It is very easy to become scattered and tell a disconnected story when listening to so many people. That is why it is crucial to have a strong vision.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Ho, Co-founder and VP of Mobile Engineering at Swiftly. Karen Ho is a co-founder Swiftly — a technology platform for supermarkets that brings the advantages of e-commerce to a brick-and-mortar store — where she oversees all mobile engineering and is focused on delighting grocery shoppers. Karen is extremely passionate about supporting women in technology and has spent a couple of work semesters teaching at Hackbright Academy (a school dedicated to teaching women to be software engineers) as well as mentoring fellow female engineers in the Bay Area. Karen received a Bachelor of Science in Material Science and Engineering and a Master of Science in Computer Science from Cornell University. She is based in San Francisco.
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 never envisioned myself as a co-founder and much less a software engineer when I first entered college. I struggled immensely when taking my first computer science course. I went to office hours, continued to ask questions to TAs, and begged friends to help walk me through why my code wasn’t working. At the end of the course, I squeaked by with a passing grade, but I felt dissatisfied that I couldn’t grasp many of the programming concepts. So, I kept taking computer science classes. By the third or fourth class, something funny happened: I realized I actually kind of liked programming. In fact, I was beginning to fall in love with it. I was so in love with it that I eventually earned my master’s degree in computer science from Cornell and became one of those TAs I used to pester for extra help. And when I wasn’t teaching classes, I was spending my office hours mentoring women who were just like me. I continued to work as a software engineer for the past decade and after all that, here I am today!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think my greatest accomplishment entails building our stellar mobile engineering team. I’m a big believer in surrounding myself with brilliant people who are always pushing me to be better. That’s why I deliberately put together a team with far more iOS and Android experience than I have. I think my leadership has been particularly effective because I’m always eager to get hands-on and help out however I can. When building the Family Dollar app, I was always ready to spin up XCode or Android Studio to write some code or help debug an issue, even at a moment’s notice. One time, I spent 12 hours on a call with the iOS team over the weekend to investigate an memory leak issue in an app. I ended up teaching the team how to use the memory graph and we were able to pinpoint the issue. Every day is a new challenge when you’re at the helm of a startup, but that’s why it’s so exciting.
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?
Being in a startup means you’ll often have to wear multiple hats. When we first launched our iOS app that supported self-checkout, we ran into the problem of how to get users to engage with the application. One avenue we decided to try out was to promote a product discount with the use of the iOS application, so a colleague and I set up a booth with samples of the product. I became so engrossed in ensuring customers got a taste of the product that it wasn’t until awhile later that my colleague pointed out that I was failing at the key objective of promoting the app. The lesson learned was it is okay to be passionate about serving customers, but to not lose sight of the overall objective. Also having a colleague around to keep yourself on track while experimenting is a necessity.
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?
About a year after I left Symphony, the co-founder Henry Kim approached me with the idea of building a product in the grocery retail space. I couldn’t have been more excited. I knew Henry had an impressive track record of founding successful companies and I am all about building products that help others. Working with accomplished visionaries who you admire and respect, and who reciprocate those sentiments has been a cornerstone in my success.
I’m also grateful for being surrounded by really brilliant and amazing people. Someone I draw a lot of inspiration from is a friend from high school who I met through a program called International Baccalaureate. She is currently a product manager at a well-known startup that recently IPOed. And although our disciplines are on different tracks, she has never been shy to ask me tough questions from user acquisition to realistic impact of developing a feature. It’s because we both have different perspectives that we are able to support one another.
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?
It is difficult to develop a strong support network. Earlier on in my career, I always felt that I was behind my peers — that I didn’t have enough depth when it came to programming paradigms and understanding complex systems. And so, I kept quiet. It wasn’t until I had managers and peers encouraging me to step and speak up that I felt comfortable engaging in engineering discussions. The same principle applies to women founders. Without support from family, friends, mentors, and peers, it becomes difficult to assume so much risk. The majority of startups fail and trying to overcome that statistic without a strong support group is a near-impossible feat.
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?
I think there have been a lot of positive signals in the past few years — the number of women founded companies have double in the past decade, followed by an increase in investment funding. Being aware and acknowledging that there is disparity between the number of women founded companies has forced a lot of needed attention on the subject. One aspect I would like to continue to encourage is for individuals to continue to provide support women entrepreneurs.
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?
