The bigger changes are mentally and socially. Teenagers can get stir crazy from time to time. We had to celebrate their grandmother’s 90’s birthday on a Zoom call. Personally, I feel guilty about how much time they spend on video games. On the other hand, I am glad that they can continue to hang out with their friends online and be somewhat active.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Fu Thomas.
Helen is Chief of Staff and Chief Marketing Officer at DMAI, Inc. to lead the go-to-market strategy and commercialization of Cognitive AI technologies to empower teachers to provide more personalized instruction. AILA Sit & Play™, a new AI-driven edutainment system for toddlers, leads DMAI’s planned roll-out of at least four other AI applications within the next two years to improve healthy, joyful living throughout all stages of life, from K-12 to elder care.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
It’s a long story. Here is a snapshot. I was born and raised in Beijing, China. After earning my BS degree in International Finance in China, I went to Canada and then came to the U.S. for graduate school. My career started after I graduated from the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley with my MBA. By the way, UC Berkeley has the most startup founders and entrepreneurs after Stanford and MIT. I joined LeapFrog. Before Apple launched the iPad, LeapPad was the first interactive edtech platform. I was part of the team growing the global business exponentially and became the founding CEO of LeapFrog China after I built educational businesses in Japan and South Korea. Then I joined another startup, Livescribe, and launched the world’s first smartpen worldwide. At the beginning, I was the only female and minority senior staff member. From there, I started two other companies from scratch, Bluefocus Communication Group of America and Touchjet USA, Inc., as founding CEO. In the past 12 months, I’ve been working with the founders of DMAI (Dark Matter Artificial Intelligence) and successfully launched their first product, Animal Island Learning Adventure (AILA) Sit & Play, an intelligent monitor and edutainment system, for parents to support their toddlers’ cognitive development and early education. It is the #1 New Release on Amazon in the Toddler Electronic Learning System category. What is really rewarding is to impact people’s lives in education early on. At the same time, I am on the governing Board of Directors at Hospice by the Bay, a non-profit healthcare organization in the Bay Area and the second hospice institution in the United States.
With COVID-19, I am seeing increasing demands for an essential virtual preschool program at work and how essential healthcare workers need all the in-person protection equipment and telemedicine tools they can get.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
There are many interesting stories, but the one that comes to mind most immediately involves Jenny White and her family. Jenny White is a mother of three, and her daughter Logan won our first social media campaign, which we called America’s Got Baby.
But first, a bit of background. At DMAI, we are developing artificial intelligence (AI) that helps make individuals better learners. In our research, led by education experts from Pearsons, one of the most respected publishers in the world, as well as from Columbia University, we were noticing that early childhood — the time before most children formally begin school — actually offers the highest return on investment in terms of education intervention. So, we have dedicated talent, time, and resources to focusing on this part of the larger puzzle of education and personal achievement. The gains do not magically appear; it obviously takes time to raise a child, and parents are vital and irreplaceable in the process of raising a child. So we knew that, in terms of our vision of the educational path — the “journey” as we call it — parents have to be included and fully involved because no one knows the child better than his or her parents.
And we saw hundreds of attentive and responsive parents engaging with their children in ways that we as a company value, because we care about creating high-quality educational content that helps children grow into strong lifelong learners.
During our winter holiday social media campaign, Jenny White stood out to us. She was fantastic with Logan, so we flew her family out to Los Angeles to shoot our first commercial as real-life users of our groundbreaking product. Like all good parents and teachers, Jenny understands what motivates each of her children. “What we have learned through the vast differences in our own children,” Jenny said, “is that the common denominator in teaching is presence.” Attentive, supportive, and responsive, Jenny combined digital technology with books and other physical objects to teach and develop her children in innovative ways.
Jenny’s visit was an amazing week for the entire DMAI community as we were joining together with parents to make learning fun, stimulating, and enjoyable for so many toddlers. Families like Jenny’s got the chance to learn that we are real, raising our own children, and wanting great education for them as well. And the entire DMAI company is behind our initial product, Animal Island Learning Adventure (AILA) Sit & Play. During the social media campaign, employees pledged devices to parents, the kind of commitment that shows our belief in this product in making people’s lives better and lifting humanity.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As I always tell my team, a day is a month, especially when you are a startup like us. And, yes, we are working on many groundbreaking projects that will help people along their life journeys with our cognitive AI platforms.
We have started our journey with our first product, AILA Sit & Play for toddlers, and we will go on to preschool (we are currently in daycare centers), then to K-12, and beyond. For us, it is all about the journey. And it is really exciting for an AI company to have the mission of lifting humanity, of applying our innovative insights to technology that help people learn naturally. And along with learning, we are invested in helping people live better lives with cognitive AI.
