“Keynote: Navigating Change & Uncertainty”: Raji Subramanian and Merav Bloch with Opendoor (Video + Transcript)

March 25, 2024

Raji Subramanian (Opendoor Chief Technology Officer) will share tips for navigating uncertainty and the corporate change that follows suit. She’ll share how she led her team with three key tactics in mind – innovation, optionality, and adaptability – while discussing the importance of maintaining a positive and inclusive mindset, even during difficult times. Learn how to unlock value for customers and rally behind their cause, the importance of finding the right balance between cost efficiencies and innovation in an uncertain climate (all while keeping customer centricity), how to turn adversity and failures into opportunity (while thinking long-term, being patient and embracing hard-core problem-solving), and more gems of wisdom, as moderated by Merav Bloch (Opendoor Vice President & General Manager of Opendoor Exclusives).


In this fireside chat, Merav Bloch (VP and General Manager at Opendoor) interviews Raji Subramanian (Chief Technology Officer at Opendoor) on the topic of navigating change and uncertainty. Raji shares her leadership philosophy and offers advice for job seekers and career builders by emphasizing the importance of passion, purpose, and working with people you can learn from.

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Raji Subramanian ELEVATE quote important to focus and understand the visible results you are creating

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Merav Bloch:

Hi, everybody. Happy International Women’s Day and thank you so much for joining us for this fireside chat with Raji on the topic of navigating change and uncertainty. My name is Merav Bloch. I’m a VP and general manager here at Opendoor. I get the pleasure of working with Raji all year, not just on International Women’s Day. The product my team is building is an online marketplace that connects buyers and sellers directly to transact on houses without the pressure and hassle of the traditional model.

I’m going to let Raji introduce herself in a minute and then we’ll transition to some Q&A. We should have some time for your questions as well. We’ve got about 30 minutes together, so if you have questions either now or as the discussion progresses, please throw them in either the Q&A tab or in the chat here and I’ll try and keep tabs on them. I’m going to hand off to Raji to introduce yourself.

Raji Subramanian:

Thank you Merav, Angie, and Sukrutha. Very excited to be here. As both Merav and Angie mentioned and shared, I’m the Chief Technology Officer here at Opendoor. And what I do here is to lead a team that’s modernizing the residential real estate industry. We are digitizing every aspect of the experience as well as building the real estate e-commerce platform of the future. With that said, Merav, I know you wanted to share a little bit more about what we do, and would love to get into Q&A after that.

Merav Bloch:

Great. Our topic today is navigating change and uncertainty, and I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody on this call that that is the environment we’re operating in today.

Just to set the stage for some of the topics we’ll be digging into in this discussion, this particular moment of uncertainty and disruption is, I think, driven by two things in particular. One is the economy and this once in 40 year shift in interest rates that we’ve been experiencing in the last 18 months from a zero interest rate policy or what we’re now calling ZIRP, to where we sit today with the Fed having hiked interest rates pretty aggressively. And that is, those are actions that are having ripple effects across sectors, across industries, and of course anything that impacts our working lives impacts our personal lives as well.

The second thing that has been informing this moment is this rapid acceleration of AI, artificial intelligence, that we’ve been witnessing again over that same period. And so I give you that context to share a little bit about why this topic is particularly close to mine and Raji’s hearts. We are a technology company at Opendoor, and like all technology companies, we have been staring at the opportunities created by AI and how we think about serving our customers.

We also operate in the real estate industry, and those of us in the real estate industry have been particularly aware of this once in 40 year interest rate shift because it’s having a very immediate effect in how our customers, buyers, and sellers are experiencing the world. For buyers of real estate, interest rates place a lot of pressure on affordability. For sellers, they often have the benefit of a locked in interest rate, but that has the flip side impact of really raising the bar on the decision to move, right? How sellers are sitting there thinking, how much do I need that extra bedroom, and is it worth giving up my locked in two or 3% interest rate? So interest rates having a very, very immediate effect on how our customers are experiencing well.