I think there are a few reasons why women should become founders. First, women come up with a fresh approach to problem-solving that brings a different perspective to a certain problem, task or activity. This encourages diversity across a massive scope of situations that is vital to better decision making and ultimately the success within organizations. Second, focus and discipline are keys to success in a startup. Women are incredibly disciplined, which is an important asset in any organization. This makes us better leaders when it comes to dealing with startup chaos and mishaps efficiently. Third, and last but not least, we bring balance to every perspective of a business while paying attention to every detail. Women ensure that the best is delivered since our focus is success in the future.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Myth-busting is always fun. Being a founder has been an amazing journey, but there are definitely some things that potential entrepreneurs should be aware of. I think the biggest one is not having a personal life. It does take grueling hours and commitment to get a business started, but it’s not true that you can’t have a personal life. You just have to prioritize and stick to a schedule. The other one I get asked a lot about is all of the risks I had to take to get to where I am. I think it is important to focus on calculated risks. I put an emphasis on balancing risk and reward and stick to the facts. When I do that, it minimizes the real “risk.”
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?
That is a tough one. I am not sure there is a formula that can be applied to being a founder. Self-awareness is a must. Don’t hide from your weaknesses and surround yourself with people that fill those gaps and make you (and the organization) better. That has been a cornerstone in building my successful team. The other is to set realistic goals and achieve them. We often set the bar too high, which opens the door for excuses. You must be aggressive but within reason.
Ok super. 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.)
- DISCIPLINE — Every day starts with a hundred new problems. It is very easy to become overwhelmed. So I take a moment to collect myself and prioritize the ones that can help unblock others. For me, this means being strategic and creative in setting my team up for success. I also believe that it is important to know how every role in the organization function and being able to step in a moment’s notice to ensure the team has the support they need. I have written code, manipulated network responses, reviewed pull requests, written up bug tickets, re-organized tasks boards, manually created hundreds of accounts, and although I am still experimenting with the best way to lead a shiproom, my team trusts me to lead.
- COMPASSION — It’s not only about listening. It’s about understanding. With Swiftly, there are several audiences that are the customers, the clients, and the team. Before the pandemic, we made it a point to fly down to grocery stores that utilize our product and talk to customers about their experiences. You quickly realize there Is a difference between coding out a feature on a screen versus seeing someone tap through your application. It’s an extremely humbling experience. With every client, it is important to listen and understand how they have built their legacy. Our clients have a deep knowledge of their customer base, and we want to ensure those values are reflected in their apps. Lastly, I believe our employees are the most valuable asset to the company. I want to help each member of my team grow and be there to support them throughout all our future challenges.
- VISION — It is very easy to become scattered and tell a disconnected story when listening to so many people. That is why it is crucial to have a strong vision. It lets you navigate the waters of uncertainty without breaking apart. This is reliant on a strong pattern of judging the importance of issues. And in order to determine which issues are crucial and urgent is based of being disciplined and understanding them one-by-one. One of the ways I achieve this at Swiftly is that I sit down with my technical leads, who have so much more technical expertise than I do and we collaborate on what the future of mobile will look like for Swiftly. I present a series of aspirational ideas and we talk through how to lay down the foundation to move towards those goals. There are no egos, and the best ideas leave the room.
- ADAPTABILITY — Both the information at hand and the world state are in constant flux. Being able to move quickly and react to these changes is crucial, but what is more important is using these past experiences and adopting learnings to ease the journey forward. I think everyone experienced some form of this when the pandemic hit. Swiftly had to transition to remote work only and my role was to ensure that communication remains effective. This meant adjusting meetings to ensure that relevant information got propagated, ensuring documentation was accessible and so much more.
- EMPOWERING (other women) — I have been so fortunate to have had great managers that empowered me to lead discussions and take ownership over key features. I honestly believe they took a chance on me. And I believe it is my duty to pay it forward and to give that opportunity to other underrepresented groups in technology.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am all about giving back. From my teaching assistant days to teaching women at the Hackbright Academy, it is important to me to enable the next wave of women in tech. Right now, there’s a real lack of women in senior tech leadership positions and men still vastly outnumber women, but I’m doing my best to change that. Every now and then, women I’m acquainted with tell me I’ve inspired them to pursue careers in tech. Some women have reached out to say that they heard me tell my story, and immediately enrolled in a boot camp, and now they are engineering managers at established companies. One reached out to tell me she’s now in a senior technical role at an app that’s long been a household name. These stories don’t have to be outliers. We can all work towards creating an industry that is more equitable, and we can do it if we create spaces where women can feel comfortable reaching out for help and guidance. All it takes is a little support and a few more women like myself in senior technical roles paying it forward.
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 like to inspire people to always be curious and to continue to learn. I challenged myself last summer to try to study a bit of law, specifically civil procedure. It opened my eyes to understanding our legal system and how the law is shaped by current events. I surround myself with passionate individuals that help each other. Some are interested in honing their craft. Others are driven for delivery for overall success. Others still are driven by customer satisfaction. I bring this excitement of curiosity to the Swiftly mobile team by encouraging the team to experiment with newer frameworks like SwiftUI and Jetpack Compose.
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.
Melinda Gates. Her work in philanthropy and her continued promotion of women’s economic empowerment is inspiring.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.