We have more than three hundred people in our company worldwide. The majority of them are PhDs with some holding master’s degrees in computer science specializing in AI, natural language processing, or computer vision — all top talent doing research and development and creating high-quality educational content powered by a unified theory of artificial intelligence.
And we have additional products and educational content that we will roll out within the next twelve to eighteen months, so stay tuned!
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?
Yes, but there are quite a few. I’ll start with Chuck Smutny. In the early 90s, I was new to this country and to the Bay Area. I saw a job ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. (Yes, corporations used to post jobs in the local newspaper!) It was for an international business coordinator position at S&W Fine Foods, an almost 100-year-old gourmet grocery brand. I applied and was fortunate to get an interview. It was not with the HR or the managers but with Chuck himself, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Operations. He’s a legend, and one of the best sales executives in the consumer-packaged food industry. At the end of the interview, Chuck walked me out of his office and all the way to the elevator. He said, “Helen, you’ve made it all the way from Beijing, China, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Bay Area, and now to my office. I think I should give you a chance.”
The next week, to my delight, Chuck himself called me, not HR, and offered me the job. Initially, I was appointed as a data analyst for the entire international sales team who reported to Chuck. He also managed all the domestic sales, supply chain, and operations. Among all his direct reports, who were all much older and more senior than I, somehow, I was the first to carry an IBM Thinkpad to create all the Excel and PowerPoint presentations, while others still asked their assistants to type memos on typewriters. From there, I was promoted to become the Assistant Business Manager, Manager, and eventually Senior Manager, for which I am forever grateful to Chuck.
S&W sponsored my MBA studies at Haas, for which I am also very grateful. Without that, I likely would not have become a global marketer and executive, or at least not nearly as rapidly.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented; and it will have lasting impacts on humanity and the way we live, work and learn (including getting educated at traditional institutions). To answer your question, the biggest family related challenges for me personally are the following:
- My children’s education and extracurricular activities: my son David (18 years old) and daughter Catherine Lily (15 years old) are Senior and Freshman students at Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in western Massachusetts. Luckily, they returned home to California for the long Spring Break in early March before the lockdown on the east coast occurred. They have sheltered-in-place safely with me since then. Their online classes on Zoom start early in the mornings on weekdays because of the time zone differences. They work on various homework assignments over the Internet with their peers or by themselves throughout the week, including the weekends. So, we have separate workstations at home. Sometimes, we are all on Zoom at the same time, which has its own challenges.
- From an intimate, private boarding school setting to remote home online education, it has been a big change. In addition to my workload in the middle of our product launch, I have to care for them and support their daily needs as well as other activities. It is painful to see my son’s last high school baseball season robbed by the novel coronavirus. As the captain of Deerfield’s varsity team, David was excited to play this spring. Now he has to do all he can to stay in shape for his collegiate baseball career, which is unclear at this point. My daughter is a ballerina. She takes various styles of ballet, stretching and strength training classes throughout the week, now “virtually” through Zoom.
- Safety, mental happiness, and social activities: The coronavirus pandemic has exposed us to health threats that my children never imagined. We have to adapt to self-isolation and social distancing. My daughter would forget to wear a mask when we were in the grocery store even though we had masks, gloves, and disinfectant wipes in the car as well as at home.
- The bigger changes are mentally and socially. Teenagers can get stir crazy from time to time. We had to celebrate their grandmother’s 90’s birthday on a Zoom call. Personally, I feel guilty about how much time they spend on video games. On the other hand, I am glad that they can continue to hang out with their friends online and be somewhat active.
- Errands and chores such as grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning: Eating healthy with two teenagers while minimizing store runs is not easy. I enjoy cooking. My children help with the chores. But staying mostly inside 24/7 between work and school, it gets challenging indeed.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Stay connected with the internet and minimize frustrations over technology. Wi-Fi is a necessity. Be tech savvy. Have the family situated well for work and education. I understand this is where the inequality exists for low-income and less educated families, unfortunately. Our society should find tangible ways of aiding — not just in food and shelter but also with technology and connectivity.
What I do at home with my children is mostly to keep them calm and engaged. The kitchen is a communal place where we have laughter and keep up our positive energy. We also spend mealtimes together and watch short episodes of shows together. My daughter has been reading different fiction series. Card games and a pool table also help keep us away from screens.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
Last year I read the book Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail, recommended by Peter Diamandis. One of the best practices is to build a virtual workforce in an information-enabled environment. Now in a pandemic, my virtual team of talents all around the world has delivered consistent performance and exceeded expectations. That said, here are the biggest work-related challenges I am facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic:
- Maintain productivity during these trying and anxious times with employees working remotely. As I have mentioned before, we are in the middle of launching our first commercial product, Animal Island Learning Adventure (AILA) Sit & Play, an intelligent monitor and edutainment system for toddlers (12–36 months). The last week of February, I was in New York City for my media tour. When the pandemic hit the world in the first half of March, we were not sure whether we could keep our official launch date. We did. On March 31st, our press release went out (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/dmai-launches-animal-island-learning-adventure-aila-sit–play-301032566.html). In April, we made record sales week after week.
