By Rebecca Ferlotti
Northeast Ohio is home to many innovators, and Azadeh Hardiman is no exception—from the ringtones we used to buy on our flip phones to developing non-insurance programs at an insurance company. Progressive’s business incubator, Level20, is something she has been driving for the last four years, creating offshoots such as Castle, a home repair service platform. GCP recently sat down with Azadeh to discuss what led her to Progressive, how Cleveland supports women in business, and diverse perspectives in leadership.
We can Google you all day, but in your words, tell us about your background leading up to Level20.
I had the benefit of coming out of school in the ‘90s when the Internet was taking off, and there were a lot of big changes because of this new technology. I started my career in consulting, working with companies who were trying to figure out how the Internet was going to change the products they offered and the way they did business.
Early on, I had an opportunity to be part of the founding team of a startup that we eventually called mPortal (“M” for mobile). This was in 2000. People were still barely texting. It seems so rudimentary now, but the idea was that we were going to build a business around this emerging technology, that data would come to your phones and it would change the way we interacted with the world.
It was a big risk for me at the time, and I’m not necessarily a huge risk taker, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
When I first moved to Cleveland, I met Alice Korngold, who was the founder of Business Volunteers Unlimited. BVU is an organization that sits at the intersection of business and nonprofit. She presented me with an opportunity to work there, and I jumped on it. Being somebody new to Cleveland, it really helped me get to know the city and feel like Cleveland was my home pretty quickly.
I did that for three years, and then I was worried that if I didn’t go back to mPortal—or back into technology in general—it might be harder for me if I changed my mind later, so I returned to mPortal but stayed involved in nonprofits by serving on boards and volunteering.
After I had my second child, I was looking for a new opportunity and people were telling me to consider Progressive since it’s a phenomenal company. When you live in Cleveland, chances are you know somebody who works at Progressive, and I happened to have lunch with a friend of mine who knew about a role at Progressive. I joined in 2015 and found out all the things that people told me about Progressive were absolutely true. About four years ago, we started to think about where we might go beyond insurance. That’s when Level20 was formed, and I took on this role.
How would you describe Level20 to somebody who really doesn’t know what a business incubator is?
Progressive has a history of customer-centric innovations within insurance. Level20 was created to help us explore, build and grow new businesses beyond insurance.
We develop new products and services with a focus on addressing real problems that people face every day, whether it’s that sink you need to get fixed or making sure that if something happens, your family’s taken care of. Our foundation is really trying to understand: Where are there unmet needs or friction points that our customers or potential customers have? And then we’re responsible for building out those products to address their needs.
We build the software; we build the customer service approach. We figure out the distribution strategy…everything that’s needed to bring this new product to market and validate product market fit (determining if there are enough customers who want to use what we’ve created). And then we also need to determine the business viability to see if there is a path to profitability. That’s all within the purview of Level20, which I think is a little bit unique. Not all incubators out there have that full breadth of responsibilities.
Our model gives us a lot of opportunities to iterate and continue to evolve because it’s never the first version of something that you put out there that’s going to succeed. The best way to make it better is by getting customers using it, hearing their voices, and seeing how we can continue to evolve.
Thinking about all these different iterations and how you can continue to succeed by listening to customer feedback, what are some of your plans to grow Level20 in the next couple years?
How we grow is going to depend on where we experience success over the next few years. We want these businesses to take off, and we want to meet people’s needs. So if that happens, then of course we’ll need to start scaling to help more people, and that would eventually require a larger team. As we continue to learn about customer needs, that might trigger some additional product ideas. We’re still in the very early stages. There’s a lot of opportunity in front of us right now.
And the world changes.
I mentioned earlier about my experience working at mPortal, it was a lesson learned as a 20-something-year-old. We built I think what was potentially one of the first two-sided marketplaces for content discovery and delivery on mobile devices. Verizon was one of our first clients on our platform. So if you bought a ringtone, a wallpaper, or an app in the early days, you were using our software. As a startup, that’s awesome success. Then the iPhone came out and changed everything. So we had to continuously adapt our products and services based on what was happening in technology at the time.
Even when you have success, you have to continuously be paying attention to what’s going on in the world, the new technologies, and the changes in consumer behaviors. You have to fit into somebody’s life and create value for them.
I think we’re seeing a lot of cutting-edge work happening around Northeast Ohio, too. What do you think uniquely positions Cleveland to be a place for innovation?
Cleveland has a lot going for it. I’m not a Cleveland native, but I’ve been here for over 20 years, so I think I have to start calling myself one. We have a ton of great talent here. We also have access to universities both within the city and within a close drive; and those universities help promote innovation, change, and different ways of thinking.
People and relationships are fundamental to being able to innovate. Cleveland is small enough where you can create meaningful connections that actually help you make progress and make an impact, but we’re large enough that we have most of the resources you would need to grow. I think that’s a huge advantage for us.
I definitely think you need to start calling yourself a Cleveland native being here for over 20 years! So we have the sense of community and desire to build each other up here. Are there other things that you think make Cleveland a great place for women in business? And are there some things that Cleveland can improve upon?
In terms of how we can improve, I would like us to have more diverse perspectives in leadership within our community—going beyond CEOs, having programs to help that next set of leaders rise up and take ownership of their futures. I appreciate how deep and supportive many of our community leaders have been over the last few decades, and I don’t want to see that support go away. At the same time, we need to keep focusing on developing our next group of diverse leaders to be serving on boards and in other leadership roles within our community.
There are a ton of nonprofits and associations in the area that work to lift up and support women like YWCA and Together Digital. There are all these different networking events that are really great, easy to access, and easy to participate in.
This is a city where you can come and make an impact, and there’s going to be support for you. I’m personally proud that Tricia Griffith is CEO of Progressive—one of the few women that is leading a Fortune 500 company—and she’s right here in Cleveland. Jennifer Parmentier is now the CEO of Parker Hannifin, another Cleveland headquartered company. We’ve had other influential women in leadership roles such as Beth Mooney (KeyCorp). Representation does matter. So that’s exciting to have here