When Mia Panzer, ’15, was pregnant with her son three years ago, she nearly passed up the opportunity to interview for the head of finance at CARMERA, then a technology startup based in New York and Seattle that built maps for autonomous vehicles and other advanced driving applications. She explained to CEO Ro Gupta that she didn’t think the timing was right.
She was surprised when he responded with enthusiasm: “You can help us build out our parental-leave program and help attract even more parents to work here.”
The conversation encouraged Panzer to join CARMERA in 2019 and to develop what she calls a “people-centric approach” to finance. The company brought finance and operations together under her leadership, allowing the combined team to seamlessly address the impact of financial decisions on CARMERA’s more than 50 employees.
“I love listening to founders and leaders, and using finance as a tool for strategic decision-making,” Panzer says. “And a lot of these decisions came down to things that impacted people.”
In weekly meetings, the new FinOps team could quickly assess how decisions about allocating resources would align with employee needs. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the group designed a “flex perks” program to give employees a budget that they could spend as they liked to make working from home easier. For one employee, that might be home gym equipment; another might need a new tech setup. “Our flex perks program was designed to optimize both productivity and well-being,” Panzer says.
By combining their expertise in human resources and finance, the FinOps group made smarter, faster decisions that reflected employee priorities and improved financial forecasting.
“If you invest in people, they’ll work hard, you’ll minimize turnover, and you won’t have to spend to rehire, onboard, and train new talent,” Panzer says.
She is passionate about using her position to help other women amplify their voices at work. CARMERA’s twice-yearly engagement surveys help her understand the challenges her female colleagues and employees face. One clear example: as COVID-19 forced meetings onto Zoom, some women said it was difficult to find opportunities to jump in during large calls and speak up. Now, CARMERA’s management specifically encourages a “pass the mic” culture, which is aided by tools such as Zoom’s chat function and “raise hand” feature that make meetings more equitable.
“If you invest in people, they’ll work hard, you’ll minimize turnover, and you won’t have to spend to rehire, onboard, and train new talent.”
Panzer grew up in the auto industry; her father ran an auto-parts chain that had been in the family for generations. Her first job was stocking spark plugs. But it was her Booth education that gave her the skills and confidence not only to take on a leadership role, but to advocate for her employees. “When you tell people you went to Booth, there is a sense of credibility just by association,” she says. “There’s a sense of analytical rigor. That has been really helpful, especially as a female.”
The strong operational culture that Panzer and her team built provided CARMERA a solid foundation as it charted its next phase of growth. Here, too, Panzer played a decisive role. In 2020, the startup, which uses crowdsourced information from commercial fleets and other vehicles to update sophisticated road maps, began to look for a partner to help it scale to better meet global demand.
Despite the challenging investment climate, Panzer drew on her Booth training and investment banking experience to steer the investment and strategic conversations that ultimately led to CARMERA’s acquisition in July 2020 by Woven Planet Holdings, Toyota’s advanced mobility subsidiary. The deal, which brought CARMERA to Woven Planet’s Automated Mapping Platform team, allowed CARMERA to tap into new resources and operational expertise while allowing it to retain its core DNA. Thanks to CARMERA’s people-first approach, no employees left during the acquisition.
Today, Panzer is working on post-deal integration, assisting with Woven Planet’s global budget process, and sharing CARMERA’s processes and policies across the wider organization. Her own experience was instructive as Woven Planet expanded its parental-leave policy—which now offers 26 weeks for birthing parents and 18 weeks for non-birthing parents—and rolled it out across North America. The update is especially meaningful now, as Panzer is expecting her second child.
“I remember being told, ‘Don’t ask about work-life balance in an interview,’” she says. “But it’s so important, for women and men. Now I tell people to make sure to ask about it before joining any company, even if you decide to wait until after you get your offer. These are such important pillars of life: career and family. We need to talk about it more.”