- Face the uncertainties and significant downturns in the economy, especially in the retail stores. Our original rollout plan included stores such as Best Buy and Target in Q4, 2020. Right now, we can only count on online and TV home shopping channels. At the same time, due to essential businesses taking priorities at Amazon, we experienced much, much longer than normal lead times on Amazon.
- Handle the tensions between the US and China that cause supply chain disruptions and higher product costs. Even though the factories are back to production, air freights and other costs are less predictable and more expensive.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Have a flat and collaborative organization with clear objectives and dashboards. I am accessible to everyone on my team. There are many 1:1 conversations that occur throughout the week. At the same time, regular conference calls with various groups help me keep up productivity, collaboration, and communication across the team. We develop and keep up data analytics and dashboards for everyone to keep track of progress. At the same time, we look for efficiencies with technology and automation. We try to be tech driven and digitally effective.
By adapting quickly and strategically, we have been able to balance between our own online store and logistic fulfillment of centers in Southern California with our Amazon seller’s account and their fulfillment services.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
It is best to have the right mindset — a growth mindset, not fixed. This is a world of connectivity wherever you are; work and family coexist but should be in proper balance. It is clear that workers in tech who have families with digital resources are in a better situation than most as they can telecommute effectively and educate their children digitally. My advice, then, is to be adaptive, especially with the use of various technologies.
On the other hand, the coronavirus pandemic also reminds us of how vulnerable we are as human beings no matter what technological advancements we have achieved. Therefore, we must be attentive, supportive, and responsive to our families, especially in our children’s learning. So how do we balance work and family while both can be overwhelming at the same time? My thoughts are the following:
LIFE IS SIMPLE — let us start there.
It is hard to imagine for any new parents, given all the excitement and anxiety, but the best environment for a baby is calm and consistent with a basic routine. While babies develop physically and intelligently, security and comfort really build the foundation. That is why holding them closely, exposing them to laughter, music and stories, hydrating and feeding them on regular schedules and keeping them clean (with diapers changed in time and pleasurable bath time) all do wonders to a happy little child. These basic fundamentals set the tone for parenting and at-home learning conditions.
PARENTING IS WORK — it takes all that you have to make it happen.
Attentive, supportive and responsive parents raise happy and smart children because they are fully engaged and confident to learn something new every day. It is hard and exhausting to keep up with the little ones all the time. What typically is mistaken by people is stimulation may excite children for the moment, it does not sustain the ongoing connectivity. Sometimes people pay too much attention to the entertainment part of the mix. Parenting is a real job. A healthier relationship between human beings is give and take with anticipated manners and patience. Therefore, parents should be the role models from the beginning. Pay attention. Have the eye contacts. Listen carefully. Show interest and empathy. Help solve problems. Take actions.
NO SCREENS — once the children see you distracted with screens; they will be too.
Try NOT to be distracted while being with your baby. Your ignoring the child either by looking at your smartphone, staring at the TV, playing solitaire on iPad or just talking with family and friends will encourage the children to act up to grab your attention and start to ignore you when you call on them.
CONTENT, CONTENT, CONTENT — give your child useful brain food.
Learning is a process. It takes time but also takes great content. Good exposures and lasting habits make wonders in life for good readers, mathematicians, designers and engineers. Whatever someone is going to do, it all starts with curiosity and learning capability. So, training a child to learn is essential with high quality content in all formats ongoing.
Do not give in easily. What I do not like about tablets is that they let people turn the pages and swipe through apps. How do you train anyone’s attention span if everything just comes and goes so easily? It must start early for children to appreciate great content and understand a reasonable process.
CONVERSATION — it is the flow of love and information for good life.
Converse with children. Lower yourself to their eye level and speak with them attentively even before they learn to respond. Build connection and understanding as a constant practice. Have activities between you and your children. Being part of their routines. These activities evolve over time as they grow. But be there for them and be part of what they do will save parents lots of trouble later on.
SENSE OF HUMOR — keeps things healthy at home.
Having laughter around the house is the best medicine for health and happiness for all. With all the above, it is a lot for any parent to work and look after their children at home during this coronavirus pandemic.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
To start with, I am very appreciative of such time together as a family and am doing everything I can to enrich our experiences during such unprecedented pandemic times. Before my children went to the boarding high school thousands of miles away, I used to spend lots of time traveling with them either for baseball tournaments or dance performances. We have developed good rhythms mentally supporting each other wherever we are.
