…Teaching the art and importance of empathy from a young age. So much of the pain, hate, and caustic actions and words of today, in my opinion, could be avoided if we taught and practiced empathy. Learning the importance of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand their circumstances and reasons for their actions could result in more acceptance and integration from a young age, rather than allowing youth (and adults) to make fun of or discriminate against that which they do not understand.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Miral Kotb, creator and founder of iLuminate, an entertainment technology company that combines state-of- the-art technology with electrifying entertainers who perform in the dark to create the ultimate performing arts experience. A professional dancer and software engineer, Miral combined her two passions to create iLuminate’s patented technology that enables performers, choreographers, and artistic directors to create explosive performances with customized, wireless lighting programs that mesmerize audiences around the world. Since soaring to international fame as finalists on America’s Got Talent, iLuminate has been touring the globe, performing alongside Grammy-winning superstars, at theme parks, on television and off-Broadway shows. A prominent figure in the STEM arena, Kotb is also a two-time cancer survivor who shared her inspirational story of how she created and launched a global brand under difficult circumstances to become an “Artist of Light”.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us what brought you to this specific career path?
I have been dancing since I could walk and became interested in computers when I was 9 years old, just about the time that my parents bought a desktop for our house. Throughout my youth and my early career as a software engineer and dancer I kept both worlds separate — dance was an emotional outlet and computers kept me curious and challenged mentally. It was not until later that I started exploring combining my passions — and that is when iLuminate started.
Can you tell us how you created the fascinating light technology used in iLuminate — what inspired you to create this unique genre?
When I was at an Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference there were several sessions about how wireless technology was getting smaller and embedded wireless chips were becoming more readily available.
This initiated the wheels turning and trying to find a way to apply this to dance. I wanted to find a way to make dance more relatable to non-dancers. When I would invite engineering colleagues to dance performances many people would say “I don’t get it”, “it’s not for me” or were intimidated by dance. I wanted to find a way to make it more accessible to dancers and non-dancers alike. I figured adding lighting and technology to dance could add that wow and intrigue factor to help introduce a wider audience and showcase the beauty, fun and athleticism of dance.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
After our initial appearance on America’s Got Talent, the interest in iLuminate sky-rocketed and we needed to grow fast to keep up. iLuminate was invited to perform at Google Zeitgeist and I was also asked to speak. I did not have the time and resources at that time to research the event, fellow speakers and audience. So, I was in shock when Sir Richard Branson was on stage right before me… not only was it a huge honor, but it made me realize how relevant what I created is and instantly set the bar much higher for my personal and professional goals.
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?
I have a tendency to constantly update lighting cues. And, getting dancers into suits to test the cues is not always an option. I wrote a function to fade a dancer off last minute and did not get a chance to test the code. There was one character wrong which resulted in the dancer fading ON instead of OFF. She could not exit the stage easily in the play or between scenes. One performer decided to cover her with a blanket so she could sneak off– but the blanket was too transparent and just made the situation even more obvious. I would have fixed it right away, but I was performing. This was in the early stages, when budgets did not allow for me to hire as many people as I would have liked… so I had to wear quite a few hats.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
The people and the heart behind every performance and creation! We are a family with diverse backgrounds at iLuminate. A show consists of software engineers, hardware engineers, dancers, choreographers, technicians, lighting designers, sketch artists, office staff and more working together to create a show. We also have an international staff with people from Egypt, South America, Africa, Asia, Italy, Spain, Canada and so many more countries.
Can you tell us about new projects or new show elements that you have in the works now?
We are currently on tour in North America this fall and winter and have added interactivity and more amazing props and creatures to the show. We are also developing our education program so that young students from age 10 and up can create their own iLuminate shows with choreography, lighting cues, and learning how to build a simple light suit. For our live shows we are exploring 3D technologies and how to incorporate AR and VR into our shows.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Let people shine! Rather than trying to manage each aspect of a person’s job — let people know you trust them and watch from a distance. Also, give people the freedom to bring ideas and initiatives to the company. To this day we have different technical and artistic features that are named after the inventors.
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?
Alan Grow, our lead software engineer. He was so supportive when we were creating the technology, not just as a software developer, but as a friend. It was not easy but he never gave up, even when we faced major challenges in how to create the system.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We have been very focused on education, both domestically and internationally. STEAM is becoming quite popular and we want to give girls the opportunity to create their own iLuminate performances and understand the software behind the system. We also want to find ways to encourage girls to stick to engineering. Too many times I hear that as they get older the peer pressure of doing something more ‘girly’ leads them away from engineering, even when they love it and excel at it. We also perform at fundraisers to help raise money for cancer autism and education nonprofits.
How has being diagnosed with cancer changed your outlook on life and business?
It helped me realize day after day how lucky and blessed I am, both personally and professionally, and how to let things slide that really do not matter in the grand scheme of things.
I am so proud of every single member of iLuminate. They all pulled through in amazing ways to make sure we did not miss a single show and all facets of the company thrived during my treatment. The love and support from my family, friends and iLuminate family got me through some of the toughest moments, when I was seriously questioning if I could make it another day.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each).
1 — Forgiveness. When I lead by giving people the freedom to grow, this also means that mistakes will happen. But when you hire the right people you do not need to reprimand them or punish them when a mistake is made. They are so committed that they are already looking into ways to implement better systems to help avoid the same issues going forward.
2 — Give people the freedom to grow into new fields. Some of my best people came in as technicians or wardrobe specialists and are now office managers, show coordinators, show bookers, etc. When I see someone who is smart, a fast learner and eager to try new things, I capitalize on this and give them extra responsibilities. The results are astounding!
3 — Lead with kindness, not fear — The entertainment industry is a tough world… And the hustle is real… I have learned that if you have people’s backs and act professionally and mercifully then you create a happier, healthier and more motivated environment. I do not believe in leading by fear.
4 — Stay focused on innovation. I am proud to say that iLuminate has little turnover in all departments. I believe this comes not only from leading with kindness and trust, but always innovating. By pushing the boundaries and always coming up with new ideas, technologies, performances, etc. everyone within the company is always growing and facing new challenges.
5 — Do not allow emotion to lead decisions/emails/etc. Difficult situations arise everyday. I used to respond to emails immediately, allowing my emotions to shine through every word. I learned that there are certain emails or situations that should wait to be addressed. Either because the situation will diffuse itself naturally if it is an emotionally driven incident, or because an email written hours or even days later will be more factual and less emotional — resulting in a better outcome all around.
You are a person of great 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?
Teaching the art and importance of empathy from a young age. So much of the pain, hate, and caustic actions and words of today, in my opinion, could be avoided if we taught and practiced empathy. Learning the importance of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand their circumstances and reasons for their actions could result in more acceptance and integration from a young age, rather than allowing youth (and adults) to make fun of or discriminate against that which they do not understand.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Keep it Moving” Life is full of circumstances that are difficult, but rather than asking ‘why me’ or harking on decisions you wish you could change, just learn from every lesson and keep it moving. This has gotten me through many challenges, including 2 bouts with cancer and countless difficult professional and personal experiences.
Some of the biggest 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?
Elon Musk. He is a true artist, driven by the potential of greatness and always inventing and pushing the boundaries. As his success grows, it is clear it just fuels his curiosity and inspires more ideas. He is always reinvesting, motivated by changing the course of technology for the better, not by the bottom line.
Originally published at medium.com