Dr. Andrea Thomaz and Dr. Vivian Chu of Diligent Robotics: “Embrace the chaos and focus on what needs your attention most”

Embrace the chaos and focus on what needs your attention most — being CEO of a startup can feel a little like a game of wackamole. Every aspect of the business needs to be better, but I try to think of my role as the founder/CEO as adding energy to the aspect of the business that needs […]

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Embrace the chaos and focus on what needs your attention most — being CEO of a startup can feel a little like a game of wackamole. Every aspect of the business needs to be better, but I try to think of my role as the founder/CEO as adding energy to the aspect of the business that needs it most at that time. Before we had an amazing sales leader, I was spending all of my time on sales, and then once that was under control I now have time to look around and find the next most important problem to solve. Along the way you have to just accept the fact that everything can’t be fixed all at once and embrace the fact that everything is going to be a little bit out of control (and that’s ok)!


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Thomaz and Vivian Chu.

Andrea Thomaz is the CEO and Co-Founder of Diligent Robotics and a renowned social robotics expert. Her accolades include being in MIT’s Technology Review on its Next Generation of 35 Innovators Under 35 list, Popular Science on its Brilliant 10 list, TEDx as a featured keynote speaker on social robotics and Texas Monthly on its Most Powerful Texans of 2018 list. Andrea’s robots have been featured in the New York Times and on the covers of MIT Technology Review and Popular Science. Andrea co-founded Diligent Robotics to pursue her vision of creating socially intelligent robot assistants that collaborate with humans by doing their chores so humans can have more time for the work they care most about. She earned her Ph.D. from MIT and B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from UT Austin and is a Robotics Professor at UT Austin and the PI of the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab.

Vivian is a 10+ year expert roboticist that specializes in human-robot interaction and has received high tier industry recognition including: recognized by MIT Technology Review on its 35 Innovators Under 35 list, being honored as a Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholar and featured on Robohub 25 women in robotics you need to know in 2016 list. Vivian completed her Ph.D. in Robotics at Georgia Tech where she was co-advised by her now co-founder, Dr. Andrea Thomaz. Vivian received her M.S.E. in Robotics from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, where she worked in Dr. Katherine J. Kuchenbecker Haptics Research Group in the GRASP Lab. She received her B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2009.


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?

Andrea: I have a PhD in Robotics and am a professor at University of Texas at Austin. My career has always been focused on the vision of how robots can work alongside people, and I enjoy building artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can be used by real people not just the engineers that built them. That is what really motivated me to think about starting a company. I had a desire to get robots out of the research lab and into places where they would work alongside and really help people. I brought the idea to Vivian and we decided to jump into this crazy adventure together.

Vivian: I really had the typical start most aspiring engineers had. I took things apart as a kid and was very interested in math and sciences. My parents were software engineers, so they encouraged me to go into engineering. They really wanted me to do electrical engineering, but I hated it and I ended up discovering robotics in my junior year of college. I really loved how I could get something to actually interact with the world by designing and programming it. I only discovered this towards the end of my time in college and wanted to keep going so I went to grad school. I discovered I loved diving into the complex challenges of robotics in my master program and didn’t want to stop, so I continued onto my PhD. In terms of translating this to starting a company…well, I grew up in the Bay Area during the dot com era and the rise of the internet. Startups were something that fascinated me and throughout college and grad school, I went out of my way to take entrepreneurship courses so when I was presented with the opportunity by Andrea to start Diligent Robotics, I jumped on it.

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

Andrea: I don’t have a single story to share, but hands down the most interesting part of starting Diligent Robotics has been seeing the reaction of nurses when then get to work alongside our robot, Moxi. The impact that we are having on nursing teams is so rewarding and inspiring to all of us at Diligent. By now our robots have worked as teammates alongside hundreds of nurses, having performed thousands of delivery tasks for them. When I get a chance to visit one of our clients, I love to stand off to the side and just watch Moxi work. All the time you hear “Thank you, Moxi, you made my day” or “What would we do without you Moxi!”

Vivian: It is hard to pinpoint the most interesting story that has happened to me, but one thing I might highlight is the growth for me both professionally and personally. On the personal growth side — I’ve gotten more comfortable being public about being out. It is important to be a role model for others and being a gay Asian female founder is something I know is uncommon and important for others to see visibility in this world.

