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From Self-Taught Investor to CFO with Jennifer Ceran, CFO of Smartsheet

Episode 320
With an extensive career and two successful IPO’s under her belt, Jennifer Ceran shows us how it’s done.

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“I enjoy looking at companies, their futures, their strategies and how their financials work. It’s something I’ve always had a passion for.” — Jennifer Ceran 

How do companies make money? When do they choose to invest or pass? At what point in a company’s timeline should they IPO? What are the reasons to accept an acquisition? These are all questions many, even the business owners among us, don’t know the answers to. But they are all questions Jennifer Ceran has been obsessed with answering since she was in college. 

Jennifer, the CFO of Smartsheet, started her investing career while still in college and sold her first stocks to fund her trip to France to study abroad. “I was really curious about how the market worked,” says Jennifer, and that experience was just the start of what would become a lifetime interest.

After completing her undergraduate and before attending business school at the University of Chicago, Jennifer went to work for Merrill Lynch as a Financial Analyst on Wall Street where she learned how Wall Street evaluates companies for investment. Following her time on Wall Street, Jennifer wanted to understand corporate finance and went to work for the Sara Lee Corporation and then Cisco.

But in 2003, Jennifer got the call she was looking for — she was asked to join eBay as their Treasurer. With over 1 billion in revenue, Jennifer couldn’t turn down the offer. It was a chance at her dream job and a place where she could learn about technology’s impact on investing and the finance world at large.

Jennifer served as Treasurer of eBay and Paypal for over 7 years. When she saw the impact of the financial crisis, she decided to transition into investor relations at eBay, doubling the company’s stock in the two years she was in this role. But Jennifer wasn’t stopping there, she had her eye set on the CFO role and it wasn’t long before she found it at Box, a work collaboration platform where she led the company into a successful IPO. 

Now CFO at Smartsheet, Jennifer is helping companies and teams work more efficiently with Smartsheet’s collaboration software.

“About 60% of your work is unstructured, it’s ever-changing. Smartsheeet helps you to manage that better. The platform can work with your marketing department and your finance department to give you real-time updates on work projects.”

On this episode, Chad and Jennifer talk about the differences between Wall Street and Silicon Valley and how both places look at investing in companies. They also discuss her extensive career and where she sees innovation in financial management heading in the future. 

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Quotes from Jennifer:

“Somebody once asked me, ‘What is the one thing I learned in business school that was wrong?’ I thought about it and I said, ‘that markets are efficient.’ Because markets are efficient but they are very emotional and with emotions, that’s not always efficient in my opinion.”

[On her style of working in Investor Relations ] “A lot of time investors will ask questions and the company won’t answer them directly. My style of working is you ask me a question and I answer the question. And I’ll say ‘hey, did I answer your question?’ and if I didn’t answer it then I’ll keep going. So I think they felt heard and I love hearing from them [investors].”

[On leaving Ebay] “Some feedback I got about three months before I left was, “Hey, Jenny. You need sharper elbows. You’re too nice.’ And they were right, I needed to be a bit more aggressive, a bit more assertive. But I didn’t operate that way. Authentically, I’m much more of an inspiring leader. I enjoy working together as a team. I love supporting everyone around me and I love it when I get supported back. I’m not super political and I don’t even enjoy it. Because it doesn’t feel like companies are then really looking outside, that they are then kind of fighting within themselves.”

“When I started working, I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t have a cell phone. The world was very different. Today, the power of all of these applications that we have to just make our jobs so much easier, and allow us to make such an impact on our customers and the work environment, that’s what really inspires me.”

“At Smartsheet, what I love about our culture is it combines two really important things. The first one is being supportive and the second is being driven so we get things done.”

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