So as executives, leaders at a technology company as well as in the real estate industry, this is a topic that’s particularly close to our hearts. So with that context, Raji, I’m curious if you can speak to how you’ve been experiencing that uncertainty. You joined Opendoor as CTO in September ’22, if I’ve got that date correct, and that’s right on the tail of a global pandemic, right ahead of these interest rates shift. And I’m curious how you experienced the last 18 months and maybe some high level thoughts on how you’ve navigated them.

Raji Subramanian:

As you accurately called out, the interest rates have had an outsized impact very specifically on the real estate industry, and at its core it’s about affordability for both our customers who are looking to sell as well as buy their homes.

What interest rates have done for the buyer is as you look at a home that you want to buy, if you have a certain budget and can buy a home of a certain value, you need potentially to pay double your monthly payment to just be able to bridge where the interest rates are today versus where they were two, three years back, not that far off. So at its core it’s a question of what can you afford right now and what do you want?

And on the sell side, we have an interesting dynamic in the real estate industry. In the real estate industry, sellers are also buyers, so the customer base is interconnected. Demand and supply are very interconnected. Many of the sellers are looking to sell and potentially upgrade their homes have potentially bought their homes at a lower interest rate, which means that if they have to buy a home right now, they have to pay that much more and the question is can they afford it?

The second aspect, which adds a double whammy in the sell side of the equation is that over the last 18 months specifically, home prices have not appreciated as much as if they’ve appreciated in the past. And so that appreciation has not happened to the extent that can buffer the interest rate increase. And so there’s a cyclical effect which keeps demand and supply at a historical low level at this point of time.

With that said, the question is what have we done at Opendoor? And as all of us know, necessity is often the mother of invention, so we had to quickly adapt to this macroeconomic climate and we did this by doing three things.

The first is focus, and the focus has been on the fundamental business model and getting it to work across a range of macroeconomic scenarios, and that was vital for us. In fact, it made us stronger and we’re coming out strong through that journey.

The second as we’ve navigated through this macroeconomic shift is we looked at levers that we can control and did everything that we could to go ahead and make sure that those levers worked across these different shifts that were happening. That, in many ways, shifts the power back to the business, because if you can control your input metrics, your output metrics will follow.

And the third thing which is vital as we went ahead and did this, was to make sure that the customer value proposition continued to remain strong. What do you do in terms of your business model? We need to continue serving the customers.

As we look at this uncertain macroeconomic climate, I looked at four different things to help us navigate through that. It’s focus, innovation, optionality, and adaptability. Focus as we talked about is getting back to the core. It is about the fundamentals of the business and usually when you are in a volatile situation, it kind of pushes your model to go ahead and evolve and evolve quickly, and that’s what we did. And focus helps there. Doing few things, more often than not can be really good if you’re doing the right things.

The second is that while you are focused, it’s also important to continue to innovate. And we have to continue to build those differentiated customer experiences and add that must-have value proposition. For example, Merav, you are working on one of the key innovations which is building out the marketplace for Opendoor and you cannot stop doing that because innovation is no longer a nice to have, but a necessity today. Only companies that continue to innovate and deploy that continuous innovation will thrive and survive in today’s scenario.

The third as leaders is also to make sure that we are building optionality. Optionality is looking at all of the strengths that we have as well as the opportunities that we have and to continue to create new lines of businesses so that you can diversify and economy-proof. In some ways there is a balance between focus and optionality that you build. And more importantly from an execution perspective, it is important to make sure that we are adaptable and we can adapt fast because companies that can adapt fast in this fast changing world will ride the wave while companies that don’t will really drown in there.

Merav Bloch:

So focus, innovation, optionality, adaptability. I think that’s such a good prescription for the tech industry in general and in particular in this moment of uncertainty. And just to underscore that point about adaptability, it reminded me of one of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a coworker. He said, “To survive in the tech industry, survive and thrive in the tech industry, the thing you got to remember is if you’re working in startups and you love your job, wait five minutes. If you hate your job, wait five minutes, right?” You have to be adaptable. It’s the name of the game and I think it’s so important in particular in this moment.

You talked about building customer value and building differentiated products for customers. And as you were talking, it struck me that really as it relates to product development and meeting the needs of customers, two things have changed in the last 18 months. One is the needs of customers and how they are experiencing the world, and you spoke to some of that with respect to sellers and buyers, but the other thing that’s changed is the tools we have at our disposal to meet those customer needs, those changing customer needs. So I’m curious for you to speak to that in particular, how we’ve thought about or how you have thought about product development in this time of changing customer needs, and AI as an incremental tool to meet those needs.

