Workplace Culture Champion in HR and People-First Leadership

A luminary interview with Tabitha Mondragon, Director of Global Benefits, Avalara

“I came from the consulting world and was in it for 13 years. I was with Willis Towers Watson (WTW) and also had a short period of time at Sequoia Consulting. My book of business was high-tech companies. I had Stripe when they were in three countries and PureStorage when they were in four. Airbnb, when they were expanding internationally, Netflix, and Zendesk were others. 

My niche was these emerging multinationals. So, how does a US company go global, and how do we expand them? That’s where I met a lot of high-tech companies at their very early stages. With Sequoia, I was brought to specialize in Latin American benefits because that’s the other part of my passion and what I love to do. I was very happy at Sequoia.

Then, I got a call from the VP of Total Rewards at Avalara, who used to be my client at PureStorage, and I was her global consultant. She needed a global benefits director, and here I am. I jumped ship for her.”

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How happiness found Tabitha with Avalara

“It’s very different. Now, I’m on the client side, seeing all the processes internally and how things are executed, which is very different than sitting on the consulting side and just giving orders. You see a whole other side that you didn’t before.”

Do I have a seat at the table? Yes. I’m very fortunate to have a VP who brings me along, as opposed to just taking what I do and presenting it. For that reason, I’m very thankful. Many things don’t make sense that we are working to change. So yes, they’re being heard, and my boss is very good at repeating it however often she needs to to get it done. 

I can’t expect change overnight.”

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The challenges in designing better people operations and doing good

“My biggest challenge right now is balancing the business needs with more of the HR needs because HR has to balance both the people and the business. 

We want to do good, and we want to put in great programs, but I have a budget. I have to figure out how to work with that and to be able to give the majority of employees what they need, what is right to give them, or what is right for them.

Read How to Fund a Lifestyle Spending Account and Save Your Budget

When I joined Avalara, there were a lot of programs in flight that didn’t align with any philosophy. As a consultant, I’m trained. Why are you putting this in place? What does this tie to? What’s the purpose? Who is it going to serve? I saw a lot of different little programs here. Then I later learned that it was whoever screams loudest, the squeaky wheel, that gets the programs.”

I saw a lot of different little programs here. Then I later learned that it was whoever screams loudest, the squeaky wheel, that gets the programs.

Taking a step back to find the path forward

“I took a step back and took an inventory of everything we had. But beforehand, I wanted to know who Avalara is and who we want to be in our benefit offering. 

What is our global benefits philosophy? 

What’s our strategy? 

What are our guiding principles? 

Who are we as an asset benefits team? 

And what do we want to offer Avalara globally? 

We are a global company. Therefore, we have to think as a global company, we can’t put in a US benefit and want to translate it everywhere in the world because it’s not necessarily relevant or appreciated everywhere. 

While it may make sense in our US-centric mindset, ‘Why wouldn’t somebody in Romania want pet insurance? Don’t they love their pets?’ Because it’s not a thing. They’d rather have something more meaningful, such as meal vouchers. 

So, we came together and created our global philosophy. 

We rolled out a reimbursement program in approximately nine countries. Regardless of headcount, we wanted our two employees in Poland to have the same experience as our four hundred employees in the UK, for example.”

Replacing antiquated reimbursements with Espresa Lifestyle Spending Accounts (LSA)

“A dedication drove the decision to provide freedom of choice with Espresa and consistent employee experiences across multiple countries. And our commitment to equity across our global populations remained strong. We have a headquarters in the UK, with a handful of others scattered across Europe in various countries. We had to find a solution that allowed us to provide global equity to all of our people, and that’s where Espresa came in.

Knowing Espresa from my consulting days and helping clients look at what they could do with Espresa, it was obvious that we needed an LSA program in place. I knew it was a simple solution and that it didn’t matter what payroll provider or infrastructure we had locally.

Knowing Espresa from my consulting days and helping clients look at what they could do with Espresa, it was obvious that we needed an LSA program in place. I knew it was a simple solution and that it didn’t matter what payroll provider or infrastructure we had locally.

Espresa could work for all of our countries.

I spoke to my boss, we put our heads together and said, okay, this is what makes sense for Avalara. Instead of placing, implementing, and starting more meal voucher programs and more gym reimbursements, let’s give employees flexibility. 

At that time, we were also revamping all of our branding, benefits branding, and our tagline for benefits with The Focus is You. That meant we needed the flexibility to offer what is essential and what well-being means to them.

I want to give everyone the resources and infrastructure and simplify it.”

Creating fun with the funds and total inclusivity

And that’s when we actually have fun creating the different funds. Avalara is a company that values having fun. And under that value of fun, we have amusement park tickets. Go and have fun with your family, go to the movies, go on a hike, and buy hiking shoes if that’s what makes you happy. We really wanted to tie that into what we were offering to our employees. 

Read Empowering Family-Friendly Benefits with a Lifestyle Spending Account 

There’s a childcare fund we had to reimburse employees, which has different rules and requirements in different countries. We were able to use Espresa to offer this benefit. And for India, we created a separate fund that met those requirements. 

