalisation, and that requires data integration.”
Bemont adds: “There is a plethora of data in business now, but the crux of the matter is for it to be the right data that people can have confidence in at the time when they need it. There is more information than we know what to do with. But how do you make sure you have trusted data? How do you have healthy data that you can have confidence in, that’s up to the minute?
“Having information that tells you the wrong story, or is out of date, or doesn’t serve you, puts you at risk. To me, our number one objective is confidence in data that comes through data health.”
Here, Bemont is referring to the supplier’s “data health” service, launched in September 2020. She comments on it in this article in one of Computer Weekly’s sister TechTarget titles, SearchDataManagement.com.
As well as its open source origins, Talend’s specifically French origination is of particular value, in Bemont’s view. She believes that what she describes as the company’s resilience through the pandemic is attributable to a certain French “strength of fortitude, almost a resolve”.
She adds: “I believe there is something special about our heritage and the roots of our European brethren that is core to the DNA of the company. It’s hard to quantify, hard to explain, but it’s something that I see and you can always feel when you’re part of it. And it’s why I desperately miss being with the team in person because you miss that energy in interaction, but it’s just part of who we are.”
Like many of us, Bemont misses the human interaction, the sheer being with people that has been absent for the past two years.
“There’s no substitute,” she says. “We can work behind Zoom, but there’s an art of working and interacting with people, even passing someone on the street, that I believe we’re losing.
“I was brought up in the US Midwest in this farm town, and one of the things that was instilled in me was: you speak to everyone, you interact with people, you call them by their name, you have a conversation, even if you don’t know them.”
Bemont is working on a book on this theme. She recalls how she left home when she was 16, “and a lady I was cleaning houses for could tell that things were not good and she offered me a place to stay”.
“In life, I believe we’re meant to be multipliers. It only takes one person to stop and ask you if you’re OK, and to give you a selfless helping hand. That has happened a few times in my life. And because of that, it’s something that I will do for the rest of my life.”
Bemont adds: “I wanted this role not because I wanted the CEO title. I wanted it because I wanted to have the biggest impact on as many people as I possibly could. That’s the paying back of what I was given in that moment, when someone said to me, ‘Do you need a place to stay?’
“And if there’s one thing that I’ll tell you, it’s that I stopped worrying about fitting in a long time ago. Maybe in my early days, I felt like I had to conform.”
She says she feels the need to set an example. She recalls how she was given some unsought advice about dress and appearance when taking the helm at the company: “You can’t wear those earrings.” It is advice she chose not to take.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is it’,” says Bemont. “This is the time you have to put actions behind your words, you have to be vulnerable. You have to feel confident in what you believe. And in order for me to give people the permission to show up the way I ask them to show up, which is exactly as who they are, then I don’t want to do any differently.
“Don’t ever change who you are – that’s a message I’ll always push out.”