Katie Hall: “Follow your heart and trust your gut”

The advice I always give my students at Wellesley is be yourself and don’t take yourself out of the game. I feel like too often, women think they aren’t good enough or aren’t what a team or company needs. Often that’s because they’ve only seen things done a limited number of ways, none of which […]

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The advice I always give my students at Wellesley is be yourself and don’t take yourself out of the game. I feel like too often, women think they aren’t good enough or aren’t what a team or company needs. Often that’s because they’ve only seen things done a limited number of ways, none of which may be the way that they would do it. But the way that they would do it might be great or might be the missing puzzle piece that would make a company truly amazing. At the end of the day, you could be the right person or have the right idea, so don’t count yourself out. If women started reminding each other of that more, and gave each other that confidence, I think we’d see a big shift in the number of women in tech and in leadership positions.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Hall. Katie is a researcher, entrepreneur and professor with a passion for invention and increasing women’s contributions to science. Currently, she’s the chief intellectual property officer at Ciprun Global and has held several other executive leadership roles over the course of her career, including CEO of Endeveo Corporation; chief intellectual property officer of Speedy Packets; chief strategy officer of Origin Wireless; CTO of WiTricity Corporation; founding partner of Wide Net Technologies and CTO of PhotonEx.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I graduated as one of just five physics majors at Wellesley College in 1984. I started working at Bell Labs and worked on some of the record-breaking “bit rate times distance” optical communication systems. After a few years there, I pursued my PhD in Electrical Engineering at MIT before working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

From there, I co-founded and became the CTO of Photon-Ex, a company that commercialized ground-breaking optical technologies. That really began my string of C-suite roles — I was CTO of WiTricity, chief strategy officer at Origin Wireless, chief intellectual property officer at Speedy Packets and now Ciprun Global and the CEO of Endeveo. I’m also a distinguished lecturer in Physics at Wellesley College.

I have had a lot of help along the way, mentors who believed in me and offered advice and support. I’ve also always been a hard worker and I have a competitive spirit, but I didn’t get to where I am today alone. I think it’s important to have people rooting for you along the way.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

To be honest, early in my career, I never thought I would eventually have an executive role. I was a researcher and an engineer and at the time, and I spent most of my time working in a lab and trying to demonstrate new technologies and techniques and I thought I would do that for my whole career. So I just never considered having an executive role.

However, what wound up really attracting me to executive positions was the ability to set goals for a company and then put together the team and the culture for the company. It was extremely attractive to me that I could put together and determine how teams would operate and that I had the ability to hire people who fit the company vision. It was inspiring to me that when all these people and parts came together, we could accomplish more than any of us dreamed.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As opposed to managers and company leaders, executives must have the ability to focus on everything inside the company, especially the employees, and everything outside the company, especially the customers. I realized this the most in my role as a CTO — I was constantly sitting between the research and engineering employees and the customers we were selling to. This meant that I needed to be able to lead the technical development to fix user problems, but also had to be able to translate technical concepts into language that our users and customers would understand. It’s a constant back-and-forth between two roles and executives especially need to have the ability to look at things from an internal and external perspective.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Being an executive means that you have real power to create positive change within your organization. You get to determine the culture and decide how formal or informal your company will be. Through this determination, you can create a culture where everyone’s voice is heard and all employees get credit for their successes. I’ve always valued open door policies and try to establish them within the companies I work at. When everyone feels like part of the same team and feels valued, work can become a really inclusive space. It can even start to feel like your co-workers are a second family — I love that as an executive I can put those wheels into motion.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The hardest part is making decisions that you know are going to hurt or disappoint people in your organization, like layoffs, and then having to be the one to share the news. That’s really hard and not anything anyone wants to do.

Any time you have to convey news people aren’t going to want to hear, that’s hard. But you have a responsibility to do what’s best for the company, so as hard as it is, you make what you think is the right decision and you carry it out.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think myths come from lack of communication. Especially at larger companies where there might not be open communication channels to the CEO or the CEO might not have many chances to interact with employees at all levels of the company, it’s easy to start believing that CEOs are fundamentally not interested in the same things as the employees are.

However, at smaller companies, while it’s always possible to have miscommunications, it’s more difficult for team members’ interests not to be aligned because you see each other all the time. I was always lucky enough to have worked in and led small companies, so I always saw the CEO as just another person at the organization. As a CEO, your goals are the same as everyone else’s and you’re still working with everyone else to achieve that mission.

Another myth that I personally don’t like is that a CEO doesn’t really understand the technology behind the product the company is selling. As if you can understand business or technology but not both. I’ve seen plenty of examples of CEOs who have both good technical and business judgement.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

A lot of times, I think people just don’t take women seriously. When somebody sees a woman in a position of power, they often wonder how she got there and think it’s unusual.

