Get really comfortable saying no. It has taken me a very long time to learn this, but now I’ve got it down. This can apply to anyone in any field. The truth is, when you say yes to things, you are also implicitly saying no to other things. You can’t do everything. You can’t even do most things. So learning early on to say no instead of passively saying no to things by always saying yes as a default is more direct and will serve you better in the long run as you build a business.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Camilla Olson.
Born in Alaska and currently in California, Camilla is a serial entrepreneur, inventor and former fashion designer. She started her career in venture capital as one of the few women working in the industry at the time before going on to found two big data predictive modeling companies in the pharmaceutical industry. One of these companies had its IPO. The other was acquired for $95M a year after its founding. After these exits, Camilla returned to graduate school to learn fashion design. Her first fashion collection was selected to be shown at Lincoln Center as part of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York. Designs from her eponymous collection have appeared on the red carpets of the Academy Awards, Met Gala and the White House.
Camilla’s current company, Savitude, scales designers’ creativity with the aid of artificial intelligence. Using Savitude AI solutions, designers and design teams spend more time focusing on creating and less on the analysis and technical work required to revise collections from concept so they match real body types across diverse customer populations and geographic markets. The result is increased customer satisfaction, significantly reduced fit-based returns and the ability to efficiently serve today’s rapidly diversifying consumer populations. Savitude has been listed in Forbes as one of 60 Women-Led Startups That Are Shaking Up Tech Across The Globe, placed in the top 12 of Project Entrepreneur 2017, competed on the stage of Techcrunch Disrupt Battlefield NY 2017 and participated in Techstars 2017.
In 2019, the company recently completed the Nasdaq Milestone Makers program, WXR-Verizon 5G accelerator and was selected to be in the the Samsung | Verizon NEXTG showcase.
A lifelong inventor, Camilla holds two U.S. patents and has three more pending. In 2011, she received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the University of Maryland and Honorable Mention as “Best Second Act Reinvention” on the website SecondAct.com. She was a TEDx speaker January 2016 and has been recognized as of the top 10 entrepreneurs over 60 by Seniorly magazine.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After graduating from college with a microbiology degree, I started out my career as an analyst at Johnson & Johnson. I worked for a number of years and eventually got my MBA. From there, I combined my knowledge in pharma/healthcare with my interest in business and took on a role as one of the very few women investors during the 1980’s. Next, after a series of investments for what is now the private equity firm Apax, I left investing and began to start companies of my own, first with corporate partners. After those successes, I founded three companies with ties to the pharmaceutical/healthcare space. Two of these companies relied heavily on predictive modeling, which from a thousand miles high would look similar to the process we use today at Savitude, albeit in an entirely different industry. The two predictive modeling companies ended up having successful exits.
And that’s where the story gets interesting. I had this whole background in business and science, but I was looking for the next thing. I happened to take my daughter on a college tour of a fashion design program that she was considering. I was fascinated. I wanted to be there. She didn’t end up applying, but I did. After years in the workforce and founding companies, I went back to school to learn fashion design and, if I’m being honest, to learn how to make a Chanel-type jacket, because I’d developed a bad habit there. When I graduated, I continued working on the collection I started in the program and turned it into a luxury e-commerce label. As I was doing that, I learned firsthand about retailers’ and brands’ problems with returns, and how fit and, more specifically, shape with fit are a big part of the problem and what causes customers to return items. Suddenly, I saw a need in the fashion industry that I knew I was uniquely able to address with my predictive modeling experience. Combining my experience as a fashion designer with starting and exiting predictive modeling companies opened the door to starting Savitude, which uses artificial intelligence so fashion brands can create designs that better serve their customers, reduce returns and usher in a whole host of benefits ranging from lower carbon footprints to less waste and higher customer satisfaction.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting story is how we got the song we frequently use in the videos and other content we create to market Savitude. It’s by Justin Tranter, a prolific pop song writer and Grammy nominee who’s written songs for Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and a whole host of other major artists. So how does an early stage startup in the AI space get one of the most sought-after songwriters in the world to create their video music? Some friendly competition for a good cause. I was with my family at an annual dinner for a nonprofit, and they had a live auction. One of the auction items was called “the song.” I didn’t know what it was, but I immediately wanted to have it (much to my husband’s disappointment, I ended up having to bet on it against the Getty family). To make a long story short, Savitude has a song from Justin. The custom-penned tune he did for Savitude was requested as an upbeat women’s anthem. It is called Make Room, and it’s now the song track for all our videos.
