Dr. Stacy Williams of Simucase: “Fail fast and often”

Oftentimes women in STEM careers are in the minority and do not have many female colleagues within their work setting to commiserate with. To address this, I found that joining a women’s leadership group within my community helped me network with other female leaders in similar roles and gave me a community with whom I […]

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Oftentimes women in STEM careers are in the minority and do not have many female colleagues within their work setting to commiserate with. To address this, I found that joining a women’s leadership group within my community helped me network with other female leaders in similar roles and gave me a community with whom I could share both work and personal interests. One area in particular that was helpful with this group was discussing work–life balance challenges. Being a female leader in a predominantly male profession has made it challenging to discuss female work–life balance topics such as traveling on business and missing school functions, how to take part in field trips when you’re on call for your company, how to ensure family meals are ready when work hour demands often require working 12+ hours … the list could go on and on.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacy Williams.

Stacy Williams, PhD, has worked in the field of speech-language pathology for over 20 years. She is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Simucase and Chief Operating Officer for Continued, where she oversees product and editorial development, CEU administration, and instructional technology services. An expert in simulation-based education, Stacy’s ongoing research focuses on integrating this cutting-edge technology into personalized learning applications for a variety of higher education institutions.

Stacy earned her master’s degree and PhD in communication sciences and disorders from the University of Cincinnati and is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is the recipient of numerous honors and awards for her teaching and research, including being named a Fellow of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) for making outstanding contributions to the discipline of communication sciences and disorders.

She has two adult children and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and chocolate lab.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my career journey as an eager school-based speech-language pathologist (SLP), then transitioned to a maverick researcher/inventor/professor and ultimately a successful entrepreneur and business leader.

As a young college student, my true loves were Sci-fi movies and futuristic technologies (such as Star Trek’s holodeck or the Star Wars holographic images) and helping people communicate, whether via a communication device, sign language, or picture based system.

I decided to combine my passions and seek a doctoral degree in communication sciences and disorders with a cognate major in instructional technology and design in hopes of creating a new method or device for individuals with severe speech and language deficits. I started out writing basic computer programs for the students that I was servicing as a school-based SLP. Knowing that I wanted to do more, I began researching the possibility of creating a “holodeck” prototype for the speech-language pathology profession.

After earning my PhD and taking an assistant professorship at Case Western Reserve University, I designed and built the first immersive speech therapy simulator. It consisted of a 180 degree movie theater-like setting that utilized rear projection technology. It allowed patients to interact with the characters on the screen to help them overcome their communication challenges. The simulator was also used to help train SLP students by providing a safe training environment without the risk of harming patients and by also exposing these students to a variety of low-incidence patient populations.

After four years of extensive research and development, this patented technology was licensed to a company called SpeechPathology.com, part of Continued, a continuing education company that includes lifelong learning practices from the classroom to the clinic and beyond.

I then transitioned to being a business professional and entrepreneur, managing the day to day operations of SpeechPathology.com and continuing to build my new company, Simucase, which offered virtual patient simulations to SLP higher education programs. I’ve been working for Continued as COO and Simucase as CEO for over 13 years now and am pleased to report that both companies continue to thrive and succeed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I created Simucase as an online simulation learning platform that allows users to assess, diagnose, and provide intervention for virtual patients. The primary audience is graduate-level students in a variety of fields, but getting Simucase launched into the university marketplace was extremely challenging. The technology had to be built three different times given advances in computer programming language and capabilities. On top of the platform limitations, it was difficult to convince faculty to change their traditional teaching methods for newer simulation-based education practices. With limited evidence and research in the field of speech-language pathology education, it took over eight years to get a small number of faculty to implement the technology and spread the word in terms of its effectiveness.

