IWD interview with Danijela Divac

Danijela, can you please tell us a bit about yourself?

Born and raised in Serbia, left at 17. Many people were leaving the country at the time during the fall of Yugoslavia, and my sister and I were on our own since I was 17. I moved to the USA and finished high school, bachelors and masters in design there. Throughout school I’ve worked in restaurants, bookshops, and schools. It was challenging. I got to live in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Mountain View, Oakland, and upon returning to Europe, in Belgrade and Ljubljana.

What was your career path like and how has it progressed?

Chaotic and all over the place :) My career started in education as technology integration specialist, and later as a UX designer in software development industry. Over time I moved into Digital Product Management, and today I’m the Head of Product management at d.labs in Slovenia, working with UK clients. I also dabble with Leadership coaching.

Do you find having experiences from different spheres of work to be a blessing or a curse when it comes to career advancement?

I remember what a wise Jewish woman once told me when I was very young just getting out of high-school and scooping ice cream at the ice cream parlor. She said: “Take any job you can and do different things. You’ll never regret it and you’ll be able to use those learning throughout your life.”
She was right. I still carry those lessons with me today.

As the head of product management, what is it like to manage a large number of people and work on important projects?

Never boring! It’s versatile, and this is where I thrive and what I enjoy. I dislike routine, and predictability. There are many tough problems to solve.
Apart from that, it is very difficult to be a people manager, to inspire and enable people around you to do better and be the best version of themselves.

Have you had mentors and how important is it to have one?

I never had an official mentor. Someone was assigned to me - here is your mentor.
But I saw many people in my life as my mentors. Starting with my birth mom, my American mom, older sister. There are lots of strong tough females in my life. I think that upbringing plays a big role and whether you have a very loving household, mom and dad that express love and support or a very strong female is the key to asuccesful woman.

Looking back to my university days and having a career in technology, most people I thought of as my mentors were predominantly male.
During my Masters program I met Phil who was 12 years older than me. We worked together at the university. He is someone I learned alot from. He loved his job and though that everyone should love their job and infuse it with fun.

I also had many phenomenal managers in my life. They were not your typical American corporate kind of managers - demanding, authoritarian, results-driven. On the contrary, they were humble and protective of their team.
Ian who I worked with in California was an amazing servant leader, providing everything we needed to be succesful. Maurice in Mountain View was very inspirational, guiding, visionary, always asking, and never demanding. Jorge in NYC was another amazing servant leader.. Kim, Elaine, Doris, Kate …there are so many. I was fortunate to always work with the most amazing managers who were natural mentors, and often servant leaders.
If you are open to it, if you watch closely, you will realize that lessons are all around you among people in your surrounding.
They guided me and inspired me, but never micromanaged and demanded. Over time I tried to emulate that behavior.

Do you seek inspiration and knowledge in books or people?

In both… always! I’m an avid reader and love theory - theories give you the bright light in the dark tunnel, they give you guidance, but without actual life experience, life example theories are meaningless. “Think again” by Adam Grant, “Dare to lead” by Brene Brown,
“Helping” and “Humble inquiry” by Edgar Schein are some inspiring books worth sharing.

You’ve been in high positions and oftentimes the only woman in the room. Do you have any tips on how women can have their voices heard?

When I was younger and trying to find the answer tothis question, many were suggesting that I should emulate behaviors of others in the room, meaning to wear a male suit and act like a man. Something about this piece of advise didn’t sit well with me. My choice of industry was also guided by this notion. However, in Silicon Valley, in order to succeed in education or tech industry, it wasn’t necessarily required to wear a male suit and act like a man.

I was fortunate to find my way to the tech industry in the Silicon Valley where I felt safe to be myself, being intuitive female, trusting my knowledge, skills and information, and felt encouraged and brave to speak up. But I will say this - in my life I was in the room with men that felt brave to speak up even totally unprepared. I was never brave enough to show up and NOT be prepared (and I don’t know what it would be like if I ever did that). So being prepared was what kept me moving up and forward.

Women, more than men, tend to sell themselves short. Do you have any advice or any book recommendations for women on how to be better negotiators?

This was very true 10 years ago and more…but I feel like things are changing and it’s very good to see this change happening. We are not there yet but it is happening.

10 years ago I made sure to have a very good male friend teach me how to negotiate. I asked him straight up –teach me how to do this! We roleplayed interviews, and talked a lot on this topic. I learned a lot from him.

When mentor is not given to you, you ask for one. In the past few years I’ve mentored many women in my spare time and this mentorship usually starts with them asking me to help them out.

I’ve read “Lean in” by Sheryl Sandberg back in 2013 and I remember that made a huge impact on my life. I remember thinking - wow this is exactly how I felt at times and in certain moments. Many criticized that book because Sheryl comes from privilege and her path to success was much easier to many other underprivileged women. BUT, I still cannot deny the influence her book had on me almost 10 years ago.

Reflecting back on the past, what would you tell your younger self?

Exactly what I used to say - I would not change a thing.

I lived by many different mantras starting with:

“Live your life as you want to live, not assomeone demands from you.”

“Believe in yourself, you can do this.”

And one of my favorites – “Act withkindness, and you will receive kindness.”

Honestly, nothing in my life came easy, and I learned the hard way that in order to reach your dreams and your full potential, you need to put in the work.

Interested in joining d.labs? We'd love to meet you!