Raji Subramanian:

In fact, we are, I would say, in one of the most innovative and transformative times in the world. The magnitude of the change that we are going through, especially with AI, could be as big, if not bigger, than I think the internet revolution, what happened with the digital revolution as well. In smaller circles, some of the talk that’s happening is as this intelligence grows, it could be as big as the industrial revolution if not bigger. It is that transmitter of the times that we are in and it’s going to change completely how we serve customers. Customers now from… If you go back into the past and look at any time in the past, they’re going to be going through a sense of abundance. We are in a phase of customer abundance in ways that we’ve never seen before. That abundance is going to come in the form of highly personalized teachers, doctors, therapists, financial advisors, and much more. And AI is going to enable us to do that. I call it enabling automated intimacy or personalized intimacy in ways that really work.

And so the question is how do we enable our products to embrace that automated intimacy and the intelligence that AI can provide to put customers at the center of the ecosystem, feel and act and enable them? Technology has always been able to listen and solve for our customers. AI will enable products to feel and act on the customer’s behalf.

And at an Opendoor, Merav, you are very familiar with this. We’ve been investing heavily in AI, and we are looking at how AI can transform the customer experience. And some ways in which we’re doing that is we are making sure that our customers have highly personalized 24 by seven AI driven experience partners, but at the same point of time with the ability to switch to a human at the click of a button, and we are enabling our humans and experienced partners with AI copilot so that AI copilot so that they can serve our customers best.

The second aspect is AI, as I called out, is also going to personalize products. If you look at homes, homes are actually very, very personal for people. But if you look at the experience today, it’s still very commoditized in terms of how you go through the journey of discovery. And what we are going to see is highly personalized experiences in terms of how homeowners discover their next home. So we are just about starting and there’s a lot more that we are doing.

Merav Bloch:

Thanks for that, Raji. And I’ve noticed we’ve gotten our first question in the Q&A tab, so another PSA to anyone on the call who has questions for Raji, please throw them in there or in the chat and we’ll get some time for audience questions at the end.

Angie mentioned at the top of the call that there are people here at all different stages of their careers, and I imagine there are a number of people here in management team leadership roles who are thinking about leading teams in this moment of change and uncertainty. I’m curious if you can reflect on how you’ve thought about leading people, leading teams in this moment. What leadership philosophies have you evolved, leaned on, changed as you’ve gone through that journey?

Raji Subramanian:

Yeah. My personal leadership philosophy is to create value and care deeply about our customers, employees and shareholders. If we fail one, we fail all. And I cannot repeat if we fail one, we literally fail all. It’s that important. And I use five operating principles to live by this personal leadership philosophy.

The first is to create long-term value over short-term gain. And one way of doing that is to continuously obsess about the customer. And we can obsess about the customer if you’re willing to think big and to innovate. To do that, we’ll have to have a beginner mindset, and as we are innovating and thinking big, we have to tread with courage. The treading with courage is super important and the ability to embrace failure. That collectively will help us create long-term value.

The second operating principle is about bringing clarity and reducing confusion. As leaders, it is a responsibility to create and engage and ensure that the team has a shared understanding. It’s very easy for teams to go out of alignment and very specifically in uncertain and ambiguous situations. It’s about bringing that shared understanding, because once you have a shared understanding, you can enable the teams to make high quality, high velocity decisions and they can define a course of action.

The third is to own trust by being trustworthy. And I believe and aspire to be trustworthy because trust is an output of being trustworthy, and the way I do that is by being honest, competent, and reliable, and there’s no easy way to it. You have to be honest, competent, and reliable. You also have to be holistic in what you do. You have to be rigorous, and you have to avoid affinity bias.

And the last thing is to be vocally self-critical. That’s kind of vital. As a leader, you’ve got to be vocally self-critical because if you’re vocally self-critical, then what you do is you can make hard decisions as well as have the hard discussions and foster culture where the team can have hard discussions, ask you the hard questions, as well as make hard decisions.