In 2015, we had a breakthrough: The Council for Clinical Certification began formally accepting alternative forms of clinical education as a means for higher education students to earn a portion of their clinical hours for certification. Once those standards were accepted, Simucase rocketed into the marketplace and became the first computer-based simulation program offering clinical clock hours for SLP students.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many clinics to transition to telehealth and/or limit the amount of people present for in-person therapy. This presented a tremendous hurdle for students needing to earn clinical clock hours necessary to graduate. Simucase helped thousands of students to graduate by providing a safe training environment to earn the clinical clock hours necessary to become certified within the field. Today, Simucase has the majority of the SLP graduate market and is seeing the same success in other professions such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, and audiology — with plans to grow.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Our company is 100% remote and has been since its inception in 1999, so most meetings are virtual. This was a huge shift for me since I was used to working in academic settings with large office spaces or lecture-size classrooms with loads of faculty and students. During one of my first online business meetings, my new chocolate lab puppy began chewing on my computer wires. We were in the process of training her, and the recommended protocol for correcting this behavior was to bark at her. I inadvertently activated my microphone and camera while barking madly at the puppy. The entire meeting came to a halt, and when I looked at my colleagues on camera, they went from stunned disbelief to hysterical laughter. One of my colleagues went as far to say to the group, “Is that your fiercest bark? What kind of puppy do you have — a chihuahua?!” Needless to say, I’ve never lived that down in the history of this company, but what I learned that day is: 1. Always check your mute settings (twice, if not more!) if you need to go offline; and 2. Always be able to laugh at yourself and never take yourself too seriously.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes our company stand out from other companies is that we truly have an innovative spirit and culture.

For starters, we were one of the first companies to pioneer online continuing education in audiology and speech-language pathology. The company has continued setting trends in the way we offer continuing education and simulation educational technology ever since.

Another unique aspect of our company is that we have operated 100% virtually since our inception in 1999, and from the beginning, culture has been the fundamental building block of the company. This culture includes placing the highest value on collaboration and innovation, a practice that started with a mere handful of employees and remains paramount as the company has grown to nearly 140 team members and growing.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of our most exciting projects for Continued and Simucase is our interprofessional educational series. For both of our companies, there has been an increased focus on patient-centered education and the need for educating professionals within a variety of disciplines to strengthen overall collaborative care and practices. Teamwork is essential when attempting to treat the ‘whole’ patient, especially when they have multiple diagnoses.

Patient-centered care has the potential to personalize the healthcare model to ensure all of the needs of the patient are being met. It provides healthcare that is customized to the individual patient and is respectful and responsive to their needs and values, which ultimately guides the entire clinical decision making process. Stay tuned for more advances in this area!

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am a firm believer that there is always room for improvement in any area of business — or life, for that matter. We’re all a work in progress. With that being said, I do think there continues to be a need for more emphasis on recruiting women and diverse ethnic and socio-economic groups into STEM careers. One specific change to help with this status quo is to encourage more direct, hands-on experiences that span many disciplines through direct community involvement. The responsibility for offering STEM programs should not be limited to schools but needs to include a variety of leaders from the academic, healthcare, and business settings.

For example, when my community of Bay Village, Ohio, decided to offer a summer STEM camp, they recruited a middle school science teacher to lead the program. One of the first things he did was call a parent meeting within the community to educate everyone on the program and ask for community support from local businesses, universities, and healthcare institutions. Seeking parents and community leaders with connections to those institutions led to an overwhelming number of volunteers.

As part of this program, I volunteered to help by inviting all students in the program to visit a nearby speech, language, and hearing clinic. I designed hands-on activities for what speech-language pathologists, audiologists, sign language interpreters, and hearing scientists do on a daily basis to improve patient outcomes. The students not only learned about each of these professions, but it has resulted in an increase in the number of students graduating from high school with a declared major in these professions. I’ve participated in this summer STEM program now for eight years and can truly say I’ve seen the power and impact of successful STEM programs.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Oftentimes women in STEM careers are in the minority and do not have many female colleagues within their work setting to commiserate with. To address this, I found that joining a women’s leadership group within my community helped me network with other female leaders in similar roles and gave me a community with whom I could share both work and personal interests. One area in particular that was helpful with this group was discussing work–life balance challenges. Being a female leader in a predominantly male profession has made it challenging to discuss female work–life balance topics such as traveling on business and missing school functions, how to take part in field trips when you’re on call for your company, how to ensure family meals are ready when work hour demands often require working 12+ hours … the list could go on and on. While these topics may apply to male counterparts, I found that I was more comfortable sharing these topics with female colleagues in similar career roles.

