The pandemic is unleashing a wave of creativity, which is exciting. My company builds and sells lighting solutions that really need to be experienced in person to be appreciated. That’s a challenge in this environment. We had to find a new way, so we rapidly launched a video demo that is close to the real experience. Even if your job doesn’t necessarily encourage creativity in the typical sense, reading about other people’s creativity or pursuing a new creative hobby like painting or writing can be inspiring or help change your own thinking.
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 our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liana Frey.
Liana is an accomplished marketer who successfully champions and launches new technology products. She is head of marketing at Ketra, a company that believes high quality lighting can have a profound impact on well-being.
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?
Early in my career, I rose up through Dell’s marketing and ecommerce organization, and worked towards the goal of making Dell one of the most digitally innovative brands during my tenure at the company. My team’s work was nationally recognized by Altimeter, a research firm, for creating the “most engaged” brand.
As a digital pioneer, I also advised global brands on marketing strategy as a practice leader at Fleishman Hillard. More recently, I’ve been a marketing leader and change agent at two start-ups in Austin. At Lithium Technologies (now Khorus), I led a strategic pivot from a product company to a platform solution, tapping into a much larger market and reigniting growth.
At Ketra, an incredibly successful startup founded in 2009, I’m utilizing storytelling skills to create unique and attention-grabbing digital and immersive experiences that creates higher awareness levels than competitors, who outspend Ketra by 5–10x. Outside of Ketra, I’m an adjunct professor of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
I try to visit customers whenever I’m travelling. Understanding their joys and challenges is critical to be good at my job. The last time I was in the New York City area, a colleague of mine took me to visit an art studio that was installing our lights.
The studio was Yellin Studio in Brooklyn, where they are creating amazing sculptures out of layers of glass. As an art lover, it was a lot of fun to see the creative process and talk to Dustin Yellin about how our light can help transform his artwork. What made the visit even more special was two events. First of all, the artist, Dustin, is an extraordinary person and runs a non-profit in the building next door that curates events with leading thinkers in science, music, and art, which is an amazing intersection of talent. Secondly, during the same visit, I stopped by to visit a current customer, BIG Architects. BIG is one of the leading architectural groups in the world and its founder is famous for designing one of the cleanest waste-to-energy power plants with a rooftop ski slope in Copenhagen. While I was visiting my contact, I realized that they had a life size sculpture from Dustin Yellin in their lobby. It seemed serendipitous that my company is meant to be working with both companies. As a fan of the arts and design, the visits made it a special trip.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, there are two projects that come to mind. First, I’m helping lead a digital transformation project across our parent company, Lutron. We’re starting by investing in a new digital platform that will allow us to better tailor our email and website content to customer interests. I’m working with a colleague to deliver a comprehensive digital customer “lifetime” plan from when a prospect types a query about lighting into a search engine to making sure our customers continue to feel loved post-purchase by delivering value-added information through our apps.
Secondly, I’m spearheading an initiative around “Social Good” for our Austin office. During the pandemic, our employees wanted to brainstorm how they can work together to make a difference in the community. It’s a great cross-functional initiative so people from different departments have an opportunity to work together, stay connected, and stay positive during COVID. We came up with many grand ideas, but we agreed to start with some immediately actionable initiatives. First, we consolidated our purchasing on Amazon. We surveyed employees for their non-profit preferences and set up an Amazon Smile program to benefit a range of local charities selected by our employees. We also had a group of employees interested in sustainability, so we set up a composting program in our new corporate HQ. Next up, we have a group exploring if it’s feasible to use our 3D printing equipment “after hours” to help with mask production or other pandemic needs.
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?
Many people have supported me along my career path, but one person that had a great impact was Frank Muehleman, a General Manager, who I worked for earlier in my career at Dell. He made rational, data-based decisions, communicated clearly to everyone in the organization, and gave his team authority, but held them accountable. He is someone that I try to emulate in the way that I approach leadership and problem solving.
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 business leader during this pandemic?
Yes, I worry about the impact on my kids. I’m lucky that my kids are teenagers and relatively self-sufficient, but it’s still tough. I’m tied up with work all day, so I have to try to connect with my kids during the time I have, and teenagers don’t “open up” on your schedule. How do you make sure they maintain social interaction with kids their own age while also protecting their health?
My older son is applying to college, which can be a stressful and overwhelming process in a normal year. It’s an added challenge when travel poses risks and the majority of college campuses are not accepting visitors. He doesn’t feel like he has been able to get a good feel for what it’s like on campus from the virtual tools available.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My oldest son has a small group of friends and we know all the families who are following a similar quarantine protocol, so we’ve decided to let them hang-out together and we have a group text between the families. With my younger son, I don’t think his communication skills with his friends are as strong, so I’ve done some planning with other moms, who are also worried, to try to figure out some solutions. We’ve also done a few socially distanced outdoor movie nights and other activities.
