Learning never stops: After twelve years, I’m still asking questions everyday. I ask questions of my business partner, my team, our partners, colleagues and people in various circles who have different areas of expertise. The best part about asking is you’re constantly learning something new. It’s how you use that constant influx of knowledge that helps drive our business.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing June Lai, CEO of Catalyst.
June Lai is the Co-Founder and CEO of Catalyst, a global consumer technology company. She began her career as a scientist and worked for investment banks covering the healthcare, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Although June holds a number of degrees and certifications, her love of adventure (avid rock climber and recreational pilot) and consumer technology gadgets directed her success. She started Catalyst 12 years ago — with a concept design for one case that addressed a personal pain point. Today, Catalyst is a globally recognized leader in their space, with hundreds of product skus, distributed and sold in more than 70 countries around the world.
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 began my career as a scientist and then worked in finance in investment banking and corporate development covering the telecom, media, tech, healthcare, biotech, pharma and insurance industries. I studied Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and have my MBA from Ivey Business School.
I’ve studied a lot (I’m a Chartered Financial Analyst, Certified Public Accountant and Certified Management Accountant), but my love of adventure rivals my love of learning. I am also an avid rock climber (as much as I can be right now), a recreational pilot, and I’ve always been a bit of a gadget geek…which brings me to the last 11 years of my career.
I was always an entrepreneur at heart and after years in a corporate role, identified the right opportunity where I would still have an impact but got to build and grow a company from scratch.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I can’t say there is just ONE story over the last 11 years because we’ve had so many amazing encounters. I’m going to group the experience — and say, as the Catalyst brand gained recognition and a reputation for performance and quality above all others in the market, especially in the waterproof space, we found it extremely flattering and exciting when we’d see celebrities, people of influence and journalists using the products whether it was captured in magazines, on social media or we would see them at a trade show. Without any prompt, or endorsement — they chose Catalyst for the everyday protection on their devices.
Sir Richard Branson photographed himself using our cases on this boat and posted it on Instagram. At tradeshows, we’ve had celebrities from Wesley Snipes to Joey Fatone and Nate Morris stop by our booth to outfit their phones. And we’d see tech journalists at shows, and even though they cover and stop in to visit dozens of case companies, what they had on their personal devices, was Catalyst. That was a huge compliment and extremely interesting to see as we watched our brand grow.
It’s not just the products that began to get global recognition. I started to get called on consistently as an industry expert to speak at conferences for Shopify and Amazon, and was invited to collaborate in leadership groups for Amazon sellers, ecommerce sellers and women’s leadership groups. What we were doing was being noticed, and how we did it was something people wanted insight into.
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?
You definitely learn a lot when you’re starting your own business and many moments are humbling at the time and quite amusing when you look back on them years later. When you start out as an entrepreneur, you are the CEO, CFO, head of marketing, sales manager and chief janitor. EVERYTHING is on you, and if you want to be successful, you need to put ego to the side and get your hands dirty.
When we were preparing to launch our first Kickstarter campaign, we needed a marketing video to showcase the function of our first case but did not have a budget to hire a video team. So, like most start-ups, we did it ourselves.
We got some colleagues together, none of whom had any video experience or training, and went to work. We were the actors, directors, producers, camera operators and editors. In the opening scene, I had to run down the beach which was absolutely out of my comfort zone, and then we needed more than 20 takes until we got it right. It’s one of those moments you replay today for a few good laughs and appreciate how far we’ve come.
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?
Hands down, I’d say my business partner, and our Chief Designer, Josh Wright. Catalyst would not be today if it were not for his creativity, skilled work in design and development, and our aligned vision for the brand from day 1. My background is in business, finance and market analyst with development over time of marketing and legal skills. But if you don’t have strong products to drive the business, sales and customer loyalty — it will fail over time.
From the first product he designed, we came into the market strong with a solution for iPhone protection at a level not yet achieved by competitors. Since then, Catalyst has been the first or ONLY company to design and release some product categories including the first to launch a case for AirPods in spring of 2017, the only company to make a waterproof case for Apple Watch that’s 330ft waterproof, and the only company to make a 100% waterproof case for the iPad 12.9’ device.
We took that a step further with our Total Protection series that’s 100% washable and able to be disinfected in accordance with CDC guidelines. We also created and released a completely sealed case for the AirPods Pro that’s waterproof to 330 feet.
These are design accomplishments many companies have tried to replicate and failed. The industry and our customers wait to see what Josh and his team create next. Our partnership has made Catalyst what it is today and I’m very proud of our collective achievements.
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?
This is absolutely a gap that time and culture is slowly closing, but there is much more work to do. In the tech sector, this disparity has historically been more prominent than other industries. The fact is, women have been making their mark in the technology field for years, and today, there are more women in the tech field than ever before — encouraging future generations to follow.
When I was growing up, modern technology was in its infancy and there were very few women pursuing careers in this field. There are still times when I’m the only woman/minority in the room.
There are various reasons why gender inequality still exists, but what worked for me has been to speak up, participate, not be afraid to have a different point of view, to listen to others and respond with an thoughtful and insightful response, and overall to get involved in the discussion and decision making process — to empower and encourage everyone and at every stage of their career to openly discuss issues; instilling the understanding that there is no wrong answer.
The short answer is: there has been a generational evolution for women in tech and women founders, and the more we encourage younger generations of women, the stronger this movement becomes. Young girls and women today don’t think twice about their ability to have an impact and change lives through their contribution to the industry, and actively engage their talents in the field without hesitation. That’s a powerful evolution as we work to close the gap in numbers.