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?
Tobe honest, almost every day has mistakes, and I choose to think of them as funny. I try to learn the best I can from them. If you’re running a startup, having a sense of humor is really the best thing you can do. Think of it this way: if you take yourself too seriously, you will age much too quickly, and you’ll never live to succeed.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Almost every day, we wow someone with the realization that there are actually nine basic women’s body shapes — yet the fashion industry only designs and fits for one of them, the hourglass shape. It’s been the case for decades, and it’s no wonder so many women struggle to find clothing that not only fits, but also flatters their bodies. And it goes far beyond fit. For many women, clothing is at the source of a huge number of frustrations, disappointments and disempowering moments. So often women blame themselves, their bodies and turn an outdated industry practice into a commentary on their own appearance and, in far too many cases, their self-worth. Yes, our core business is licensing artificial intelligence to fashion brands. But our mission is really about helping women look their best. Nothing distracts us from that. In addition to that, our team has deep experience in fashion design, and that’s something unique in our industry. We understand design and the details that go into great design in a way that allows us to think like fashion designers and make the best possible tools for designers and design teams.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, we’re working on an exciting private project in AI design in which we’ve demonstrated that we can use artificial intelligence to actually design clothes. Many large, household-name companies are trying to do this unsuccessfully. It gives me great joy to know that we can do it. I know that the reason we’ve been able to do it is because of our focus on fashion design details and because we consciously chose not to use a brute-force algorithmic approach.
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?
There need to be more women in the pipeline. There need to be more women mentors. Another way of putting this: there needs to be more women examples to follow. There are forces in the industry that are stopping all of these from happening. Money needs to go specifically for women in STEM. For example, I just finished an accelerator program focused on women in AI, AR and VR. But it was mostly a mentoring program, and it had no money. How can women get ahead without access to capital and experienced leaders to help show them the way? We need both.
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?
Ageism is a huge issue. That and access to capital. In our culture, older female entrepreneurs have a harder time getting ahead, getting funded and getting taken seriously than either their male counterparts or younger women. The irony is that by time we have developed the experience to do something groundbreaking and build a really interesting company with game-changing technology, we are often neither young nor cute anymore. There’s an unavoidable bias when you’re a startup founder over 50, female, and pitching venture capitalists, members of the media or even going out for corporate partnerships. It’s frustrating, because age and experience are what should actually instill more confidence, not less.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
That we’re all the same or that all women in STEM think the same way. Women in STEM are often lumped together like we’re one industry or have a shared perspective. Yes, many of us have similar experiences and areas of expertise. But we all have different perspectives. All too often, difference is perceived as dangerous and destabilizing. But the truth is that different perspectives lead to new learning. Different perspectives mixing together lead to new discoveries. For example, with Savitude, we never would have been able to see the need for this company without combining perspectives and experiences from the seemingly unconnected realms of predictive modeling through big data analytics and fashion design.
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. You have to show up to get the opportunity. When I think about this, I can find the courage to show up. And when you show up, the most unexpected things can happen. To be candid, when I took my daughter to the fashion school tour, I did it knowing she would hate it and the environment. It was something I knew she wouldn’t pursue, but I had to take her on the tour to get her to see that. I set her up, in a way. The unexpected thing though, was that my going there eliminated my own bias. In fact, it opened a whole new world to me and changed my life with a new degree, a new set of knowledge and a new mission in business and in life. Funny how that works.
2. You have to stay in the game in order to win. This idea gives me perseverance. Every successful entrepreneur will tell you the time when they almost shut the company down. It was so bleak, but they persevered. Every single company is like that. Our job as entrepreneurs is to figure out the correct solution to the problem. With Savitude, we have pivoted so many times that I have lost count. But now we’ve created a new way forward through AI Design. And that’s only because we kept asking questions and following our nose and staying in the game.