The fourth is to generate energy, lead with passion and enthusiasm and conviction. And that kind of helps inspire performance with purpose. I think it is vital as leaders to anchor on purpose, because everything else will follow The why matters. And once you have the right purpose, it’s what creating the right climate, which is both the soft climate and hard climate because that creating the soft and the hard climate will empower and enable your team.

The last is, and it’s one of the most important things, is to actually deliver success despite odds, I would say most odds. And in fact some of the hardest things, we’ll have odds along the way and we have to figure out how to deliver that success. And in some ways we can do that by doing stuff that matters and not being wedded to only your idea, but be seeking boundary-less solutions and be in tune with the details. It is about thinking, solving, problem solving, and finding the way.

Merav Bloch:

Raji, there’s a question here in the chat that I’m going to pull out here, because I think it’s highly relevant to what you’ve just talked about. And the person here asks about leading a team after a layoff. She describes here that after a layoff, the team can be down and struggling. Do you have any advice for leaders who might be pulling teams together after a reduction in force?

Raji Subramanian:

Yes, I think I’m sure many of the folks here on the call would’ve had an experience similar to that. Again, especially in today’s climate, and I think it comes down to a few things. If you go back and look at the leadership philosophy that I talked about, it is about making sure that we take care of our customers, employees and shareholders. And especially during a layoff, the why matters the most. Why are we doing this? That is one. And I think it’s kind of important to make sure that leadership down, everyone is aligned and understand why we are doing this and why it is important for all three stakeholders, customers, employees, and shareholders. Because if you fail one of them, again, you fail all. And if you anchor the why around that, I think there is an understanding that you create within the organization. So that’s the first part of it.

And the second part of it as we go back and look at as coming out of that layoff is that we’ve got to set the right vision as we look forward in terms of, okay, now what? How are we going to go through this tough journey? And what is our plan to come out stronger? It’s not just about reacting and doing a layoff, but to have a clear plan on what are we going to do to get this business back to the right stage or step or to ensure that it’s at the right size. And that’s kind of where you have to bring the leaders to the table, define the plan, define the journey, and make sure that you’re taking the time to communicate that to the team. That’s the second piece.

The third for me is a very, very personally important one is to take accountability as a leader, because when we are doing a layoff, it is also on the leadership to look back, be vocally self-critical in terms of what we would’ve done differently and be vulnerable and share that with the team. So taking accountability and being vocally self-critical is the third piece to this. That along with taking the responsibility to take the company through the journey of coming out stronger is what gets us there. This is going to take time, it is going to take energy, and we as leaders need to do this and go through this journey both with vision and conviction on the one hand and empathy on the other.

Merav Bloch:

Thanks Raji, and I love how you’ve reframed the goal there as well. Coming out of one of these events, the goal shouldn’t only be to recover and regain the prior baseline, but to come out stronger with some of the mechanisms that you’ve described, communication, truly reinforcing the why, building trust, accountability.

So please continue to ask questions in the chat and I’ll take them either in flow or at the end.

I’m going to take us to leading and operating in a time of austerity. One other very obvious feature of this post-ZIRP era is that there is increased pressure on companies to deliver profitability at the same time. We are in the business of innovation, and you spoke to this earlier. The great companies are the ones that build innovative products and meet the needs of customers like no one else. So I’m curious for you to reflect, Raji, on how you’ve thought about balancing innovation, cost discipline, and finding that right balance in particular in an uncertain climate.

Raji Subramanian:

As leaders, we face this decision on a daily basis. In fact, it is more the rule rather than the exception today. And in the current macroeconomic climate, balancing the need between innovation and profitability is a rule book that we potentially have to build on a continuous basis. Again, I don’t see that going away. It’s the balance that we’ll have to constantly and consistently do.

I’m reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein and it’s one of my favorite quotes, and again, many people have said this quote in different ways, but it is, “That in the midst of every crisis, there is also an opportunity.” And as a leader, it is that opportunity that excites me. What that does also is it also gives you a sense of clarity. Adversity makes you super clear in terms of what matters. And as you’re looking at innovation as well as profitability, what matters always starts and ends with the customer.