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?

Andrea: We are always joking around so it’s hard to pick the funniest moment, but one early mistake that we still joke about is when my product lead and I drove 3.5 hours each way for a bomb of a meeting that barely lasted 30 minutes. It was in the first couple of months after launching the company and we were desperate to get in front of customers for feedback, networking like crazy to talk to any chief nursing officer (CNO) we could nail down. We were so excited that a friend of a friend got us scheduled with a CNO in North Texas. We woke up at the crack of dawn, got our suits on and drove up from Austin that morning. We found the hospital, got settled for our meeting, presented our slides in about 20 mins and then the CNO looks at her watch and says, “well that’s interesting, thanks!” and left the room. We just stared at each other realizing we had spent less than an hour in our destination and went back to our car with nothing to do but drive the 3.5 hours home. As a consolation prize, we stopped in a tiny town along the highway and had some amazing tacos and laughed about how maybe we should have learned a little more about how interested the client really is before committing to a road trip. Years later it’s funny to look back, we’ve learned to ask questions before committing to spending time with a potential client. In enterprise sales so many things determine whether a customer is going to be a good fit at a given time. It is worthwhile to spend the time up front to make sure it is the right time to engage.

Vivian: This story is from very, very early on in the company when we were doing various early prototypes and research trials at hospitals throughout Texas. During the trials at one hospital, we had installed hooks on the hospital walls using 3M command strips. The goal was for our robot, Moxi to drop off supplies to these hooks. During one of our trials, we had installed a hook in a non-patient section of the hospital to test the system prior to an important demo to some hospital leadership. Things were looking good, and I went to grab a quick lunch from the cafeteria. When I was headed back, I got a call from my engineer saying, “Vivian you need to come up” and wouldn’t tell me why. When I arrived, my engineer had a frantic look on his face and explained that during a practice run, Moxi essentially got in a fight with the hook and the hook won. One of our quick prototype parts on the arm got caught and broke off and somehow the 3M command strips had kept the hook on the wall. The engineer explained to me his horror that part of the arm fell off (bouncing across the floor in the process). Then we discovered we didn’t bring a backup part for this component, and we spent the next hour frantically finding 3D print shops that could reprint this part before our demo with the leadership team the next day. Long story short, we found a friend with a 3D printer and we had to babysit the 6-hour print job overnight because we only had one shot. Luckily all went well, and the demo was a success. You can imagine lessons learned: always have spare parts of key components and proper hardening of parts — which is much more robust when interacting with the real world. Also, learning to stay cool in these types of situations because things happen, and you have to troubleshoot and deal with things like this in real-time to be successful.

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?

Andrea: People are often surprised to know that I didn’t get into robotics until much later in my career. I started as an electrical engineering undergrad at the University of Texas and paid for college working as a co-op student at IBM during the last 2 years of college. Honestly, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I got out so I read as many books as I could. One that made a major impact on me was by Rosalind (Roz) Picard called “Affective Computing.” Roz’s book was a summary of all the work that had happened in her research at the MIT Media Lab over several years from the late 80s through the 90s, which focused on the challenge of getting computers to understand human emotions, framed as a sensing and signal processing problem. Right then and there I decided that was the absolute coolest application of Electrical Engineering I had ever seen, and I applied to MIT on the spot. Once I made it to graduate school, Roz became a mentor that I am so grateful to have in my life. I’m most thankful for the impact her book had on setting me off in the direction of the career I have today.

Vivian: This is a hard question because there have been so many people that have helped me get to where I am today. My parents, who raised and supported me through every decision; My wife who is my biggest champion; and, my mentors from IBM, Google, Penn, Georgia Tech who all who believed in my ability to do more than I could even dream of.

In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Andrea: I do feel like women just get held to a higher bar when it comes to fundraising, every step of the way. Whereas other founders of startups will get seed funding with a flashy deck and confident pitch, a woman will be expected to have lots of data to back it up.

