AIB Featured Business Leader – Stephane Kasriel

AIB Featured Business Leader – Stephane Kasriel

At the helm of the world’s largest freelance talent marketplace, Upwork, is Stephane Kasriel. As Chief Executive Officer since April 2015, Kasriel is driving the company’s vision of connecting businesses with talent faster than ever.

A lifetime technology enthusiast, Kasriel has 16 years of leadership experience. Prior to Upwork and oDesk (Upworks’s former name), his impressive resume includes many years at PayPal, as Global Head of PayPal Consumer Products, where he achieved unprecedented growth for the company, and Global Head of Mobile Business Development and Managing Director of PayPal France. He also held leadership roles at pioneering companies including Fireclick, Work4, and Zong, and was a founder of Fireclick and iFeelGoods.

Kasriel always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. His father worked for 30 years at the same large cement company, and ultimately became CEO. He admired his father’s career, but wanted to work someplace smaller where one person could more easily have an impact. This preference only increased when he left France after engineering school to get his Master’s Degree in Computer Science from Stanford. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were in his class, and they started what became Google in the office next to his. The department had only 100 students and a dozen professors, and in the late 1990s everyone seemed to be working on a start-up on the side. When Kasriel finished his master’s, a lot of his classmates went to work with Larry and Sergey, but he didn’t want to join somebody else’s company. He wanted to start his own.

His first company was called Fireclick; it made software that helped companies’ websites load faster. This was especially important in the dial-up era before broadband was common. Even though Kasriel was the founder, he functioned more like a tech guy, and spent most of his time working on the code. Fireclick had a good run, and four years later the company was sold.

After the sale, Kasriel went to get his MBA at INSEAD, but his goals weren’t those of the typical business school student. He decided to go to B-school because he’d seen what mistakes entrepreneurs made, and although he’d learned meaningful lessons from them, he wanted to avoid repeating their mistakes.

Kasriel joined PayPal after business school, working as a product manager in France, where the company had just entered the country. His next role however was VP of Global Sales at Zong, a mobile payment platform, which he worked at for over a year. But in 2012, Kasriel joined oDesk.

oDesk’s founders saw that Silicon Valley was desperate for technical freelancers whose jobs could be performed from anywhere, but the companies had no good way to find the right people. Kasriel started out in product & engineering as the vice and then senior vice president. When oDesk merged with Elance, the other big player in the space, lance’s CEO became the CEO of Elance-oDesk, which later changed its name to Upwork. At that time the CEO had been in charge for 13 years, and a few months later he decided to step down. The board considered external candidates to succeed him, but Kasriel made it clear that he wanted the job. The board’s biggest concern was that he’d never served as a CEO before, and some of the directors felt it would make more sense to hire an outsider with previous CEO experience. Ultimately, Kasriel had to convince the board that he understood the range of skills he’d need to succeed in the job.

Since then, Kasriel has learned that the tasks and decisions facing CEOs are often much more complicated than the technical problems an engineer encounters. A lot of his role as CEO comes down to emotional intelligence and understanding what other people need and want. One of Upwork’s big advantages is that employees agree with the company’s mission, which is to create economic opportunities for millions of people around the world by matching freelancers with clients. This mission helps keep employees engaged.

Until fairly recently people like Kasriel, who shifted from engineering into a chief executive role, were unusual. Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg are well-known examples, but more people may make this jump in the future. People are starting to realise that employees who understand in great detail how the product works may well be the best people to decide on the future of the company and to sell that story to investors and customers.

Chosen to guide Upwork’s next chapter, Kasriel truly is a firsthand expert on tech innovation. His future in leadership is on the up!

What do you think?

Stephane Kasriel’s unorthodox journey from engineer to CEO is an inspiring one. As a self-professed introvert, he has paved the way for future people to make the same leap of faith. How have you be inspired to take on a leadership role? Comment your views below and join the conversation.

This article was written by Jelena Milutinovic on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Bloomberg; CrunchBase; Harvard Business Review and Upwork

Photo credit: Les

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