The Young Product Guru Giving Independent Artists a Voice at Spotify - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Young Product Guru Giving Independent Artists a Voice at Spotify

The Young Product Guru Giving Independent Artists a Voice at Spotify

By Carly Stern


Because at 30, she has already achieved what most hope to do over a long career.

By Carly Stern

On Sundays, Kene Anoliefo’s mother took her children to the public library in Cleveland, Ohio. Though Anoliefo’s parents usually were strict about where she was allowed to go, she could roam anywhere among the books during those four- or five-hour reprieves while her mother studied for her master’s program. Already an avid reader, Anoliefo checked out 20 books at a time and dove into new universes each week. One she recalls reading in particular: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

Morrison’s dive into racial identity and topics including child molestation were heavy material for a third grader, but Anoliefo has always been ahead of the curve. Now at 30, she’s a senior product lead for Spotify’s Creator Marketplace — leading a new feature that allows independent artists to upload their music directly to the platform — after stops at Google, the Obama White House and a real estate startup. Those around her, not to mention Anoliefo herself, can’t quite predict where she’s going. But they know it’s somewhere big.

Anoliefo grew up in a diverse neighborhood, picking up a disciplined ethos from her parents, who put themselves through undergraduate and graduate degrees after emigrating from Nigeria while working full-time and raising four kids. Anoliefo’s mother is a social worker, while her father works for a nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing and economic development for low-income communities. Their fields weren’t glamorous, but Anoliefo learned there is a grace in showing up and delivering, time and time again, regardless of recognition.

I’m quite used to showing up places and people not expecting me to be in the room, or be the person who is leading the project or speaking with authority.

Kene Anoliefo

Anoliefo was into science, writing, sports and music. “I never really could decide who I wanted to be or what I wanted to focus on,” she says. Her father wanted her to be a doctor, but after earning her undergraduate degree at Yale, she worked in sales and marketing with large entertainment accounts at Google. Anoliefo grew frustrated that she wasn’t building anything new or adding true value to the world. So she left after two years to pursue another passion — government — and became a White House intern. “I didn’t get to work on anything that, you know, changed the course or trajectory of the nation, but I got to experience what it was like to work at this place I had revered and respected,” she says.

She missed taking big risks every day in the private sector, and she wanted to work in a product role. Problem was, she had no experience. So she offered to work at real estate startup Compass for free. The company’s seventh hire, she started earning a salary two months later. After a little more than a year, it was off to business school at Stanford. It’s part of Anoliefo’s perpetual search for stronger experience to ensure she never felt unqualified, particularly as a woman of color. “I’m quite used to showing up places and people not expecting me to be in the room, or be the person who is leading the project or speaking with authority,” she says.


She grew into such a role incredibly quickly at Spotify, where, as an intern, Anoliefo led the team that built the original Spotify Fan Insights (which evolved into “Spotify for Artists”), a data visualization portal providing metrics about artists’ performance and audience base; now, it also allows them to manage their profiles, promote to fans and submit songs for playlist consideration. For the past 18 months, she’s mentored and managed a team of product managers (until recently, the team was all-female) while spearheading a new beta feature that launched in September and allows independent artists to upload their music directly to Spotify. Part of Spotify’s music meritocracy ethos, this feature makes it easier for independent artists to release music.

“She’s been outstanding at being a leader that can see how all the different pieces fit together across legal, business, product, marketing, and really quarterback an overall effort that connects all these people that really think and communicate in different ways,” says Charlie Hellman, head of Spotify’s Creator Marketplace and Anoliefo’s former manager. Hellman highlights Anoliefo’s ability to construct a strong narrative and tune it to different audiences. She honed her knack for expression at Stanford: after taking a class about how businesspeople should approach writing, Anoliefo and two peers created an online magazine called “nondisclosure.” She also starred in a business school stage show.

Anoliefo is the first to admit that her direct style of communication intimidates some people. She’s learning how to adapt her style, dressing things up and massaging the way they land so the “message doesn’t get lost in the delivery.” She grew up in a household with non-American parents who told her the truth and got to the point without flowery language. Another challenge? She still has trouble telling left from right.

Anoliefo tends to think about her career in two-year increments so she has enough time to sink her teeth in but stay on her toes. “A job is different from a career, which is different from a calling,” she says. The question she’s grappling with now: “What is the one thing that I have been put on this earth to do, that I am almost required to do, because of both what I’ve been given and also what the world sort of needs most?” It sounds vaguely political, and when friends of Chika, Anoliefo’s older sister, ask how Kene is doing, they joke: “What’s your sister up to? Running for president next year?”

Though music and media touch many, Anoliefo is motivated to find a mission that affects even more people — particularly those who are marginalized or underrepresented — by building products or businesses. She would consider starting her own company, for which her current product role would make great training. 

Her race and gender, she maintains, are assets, as they provide her with a fresh perspective. They are also a reason she strives to always be overqualified and overprepared. Her personal mantra is a nod to that feeling, a line spoken by LeBron James in a Nike commercial after his improbable 2016 NBA Finals comeback with Cleveland, and which can apply to Anoliefo’s always-shifting career moves: “Come out of nowhere.”


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