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Conversations from the Robotics Frontlines

Thinking Equal, Building Smart, and Innovating for Change Are Integral to Successful Start-Ups

Mar 8 2019 Our Perspective 9 minutes, 18 seconds
Conversations from the Robotics Frontlines

Today is International Women's Day, a day to celebrate the amazing women who have inspired us and a day to reflect. Worldwide, people are encouraged to think equal, build smart, and innovate for change, a nod to the idea of 'Balance for Better.' These are good tentpoles for building more equitable societies, but they're also crucial components for any business—that's why they are hard-wired into Dishcraft's mission and daily operations.

The focus on equal, smart, and innovation is especially relevant in the robotics industry. Two entrepreneurs who inspire me and whose work I admire, Founder and CEO of Dusty Robotics Dr. Tessa Lau and Co-Founder and CTO at Canvas Dr. Maria Telleria, can attest to this reality. As the following conversation illustrates, this year's International Women's Day motif is much more than a theme—it is integral to success.

Linda Pouilot: Dishcraft is the culmination of my learnings and previous experiences. Being a female CEO and a woman in robotics when the majority of both industries comprises men has inspired me to create a company where we embrace hiring for diversity.

The work of the University of Michigan's Dr. Scott Page on how teams perform resonates with me. Dr. Page has a great analogy of how ketchup and malt vinegar, specifically where people store each condiment, illustrates why diversity matters. His point deliciously underscores the importance of building a team with different perspectives, experiences, and points of reference, something I've taken to heart at Dishcraft.

For me, "build smart" is something that any start-up must do. This means being customer-driven and to leverage our customer's input as much as possible. But building smart also means that we use as much pre-existing technology as possible and put it together in a novel way. It is not necessary to invent everything from scratch; you can innovate for change and do so effectively and efficiently.

Tessa, why does "think equal, build smart, innovate for change" resonate with you?

Tessa Lau: [It] means a lot to me as a woman, a minority, and as a roboticist. Equal doesn’t mean special—don’t give me or any person something she doesn’t deserve. What a loss it would be for a company to not embrace and capitalize on the wisdom, experience, and creativity of someone based on gender. Innovation is the catalyst that brings us all together to create the change that we want to see in the world. Robotics is still in its infancy with an unlimited future to help and serve people; we need every brilliant mind working hard to expand and explore this amazing frontier.

LP: For many of us, our formative years helped shape how we came to robotics and how we seek to expand and explore the field. I studied art, and learned that while it allowed me to express myself, it wasn't an area that challenged me or empowered me to realize my fullest potential in my earlier career path (in Operations). Maria, what helped put you on your present path, and do you think your route would have been different if there were more female role models in your field?

Maria Telleria: Two points stand out. The first was deciding not to go into academia after graduate school. I decided to pursue a Masters (and later a PhD) because I wanted to work on hard engineering problems. My advisor told me to look at the background of the people who I thought were doing interesting things and notice that they had advanced degrees. Unfortunately at my undergraduate internships, I didn’t get an opportunity to work or observe any female role models. However in school I got to see the amazing work that several female professors were doing. That, I think, influenced my decision to pursue graduate school and my desire to become a professor.

During graduate school I learned that I did not enjoy a lot of the components of academia, in particular the structure were a professor gets very little interaction with other colleagues. They are tasked to build their lab where they are alone at the top. I was lucky enough to then find roles that allowed me to use my education to solve hard problems in industry. However I believe that I may have shaped my education a little differently had I had more exposure to role models in industry. The second turning point was deciding to do a start-up and later be a founder.

LP: I relate to your desire to solve hard problems in industry. That's part of Dishcraft's mission, and something that we're better able to do when, as Dishcraft's Cynthia Kellogg notes, we have a more diverse team. This means you'll also have more diverse biases and beliefs. But Cynthia has a point: it creates an environment where people are more likely to challenge each other, question each other, and have more thorough discussions due to the fact that we are all coming from different experiences. Such discussions help solve problems and ultimately makes for better products, setting a better stage to innovate.