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?
This is a societal mind-shift, and as I said before, it’s already made significant shifts in the last couple of decades. Most people don’t assume the man in the group is a CEO and the woman is his secretary. There are way too many women in positions of power and that number continues to rise.
From my vantage point, women lead differently but that contributes to their effectiveness. I find that women are more collaborative in their approach, lead by listening to and engaging others, and want to empower others to succeed. As individuals and as a society we need to listen, read the room and take stock in what people have to say and the value of their contributions — not their gender.
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?
Women have a lot to contribute. If someone has the knowledge, the drive and the desire to make their mark on an industry, they should pursue that path — and women today are equally encouraged to contribute and achieve at the highest levels. Not everyone — man or woman — has what it takes to be a founder. But the entrepreneurial spirit is more prevalent in the younger generation of women — and their desire to create, achieve and succeed is an incredibly powerful force.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
First, it’s not all glamorous. We tend to see company founders after they’ve ‘made it’. They seem to have it all together and their success from the outside is envied. But few people were up close to see the journey from day 1; the stress, the failures, the struggles, the growing pains and the ups and downs that got them to that point. It’s a lot of work, sleepless nights and heartache — but as a founder of a company that’s highly successful today, I can tell you, the journey is worth it.
There’s also a misconception that your success is all about you. That could not be further from the truth. The larger and more successful you get, the larger your team gets and that team is instrumental in the overall success of the company. As a founder, you are responsible for each one of their livelihoods, and that is a huge responsibility and one I take very seriously.
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?
To found or start a company is easy, but to grow it to be successful and to build it to last is difficult. Often when you start a company, it’s based upon one idea, but it needs to evolve as you understand the market better. It also takes a different skillset to scale a company successfully and to build and lead a team.
A good leader is inspiring, motivating, involving and engaging. Leadership is about self-awareness so it is important to know yourself well enough that you can be honest and authentic. The core elements of leadership are integrity and authenticity, so you need to know your good and bad parts, be vulnerable and talk about the challenges. You cannot take shortcuts or make false promises. You need to own and analyze your mistakes and identify what you’ve learned. Delivering on your promises pays dividends in the long run not just for your team but also your customers and having a learning process is critical if you want people to follow you.
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.)
- Learning never stops: After twelve years, I’m still asking questions everyday. I ask questions of my business partner, my team, our partners, colleagues and people in various circles who have different areas of expertise. The best part about asking is you’re constantly learning something new. It’s how you use that constant influx of knowledge that helps drive our business.
- Get comfortable in your own skin: As much as the industry has changed and evolved, there are many times I am still one of few or the only woman in the room. I’m completely comfortable there and know what I have to contribute is valuable and respected by my male colleagues. As a female founder in these spaces, you have to be confident and comfortable. If you’re not comfortable today — recognize the hurdle and work to overcome it. Get comfortable in your own skin. Get used to being the only woman in the room. Get involved and contribute to every conversation. It’s critical to your growth and success as well as the women coming up in your industry.
- Strategically build your team: When you start a company, it’s not long before you grow beyond yourself, and your range of expertise. As a leader, you need to recognize your strengths but more importantly, recognize and appreciate the strengths of others. Build a strong team around you and trust them to do what they’re good at.
As your team grows, there will likely be a range of personality types that you as a leader need to navigate and manage to get the most out of each person. You need to recognize how each team member processes information, how they communicate and what they need to deliver the best possible result.
- Play chess not checkers: When you start a company and begin to grow, it is critical to be thinking three steps ahead of where you are. As the founder, it is your job to develop strategies that sustain and grow the company. You should always be looking ahead. Industries are constantly changing and evolving, technologies are advancing, and market conditions are always changing. You have to be positioned to adapt quickly.
- Be able to adapt: This builds perfectly off the last point.
The world is vastly different than it was two years ago. The way we do business and speak to our customers is different. Consumer buying habits and expectations have changed. Many companies did not survive the last 18 months as challenges compounded in global logistics & supply chain, demand dropped for some goods, revenue declined, and some companies did not adjust.
We however have come out stronger, due to our strategic leadership and the ability to adjust to market changes in privacy, marketing and working with new and existing channels to focus on invention, innovation and design — not just on products.
In 2020 every company was tested. Catalyst was not isolated from the fall out but was prepared to quickly adapt and shift the focal point as the only protective case on the market for electronic devices to be 100% washable and able to be disinfected in accordance with CDC guidelines. This focus became the most important feature for consumers and critical in the B2B space in which hospitals and health care facilities turned to Catalyst for protection of handheld devices in their facilities.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We try to use the success of the brand to create strategic alignments that give back to causes and efforts that we’re closest to. Through our Catalyst Cares program, we support a charity each year that aligns with our core values and roots like the Nature Conservancy. Most recently, we made a commitment to donate a 1 dollar from the sale of every Total Protection Case to the CDC Foundation in an effort to support education and protection programs needed as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic.
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.
The Catalyst brand was born out of our love for the outdoors, adventure, and nature. If I could inspire a movement, it would be one that better conserves our planet for future generations. Setting unrealistic goals of going completely green in all aspects of life and business is unattainable and allows defeat to set in easily. If every company and every person just made small life changes (recycling, eliminating the purchase and use of styrofoam, limiting the amount of plastics used in packaging (for businesses), transitioning your energy use to renewable sources), the collective impact would be monumental.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.