In fact, it is one of Opendoor’s operating principles and values that we live by on a daily basis. So if you go back and look at that, and if you start with that, there are many frameworks that you can use, but the two that I lean on quite a bit. The first as you’re balancing innovation and profitability is to be able to work backwards as well as work forward. You’ve probably heard work backwards, but again, if you think about working backwards, it is to have a north star, understand what are the long-term outcomes that we are looking to achieve because innovation helps us get there as well as profitability because you need cash profit to be able to get there. But we have to do that in such a way that we assess where we are and work forward so that we call the steps to that north star. That’s why I calling it both the working backwards as well as the working forwards.

For example, Merav, you are familiar with this. While we were building our AI strategy, we looked at what is the goal or the outcome that AI can help us achieve and how it’s going to disrupt the real estate industry in three, five, or seven years. And then we worked forward from where we are today to build a quarter over quarter plan, and that’s kind of what makes the difference, because it is giving you the steps to the vision that you’re building.

The second is a very important one, but it’s a very subtle one, but it’s a very widely important one. Companies typically operate in three phases, and all three phases probably at the same point of time. And the three phases that I call it are the invent, implement, and optimize phase. Every company starts off with invent phase. There’s a nugget of an idea. Everyone is scrappily trying to figure out product market fit, what works, and build a viable product around it. And then we start scaling at which point of time we move to the implement phase for that business line of product where we are building the foundations needed to operate that particular business at scale. Once it reaches a certain scale, there is still a lot more white space to conquer after that and companies are now optimizing that particular core business to start gaining more market share, continuing to serve those customers and continuing to realize value for the business.

Now, the reason I call out that there are three different phases is because each of these three phases operate in very different ways. So typically when you are doing the optimize of a current business, you’ve got to run fast circles. You’ve got to be able to deliver quarter over quarter value that continues to make that business profitable.

While when you’re doing implement, it’s a little bit more long form. You’re probably planning for 12 months, 18 months and taking that forward. And most importantly, innovation takes three to five years. Merav, you are in a seat of innovation right now. You know it’s going to take three to five years and most people forget that. They think it’s going to happen in two months. That’s not how it works. And so once you acknowledge that you have three phases, then what you do is you build an investment strategy that actually anchors in each of these three phases differently. You acknowledge that, okay, these are the things I’m going to do in the invent phase, these are the things I’m going to do in the optimize phase, and then you build your plan based on that. The most important thing though is while building your investment strategy and deciding how much you want to invest with, what percent you want to invest with, we need to be ROI driven. We need to understand the impact of the investments that we are making, both in the short as well as the long term. Because as we all know, a process without measurement is destined for failure. And an investment strategy that does not understand the impact, well, you’ll have to depend on luck for it to succeed.

Merav Bloch:

Raji, count me among the fans, and it looks like there’s a few in the chat of that Einstein quote. “In the midst of every crisis, there’s an opportunity,” and how true that is.

We’re getting close on time. I’m going to go to the top voted question in the Q&A tab, which is actually similar to a question I had for you, Raji, and it’s about building a career. What career advice you have for job seekers looking to build products in tech and crafting a career path during this time of uncertainty. I’m particularly excited for the audience to hear from you. You come to this conversation as a serial founder, as an executive at Fortune 500 companies, so I’m curious what advice you have for the job seekers and career builders on the call.

Raji Subramanian:

Yeah, and again, many of you on this call are probably at different stages of our career, and so the first thing that I’ll call out is step one to that is to really look at what’s the value that you’re creating, what’s the game changing value that you’re creating? Are you doing something that will really transform the world, is meaningful to you, and meaningful to the quality of life of whether it’s a hundred people, thousands of people, millions of people? So it’s kind of important to look at your passion and intersect that with purpose and that purpose, is that meaningful enough for you as well as in the world?

Now, it’s interesting when I call that out because it’s a more conscious decision of deciding what you do, and there’s a third piece to this puzzle. And when you’re early in your career as well as even in later in your career, it is important to work with people that you can learn from. I call it the three P framework, passion, purpose, as well as people.

