Magazine of CA

Embracing Zigs Zags and Left Turns

December 8, 2019

Cary Academy’s transformative impact inspires alums to pay it forward with generous gift.
Holly May (‘05, née Metter) is a people person. From her vantage point at San Francisco start-up Datavant, she is at the forefront of an important trend to shift the function known as “HR” from a back-offce shared service, to one of the key strategic functions of a company — a goal she embraced during graduate school.

Datavant is tackling one of the most pressing issues facing healthcare: the fragmentation of patient data across platforms and institutions. The stakes are high, with patient outcomes and advances in healthcare hanging in the balance. The company was founded 18 months ago by Holly’s husband and fellow CA alum Travis May (‘05). Travis previously built and led LiveRamp (NYSE: RAMP) for eight years. He took everything he learned about building and growing a business and applied those ideas to an even bigger and more meaningful industry: health data.

At Datavant, Holly is responsible for creating the team, culture, values, and expectations that will allow employees to thrive. She describes her charter as “building a TGI-Monday environment, not a TGI-Friday place.” Her mandate — to hire high-performing, growth-oriented individuals and to “get out of their way and trust them to excel”— requires her to leverage her considerable emotional intelligence. She invests in each new hire, diving deep to understand what makes them tick and what they need to succeed — a process that starts during the interview process, before they are even hired.

It is an innovative approach to the traditional feld of human resources — Holly prefers the term “People function” to “HR”— and refects her goal of moving the feld beyond an antiquated industrial revolution concept of people as interchangeable contributors of labor, cogs in the proverbial machine.

“I want to see greater recognition of the importance of hiring the right individual employees, and acknowledging that their needs, aspirations, and eccentricities play a role in creating a workplace, a culture, a product, and a service,” explains Holly. “I want to elevate the People feld as an indispensable function of a growing enterprise. Culture, values, feedback, learning and growth, mechanisms to show appreciation, and hiring philosophy are all critical to building a successful company, especially when your most valuable asset — your employees — walk away every evening.”

Holly credits the origin of her vision for a more nuanced and individually-tailored workplace to her experience at Cary Academy. “As a student, I thrived within CA’s strong positive culture — its established norms, its encouragement of excellence, the highly motivated and supportive teachers whose investment in me extended outside of the classroom. It made a big impact. Perhaps it is not surprising that I now fnd myself as a steward trying to create that culture in the corporate world.”

The company prioritizes three characteristics of all potential Datavanters: smart, nice, able to get things done. In some ways, it is very similar to the Cary Academy values of discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence.
Holly credits the origin of her vision for a more nuanced and individually-tailored workplace to her experience at Cary Academy. “As a student, I thrived within CA’s strong positive culture.”
Holly’s remarkable journey — one that has taken her from Cary Academy to an undergraduate degree at Harvard to an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business to a rewarding career in Silicon Valley — is far from the future she might frst have envisioned for herself as a sixth-grader joining the Cary Academy community from one of the more socioeconomically disadvantaged public school systems in North Carolina.

She credits her time at Cary Academy for setting her on a trajectory that would transform her life, both personally and professionally. “Without CA, I never would have thought about — not to mention made it to and thrived at — Harvard. The platform I have and the contributions that I can make to the world as a result are vastly more impactful,” offers Holly.

Far from a linear path, Holly’s journey is characterized by a willingness to, as she calls it, “embrace the left turns,” to depart from an expected path, to take zigs and zags. In her case, those “left turns” included

  • an unexpected admission to Harvard (she was planning to attend a small liberal arts college and applied to Harvard on a whim and a fee waiver);
  • a semester break from college to recover from depression; a last minute, off-the-wait-list admission to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business; and
  • an unconventional “build your own job description” approach to a job search.

Holly’s story is the very embodiment of CA’s mission and a clear example of how the benefts of “owning your learning” can extend far beyond a student’s time at CA. Consider, for example, the surprising path she took to land her frst job out of business school.

Emerging from Stanford with a passion for personal growth and leadership, Holly took an unconventional approach to fnd her next role (the role prior to her current role at Datavant). She identifed a few companies she wanted to work for based on the culture, mentoring style of the CEO, and the specifc skills of the leader she would get to follow. She then wrote her own job description, based on cross- functional leadership and building teams, and pitched it to the CEOs of those companies. She got the job she wanted.

Throughout, Holly’s story is punctuated with similar bold moves, often conducted in the face of possible failure. Together, they represent her willingness to think big and take risks in service of her passions, dreams, and “to live 15% outside of my comfort zone — where the growth happens.”

Of course, Holly’s connection with CA stretches beyond the professional and educational. In addition to providing her with the tools to navigate her post-CA life, Cary Academy gave Holly something pretty unique as well: a wedding venue outdoors on the CA quad in 2012! It seems only fitting, as Holly and Travis were best friends throughout CA, starting their relationship at the end of junior-year.

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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