As for college applications, we concluded that my older son shouldn’t commit to a university without seeing the city/campus, so we decided to fly to his top choice school and walk around the city and campus wearing our masks. We’re going to wait to visit the other schools depending on where he gets in and hope that we’ll be able to visit in the spring.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
I don’t know if it’s specific to being a woman, but I find the boundaries between work and home difficult to maintain working from home. When the pandemic started, no one knew how it would change the business, so there were a lot of meetings to determine how we should react, what projects we should accelerate, and what we should put on the backburner. My days got longer and longer with all the meetings and I found it challenging to balance while also taking care of my family’s needs.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Over time, when it became clear that this wasn’t a 2–3 month situation, but something that was going to go on for a year or more, I’ve started to reinforce more boundaries. I block two mornings a week from 6:30–8am for my early morning running workouts. I regularly get meeting invites over this blocked time. I just send a decline and say, “I have a conflict.” I’m only the one that can look out for my health and well-being. Investing in myself is an important way that I recharge, both for my family and myself. I’ve found balance is key for me to deliver my best work.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
At first, we had internet bandwidth issues with everyone in my household on video calls. We added some additional routers, which greatly reduced the stress and worry of an important meeting or test being interrupted by bad Wi-Fi. If you can, it’s really helpful to equip yourself and your family with the best tools to make life easier or less stressful as we all navigate a totally new way of living.
Secondly, focus on what you can control. We can’t control how long the pandemic will last. But I can control whether I’m in a good mood and engage during our family dinners, connecting more with my neighbors, checking in on people that I’m close to. I think it’s important to create some variety, so we’ve ordered in from new restaurants, tried some different activities (temporary tattoos, make-your-own terrariums, puzzles), and done some household projects to keep things interesting.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
We’ve tried to stay sane and serene by keeping our sense of humor and encouraging everyone to keep participating in what they can do safely to get out of the house occasionally.
We have a Labrador puppy, who constantly keeps us amused. We put a baby gate to stop him from getting into the pantry, but we’ve had a few slip-ups when someone has forgotten to close it and have found out that our dog prefers Doritos and croissants, but will eat anything. He keeps us laughing and he doesn’t care that we’re in a pandemic. It’s nice to have this kind of comic relief after a stressful day, and we’ve found that laughing together over his antics really helps reduce our stress.
We’ve also tried to keep a sense of social normalcy by doing some socializing outdoors six feet apart with neighboring families. We started meeting with our next-door neighbors every Sunday at 4pm for a socially distanced “happy hour.” We thought it would be for a few weeks, but we’ve been going for many months and have celebrated two birthdays. It’s been so nice to speak with other adults in a non-working setting.
Another fun thing we did was buying an outdoor movie screen and hosting several outdoor movie nights. We’ve tried to find some innovative ways to find joy, relax, or just spend quality time together and get outside, even if that is just riding a bike or a scooter around the neighborhood.
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.
- Thinking about the present. Despite my concerns about the future, I try to stay focused on the present and have gratitude for things that are going right. It’s easy to worry about all the terrible things that could happen. But if you can, it helps so much to think about the ways you and your loved ones are fortunate and enjoy the present moment instead of focusing on what could or might go wrong.
- Celebrating small victories or successes It helps me to focus on the ways that life is better during the pandemic. I’ve found that my team is incredibly productive over video calls. I’ve had some really fun Zoom happy hours where I’ve learned new things about the people that I work with — their pets, favorite puzzle, and hilarious taste in Zoom backgrounds. I hope curbside food pick-up stays even after the pandemic. I’ve been able to attend some professional training that was previously in person and now is offered via webinar, making it much easier to find time to participate. Some of these changes to our lives are positive, and if you can appreciate or acknowledge them, it may make it easier to adjust.
- The pandemic is unleashing a wave of creativity, which is exciting. My company builds and sells lighting solutions that really need to be experienced in person to be appreciated. That’s a challenge in this environment. We had to find a new way, so we rapidly launched a video demo that is close to the real experience. Even if your job doesn’t necessarily encourage creativity in the typical sense, reading about other people’s creativity or pursuing a new creative hobby like painting or writing can be inspiring or help change your own thinking.
- We can solve some of the world’s challenging problems. I serve as a mentor to the Austin Technology Incubator, which is a business incubator associated with the University of Texas. It’s energizing to see all ideas from founders and makes me hopeful that we can and will change the world for the better.Getting involved with a group or donating to an organization that is working to help make the world a better place feels even more empowering during a time of so much adversity.
- I’m also hopeful because of the energy that I see from my students and the younger generations. I teach a class in digital marketing at the McCombs School of Business in addition to my “day job.” I have to admit that I was not excited to teach over Zoom this semester. If I had a choice, I would prefer to teach in person. I like the connection. However, I’ve found that the energy from my students has been infectious, even over Zoom. Instead of “leaning out”, I think young people are more excited than ever to “lean in” and learn new skills.
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?
I try to create a sense of normalcy and continue to focus on things we can look forward to. By a sense of normalcy, I purposely try to bring positive stories to the dinner table each night — whether it’s something new that I’ve learned from a podcast or a recommendation for a restaurant take-out or book. I also want my kids to keep looking forward to things. For my husband’s birthday this year, we’re planning a trip to a lake about an hour outside of Austin that we can drive to.
My son and I had planned to take a trip to NYC before the pandemic. Recently, we’ve been watching Chef’s Table and now we are planning to visit a dessert place, Milk Bar,that we learned about on Chef’s Table. Even though things aren’t happening now, it doesn’t mean they never will be and it’s important to remember that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t always control what happens, but you can control your reaction.” I try not to spend much time on the news because it’s filled with things that I can’t control and are stressful. But I can control a lot of things — my day-to-day activities, my attitude and energy, the interactions that I have with my family, friends, and community. This quote is a helpful mantra for me, and reminds me to remain calm and focused on finding solutions to problems in life instead of focusing on things that have gone wrong.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!