3. Don’t pay yourself until you can see revenue. There’s really no big story here, except the reality that I don’t have a salary even still. And you have to be comfortable figuring out ways to make things work before you are generating the revenue you want to see. Most businesses go through a pre-revenue period of time, and there are many ways to make that work. But you need to figure out how you will make it work, and then get to it.
4. Get really comfortable saying no. It has taken me a very long time to learn this, but now I’ve got it down. This can apply to anyone in any field. The truth is, when you say yes to things, you are also implicitly saying no to other things. You can’t do everything. You can’t even do most things. So learning early on to say no instead of passively saying no to things by always saying yes as a default is more direct and will serve you better in the long run as you build a business.
5. Spend part of every day dreaming. Remember why you are doing this. For me, I remind my husband that I want to replenish our retirement fund. We remember our original plan and dream we can get back to where we were financially. That’s my why, and it helps to fuel me and move me forward.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t take yourself too seriously or your team might take you too seriously, and that’s really dangerous because it can stifle creativity and feedback loops that lead to greater success.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Start practicing time management skills yesterday. You can’t do everything that comes across your plate or manage every aspect of the business. Instead, you need to become very strategic with what you personally take on and trust those on your team to manage the rest. The trick is knowing what you are absolutely best suited to handle, what to delegate and when to say no so you are able to protect the time you have for the things that matter most both inside and outside of the office.
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 only person that I would thank is my husband. There’s no way I’d be here without him. I never believed in myself fully until I married David. He gave me the space and security to explore work that I created. It was a huge gift. He resists getting involved in our business, but right now we are interfacing with on-demand manufacturing. He is an operations expert. Today we talked, and I asked him to kindly take that on to help me learn that area so we can best position the company. He will do an amazing job, and I have absolute confidence. So now, he can be part of our solution, and I’m really looking forward to that and our opportunity to work together.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Ithink our company is inherently bringing goodness to the world because we are helping women find clothes that not only fit their bodies, but flatter their body shapes and help them look good. When people feel good in what they’re wearing, they feel better about themselves and empowered to go out and do great things. It’s a longstanding injustice that we’re fighting against, and that injustice is the myth perpetuated by the fashion industry for decades that it’s your fault if your clothes don’t fit well or look right. That there’s something wrong with you, that you need to change your body shape. Honestly, that just makes me mad as hell, because there are so many women out there, especially young women, who struggle with body dysmorphia, eating disorders and depression tied to mistakenly believing they are not good enough. To change this, we want the fashion industry to be able to sell clothing made for the wide variety of body shapes that actually exist in the world. And to do that, designers and design teams need new tools to create clothing in an efficient, effective ways.
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. 🙂
Webelieve we are already inspiring a movement. Savitude is bringing about a huge amount of good for half of the population by using technology to make it possible for women of all shapes and sizes to dress in clothing that fits, flatters and makes them feel good about themselves. Just imagine, if half the population suddenly was able to feel markedly better on a daily basis, experience less shame and frustration, build more confidence and feel more empowered, think what could be possible in the world through everything they created?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Mine is really more of an important question a therapist asked me once rather than a famous quote by an authority figure. Sometimes the most ordinary questions from everyday people in your life make the biggest impact. So this therapist I was seeing asked me, do you think there is a rule book? You do, don’t you? And I responded, yes! Where is it? Why don’t I know what others know? Decades later, I realized that others are really thinking about themselves, so why not do what I think is the right thing to do until I think it is wrong? From there of course, you get into the question of what is wrong? The answer to that has changed over the course of my life, but now I have a broader, more conscious view of right and wrong. It’s more nuanced, less binary and aware of how complex life can be. But in sum, that question asked long ago led me to see that there is no rule book in life, and from there, develop my own understanding of what’s right and wrong, my own moral compass that guides me. And developing that is something I’d hope for everyone.
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 🙂
Oprah, because I’d like to understand how she really got through her difficult times.