The second thing that I’d kind of call out, as you are growing in your career and taking on more and more leadership roles as well as even as an individual contributor, it’s important to focus and understand the visible results that you’re creating. We as women tend to be very holistic in what we do. We can take on a lot of horizontal things in terms of what we do, but how are you able to measure those results? Because if you can measure those results, they become visible results, whether that’s horizontal or vertical.

I would focus on making sure that you look at what visible results that you created and be very conscious. Do a check every year to see what visible results you created that year.

The third is kind of what I would call as working backwards from your aspirations. Where do you want to be? What is the change that you want to bring in this world? What is the impact that you want to create in this world? And then working backwards from that in terms of what’s your plan to reaching that? And so that’s the third thing that I would do.

And the last piece I would call out, and this is something that’s helped me massively, and there’s one last, but then this is the penultimate one is to have mentors who challenge the status quo. Look for mentors, and this is something that I’d say, look for mentors who are not therapists. Look for mentors who are going to kick your butt and make you better every day because they will grow and move you through your blind spots. Mentors need to make you uncomfortable and keep pushing you to grow.

And the last one I’ll say is be your authentic self. Always be your authentic self.

Merav Bloch:

I love that. And it’s so authentic and true what you say, Raji, about women in particular being at risk of succeeding invisibly and that push to focus on visible achievements and visible results. Thank you so much for that, Raji.

I think we have time for one more question, so I’m going to close us out on turning failure into opportunity. We have people in this moment, people on this call facing very genuine hardship in their personal lives. We had a story here in the chat of somebody who just had an offer withdrawn yesterday. That’s very, very stressful. People have gone through layoffs. What advice do you have for people going through those kinds of hardship and in particular, what are your reflections as a founder, as an executive on turning failure, crisis into opportunities?

Raji Subramanian:

Yeah, in fact, again, there is a saying which kind of says that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. And especially when you look at success that’s meaningful, that’s differentiated, and that it creates that step function impact. Again, it’s very hard to do that without failure, because if that was the case, then everyone will be successful. Every success would be easy and it’s no longer a differentiated success. And so it’s important to understand that they kind of go together, because there’s a resilience that is needed as you’re going back and looking at it.

And so with that said, then the question comes down to how do you turn those failures into opportunities? And this is kind of where a growth mindset plays a very big role. It is about applying that growth mindset so that you can learn from every failure. In fact, one of the products that I built, I had to pull my hair out. We actually had to go through 16 versions over a year before even we got a signal that this could be successful. But today, it’s one of the biggest businesses that we see in this world, a product that all of us use.

The second part to this is in many ways, if the success that you’re going after is a moonshot, then remember that every failure that you encounter and you cross, you’re building a moat. It’s hard to see that, but you are building a moat.

The third piece and the fourth piece are kind of counterintuitive, but they kind of go along with each other like being two sides of the same coin. The first is you have to fail often and then fail fast. Again, we, especially as women, as we go back and look at it on the one hand, as we are kind of gritting through it, we also need to make sure that we are not getting too attached to a failed idea, but we are applying that rigorous thinking and decide when to move on. And it’s okay to tell ourselves that it’s okay to move on. Because sometimes we are that hard on ourselves, and that is kind of vital.

And on the other hand, it is also to have conviction. Sometimes it’s okay to dig your heels and say, “I have conviction on this and I’m going to stick with it, because there are still a lot of false positives and false negatives that we are seeing. But I still believe, and I will be able to find the way to take us through.” But again, you have to use fail fast and fail often along with making sure that you’re sticking with things.

That would be my guidance, but at the end of the day, I’ll kind of say that it is kind of important to understand what motivates you, what drives you, and index on that, and continue to find a way to remove the obstacles and build a network of friends, mentors who can help you find a way to break through those barriers.

Merav Bloch:

Thank you, Raji. And what a good reminder at the end to re-anchor to your purpose, right? If you’re going to grit through 16, was it 16, versions of a product? It’s worth reminding yourself and your team why you’re doing that. So I think we’re up on time here.

Angie, thank you for having us. Raji, thank you so much for the wisdom and insights today and, in my case, every day. And thank you everybody for the engagement and questions.

Angie Chang:

Yes, thank you so much for those gems of wisdom that you’ve shared with women around the world on International Women’s Day. See you in the next…

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