Chris Powell, the Senior Vice President of Global Field & Partner Marketing at Qlik, a King of Prussia company delivering end-to-end, real-time data integration and analytics cloud solutions to close the gaps between data, insights and action, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in King of Prussia, which looks much different today than it did in his youth; the different jobs he held as a teenager, and the lessons he learned from them; going to the only college he considered attending; and the important discovery he made about himself after initially struggling academically.
Powell also discussed his previous work at SAP; why it’s a great time to be in the data business; the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Qlik; and some of the important social causes his company supports.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Chris?
I was born in Philadelphia and then moved at an early age to King of Prussia with my parents and three older siblings.
What did your parents do?
My father’s career was with Allstate, where he held many different management roles. My mother also had many different roles as a stay-at-home parent raising four lively children.
What memories do you have of growing up in King of Prussia?
The King of Prussia I grew up in is nothing like King of Prussia today. It’s hard to believe when you see it today, but growing up, this area felt like a small town. I would ride my bike everywhere, through the many local neighborhoods that were being developed when we moved here in the early 1970s. I went to Mother of Divine Providence for elementary school and Archbishop Carroll for high school.
Traffic was nothing like you see on Route 202 now. The King of Prussia Mall was a strip mall with Gimbels, JC Penny’s and Wanamaker’s department stores.
What jobs did you have growing up?
I started working in grade school. I had a paper route, The Times Herald, and mowed lawns with a friend. In high school, I worked at the King of Prussia Mall; first at Bamberger’s which became Macy’s. I worked a lot of different kinds of jobs through college – some more retail, a short-order cook, data entry at Vanguard, and even a summer at the Stroehmann Bread Factory.
You were working pretty early! What do you think drove that?
I wish I could say it was for the cash or sense of independence that work provides, but in reality, I was too disorganized and basically wasted the money in arcades and pizza places.
In terms of drive, I have my mother to thank. Way back in my paperboy days, she taught me to work hard, provide good customer service, and be respectful and kind. I’ll also chalk some of it up to the fact that I was the youngest of four children. My older siblings were always off doing different things, so working gave me something to do and kept me out of trouble. I really have been working most of my life. In fact, there have only been four weeks out of the last 40 years where I wasn’t working – and the timing was horrible. I was let go from a job a few months before my wedding. It wasn’t a great feeling looking at the prospect of being an unemployed newlywed. Needless to say, I was certainly motivated to find a new job and get a steady paycheck.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I played a lot of baseball growing up. It was in high school that I had the unfortunate realization that my desire to play was much greater than my ability to play! I discovered a love of running in my 30s and started doing triathlons. I wish I had discovered the sport earlier.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I was in high school in the 1980s, and like every other teenage boy at the time, I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Cars, ACDC, and all the classic rock greats. In college, I added bands like Squeeze and the Ramones to my Walkman mix tapes – wow, that means I am old. Today, I enjoy all types of music. I was an early adopter of cloud-based music services, which still gives me the opportunity to have music at my fingertips. I also enjoy Podcasts and Ted Talks because I can find some kind of unusual connections and almost always learn something. As for podcasts – I like things like Reed Hoffman’s Masters of Scale, This American Life, and The Moth.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Penn State. We are…
Did you look at any other schools?
No. Penn State was always the school I wanted to attend. I started as an engineering major but found out it was not the right fit for me. When I started at Penn State, we were told that 80% of our class would not graduate as engineers. I took that statement as a challenge and struggled through my classes. I remember calling my father and telling him I needed to change my major. He generously agreed to my directional change – so I pivoted to the subject my engineering friends struggled with: economics.
Later on, I discovered there was a reason for my academic struggles. When one of my daughters was doing testing for school, I realized I had an undiagnosed case of dyslexia. That diagnosis was like turning on a light. For years, I just thought my difficulties with schoolwork were because I wasn’t as smart as other people. In reality, it was a learning difference.
That’s another heavy quantitative degree. Was Economics the right choice for you?
It absolutely was the right choice. I went from barely passing to Dean’s List. I understood the concepts much better than engineering. I also had come up with ways to learn. For example, I would record a class and then go to the library and take notes from the recording. I could hit pause and really take the time to take prolific notes. It took me a while to get a system that worked for me, but when it finally clicked, it made a huge difference in my academic performance.
Looking back over your career, Chris, who saw promise in you and opened doors?
My first job out of college was with a startup company that was focused on carpal tunnel syndrome prevention. It was owned by two doctors, one of whom threw me into the deep end immediately. In a startup, you do whatever needs to be done, and it was a great way to learn how a company works and how no task is insignificant. Everyone contributes to a company’s success – whether you’re visiting clients or taking out the trash.