AvaKids is an advocate. It is all tied into our culture, values, and philosophy, and employees started to connect these different pieces together and also see all of this under the benefits offering that Avalara has for them. 

In Brazil, we decided to go 100 percent remote. We shut down our office and needed to offer an internet reimbursement. So again, the perfect opportunity to use what was already established to open up an internet reimbursement wallet and have employees submit their expenses. And our Brazil counterparts loved it because they didn’t have to review receipts. 

It reduced the workload.”

Creating a strong employee feedback loop

It was really important when setting up the program to get employees’ feedback. We manage a benefits mailbox, and we have a folder where we put employee feedback. We make sure to look at that, for example, when there’s a renewal coming up. 

We noticed that in some countries, for example, Brazil, some were interested in English classes. So, we included that as part of our wallet reimbursement. If you want to take a language class, it doesn’t have to be English. It can be any language you want. Language classes, even afterschool programs for kids, summer camps, piano lessons, anything. Again, tying it back to the fact that we have an ERG, that we have a kids program for kids of Avalarians.

When we look at success, we look at different things: One is stats, we’re data-driven. I love statistics. 

How many employees are using it? 

What’s our utilization? 

How much money is being spent? 

And that last one is really important because of the budget. 

Looking at what employees spend was as important as what they value within the platform. Are there areas where we need to adjust? The numbers are great because, yes, we have very high participation.”

Read How to Score Top Talent with an Inclusive Employee Benefits Strategy

Delivering a strong data story with employee listening

“It’s the numbers. Are they really using those categories we thought of for fun, ‘Really, you think they’d use it for movie tickets?’ Yes. They love their movie tickets, their concerts, and concerts at the parks in their communities. Then, when we pushed out the wallet, we made sure to get the chat going on Slack to say, ‘Hey, it’s live! What are you going to use your fund for?’ 

Instead of having the benefits team engage and push out things, we’re getting employees to start conversations. ‘Reminder! Your Q2 fund is available. Have you already spent it?’ Or ‘When do you plan to buy this quarter with that money?’ 

We start the discussion, but we really let the employees and the community give one another ideas. The win is having employees promoting our programs and talking about what we spent months setting up. If employees don’t find value, they won’t promote them.

This is broad enough that everybody can find value in something we offer. And when somebody comes back and says, ‘Hey, my claim was denied because of this,’ we say, ‘You’re right, it’s not included.’ And we’ll look at ways to broaden that category or see if we can include it in the future. 

At the end of the day, it’s their money, and it’s taxed. So we want to be as flexible as possible.

Employees championing our setup is the real victory. If they don’t value it, they won’t endorse it. Our offerings cater to diverse preferences.” 

How the pandemic altered benefits for good

We’re seeing very different byproducts and outcomes of the pandemic. I wasn’t on the employee side during that time, so I saw it again through a very different lens. Now, on the employer side, it’s really about mental health. 

Read How to Promote Mental Health Inclusion to Benefit all Employees

Avalara is working a lot more on our well-being campaign. That’s meaningful and valuable to employees, meeting them where they are. Everybody’s at a different place in the life cycle – everybody. 

How do we meet everybody? 

And how, when you have finite resources and budget? 

Some employees are private, and some are not. 

How do you create a program that is for everybody? 

That’s the challenge. 

At Avalara, we’re just beginning to develop and understand how it is. The wallet is something that helps us because it puts the employee in the driver’s seat. Mental health and remote work can be challenging for many people, and some younger or newer employees don’t know what it’s like to even be in an office because they entered the workforce when it was already remote.”

A revolution in evolving a people and culture

“We had a people and culture. Our benefits HR rolls up to our people and culture team. We have a monthly people and culture meeting, and our learning and development leader, with his team, does a walk and non-work talk. And I’m stealing it! 

I just set it up for the team. We’re going to take 30 minutes on a Tuesday morning, and we are going to walk. You can walk outside, whatever works for you, and we won’t talk about work.

Don’t tell me what’s on your plate. That’s what our one-on-ones are for. I will probably bring a topic or something to get the conversation going, and I’m sure it’ll morph into something else so that we get to know each other better and talk about stuff we don’t get to talk about because we are all so focused on work.

Our team usually takes two offsites together, which has been extremely helpful. 

Earlier this year, we all met in San Diego. I belong to the Total Rewards team. Our VP of Total Rewards has two directors, myself and the director of communications. And together, we have ten people on that team. We come together and talk about challenges and solutions. 

We’ve done a very good job bringing it together within our team. When we don’t see our team members in payroll, legal, or HR partners, how do we bring that in? 

Our dynamics are close-knit. It’s a safe space for us. We can come into a meeting, complain for five minutes, and then we get back to work. Talk about what’s frustrating you, and then we find a solution together.

Where we are now is how to better partner with our other functions because we’re not seeing them, for example, when they’re in the office making a cup of coffee. We have to be very intentional.” 