To me, having both of my children sheltered in place with me is almost a gift. My son is a Senior in high school. He will go to Johns Hopkins University starting in the Fall. In the past three and half years, he has been in boarding school and traveling for baseball during the summers. Being home is a little strange for him. But I am thrilled to have him and my daughter together for these extended months. There are lots of uncertainties in the world. But we have each other’s company. We are all busy with our daily schedules. While we have individual workspaces, we share times in the kitchen and living room. We enjoy delicious homemade meals and watching short shows together.
Here are some useful strategies for staying sane and serene. Take a day at a time. Do not be anxious about “when it is over,” “how we can be back to normal,” or “what is going to happen with school in the fall.” There are too many uncertainties to make an actionable plan. So, my approach is simply to focus on productivity, a healthy mindset, and a daily routine executed in a pleasant and calm way amongst us. We all affect each other, especially during such trying times. Therefore, be mindful of the balance and move along calmly from project to project.
For example, my daughter had to do an art project for her Asian History class at Deerfield. She chose to study Chinese art and calligraphy. She developed a budget and purchased water painting supplies online. Then she spent days practicing how to draw bamboo following Chinese masters on YouTube. She almost had an anxiety attack the night before the presentation. However, she stepped up instead of asking for an extension, and presented her learning journey in front of her class on Zoom that morning. She received lots of positive feedback from her peers. One of her teacher’s comments was “it may seem simple, but drawing bamboo is not easy”. This project actually helped my daughter achieve a level of serenity that I hadn’t imagined could happen. And we’ll always treasure her painting (see the attachment): “Simplicity. Tortuous repetition. Soothing schedule.” by Catherine Lily Thomas.
Cooking is a therapeutic activity for family lives during such times as well. We try different recipes and try to be creative with healthy eating throughout the day. My daughter bought a blender so that she can make smoothies while my son insisted on a toaster oven so that he can make his breakfast bagel sandwiches with his homemade avocado spread together regularly. I encourage independence while I enjoy making daily family dinners for unity. I think my son will miss these meals once he moves out for college!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I understand the anxiety and am concerned about how information impacts people’s minds and consequently their work and lives. Here are my Five Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Coronavirus Crisis:
- The unprecedented crisis has brought our attention to healthcare. There will be reforms for us all to be better off in the near future.
- Humanity’s vulnerability during this pandemic will humble us and help us learn to be rationing with our natural resources. We are also paying attention to hygiene and disinfection in public places.
- Climate Change sees hope as we cut back activities and pollution across the globe.
- Education has become front and center at home for parents. It connects families to pay more attention to their future and educates everyone on technology and connectivity. It forces us to level the technology playing field, if you will, given the needs of online classes.
- Better work-life balance has developed as we spend more time at home, paying more attention to our families and partners
- The pandemic forced us to our roots. Human lives used to be more basic and better home oriented. The appreciation of our families and loved ones is more prominent than ever. That gives hope to us all to be better off in the long run.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Be attentive, supportive and responsive (ASR).
Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” As parents we have the once in a lifetime opportunity to give our children a head start in life. We have to start with paying attention. And, in return, they’ll learn to pay attention to what we say and, gradually, what they have to learn for a prosperous life. Mobile technology gives us access to information at our fingertips. At the same time, we are constantly distracted by our smartphones and tablets. We forget to pay attention to our loved ones, colleagues and even teachers. One of the biggest challenges for remote virtual learning and education is to ensure that individuals (students, our children) are actually paying attention and not cheating or taking the easy way out.
Be supportive by not just being there for them with your undivided attention but also by providing resources and assistance to enable them. This takes consistency. Once you lose someone’s trust, it’s hard to recover it. Being with your children 24/7 during this unprecedented crisis in modern times makes it the ultimate test for our ultimate role as a parent-educator. Studies have shown that more involvement by parents improves their children’s performance at school. It’s sad to say that teachers and school systems, besides being key educators, have become the frontline caregivers and healthcare providers for children in poverty in this country.
Be responsive not reactive. Children act up when they don’t get the attention they need, but more importantly, when they are desperate for interaction and engagement. Have regular conversations. Don’t put off activities or family time, especially during such times of anxiety and uncertainty as we’re now facing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is a well-known “Life Lesson Quote” in Chinese by one of the philosophers in history — Mencius.
Basically, it says adversity strengthens a person. The more a person is experienced, the more mature he or she is to become and be capable of taking on greater and greater responsibilities.
When Heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on man,
it will first fill his heart with suffering,
toil his sinews and bones,
expose his body to hunger,
subject him to extreme poverty,
confound his journey with setbacks and troubles,
so as to stimulate his alertness, toughen his nature,
and eventually overcome his incompetencies and prepare him for opportunities.
How can our readers follow you online?
Helenfuthomas is my username on all of these social channels:
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!