For a guy well-versed in the maelstrom that is the New York dating experience, having dinner with Foursquare’s Kinjil Mathur is a revelation. She chooses the restaurant (“High Street on Hudson is trending this week”), orders the food (“Foursquare says the crispy broccoli and risotto are amazing”), and even picks up the check (thank you, cushy tech expense accounts!).
Mathur, 34, is a gatecrasher inside the predominantly white, male-dominated tech world, but disposing stereotypes is something the first-generation Indian-American has become accustomed to. Born and raised in Dallas, she’s a loyal flag-bearer for the Texan way of life and all that it encompasses. “It’s a religion: football, the rodeo, and Tex-Mex and barbecue,” she says. “The Texas State Fair was a school holiday.”
Need proof she’s a true believer? Just ask her about the Dallas Cowboys. Her devotion to the team was instilled early in life by her father, a fervent Roger Staubach fan and native of Anand, Gujarat, who immigrated to Texas in 1969 to attend college. “He decided to go to every Cowboys game in order to assimilate into American culture.”
Mathur knows a thing or two about trying to blend in with unfamiliar surroundings. Since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, she’s risen through an industry not exactly known for its varied point of view. “The women’s perspective is missing in tech product decisions.” Mathur says. “It’s so much more apparent when you’re in established industries and you look around the executive table and think, ‘I’m the only one that is different.’ You have to figure out how to navigate that.”
Helping to guide her have been two underlying principles: a passion for products and the potential for disruption. These creeds have taken her to different ends of the tech spectrum, from IBM to Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue to Artspace, the latter a startup that democratized art auctions by creating a first-of-its-kind online platform. “I don’t ever aim for a vertical,” she says. “It’s not like I decided to be in fashion or art. The common thread is the ability for me to go in and add value from a technology standpoint.”
When she started at Neiman Marcus in 2004, e-commerce fashion retail was nonexistent. Seven years later, while leading the digital team at Saks, the company was selling $25,000 bags on the web. She preached the same model after joining Artspace as chief marketing officer in 2013, facing a familiar skepticism, in this case that the multimillion dollar works sold at auction houses could fetch the same demand — and price tag — online. The site has since upended the contemporary art world in the same way Uber radically reshaped the taxi business.
Mathur was tapped by Foursquare a year later to help lead a brand-building effort, including its spinoff, Swarm. It turned out to be the inverse of her previous overhaul jobs. “Social and mobile already exist here, but they’ve never invested in a marketing team,” she says. “[The challenge is] understanding customer centricity and relationship management — fashion and art are so good at doing that, tech isn’t.”
Swarm has since become the place for check-ins, badges, and connecting with friends. Foursquare, in turn, has evolved into a smarter, more stylish version of Yelp, which Mathur says “isn’t even in the same ballpark” in terms of proactive personalized recommendations and user interface. “It has this complexity that, if you really know how to use it, can become the smartest piece of software you have.”
Such dynamism could easily be applied to her hometown. These days, when the New York–based Mathur returns to visit, she encounters a much different Dallas than the one of her youth. The big hats, cowboy boots, and Dolly Parton hairstyles? “That’s not what they’re focused on,” she says with a laugh. “Neiman Marcus started here and was the first department store to ever carry Chanel in the States. A bigger conversation is happening in the city right now. It’s cultivating a fashion and contemporary art scene that’s ahead of the curve.” Not unlike one of its native daughters.