Another challenge I found being a woman in a STEM career was the amount of pressure and stress that I created when first starting in my career. I was determined to succeed and demonstrate to my male counterparts that I could achieve in my leadership role. To demonstrate my success, I worked additional hours, always volunteered to support additional initiatives and projects, traveled often to meet face-to-face with business leaders to provide quality partnerships, over-prepared for meetings and presentations to ensure that I always had all the answers, and strived to be a constant overachiever. It soon became clear that if I tried to keep up at this pace that I would not only burn out but jeopardize my health in the process. I found the best solutions for me were: 1. Establish a physical outlet to release any and all stress. I did this by taking up tennis and power walking. Each day I schedule time to get out on the court or to take a brisk walk in my neighborhood to clear my head; 2. Accept the “fail fast, fail often” mantra so that I could accept my own limitations but achieve the satisfaction of knowing that I am constantly learning; and 3. Embrace my imperfections and know that everyone is always striving to be perfected whether they are male or female — it’s the nature of who we are.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Having taken part in a middle school STEM program as an instructor, I can say that two specific myths that need to be addressed are:

Myth #1: STEM programs are primarily focused on engineering and math.

The students that attended our SLP STEM program were truly amazed that allied health fields — professions that provide a range of diagnostic, technical, therapeutic, and support services in connection with healthcare — were considered STEM careers. We need to ensure that when talking about STEM career opportunities that the definition includes a wide variety of professions that span business, engineering, financial, and technology careers.

Myth #2: You have to be a strong math or science student to succeed in a STEM career.

As seasoned STEM leaders, we all know that future success in STEM fields relies more on problem solving, critical thinking, and communication abilities versus hard core math and science knowledge. The key to any successful career is passion and a willingness to learn.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Fail fast and often — it’s the best way to learn. When we were first developing Simucase we decided to build out the application in Adobe Flash. Needless to say, we have had to rebuild the platform two more times in updated coding language to ensure it’s long-term growth and scalability.
  2. Think big thoughts, but enjoy small successes. The vision for Simucase when we first started the business was that it would be a multimillion dollar enterprise within three years. It took over ten, but we celebrated each sale along the way.
  3. Laugh loud and often — it’s the only way to stay sane. I try to start out all meetings by asking team members to share something fun they did or heard recently so that we can all live vicariously through each other. It never fails that someone has a story to share that results in laughter or a smile. It’s a great way to start each work day.
  4. Remember big problems often can result in bigger opportunities. As someone once told me, it’s easy to admire a problem, but much more rewarding to solve one. During the pandemic, many graduate students in healthcare fields were unable to acquire hands-on clinical training. Through Simucase’s virtual patient healthcare simulation, students were able to continue earning clinical experience during the pandemic despite clinic closures, which for many made the difference in their ability to graduate on time.
  5. Use your time wisely and don’t be afraid to say “no.” One of the hardest things for me to do is tell someone that I can’t do something. However, the busier I get and the more committees I support, the more I find myself being asked to take part in more tasks. Case in point, I recently had to say no to a book publisher that asked me to write a chapter in a new simulation book. While I would have loved to take part in this endeavor, I knew that I didn’t have the time or energy to devote to this project.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the many strengths and talents that exist within a given team. I’ve always found that each team member has a hidden super strength or talent, whether it be listening, communicating, collaborating, problem solving, you name it! I used to always follow the Golden Rule — treat others the way you want to be treated. However, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t about treating others the way you would want but rather the way they need to be treated, especially recognizing their super strength or talent. No two people are alike, and great leadership requires that we recognize the strengths and talents of each individual team member and shift or adapt our communication and support accordingly to meet their needs.

