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‘Embrace and drive change’

‘Embrace and drive change’

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Since 2008, Collibra, a data intelligence company, has been uniting organisations by delivering trusted data for every use, for every user and across every source. Stijn Christiaens, Founder and Chief Data Citizen of Collibra, talks to us about the growth of the enterprise, his management philosophy, Collibra’s key values and the clients they serve.

Tell us a bit more about your business and how it started.

Collibra’s story started when we were students and researchers at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium. Our research was around semantic technology or the field for helping computers understand and report the meaning of data. We were able to extend that idea to develop software that ultimately became very relevant due to the 2008 financial crisis when global banks needed to better understand what data they had in their organisations and how it was being used. That was when we were first able to bring on some big names as customers.

In the years since, we’ve expanded to build a data intelligence platform that serves as a system of engagement for data teams, allowing them to find, organise, govern, trust and understand the massive volumes of data they have.

How has the business grown since it started and how did you ensure growth?

When we founded Collibra we were coming into this with an academic research background, but we were also really inspired by the companies that were getting big in Silicon Valley. We wanted to see if we could achieve something in Belgium like what was happening in the US.

Our first step internationally was working with customers in London, but early on it was clear that the biggest opportunity was going to be the US market. By 2014, many of our customers were large US-based financial institutions, so doubling down on the US was the right next step. It’s important when you’re building a business to be mindful of where the market opportunity exists and ensure you’re expanding your business thoughtfully. Fast forward to today, and Collibra is truly a global company.

What’s the business’ approach to management?

One of our core values is ‘embrace and drive change,’ and I think that mindset has been an important factor in our success. As a founder, I’ve had many different roles at Collibra, and I know firsthand that in a high-growth environment the only constant is change. Embracing each shift, learning on the job and adapting to how your role grows and evolves is critical. The growth of the business depends on the growth of the people.

What is your company’s vision and goal?

Collibra is a single system of engagement that unifies all an organisation’s data processes. Think about what Salesforce is for the sales organisation or Workday is for HR – Collibra provides for the data asset. Just like you might shop for a product on Amazon, read reviews and ensure you’re getting the right item for your needs, we help you easily shop for the data you need to do your job. Our vision is all about ease of use and simplifying and streamlining data.

What kind of clients and markets do you serve?

We initially found our product-market fit in financial services, but today we have customers in every industry including retail, manufacturing, healthcare, telecommunications, transportation, public sector and more. The complexity around managing data is only increasing and every organisation needs data intelligence.

What has your career looked like so far?

As a founder, I’ve worn a lot of hats at Collibra from the very beginning, including product, sales, partnerships and research. As the company has grown, systems and processes become important and we identified a need to prioritise it. This is something many of our customers have experienced as they scale as well. Over time my role has evolved to leading Collibra’s own data office and that’s where my title as Collibra’s Chief Data Citizens comes in.

We help our customers build out their own data offices and we are also building our own using our technology. We’re very hands-on and we learn in this process just like our customers do.

I’m focused on Collibra’s overall data strategy, our data products and data infrastructure, and translating our internal learnings into value for our customers and partners. I call the strategy ‘Data Office 2025’ or planning for what the data office of the future will look like.

How do you equip your staff with skills and knowledge?

Every business wants to be a digital business today. But to make that happen, you must start with building a strong data culture. When you think about how every organisation manages their money, it’s important that it’s not just the CFO or the finance team that cares about the budget.

It should be the same for the data asset. It can’t just be the data team that understands your data tools and data processes; it’s everyone’s job to ensure that your data is accessible, trusted, properly governed and compliant. At Collibra, we’ve invested in both building data literacy within our organisation and supporting our customers as they build data literacy efforts within their teams.

It’s a win-win to invest in your data culture. Businesses with a strong data culture are ahead of everyone else. A strong data culture means that teams can move fast, quickly make important decisions based on data and trust that the data is accurate. Data culture, ultimately, impacts every aspect of the business, from everyday decisions to your ability to innovate with technology like AI and Machine Learning, which is what everyone needs to be able to do to stay ahead.

How do you work with other executives within the C-suite to make sure your voice is heard?

We’re a data-driven company at our core and our leadership team understands firsthand how data impacts every part of the business. Like every company, the past few years compelled us to be even more digitally minded and that is an important cross-functional effort. Over the past year we’ve spent a lot of resources in getting our business to be even more digital-first. That means updated business processes, as well as servicing our customers with data products.

Each executive has their own use cases where data is crucial: some are more focused on building value, others on efficiency and still others on compliance (e.g., privacy). The key is to identify those use cases, their associated data requirements and then to collaborate with the executives and their teams to drive progress.

How do you ensure different teams in your organisation work together?

Like so many other businesses, we shifted our teams to remote work over the last two years and have learned on the job how to build collaboration and strong ties in a remote environment. Another one of our core values is to be ‘open, direct, and kind’. It’s something we strive for always, but it is even more important during this time.

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