Elena Donio is the rare female leader in a technology company. She is on a mission to make tech more appealing to women and mentors other women who want a tech career and a family.
After receiving the small “rejection envelope” from the University of California at San Diego, Elena Donio was devastated.
But, when her dad returned to their Cupertino, Calif., home from work that night, he asked her what she was going to do about not getting into her first-choice college.
Donio wrote a letter to the school, and asked her favorite teacher and her boss from the Haggen-Dazs ice-cream shop where she worked to each write a letter in support of her to the school.
Title: President of Concur
Employees: 5,335 globally, 1,100 in Bellevue
Most influential mentor: Rajeev Singh, co-founder and former president and chief operating officer of Concur
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics from University of California at San Diego
Early years: Andersen Consulting, 1992-94; Deloitte Consulting, 1995-97; and 1998 at 7Software, which was acquired by Concur
Concur years: Over 17 years, her roles have included head of worldwide sales and marketing, head of product management, executive vice president and general manager of small and medium-size businesses.
Family: Husband of 15 years, Shanen, and three sons: Flynn, 11; Henry, 10; and Charlie, 5
Non-negotiables: Three or four good workouts a week
Guilty pleasure: Fashion
Three weeks later, she received the big acceptance envelope.
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Donio arrived on campus that fall ready to prove to everyone, including herself, she belonged there.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, all these people got in. Clearly I’m the stupidest of all of them because I didn’t,’ ” she remembered. “It was like my little secret.”
Today, Donio is running the day-to-day operations at Bellevue-based Concur Technologies. She has been with the company 17 years, becoming president in December after the company was bought by software giant SAP.
And, now that she has become the rare female leader in a technology company, Donio is on a mission to make tech more appealing to women and she mentors other women who want a tech career and a family.
“Your value is not in your hours. Your value is not in sitting at your desk. Your value is not measured in air miles,” she said. “Your value is in the creative energy you bring to the table.”
Donio has a big smile and passion for fashion, especially Dior shoes and Valentino handbags. And while she says she is demanding, she never asks people to do something she isn’t willing to do herself.
She had been hooked on a career in technology since high school when her mom was an admin at Apple. She would walk the halls and see all the employees “really fired up.”
“You got the sense that they were really changing the world — this was pre iPod … pre iMac,” Donio said while waving her iPhone 6 Plus, her many bracelets and jingling watch.
But Donio didn’t go to school to learn code. She graduated with a bachelor’s in economics and a minor in English literature. Her freshman year of college she took a Unix operating-system class and didn’t like it.
After graduating in 1992, Donio went into consulting, where she received a six-week coding course, and worked with companies like Apple and Microsoft. She often worked six days a week and traveled for weeks at a time. She said she worried that saying no to a business trip would get her fired.
“I realized how much of life I was missing. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I didn’t have a pet. I missed every wedding shower and every baby shower,” she said. “I was having this amazing professional experience, but I felt like I wasn’t present in my family and my friends.”
She decided to end her long, travel-heavy days of being a consultant. So, in 1998, she joined a startup called 7Software in California. On her first day there, she went to a cocktail party and met Steve Singh, CEO of the company that became Concur. Within the year, Concur acquired 7Software and went public.
“It was just a whirlwind,” said Donio, who moved to Seattle to join Concur.
Founded in 1993 by brothers Steve and Rajeev Singh and friend Mike Hilton, Concur builds software to help companies manage business and travel expenses.
Eight years into her time at Concur, Donio was tested — getting to what she often calls the “hard years” for women. She had two children, Flynn and Henry, and decided to take time off to figure out how to grow her career while still being the kind of parent and partner she wanted to be.
“It was just a question of how, and there were so few people to look at; there was nobody to emulate,” she said. “The early women who I had exposure to at Deloitte were wonderful role models, but they also, in many cases, were not married or were divorced or were not having kids.”
She returned to Concur after a year at the request of then President and Chief Operating Officer Rajeev Singh. Since then, she has been committed to helping women get through those moments when they “really need those pressure valves released,” she said.
“The day she left began the recruiting process in earnest to get her to come back,” Rajeev Singh said of Donio. “Elena’s departure taught me, Concur and her some super valuable lessons. … When she left, it became an opportunity for all of us to step back and evaluate what we were able to do to retain people like Elena.”
At Concur, Donio mentors five women. She also joined the board of the King County Boys & Girls Club in 2009, and she speaks to young girls whenever she has the opportunity.
Additionally, she mentors both male and female MBA students at the University of Washington, and in May she became an angel investor in Ada Developers Academy, a software-developer training program for women. She also agreed to have Concur sponsor two developers, who will join the company in December as interns.
Donio thinks the biggest hurdle to recruiting women into technology jobs is making it appealing for them and demonstrating that the work-life balance is possible.
She has had to deal with managers — often male — who demanded more time than she wanted to give. Even at Concur, she was asked to run European operations, and when she said no because she had two young boys, her first question was how many no’s she would be given.
“Men in similar positions, especially with a stay-at-home partner, would have been able to do it,” she said.
Now that her children are older and she has made her way through the “hard years,” she says her mission is to try to help other women figure out how to get through them.
The past two summers Donio organized a dinner for the female interns and leaders at Concur as an opportunity to share stories and answer questions.
Taking turns standing at the front of the room at Cast Iron Studios in Bellevue in August, the leaders and interns got personal.
Annie Dumond, an eight-year Concur employee and manager of internal communications, shared her “aha moment” — when she realized she didn’t have to do it all.
She thanked Donio for being so candid at a meeting she attended in December after Donio became president.
“Elena said that she cannot be at every milestone for her boys, but that it is about finding balance,” said Dumond, who has two kids, ages 5 and 2, and said she just needed to hear that she may miss a few things, “but it doesn’t make me a bad mom.”