A prime example of this was when a team member came to me seeking advice on how to handle a difficult conversation with a fellow team member. My first instinct was to tell this person exactly what to say and how to say it (including the non-verbal body language to go with the message). However, I realized that her communication style and approach was very different than mine, so it was better to simply listen to how she felt she should handle the situation and coach her through her talking points regarding how her messaging and delivery style was being perceived by me. The result was a resounding success for both team members, and everyone was pleased with the outcome.

Long story short: Recognize everyone for their own unique super talents and treat them as they need to be treated. It will result in a highly engaged team that works together successfully.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

One thing that has helped me tremendously, particularly as our company has grown, is the use of the Birkman Method, a behavioral assessment tool that helps us better understand ourselves and our colleagues. Each team member takes this assessment upon hire and is taught how to interpret their results. Beyond that, all results are shared across the company, which helps to increase understanding of and collaboration with one another. Birkman uses a great analogy to explain why it’s so important to understand the strengths of your team. If I am managing a bunch of cheetahs, I shouldn’t expect them to swim. Cheetahs can swim, and they will if they must, but by putting them on the wrong task, they won’t excel. But, ask them to run, and they will thrive! You have to know “who’s who in your zoo!”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The person who truly helped get me where I am today is my husband. We married before I graduated from graduate school with my master’s degree. Once I completed my SLP program, I immediately began working in the schools as a school-based SLP to help support our new life together. Several months into my new career, I was offered the opportunity to return to graduate school to earn my doctorate degree in SLP and instruction technology and design. My husband encouraged me to pursue my dreams and has been a constant source of support and inspiration for me ever since. Understanding that we wanted a family, he supported me with starting a family while completing my doctorate, often coming home from work early so I could attend class or taking care of the children so I could stay up late writing my dissertation. He was the first person I saw when I marched across the stage to accept my PhD, he was the first person to hand me my technology patent plaque when my US patent was granted, and he was the first person to give me a standing ovation when I won the Northern Ohio Science and Technology award for the first SLP virtual simulator. I couldn’t ask for a more dedicated cheerleader and supporter, and I’m grateful for all that he has sacrificed to ensure my continued success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As the saying goes, “ability is nothing without opportunity.” I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without opportunities such as a scholarship to pursue my PhD or broader interest from others in my research. I’ve tried to pay it forward and increase opportunities for others in STEM career paths by volunteering on the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation board of trustees, which raises money for student scholarships and researchers to support their big thinking and innovative ideas. I’ve been the research chair for the Ohio Speech-Language-Hearing Association to help identify and award grants to future student researchers. I also support our local middle school STEM summer program by providing young learners with hands-on experience in exploring the profession of communication sciences and disorders. I’m hopeful all of these efforts have helped bring goodness and opportunity to others.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Given my passion for patient-centered education, if I could spark any type of movement, it would be to create a place for patients and caregivers to share their healthcare stories with others. What better way to learn than from the patients directly! We all know that one of the most powerful educational tools is through storytelling, so what better way to achieve optimal patient-centered care than through sharing real patient stories and experiences?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

People who wonder if the glass is half empty or half full miss the point. The glass is always refillable! (unknown)

I’ve had many ups and downs in my career journey as a school-based SLP, an associate professor, and a CEO of a mid-sized company. The one thing that has remained constant is my willingness and eagerness to continually improve and change my career path. When I started as a speech-language pathologist, I never imagined that I would become an inventor of simulation education technology that would result in my becoming a CEO of a successful company. While I always pride myself on finding the positive side of all situations, the real key is realizing that we always have the power to change our career paths to improve our lives and those around us.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

My dream has always been to meet the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. My greatest inspiration both as a young child as well as an adult has always come from visiting Walt Disney World! My original simulator designs were inspired by several Disney rides found throughout the theme parks. You never know when or where inspiration may hit you, and Disney has always found a way to not only spark my innovation but solve some of my most challenging research questions.

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