Ilene Chen is the Corporate Development Lead at Zendesk, a customer service software company, where she focuses on mergers & acquisitions. In this role, she identifies acquisition opportunities through staying up to date on industry and competitor news, understanding Zendesk’s current product set and product gaps, and researching and meeting with companies. Prior to that, she was the Business Development & Operations Manager at Kyruus, a start-up for health system provider data management and scheduling, and worked in Product for Institutional Sales at Blackrock. Ilene graduated from Duke University in 2015 with a B.S. in Economics. During her undergraduate career, in addition to being in BOW, she completed nonprofit grant research in global health and economics, was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, and participated in DukeEngage Guatemala, in addition to other activities. Ilene currently resides in San Francisco.
Why did you join BOW, and how did it shape your career plans?
I joined BOW my sophomore year after several close friends spoke highly of the organization. I entered Duke not thinking I would go into business, and joining the organization was honestly the best decision I made professionally in school. BOW taught me about different career paths I could explore, how to present myself professionally in the workplace, and a host of other skills. More importantly, however, BOW introduced me to a supportive, driven group of successful women, many of whom I view as lifelong mentors and close friends.
Did your career interests change at all at Duke? What advice do you have for members who are unsure about what they want to pursue after graduation?
Absolutely. I entered Duke pre-med and quickly realized that practicing medicine was not something I was interested in. I would highly recommend connecting with upperclassmen or BOW alums in careers you are curious about to have informational interviews and learn about the pros and cons of their jobs. I would also suggest having multiple internships (during the school year and over summer) to test out different industries and job types. Having defined start and end dates really allow you to “taste test”, which is more challenging once you enter the full-time working world.
Can you talk about your interest in global health, and how it played a role in your career and/or your time at Duke?
I have always wanted to have my job be something that helps people in a tangible way, and having come into Duke pre-med, I naturally associated the healthcare industry with that objective. I was a member of the Global Health FOCUS program my freshman fall and thoroughly enjoyed my small group seminar classes, one on the global obesity epidemic, and the other on international law and global health. I also spent a summer interning at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. through a Duke University grant researching economic and global health implications of immigration, and spent the following summer participating in DukeEngage Guatemala, where we worked with local entrepreneurs to launch their business ventures. After graduation, I spent a couple of years at BlackRock in New York, where I focused a lot of my time on impact investing, then went to a healthcare startup in Boston. I am currently not working in healthcare, but still adhere strongly to my goal of doing something that helps people in a very tangible way (customer service is the heart of Zendesk, and the end user experience is core to all that we do!). I don’t see that ever changing.
Can you compare and contrast what it is like working for a large institution versus a start-up? What are the pros and cons of both?
I feel a bit like Goldilocks, having worked at a 12,000+ person company, followed by a 100 person startup, and now at a 2,500 person publicly traded company that still in many ways feels like a startup. Out of college, I really enjoyed joining a large institution that gave me proper training and structure. BlackRock also has a massive global network and reputation, and I enjoyed learning top-down how a large company is structured and run during my time there. At the healthcare startup, I enjoyed learning bottoms-up how a small company is built, which was an important objective of mine going into my next job. Being able to wear multiple hats and figure things out along the way were huge pros for me. Of course, large companies can make one feel like a small cog in a big wheel, and small companies can have too little structure and training for some. Now at Zendesk, I get to enjoy the pros of working at an exciting, meritocratic, high-growth company with both a strong reputation and product.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you have received?
Trust yourself and take the leap of faith. I think it is very easy to look around at what your peers are doing and feel enticed to follow suit, particularly right out of college. Graduating and entering the “real world” is the first time when your future is not clearly mapped out, and that can feel paralyzing. Just know that your first job will likely not be your last job, and you have the power to shape your future.
For me, I grappled with the thought of staying in traditional finance long-term and was eager to work in an operating role at a startup, even though this meant less structure and more instability. Taking the risk was something that felt right at the time. Similarly, I was drawn to my current role in corporate development and decided to take the leap and join Zendesk. I do not have a clear idea of the path my career will take long term, but I trust that I will make the right choices and not let fear or complacency drive my decision-making.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
At my last company, I joined the business planning and operations team (a team of one), reporting to our CFO/COO. Two months into the job, my manager left the company, and we went six months without a CFO/COO. Having never done the job before, I had to learn a lot in a very short amount of time with little guidance. We ended up raising three rounds of funding across debt and equity in that time, and we hired a CFO later that year. I really appreciate the experience and what it taught me about my own capacity and ability to learn and fail. One of my close friends who originally introduced me to the company was an immense source of help and support, along with my family and other close friends.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I recently moved to San Francisco, so a lot of my time has been spent exploring the city! On weekends, I enjoy going for walks and hikes around the city, trying new restaurants, reading, and spending time with my sister and friends. I also love to work out (high intensity interval training classes are my favorite), and I recently signed up for group exercise instructor certification, so I am excited to study for the exam.