Vivian: I have a similar answer. For women, there really is a lack of funding and support from others who are more experienced. Starting a company really requires advice on how to do things to having the connections to know where the sources of money can be best acquired. It is hard to break into the world of VCs when there are just so few women in the space.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Andrea: I think it really helps when people as individuals or groups take time to acknowledge their biases. Only then can you decide what might need to change to fix it. One example is hiring processes. I’ve been in tech for a long time and there is always a conversation around how we get more women in tech. Some people throw their hands up and say, “sorry it’s a pipeline problem, we can’t hire more women because look at how few women are coming out with tech degrees compared to men, this is just the natural result.” But, the better way to come at this is to do everything possible to remove biases from the recruiting process and acknowledge that by passively recruiting talent you’ll end up with a pipeline lacking women, so you have to actively go out and recruit to make your pipeline look the way you want it to look. I think the venture capital community is coming to terms with this kind of approach as well. Some of the firms that I work closely with are actively changing their processes to ensure that they consider a more diverse set of companies than simply the ones that passively come through the door or that are easily found in their own networks. In both examples, the problem of diversity can be addressed not by lowering the bar, but just by taking a more active approach to balancing the pipeline of people or deals you are considering.

Vivian: With government funding opportunities, we greatly benefited from the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (NSF SBIR) funding to help us get off the ground and to have others believe in what we were building. Another thing that really helped was finding mentorship because there are so many things you just don’t learn when starting a company such as how to run a tight fundraising process to the basics of human resources. Also, I didn’t realize how critical networking was. So much of starting a company is knowing the right people. In general, having a place that women founders can get connected to those who have power and influence to make deals has been really useful to me.

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

Andrea: Because there is no reason that you can’t. As a professor at University of Texas in Austin, I would see this all the time, women that failed to reach for jobs because they didn’t think they were good enough or were too afraid to ask. Getting a faculty position at a top-10 university is a super competitive process, and there were many times that I had to suggest to my women students “you should do this” and their response would be that of surprise because they had never considered themselves as good enough for that career path. I think the same is true for founders, you just have to have the confidence and go for it. The more we have women founding companies, the more companies will be built with cultures and products that support women.

Vivian: I see four important reasons why women should become founders:

Studies show that more women and diversity in the room lead to better business outcomes.

More women founders mean solving more problems that are unique to women and increasing their importance in being solved

To provide a working environment for other women to thrive

To be role-models for other women so they know that they too can succeed to the upper most ranks

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Andrea: Lots of stories about startups and founders make it seem like everything is really hard at first, and then once you strike it big with customers, it’s smooth sailing after that. This is not the case. From my experience, and what I have seen from hearing the real stories of very successful founders, it doesn’t really ever get easier. At each new stage of the company the problems to solve are just different. What I see with a lot of successful founders is just the willingness to put in the work and to inspire a team of people to come along with you on the journey. If what you are bringing to the world were easy, someone probably would have done it already!

Vivian: One myth is that there is a moment where there is this “aha” moment that you figured it all out and that is the huge pivotal moment for the company or that as a founder you have done the impossible. The reality is that as a founder you have assembled a team of amazing people and the entire journey with various members of your team got the company to where it is today. Often media focuses on the founder but really it is also the team behind the founder that has contributed to something amazing.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Andrea: I don’t think everyone is. You must be OK with uncertainty, and more than that you have to love the idea that you might not know what is coming next. The work is never done and there is always more to do, so you also have to be disciplined about treating the experience as a marathon, not a sprint.

Vivian: In general, being a founder means being comfortable with failure, not getting things perfect and being okay with being outside your comfort zone…a lot. I often tell people that part of being a founder means having to be okay with doing lots of things mediocre until you can afford to hire someone to do it better. It can be quite a hit to the ego, and I tell other founders to make sure to hold onto something that is your own unique superpower because on the hard days, you’ll need it to remind yourself that you can do something well. It is very true that a startup is a massive rollercoaster, and you have to be able to have the support system (financial, emotional and mental) to ride the waves, otherwise a “regular” job is just so much easier.

Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Andrea (top 5 video also submitted):

Embrace the chaos and focus on what needs your attention most — being CEO of a startup can feel a little like a game of wackamole. Every aspect of the business needs to be better, but I try to think of my role as the founder/CEO as adding energy to the aspect of the business that needs it most at that time. Before we had an amazing sales leader, I was spending all of my time on sales, and then once that was under control I now have time to look around and find the next most important problem to solve. Along the way you have to just accept the fact that everything can’t be fixed all at once and embrace the fact that everything is going to be a little bit out of control (and that’s ok)!