MT: In my experience, diversity in our backgrounds fosters diversity in ideas. That means a workforce with a greater representation of women, but also culture, age, and socio-economic background. Companies are trying to solve problems for their customers and society. Having a diverse workforce gives you a much better understanding of your customer and how your company fits within our society that is diverse and 50% female. To build a truly good product you need to be challenged about your assumptions; that debate becomes very one sided if those having the discussion share too many common factors.

LP: And that can be a problem. This calls to mind a frustration I frequently have when I sit in my car; there is no obvious place in the front for me to put my purse. If a woman designed cars from Day One, I believe the layout would be more suitable to accommodate our needs i.e. a place to put our purse.

One of Dishcraft's Mechanical Engineers, Kelsey Dubois, notes that when women are represented on design teams, products are created that work for both men and women. This is especially important for robotics and AI, where we are building products that will interact with humans on a daily basis. Without women working on these products, things can be made that are unusable (or difficult to use) for women, AI that discriminates against women or is uncomfortable for women to use, etc.

It's about taking a more holistic approach to problem-solve. And as any founder can attest, building a company requires you to think comprehensively and wear many hats.

As CEO, part of the job is to inspire and lead, which is a new experience for me. I grew up as a very shy child but now find that I really love when I give a talk and it inspires others to take action and chances that they did not know they were capable of previously.

Maria, what has been the function that you've been most surprised at having to undertake as an entrepreneur while secretly enjoying it?

MT: Building a company culture. I wasn’t surprised at having to undertake it as much as I was surprised by how much defining it clearly impacts people. In a small team, things can go unsaid and there is common understanding; as you grow, the company culture needs to be more deliberate. I’ve enjoyed getting to understand the perspectives from different members of the team. It is so interesting to hear how a moment can be perceived completely different by two people. Knowing the feedback is constant tells me that people are engaged and want to build this company together and that is very rewarding.

LP: Feedback is everything, for the product as well as for empowering our professional selves, our companies, and our teams. There are a few things that I wish I knew when I was first starting out. At the top of that list is: don't be afraid to speak up. I wish I realized earlier that everyone, myself included, has a voice that deserves to be heard. I'd also encourage my younger self to reach out and ask for mentorship from people I admire, and to ask for what you want. Asking for help is a sign of strength, as is supporting others; together as a group you can create wonderful inspiring things.

Tessa, what advice would you give your younger self?

TL: I would tell my younger me to be strong and believe in myself. I would insist that I not be afraid of failure because failure merely gives you an opportunity to learn. I would make sure that I continuously surround myself with people who have more experience, creativity, and ideas. In any industry, particularly one as young as robotics, there is so much room for growth, young people need to come in with eyes and minds wide open.

LP: If we acknowledge that greater equality helps us to build smarter and innovate for change, how do we encourage companies to hire more women, and how do we encourage more women to enter the robotics world?

My experience is that companies should start early and make this a core initiative. Recruit out of schools. Give talks and network at women led events. To women looking to get into robotics, I encourage you to apply for internships. Speak up and take chances. Reach out and seek advice and connections even if there isn't a role open.

TL: We are just scratching the surface when it comes to what robots can do to change the world. Everyday we hear about new robotic innovations to help people lead richer, happier, more productive lives. And every day we hear about new companies forming to try and meet those needs and opportunities.

As this happens, companies will need more people with robotics skills to develop the robots and bring them to market. The demand for roboticists is already high and it’s only going to grow from here.

For women, robotics offers not only a path to revolutionizing the future but, because robotics is by nature an inherently cross-disciplinary field, the industry offers a richly collaborative culture and workplace. It’s unlikely that a single genius can design, build, and bring to market an entire robot product. Instead, teams of skilled engineers must work together to deliver a single product—which creates an environment in which many women thrive.

LP: Tessa, I agree and will build on your last point: that it's about creating an environment in which we can all thrive.

This year I turned fifty, a milestone that caused me to reflect upon how I got to where I am today. Over time, I've realized that by focusing on others, concentrating on what they need and by creating an environment where everyone can thrive, I can derive far more satisfaction and far more success.

That's why thinking equal, building smart, and innovating for change are more than just a day's theme at Dishcraft, Dusty Robotics, and Canvas. They're key ingredients to a thriving business. Thank you both for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

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