Creating the future of next: Mental health, flexibility, and family

“Every person has a story, and we have no idea what that is. We designed an Espresa well-being program and LSA to start to answer this question: ‘How do we help lighten the load?’ We can’t remove the load, but we can make it easier with the right resources. 

Even though ERGs are not my program, having my kids get a birthday card that says, ‘Ava Kid,’ and is from somebody at work is huge for me. It connects them to what I do. It connects them to, “ That’s why mommy works all the time!” 

If my kids walk in, they’re there. They’re in the camera, and that’s because my kids are part of my life. They are what make me who I am and why I give so much to what I do. It’s for them. It’s having my kids be part of what I do.

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I love our Ava Kids program. They get a coloring book. They get these random things throughout the year, and it just reminds them that they’re part of what mommy does. They’re a part of what I do, and that helps my mental well-being. 

They’ve asked me, “When will I get my next package?” They have contests, like coloring and Legos. They feel like they’re working even though they’re not working, but they’re working, right? It helps lighten my load.

The other thing is the flexibility. If there’s one message that needs to be hammered – which needs to come with leadership – is flexibility. That’s something I practice with my team. Some have kids, some have fur babies, and for some, it’s just them. 

Every person matters, and so does their flexibility.

Their life outside of work matters. I have two small kids. My husband works, and it’s a juggling act. It’s almost a joke, but every Sunday night, we have a family meeting where we sit down with our calendars and we plan who’s going to pick them up, who’s going to drop them off, and what we have going on that week. But even in that, we know that we have to be flexible. Life happens even when you plan. 

8:00 to 5:00 doesn’t work for the majority of humanity, not anymore.

8:00 to 5:00 doesn’t work for the majority of humanity, not anymore.

I’m a global leader. I’ve had calls at 3:00 a.m. with Turkey. I’ve had calls at 10:00 p.m. with India. It’s a juggling act. In our humanity, we realize that everybody has their own story and that empathy helps us see things differently, and we’re just a little bit kinder. 

Even when I moved to Avalara, which might sound funny, it was a family meeting. Before then, I was at WTW for 13 years. I had not left a company, which was my first company, for 13 years, so that move was painful on a personal level. I had grown up, in my profession, with these people. They were much more than just coworkers and mentors.

I was at Sequoia for six months, and then I moved to Avalara, which was not planned. I said, ‘It’s going to take a while for Mommy to get up to speed on everything and understand her new role, and it’s going to be hard.’ I made them part of that decision. 

When the organization I picked sent an Ava Kids package, it validated the decision we made together as a family, and they could feel part of the big picture of Avalara and of the overall mission of Avalara.”

Creating benefits that extend to the whole family

I have a list of things I’d like to offer, but I’m unsure in what order. Forming a family [e.g., adoption assistance, surrogacy, and IVF allowance] is definitely something at the top of my list. It’s a big budget item that we were working on. 

There’s a lot of stress and pressure, more stress on women and families. It really goes back to supporting mental well-being.

The other thing that speaks a lot about an organization that I’ve seen with companies like Stripe, Airbnb, and others is their shutdown weeks, for example, between Christmas and New Year’s or times when they shut down as a company. Sequoia did that, and while I was there for only six months, they did it twice when I was there. 

I love that. 

It’s the right message from leadership because sometimes people in roles like HR or global benefits are saying one message, and if it’s not backed up by leadership, it doesn’t have the same power. 

As a global company, when taking a US holiday off, my direct reports in other countries are still working. When a whole company shuts down, it provides the message that leadership sees every single employee, regardless of your position or what country you are in. 

It’s like saying: ‘We know you give 100% of yourself daily at work. Shutting down one day is the least that we can do.’ I would love to be at an organization where that is provided because I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Tabitha’s history: Empowerment through purpose

“When you find purpose in your life, it changes your perspective. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have a perfect life, and it has nothing to do with your economic or cultural position. My dad is from southern Mexico. He did not go to school. He was just interesting. He came from this very rural area in Mexico where they lived day by day, sometimes eating one, or if they were lucky, twice a day. He was a [shepherd] pastor, meaning he took care of sheep. He didn’t wear shoes until he was about eight or nine years old because they didn’t have the money for them.

My story is who I am today because of everything I’ve been through and done. I’ve learned to reflect without turning off people and without imposing anything. When I think it is within you, it becomes natural. That’s who I am. This is the way I speak. This is what I do. ‘You hired me because of who I am.’ 

I remember somebody saying to me, “We hired you; we hired Tabitha because of who you are and your qualities.” The key here is to make sure you don’t lose who you are.

The key here is to make sure you don’t lose who you are.

It always stuck with me that I could learn from other people but always filtering through who I am as opposed to just copying them, whether it’s a behavior or how they do things. It’s about filtering through your own values, your own style, and how you get things done.

What’s next? I am very content and happy where I am right now. At some point, I’ll begin thinking about what’s next, but I like focusing on what’s in front of me. Otherwise, I can lose focus if I’m thinking too far ahead. I love to learn and take everything in, so I’m always learning.”

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