Ask for help — One of our first investors was True Ventures. They have a fantastic founders community and the first time I went to their annual retreat it was so enlightening to realize I wasn’t the only one who had so many questions. I’ve worked on surrounding myself with mentors and advisors, especially for new functions of the business that am learning for the first time.

Get comfortable with self-promotion — As a woman you must get really comfortable with leading with your credentials. In a pitch deck for example, it’s often standard to have a team slide toward the end, with everyone’s background. But, I found out early on that people never assumed I was a technical founder so once I started leading a presentation by mentioning my Robotics PhD from MIT in the first few minutes, my credibility was established from the beginning. It’s not something I’m naturally comfortable doing, but with investors and customers, I’ve found it makes a huge difference in engagement to quickly get people to understand that you’re the expert in the room on your topic.

Be customer led and be prepared to pivot — You have to be ok with the fact that the vision may change. When we started Diligent Robotics, we thought we knew what hospitals needed robots to be doing, but when we actually started our research trials and spent hours and hours inside our customers’ environment, we realized quickly we had to expand our thinking and be prepared to pivot and create our product around their specific needs.

Phone a friend — It’s so important to find someone outside of the company to be your balance and support. Sometimes you just need to not talk about the company or need to vent and you don’t want to put that on your co-founder or other team members. My husband has been such a partner in this journey, and I officially declared him CEO of the household in year 2 and that has made a huge difference for me.

Vivian:

Find a support system — every founder needs an amazing support system! That means your partner, family, friends, coach, therapist and co-founder! The rollercoaster is real.

Listen to your customers — it is so hard to hear your baby is ugly, but their input is imperative and it is so important to build what they need because they are the ones who will be using and interacting with your product every day…and paying for it.

Reach out to mentors/other founders — It’s nice to meet and talk with other people who do what you do and understand your challenges. It helps you realize that you are all experiencing the same problems and that everyone else is struggling too.

Don’t forget self-care/vacations — running and growing a company is marathon, not a sprint. Don’t burn yourself out because your company and team will suffer for it.

Be on mission — Have a clear sense of why you’re doing this! Otherwise on those days that are just hard, it will be difficult to stay positive and keep going.

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

Andrea: I am so humbled by the hard work that healthcare workers have done throughout the pandemic, and our entire team at Diligent is motivated by the opportunity to make their work a little easier and provide them some needed support. I love being a part of something that is helping nursing leaders and clinical teams get back to what is important, quality care with patients

Vivian: I feel like the biggest difference I have made is through my mentorship of others and leading by example. I really try to prioritize speaking engagements to encourage women in stem and within the LGBTQA+ community.

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.

Andrea: I would love people to embrace robots as part of our future. There is a stigma right now that robots are taking away important jobs, but what we are seeing at Diligent Robotics is that our customers are looking at our robot, Moxi, as part of their team. Moxi is a cobot that is integrated into the team as a coworker. In healthcare, nurses will never be obsolete. In fact, we are on our way to a nursing shortage especially as older nurses leave the profession and not enough new nurses enter. This is where Moxi can come in. Moxi takes tasks from nurses that take them away from patients like running samples to a lab or taking dirty linens to central supply. These tasks can take nurses away from the unit for 20–30 minutes at a time and that is time that can be given back to them to be with their patients. Robots like Moxi will never be handling patient care and that is something we want to leave to the professionals and that is the nurses and care teams who work tirelessly every day to provide the best care possible and let the robot do the tasks they just don’t have time to do.

Vivian: I’m a firm believer in early education and supporting educators. It amazes me still that those who educate youth are so undervalued. Pre-K education should be standard (so many studies that show it is important) and I support more funding and pay for those who educate our youth!

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.

Andrea: I would love to have lunch with Elon Musk. I have been so inspired by the large visions from the electrical car, to launching into space to his latest adventure into robotics. As a founder of a robotics company, I know how difficult and complex building robots is so having someone like Elon Musk who pretty much does whatever he sets his mind to, it will be a lot of fun watching him accomplish this latest goal. The world needs more people who dream big like Elon. And if Elon is ever looking for a team who understands the ins and outs of robots, we would happily raise our hand to collaborate with his team of roboticists.

Vivian: I am truly inspired by Melinda Gates and MacKenzie Scott for their amazing contributions to philanthropy and solving real-world problems today.

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