Heather Morgan Shoemaker of Language I/O: “Society as a whole needs to support women who prioritize their career and job interests”

A healthy society is one where women have equal opportunities, are educated and well paid. Studies have also shown that women make better bosses and women-run companies are more likely to hit their revenue goals. As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Morgan […]

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A healthy society is one where women have equal opportunities, are educated and well paid. Studies have also shown that women make better bosses and women-run companies are more likely to hit their revenue goals.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Morgan Shoemaker.

Heather Morgan Shoemaker is the CEO and co-founder of Language I/O, a software company that enables Fortune 500 companies to communicate with customers anywhere through proprietary machine learning technology, which enables real-time, company-specific translation. She holds a BA degree in Linguistics from the University of Washington and a Master of Science from the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I actually planned to join the Airforce right out of high school. I lived with a single mom who couldn’t afford to pay my college tuition and the Air Force would cover tuition and make me an officer. I just had to commit to eight years of service. I was 17 years old and a senior in high school when I drove to the final meeting with the recruiter. Before I signed my next eight years away, the recruiter asked me what career I planned to pursue in the Air Force. I was surprised at the question and answered, “Why does anyone join the Air Force? I want to be a fighter pilot.” The recruiter: “Oh, sorry sweetheart. Only men can be Air Force fighter pilots. How about administrative work?”

I walked out of the recruiter’s office, leaving an unsigned contract sitting in front of him. Instead, I accepted a running scholarship at a liberal arts college outside of Portland, Oregon. I first completed a BA in linguistics, worked as a Spanish-English interpreter and a newspaper reporter for a few years and then went on to get a Masters of Science from the CU Boulder College of Engineering. I spent the first decade of my technical career as a consulting software internationalization engineer, traveling around the world helping big companies refactor their source code so their software applications could support multiple languages. This career combined my love for languages — both human and computer — and allowed me to travel all over the world, even if I wasn’t flying the plane myself. What I discovered over a decade of consulting was that the number one globalization challenge large companies faced was not what you might imagine. It wasn’t translating their software UI or ensuring that their databases were Unicode enabled. These problems were solved with existing technology. The biggest challenge was the messier, operational challenge of providing customer support in multiple languages. There was no tech to solve this problem so I started thinking about ways to solve it. After a tech company where I was working and where I owned substantial shares was acquired, I was able to exit corporate life and build V1 of the Language I/O solution that solves exactly this problem — multilingual customer support. The first opportunity was brought to me by a former colleague, Kaarina Kvaavik, who had been working with a well known online surveys company that had this exact issue. Kaarina, being a talented salesperson and entrepreneur, which complimented my engineer’s mindset, joined forces with me.

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

Kaarina and I had sold our first solution, which automated human translation of support articles, to a few companies and decided to go to a trade show, set up a booth, and see who else would be interested in subscribing. We’d reeled in some big logos but needed more to turn Language I/O into a viable business. At first, there was interest at our booth, but from smaller companies who weren’t going to move the needle for our business. That was until a group showed up to our booth and introduced themselves as employees of one of the largest social media platforms in the world. They had heard about our solution to automate translation of support articles from folks at the online survey company. The problem they were trying to solve was a bit different. They had a large team of English-only-speaking customer support agents in Omaha Nebraska. These agents were bombarded with customer support tickets and chats in dozens of different languages every day. To handle them, they were cutting and pasting the content in and out of Google translate which was inefficient and the translations were not very accurate. They wanted to know if we could build something to allow their agents to request real-time translations inside the customer relationship management (CRM) platform where their support agents were working. I was, at the time, the only software developer at our two-person company. But I said we would be happy to build that for them and quickly.

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?

When you are just starting a company, you wear many hats. So while I was the only “staff” software engineer, I was also doing every other job that needed doing as was my co-founder Kaarina. But while Kaarina is inherently a people person — why she’s great at sales — I am an engineer by nature, not a people person. I’m not good at remembering names, at all. I was replying to emails and regardless of whether it was support or sales related would frequently call people by their wrong names. I would call Frank Fred, Helen Harmony. Kaarina had to monitor my emails and make excuses for me. I have since learned that people care about their names and that I need to get them right.

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?

