Women in Leadership Transforming Tech: Liwanag Ojala, CEO of CaringBridge

Chris OlsenBy Chris Olsen

Liwanag Ojala

Nearly 60 percent of women contribute to the U.S. workforce and they account for more than half of all workers in management and professional occupations. Over the next decade women have the potential to add trillions of dollars to the growth of the global economy. Yet gender inequity continues to create significant hurdles for women in the workplace. These obstacles are particularly evident in the technology industry, where women hold just one-quarter of the jobs and only 8 percent of leadership positions.

Women in tech are paid less and promoted less often than men—disparities that have contributed to nearly 60 percent of women leaving the industry at midpoints in their careers. Additionally, women-led tech firms receive less funding, despite studies that show they get an average 35 percent higher return on investment than their male counterparts.

These issues have inspired several women in Minnesota to devote their lives and careers to breaking down barriers, overcoming obstacles and transforming the technology industry. “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” is a series of feature articles and a white paper from The Bailey Group that highlight these extraordinary individuals and their journeys.

Go Instead Where There Is No Path and Blaze a Trail

Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and blaze a trail.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

A business law degree led Liwanag Ojala down a path that connected her with top Minnesota companies including Fortune 500 food distributor Nash Finch (now SpartanNash), where she served as in-house counsel. A few years later she connected with a former colleague who was an executive at Twin Cities online grocer SimonDelivers and moved into a general counsel position there.

Though Ojala’s path was leading in a seemingly ideal direction for a self-proclaimed foodie, she wanted to make a greater impact. When the president of SimonDelivers announced he was leaving the company, her inspiration for blazing a new trail emerged. “At first I thought I would move on as well,” Ojala said. “But I decided to approach the board and asked to be considered for the role.”

Ojala was 32 years old and the company’s first female president. She knew taking the reins at SimonDelivers would be a challenge. There were new aspects of the business to learn and the company had struggled to become sustainable with increasing food and fuel prices. Ojala was motivated by her Filipino immigrant parents who arrived in the U.S. with just 16 dollars; they taught her to be courageous, to take risks, to work hard and to persevere. “They gave me my grit,” she said.

Ojala was aware of opposition that women in the technology industry were facing from their male peers—particularly women of color and those in leadership roles—but she had not experienced it. There were times she worked harder to prove herself to those who questioned her lack of programming background, but Ojala wasn’t intimidated and never second-guessed herself. She focused on leading at her best and strived to be a role model for diversity.

Throughout her term as president of SimonDelivers, Ojala explored opportunities to create new revenue streams for the company. Eventually it became clear that selling was the best strategy for profitability. In 2008 she and the board approached fourth-generation family grocer Coborn’s to propose a sale. Coborn’s acquired SimonDelivers in late August, and the CobornsDelivers website was launched in October with Ojala’s oversight.

That same year Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal recognized Ojala’s leadership with a “40 Under 40” award.

Serving a Higher Purpose 

Ojala went on to work in technology leadership roles including vice president of ecommerce at Meijer, a chain of American superstores headquartered in Michigan, where she developed the company’s digital grocery strategy. Again she found herself longing to make a greater impact and realized a new tech career goal: to be a part of a values-driven organization that served a higher purpose.

In 2014 Ojala learned about a chief operations officer position at CaringBridge—a nonprofit social network dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during a health journey through the use of free personal websites. Its mission of “amplifying love, hope and compassion in the world, making each health journey easier” immediately resonated with Ojala. “It felt like everything was aligned,” she said. “The purpose of the organization, my personal values, my experience.”

She joined the CaringBridge leadership team and founder Sona Mehring, and together with the board they developed a strategic plan to lead the organization through its next phase of growth. Strategies were data-driven with user experience at the forefront.

In 2015 the Women’s Health Leadership TRUST recognized Ojala as a “Top Emerging Women Leader” in health care.

In January this year Ojala was promoted to chief executive officer at CaringBridge. She looks forward to leading the organization’s efforts to develop innovative new applications, forge strategic partnerships, and she is energized by emerging data on the impact of social technology on health outcomes. “Imagine if research proves that using CaringBridge during a health journey will help a person heal,” she said. “CaringBridge has the potential to provide even greater benefits to our overall health and well-being.”

Ojala was the recipient of a “(Real) Power 50 Award” from Minnesota Business Magazine and was elected to the Minnesota Public Radio Board of Trustees this spring.

She believes women in tech leadership have a responsibility to act as role models in the community, particularly when it comes to supporting other women and diversity. And Ojala is wholly committed to fostering an inclusive culture at CaringBridge. “The best way organizations can promote diversity is to demonstrate it in their leadership,” she said, noting that diversity is demonstrated throughout the entire CaringBridge executive team.  “Diversity seeks diversity.”

Read about more “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” here.