After that job, I worked at Mercy Health Plan in the communications department. It was there that my journey to the depths of PowerPoint began. I was young and taught myself how to create presentations. Eventually, senior staff took notice and I soon was mentored by the CEO, Dan Hilferty, before he left to run Independence Blue Cross. Dan gave me the opportunity to work with senior staff and be a part of the business development aspects of the company. I was given chances to travel and I learned how to work with all levels of the business.
What do you think they saw in you, Chris?
Honestly, I think they saw a young man who was willing to work harder and longer than anyone else. I used to tell people they might be able to find someone smarter and more experienced than me, but they would never find anyone who would outwork me. The situations where I ultimately thrived were jobs for which I was initially unqualified, but I worked like a crazy person until I was qualified. In the end, I just became really good at becoming qualified!
What was your most challenging situation where you were thrown into the deep end?
When I was at SAP, I was given the opportunity to run the Latin America marketing organization. I had no field marketing experience and did not speak Spanish or Portuguese – talk about being thrown into the deep end. To say I had a steep learning curve would be an understatement. At first, I was working from Pennsylvania and traveled the 20 hours back and forth to Buenos Aires for a year. After a year of logging an insane amount of air miles, we jumped at the opportunity to move our family to Argentina. That experience really taught me the tremendous difference between living in a country and just traveling to it.
What are the challenges and opportunities ahead of you in 2022?
From a work perspective, it’s a great time to be in the data business. I’m very excited to be a Qlik. It’s a company with an impressive history and strong plans. Our portfolio and products continue to grow and evolve, with several acquisitions over the last five years. We are excited to help shape the company’s perspective and perception. That’s our most significant focus.
The more an organization can leverage its data, the better. We are proud to work with organizations worldwide, helping them utilize data to do very important work. We also work with hundreds of charities and mission-driven organizations, as well as the United Nations on a wide range of topics including clean water initiatives, combatting human trafficking, and tackling food insecurity. At Qlik, we pride ourselves on the work we do and the partnerships we’ve created to address these and other important issues.
Talk about the cutting-edge issues like human trafficking and the environment Qlik takes on.
At the heart of it, we believe many of these problems can be aided through leveraging data, and that’s the universal connector through all of it. Our ability to provide data solutions that can be applied to solving these issues is an important responsibility we have.
Human trafficking is a scourge, but it’s not ineradicable – and Qlik is doing a number of things to address this issue. At the start of the year, Qlik partnered with Engage Together – which offers a transformational community assessment and mapping tool for communities to strengthen insights, strategies, partnerships, and resources to combat human trafficking. By providing our software to Engage Together, we can help vulnerable populations with a solution-oriented focus.
In addition, we have strategic sustainability initiatives that support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. We support projects that address climate, water security, and global health. You can read about our efforts here.
What about personally? What are you focused on?
Like any parent, my family is my primary focus. We are in a great place right now and life is moving at a fast pace. Our oldest daughter, Maddie, recently graduated from the University of Delaware and has a job in public relations. It’s been fun for me to give her advice as she navigates the beginning stages of her marketing career – even though it might not be as fun for her to receive it. Fiona, our middle daughter, is about to graduate from Northeastern University in Boston and is headed to Villanova Law School – following in her mother’s footsteps. And our youngest, Claire, is a junior at AIM Academy, so we’re excited to be starting the college search.
On a more personal note, I have a goal to compete in a half Iron Man in September, so I’ll be busy training.
Do you read much?
I find I don’t have much time sitting in one place to read, so I spend my free time listening to podcasts or Audible. That said, I’m always looking for the next good book to read. I usually try to mix some completely brainless novel that doesn’t require me to think so hard before I move on to read another business book.
What gives you hope in this world of doom and gloom, Chris?
There are many challenges out there today. It certainly can be overwhelming. So I’ll answer from the perspective of one of my passions: the environment. When you look at this challenge, we know what we need to do, and we have the technology to do it. That gives me hope. I’m an optimist. I met some extraordinary people when I did the expedition to the South Pole and in the years that have followed. Seeing their commitment to real environmental change – gives me tremendous hope.
Finally, Chris, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve been fortunate to receive a few “best pieces” of advice in my lifetime. As I said earlier in the interview, my mother was the one who shaped my work ethic by teaching me to work hard and treat people right.
From a work perspective, when I was at SAP, I was given the chance to work with the Chief Marketing Officer at the time, Martin Homlish. Marty was an incredible mentor and when I started working with him, he told me my first year on the job would be like getting a Master’s degree in marketing. He was spot-on – it was a fascinating experience to learn from him.
On a personal note, meeting Robert Swan and being a part of his South Pole expedition, taught me a lot. He challenged me to challenge myself – to take a hard look at what I do – as an individual, as a citizen, and within my company. Anyone can impact change.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Manion contributed to this leadership profile.
Chris Powell describes his journey from being a self-described ‘spectator’ with no clear path in life to participating in the South Pole Energy Challenge in January 2018.