Personally, I’ve changed industries over the course of my career and I always feel like when I go into someplace new or a new position, that I have to prove myself as if I’m beginning at the start of my career. Too often, women just don’t get the benefit of the doubt that they are likely capable like their male counterparts.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I thought that at the executive level, I’d get to create really cool technologies and assemble teams to achieve great things, and I did, but there’s also so much more to it than that. As a CEO you have to be able to sell the company vision to investors, board members and customers. I learned pretty quickly that I couldn’t just be on the technical side of things — I’d have to be marketing the technology and the team as well.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

As an executive you need to be optimistic, and you have to be able to sell the vision for the product that the company is making. A CEO especially has to be optimistic about what tech can accomplish so that they can inspire everyone at their company to try to achieve that vision and inspire customers to want that technology be part of their lives. If you can’t master these two things, it might be hard to lead a company.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

The advice I always give my students at Wellesley is be yourself and don’t take yourself out of the game. I feel like too often, women think they aren’t good enough or aren’t what a team or company needs. Often that’s because they’ve only seen things done a limited number of ways, none of which may be the way that they would do it. But the way that they would do it might be great or might be the missing puzzle piece that would make a company truly amazing. At the end of the day, you could be the right person or have the right idea, so don’t count yourself out. If women started reminding each other of that more, and gave each other that confidence, I think we’d see a big shift in the number of women in tech and in leadership positions.

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?

After I graduated college, I worked at Bell Labs with a man named Bob Jopson. Bob had this way about him — when you walked in to discuss something with him he’d always start with, “You probably understand this better than I do, but the way I think about it is….” It was always an open conversation, and it was his way of welcoming my input. He was confident in me and wanted to hear what I had to say. We both knew he knew more than I did, but he always extended that invitation to be a part of the learning experience. He always gave me the benefit of the doubt, was encouraging and made me feel valued. I’ve never forgotten that. I always try to do that when I’m working with my students and people who are in their early career.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It’s always been my dream to make the world a better place. Originally, I thought I could do it by going into politics, but then I got bit by the physics bug and went into science.

If you look at people who are inventors or doing research, they really are trying to discover ways to make the world a better place. For example, during my time at WiTricity we focused on wireless power, which could make the world better by charging electric vehicles without plugging them in. We thought that was important in getting consumers to purchase these types of vehicles and in turn cut carbon emissions.

I think those of us that start businesses are also trying to make the world a better place by creating a workplace where people really love to come to work every day. I’m lucky because I love science and there’s that saying that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. I want to help others feel that way as well — I don’t want to be part of a company where people dread coming to work every day. Of course people need to be able to make a living, but they also have families and communities that need them to be their best selves, happy at work and optimistic about the future.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. I wish someone taught me how to negotiate salary and that is was OK to negotiate salary — to this day, I’m terrible at doing it. It actually wasn’t until I was in the C-suite that I realized that negotiating was a normal thing that people do it all the time, and over lots of things besides salary.
  2. Follow your heart and trust your gut. When looking at whether or not you want to work someplace, don’t let money or status drive you. Instead, really consider whether or not you’ll be happy there.
  3. I wish someone had told me that you can’t get your time back. I was working in startups when my children were very young and I always thought that if the company was successful enough, I wouldn’t have to work another day in my life and I could spend all of my time with them from then on. I thought that if I worked 24/7 then, I could make up the time later. It didn’t work out that way for me and even if it did, it was the wrong calculus because you can never get that time back.
  4. Starting a company isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon that you have to be ready to sprint through, so be prepared and make sure everyone in your life is on board with the commitment you are making. You have to be thoughtful and careful about spending time with the people who are important to you so that they don’t feel like they are less important to you than your work.
  5. There are people out there who will try to get ahead by inflating their accomplishments and degrading the accomplishments of others. Avoid people like that at all costs — they are trying to make you feel inferior to them and they will not be generous to you with advice, mentorship or ideas because they only care about themselves. Everyone’s contributions are unique, do not judge yourself against others.

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 really just want to get more women in science — which is exactly why I went back to Wellesley to teach. I didn’t see more women in the field than I did 35 years ago when I graduated, so I wanted to try to give back everything I’ve learned to this next generation to encourage them to pursue science and have a real passion for it. I’m also trying very hard to build a community in my classroom and the physics department that values the contributions of everyone interested in physics. Different people have different strengths and insights and we need all of those. Especially in this day and age, when technology is so important in our lives and where it is sometimes difficult to discern fact from fiction, it is more important than ever that we teach as many students as we can the scientific method and to think critically and demand evidence. Science is not a zero sum game where the only way to get ahead is at the expense of someone else. We need to work together and we need everyone’s voices and contributions. I knew that by going back to Wellesley, I would be able to help increase the diversity of voices and perspectives in science.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“When choosing a job, worry a lot more about who you work with than what you work on, because there are plenty of interesting problems in the world but if you are working with a bunch of jerks you will never be happy.”

I have always followed this advice. In fact, I have changed technical fields a couple of times because I didn’t force myself to stay on one project or one technology or to only work with one team. If I have an opportunity to work with talented and passionate people on a project to try to make the world a better place, I’ll take it because I know that I have the training and drive to learn anything I need to about the technology to contribute to its development. A talented and passionate team is hard to find.

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

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright because I love her books, her smarts and her wit…AND she is a Wellesley Alum. She is a straight talker and is honest about the ups and downs in her life.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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