One of my first technical jobs was at a newspaper — The Daily Camera in Boulder, CO. I worked as a reporter there to support myself through graduate school. My most exciting project there was to set up a database repository for public records and large data sets that we reporters would acquire under the Freedom of Information Act. I built a web application — using the now antiquated, but then cutting edge, Active Server Pages. It enabled myself and other reporters to mine large data sets for interesting stories. This was my first, full-stack, web development project in the wild and acquiring the funds from corporate for the servers and software necessary to build this system was no small feat at an old fashioned newspaper. If it weren’t for a woman named Sandra Fish, one of my managers there, the project would never have happened. We just called her “Fish” and Fish was a pioneer in the field of computer assisted reporting. Fish loved being a newspaper reporter and loved learning new technology. When I came on board, she and I formed the very rare female tech alliance and attended conferences together to sharpen our public records data mining skills. Fish was known at the newspaper as a kind of wild card, whipping out her knitting during obligatory corporate meetings, always willing to go have a beer with any of us at the end of the day and a constant support to me. She would invite me to her house in the Boulder foothills when we’d run into a particularly challenging technical issue and we’d bring our laptops and power strips and hunker down and figure things out. When I asked to set up the public records data mining intranet, she made sure the project got funding. She never questioned my ability to pull it off and thanks to her support and faith we got the funding and built the system. It enabled all reporters in the office to run queries across disparate data sets that we would link together including jail records, drivers license records, dog license records, boat registration records — you name it. We found that yes, folks who have served jail time were in fact more likely to have a Rottweiler named “KIller.” But Fish was a mentor and someone I will always respect for her unconventional way of looking at the world and tackling problems.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

My favorite book is and will always be “The Dispossessed” by Ursula LeGuinn. If you haven’t read it, it’s about a group of revolutionaries who leave their earth-like planet owed to an oppressive government, for a barely habitable moon. Decades after colonizing this moon, a scientist leaves the moon, where his Social Anarchist society is scraping out a peaceful but egalitarian life for themselves, to visit the home world and consult with other scientists there. There are many lessons to be learned from that book but the key lesson is that it’s better to have very little and be happy and true to your values than to be rich but stifled. Just before founding Language I/O, I had been working for a very large corporation and making loads of money. But the culture was toxic. Colleagues didn’t hesitate to throw each other under the bus if it meant advancing their own careers. I knew it was eating me from the inside out. It scared me to leave such a lucrative position but I knew I would be happier even if I had to struggle financially. So I took the leap and left to start my own business.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“While it’s good to have an end to journey toward, it’s the journey that matters in the end.” — Ursula Le Guin. The story I just shared with you rings true this quote.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We decided early on that Language I/O is going to do its damndest to pay people well, provide great benefits and build a culture of support, inclusion and transparency. One of my favorite things about growing Language I/O is helping people who have experienced discrimination find a work home that is supportive and nurturing.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Actually, according to Crunchbase, In 2019, 2.8% of funding went to women-led startups; in 2020, that fell to 2.3%. So VC funding for women-led startups is on the decline. The question of what is holding women back is hugely complex. Let’s begin with the fact that — at least as of 2021 — women are still the ones having the babies and are still the primary caregivers most of the time. If you have babies early, this often interferes with your education. If you have babies after you’ve gone to college, like I did, this interferes with your career development. Just about the time I had established myself in my field, I had my first child. And then I had a second. As the primary caregiver, I was the one up all night nursing babies. I was the parent who had to breast pump in between meetings in cramped bathroom stalls because the one little room designated for breast pumping was booked all day. I was the parent who felt the most guilty for trying to have a career when it meant leaving my small children with other caregivers during the day. That kind of stress often keeps women in survival mode with no time to think strategically about our own careers, let alone about launching a risky startup. It wasn’t until my youngest was a toddler that I got up the nerve to leave the toxic corporate, but financially safe, work world and go out on my own. It was risky and I saw the raised eyebrows on the faces of friends and family when I talked about doing it.

