"Never Money" with Austin's Favorite CMO


Coffee & Coin is an event series where we interview inspiring, badass women about their finances. The past few have been hosted in partnership with Capital One, who are huge supporters of empowering women through financial literacy.

This Saturday, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Ellen Dugan, CMO at WP Engine (one of Austin’s hottest startups).

The entire room had goosebumps as she shared some of her best nuggets of wisdom about climbing the corporate ladder, planning for the future, and advocating for yourself as a woman in the workplace.

We recapped some of our favorite answers of hers below in case you couldn’t make it. If you’re in Austin, join us at October’s Coffee & Coin with Capital One. It’s gonna be a goodie!

How do you evaluate risk, like working at a new a start-up?

Start-up culture is exciting, but here’s a cold fact: .04% of startups ever make $100 million dollars. My advice to people is to make sure you trust the leadership. At WP Engine, I had 15 interviews, during which I came to totally trust the leadership team.

It probably doesn’t hurt that 60% of our executive team are women.

Equity can be attractive, but make sure that you’re getting the salary you can live on day-to-day.

Speaking of start-ups, you’ve taken pay cuts a few times in your career. How did you make those decisions, and how did that play out for you in the long term? 

I’ve taken a 20% pay cut three times in my career.

One of those times was right after 9/11. I was out of a job for a year after that. When I ultimately got an offer, it was way less than what I was making before. But I really needed a job. I ended up spending 3 years there and had a child during that time. By the time those 3 years were up, my salary was back to where it had started. And if I hadn’t taken that job, I never would’ve gotten to my next job, which led to me to Dell, which led me to Indeed, which led me to where I am today.

I’m not of the belief that every career move has to have a higher salary, but you need to be conscious of your why. I knew that CMO was something I always wanted to do, so I made short-term sacrifices for my long-term goals.

Sometimes, you take a step back to go forward.

Clearly, you’re a top performer in every job you’ve had. How did you excel in a corporate setting? Any advice?

I think one of the best ways to confront difficult situations is to not confuse emotion with passion. I remember at Dell, I had to lay off a few people at one time and I stood in the front of the room and choked up. Afterwards, two guys thanked me for showing emotion at work, especially in light of the unfortunate circumstances.

People always say it’s not personal in business, and I say that’s ridiculous. If it’s not personal for me, I shouldn’t be your executive. I spend at least 40 hours/week here and that is part of the package you’re going to get with me. 

Competitiveness is not defined by gender. If you’re competitive and you want to get ahead, you can.
— Mary Ellen Dugan

What does financial freedom mean to you?

I see it as having two definitions. It can either give you peace of mind or give you access to change a piece of the world. The latter is also known as “Never Money,”a concept I learned from Duke’s basketball coach. “Never money” means having so much money you’d never be able to spend it in your lifetime. It’s the kind that gives you the access and the ability to make big changes in the world you want to see. If I had “Never Money,” I’d be donating a large portion to the Susan G. Komen foundation to help end breast cancer.

The kind of wealth I’ve created allows me to have serenity and confidence knowing that I’m all good regardless of my day-to-day purchases. If I walk down the street and I want to buy a nice pair of shoes or go for a nice dinner, I can do it, with zero stress. And that means a great deal to me.

What are the biggest financial lessons you’ve learned in your career? Any advice or regrets?

If you’re not in finance or you don’t have that exposure, find someone in the company who is and get to understand how the company makes money—and what direction the company is going in. You don’t have to get an MBA to do that.

Oh and business is personal. And that’s ok.

Allegra Brantly