Angela Ceresnie was “really comfortable” being COO at Orchard Platform, the fintech firm she co-founded. In 2016, she took on the same role at Climb Credit, which provides student loans for vocational programs and career training. (This year the company raised $50 million in debt from Goldman Sachs, and last month finalized $9.8 million in series A venture capital.) In 2018, Ceresnie was offered Climb’s top job. Eventually, she learned to grow into it. –As told to Maria Aspan
I’ve always been really good at assessing new problems, breaking them down into their component parts, and then figuring out how to solve them. In high school, I was always good at math, but I was really good at logic, which is a classic chief operating officer skill.
Having been Orchard’s COO, there were many challenges at Climb where I was like, “Oh, yeah. I’ve done this.” Different company, same thing. It’s not rocket science.
When I was approached for Climb’s top role, the biggest question was, “Do I want to be a CEO?” I talked to a lot of people, but being a CEO is kind of like childbirth. People can explain it a million times, but you won’t know it until you go through it. You consistently deal with scenarios you’ve never seen before. Maybe at some point that stops. It hasn’t for me, yet.
My job had been to be the practical person, to know all the numbers and give a sense that someone’s running a tight ship. Especially for fund-raising: As the COO, I’m not thinking, “What’s the big-picture answer?” I’m thinking, “What’s the practical answer?” When you’re the CEO, you need to be the visionary who’s explaining how there’s going to be a massive opportunity, and also run the tight ship. You also have these moments as CEO: You’re in a meeting, and a really hard question gets asked–a gnarly question that no one really knows how to answer–and you have to have a good answer.
Internally, as CEO, many employees don’t want to problem-solve with you. They want to put their best foot forward. Being a part of the messy figuring-it-out–that doesn’t make everyone comfortable. I’ve been working on spotting when not to meddle, to let people figure it out–but also figuring out when I do need to meddle, when something has raised to a level where it is actually my job.
I had a lot of imposter syndrome at Orchard. I had had no experience with startups, and I was also a mom. I was like, “All the startups are run by 22-year-old white men. I’m not that. I’m pregnant.” I didn’t feel like I fit into the box.
I have a network of advisers and mentors, and I would like to hire a CEO coach. That’s something you see more and more at big companies. A coach can be that first line when you’ve got some complicated thing, and you don’t want to talk to your staff, because maybe you don’t know the path, and don’t want to talk to your investors, because you don’t want to go to them with some nebulous thing.
But I’ve also tried to develop that muscle of not needing external validation. I have a sense of where I will struggle and where I will be naturally strong. It’s been fun to take these more amorphous problems and figure out how I can solve them the way I solve problems. So far, when I’ve challenged myself to do things, I’ve been able to do them.
So, I’m ready.