But even if you don’t have kids, there’s the well-documented bias against women in positions of power and leadership. We still live in a society that elects misogynists political leaders as president. A society with this kind of ingrained misogyny is not one that is kind to women founders.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

We are actively appealing to women to apply for open positions at our company. We let moms at our company take six-month leaves of absence with newborns and make sure that both their existing jobs as well as promotional opportunities await them when they get back. We openly advertise the fact that Language I/O is a women-founded, women-run business and this in turn attracts women to our company because they know they will find more empathy and opportunity here. We’re also willing to speak out against societal bias against women in the startup world.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

A healthy society is one where women have equal opportunities, are educated and well paid. Studies have also shown that women make better bosses and women-run companies are more likely to hit their revenue goals.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Venture Capital firms need to check their bias. When women can’t get funding to grow their companies, we’re often dead in the water because even if we manage to grow organically, we can’t compete with our male-led competitors who rocket fuel their growth with VC funding. Numerous reports have exposed the “bro culture” that is prevalent in Silicon Valley and I’ve experienced it. Because I waited until my kids were older to venture out and start my own company, I was in my 40s before I started trying to raise VC funding. I would find myself, a 40-somethings-woman, pitching to 20-something men in Silicon Valley, very clearly doubting that a woman, let alone a middle-aged woman, could build any deep tech that wouldn’t be ridiculously easy to replicate by any man. I probably pitched to 30 firms like this before I found the Wyoming group in our home state who provided our original seed round. Then I pitched to a ridiculous number of SV VCs again before I found the amazing Boston-based group that funded our institutional VC round. Early on in our fund-raising process, Kaarina had connected with a VC firm on the East Coast. We had been talking to a few women partners there who were really interested in our company, but it was a dark time for me. Two months earlier I had received a breast cancer diagnosis. I’d had a mastectomy and was in the middle of radiation therapy. I was supposed to go to radiation every week day but this firm wanted us to come in on a Monday for one final interview with not just the women we’d been talking to but also with the male partners. They assured us it was highly likely that the deal would move forward, the rest of the partners just had to meet us in person. So with severe radiation burns, my chest covered in salve and a newly missing breast, I flew across the country for this meeting, for which I had to miss a few radiation sessions to make it. After meeting the men and giving the same pitch we’d given to the female partners at the firm, we were told no.
  2. Society as a whole needs to support women who prioritize their career and job interests. When a couple has children, both partners should be held equally accountable for the care of their children. There is still a very ingrained bias that a man is allowed to take risks in business in order to succeed. A woman is expected to prioritize her family, with work a distant second. It’s a double standard.
  3. Men and women alike need to second guess their knee jerk reaction to women in positions of power. Society is much more accepting of men in positions of leadership than women. There was a study showing that in online courses, students always gave professors with male names higher ratings, even if the professor was actually a woman. Another study showed that VCs were more receptive to pitches by men than by women — even when men pitched exactly the same idea as the women. This systemic bias is not going away on its own. We have to actively question our motives.
  4. Teachers and parents need to encourage women and girls to pursue math and science in school. Only 2.3% of startups led by women got VC funding in 2020 and I can’t even find a statistic that shows the number of women-led tech startups that get VC funding. Let alone the number of women-led tech startups where a woman designed the original tech. I remember being good at math in elementary school. I was in an advanced group and our teacher asked us to solve a hard problem. I figured out a repeatable shortcut to solve the problem and I showed the teacher. He seemed surprised that I figured it out on my own. Later, another student said their dad had shown them the same shortcut. Instead of recognizing me for finding the shortcut, the teacher referred to it as John’s Dad’s Shortcut.
  5. As women we must strive to provide an example and pave the way so the concept of women in powerful positions in tech becomes normalized. At one point, when I was so beaten down by VC rejections, I decided I was going to start pitching to investors as a man. I was going to change my name to Heath, wear a beard and strap on a voice modulation device. I was certain I would raise money faster if Language I/O, a deep tech company, was pitched by Heath instead of by Heather. It was Kaarina who talked me out of it. “We need to do this as women so we can inspire other women,” was her rationale, and she was right.

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

I would push for legislation that incentivized VCs to fund female-founded tech startups. When you are raising a round, often more than one investor is required. Maybe a matching fund where when a deal meets certain criteria, a government fund would match the VC investment. Or at the very least provide tax breaks to the VC. There needs to be formal support to buck this ingrained societal bias against women in tech and leadership positions.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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.

Hi Kamala Harris! Let’s talk about legislation that incentivizes VCs to back women-founded and built tech!

How can our readers further follow your work online?


Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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