“Transparency, authenticity, communication” With Penny Bauder & Katherine Clayton

I think a standout part of our company is our culture. We value transparency, authenticity, communication, showing up and meaning it, and expressing kindness and gratitude to play as a team. I remember consciously realizing how I hadn’t met some of my team members in person (only virtually) because they were hired during the pandemic, […]

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I think a standout part of our company is our culture. We value transparency, authenticity, communication, showing up and meaning it, and expressing kindness and gratitude to play as a team. I remember consciously realizing how I hadn’t met some of my team members in person (only virtually) because they were hired during the pandemic, but that I felt like I’d been working with them side-by-side for months. That kind of communication is unique and something I absolutely love.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewingKatherine Clayton.

Dr. Katherine Clayton is the CEO and cofounder of OmniVis. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Katherine pursued a BS and MS degree in Biomedical Engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. Due to a personal experience with her family member as a 7-year-old, she dreamed of having a career where she could change health outcomes. Therefore, she tailored her graduate education toward appropriate technology with an emphasis on disease detection and diagnostics. In 2017 Katherine and her cofounders started the company, OmniVis. OmniVis designs field deployable technology to rapidly detect pathogens to prevent wide-scale outbreaks. When Katherine is not working on OmniVis, she likes to travel, garden, cook, read, and hike.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Absolutely. When I was a child, my uncle had passed away from AIDs. I think when you have a close family member pass away it can influence you at such a young age. Therefore, when I was deciding on a major for college, I learned about biomedical engineering from a newspaper clipping my mom gave me and was immediately interested. After a few years in undergrad I did a study abroad trip and my experience there piqued my interest in global health. I still didn’t feel like I knew enough about the field after my master’s and decided to pursue a PhD, also becoming interested in entrepreneurship along the way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I think all our interesting stories at OmniVis have a common thread of meeting people from all over the world who share a same common goal in making healthcare more accessible. When we travel to our partners, we need to make sure that we are establishing positive relationships and designing for their needs rather than our own. Getting “out of the building” is the only way we learned how people interpreted some of the signage of our device. The symbolism would be intuitive in some countries but completely unidentifiable in others. Also, feelings of safety, trust, or time it takes to train on the device we could only learn from being on the ground. Anything around user-centered design brings a lot of interest to our team because we want to design for humans!

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 feel like as entrepreneurs we are always trying to figure out what the next best step is for the company (and making lots of mistakes along the way). In retrospect, I realize how much I used to love going into far too much detail about the science behind our device when I would participate in pitch competitions. Once, I had a judge at a pitch competition stare at me blankly and ask for me to explain the technology in more accessible terms. While my love for science and technology remains strong, an essential aspect is making others excited about the science and technology too, and that means meeting people wherever they are. Since the early days of pitching, I’ve learned how to better communicate science to many different audiences (though I think communication and storytelling should always remain an active thing to work on).

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think a standout part of our company is our culture. We value transparency, authenticity, communication, showing up and meaning it, and expressing kindness and gratitude to play as a team. I remember consciously realizing how I hadn’t met some of my team members in person (only virtually) because they were hired during the pandemic, but that I felt like I’d been working with them side-by-side for months. That kind of communication is unique and something I absolutely love.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our company is working on two main projects right now, both revolving around pathogen detection. One is a rapid, portable device to detect SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 causing pathogen) in saliva samples. We want to make nucleic acid-based diagnostic testing readily accessible in clinics and for community health workers.

The second project is to detect V. cholerae (the cholera causing pathogen) from water sources, out in the field, with a portable device. Cholera exists in over 41 countries and comes from environmental water sources. Proactive detection would help eliminate large outbreaks in many regions throughout the world.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I am not satisfied, and I believe there’s a lot of room to grow. First, I think we need to see not only more women in STEM, but rather have tech companies and STEM programs look like the world I see when I walk out my front door. Without more diverse hiring and retainment, we are doing the world a complete disservice. Second, we need those changes in STEM to be so much more than a superficial or cosmetic change. Everyone needs to be heard and accepted within their own terms.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Believability and credibility. I think part of the issue is that someone sees a person who doesn’t “look like” a typical stereotype of someone in STEM and they stop listening to what the person is oftentimes saying. People need to realize that they live in a world that projects these stereotypes, and that they should take a step back and actually listen. Alone, a person’s degrees or hard work or knowledge should speak for themselves, not how they look.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I think one huge myth, that is a dangerous one, is that you must look at act a certain way as a woman to be taken seriously in STEM fields. This closes the door for so many women from a diverse set of backgrounds and creates a small, rigid mold that people think you need to be part of in order to fit in. The arbitrary stereotype of how an engineer or scientist looks like also limits the type of technology or healthcare that is being designed and commercialized because we are not representing a vast majority of the world.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

It’s okay to change your passion and interests over time.

There’s no such thing as the right time, the right age, or the right moment. We hear stories of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs as college dropouts. But I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was in undergrad. On the other hand, we have examples of Vera Wang or Martha Stewart who started their companies at 39 and 55, respectively. All these entrepreneurs are successful. You don’t need to be some perfect age or know early in college or before college what your perfect idea or company is. It can be today; it can be years from now. We put too much pressure on ourselves to think that there’s a perfect moment.

Find a problem you’re truly passionate about.

It’s important to find a problem that makes you excited to talk about and angry enough to want to solve. A problem that you love reading about or listening to podcasts about or you want to text your friends about because it excites you. A problem that you think that if fixed could really change the world. After I studied abroad in college, I had a moment where I realized that I wanted to make healthcare more accessible to everyone. I wanted people to stop dying just because they didn’t have good access to care, and that was the problem I became obsessed with.

Everyone is going to tell you why you can’t do it. Your job is to have the conviction to know why it can be done.

When I started OmniVis, I had people ready to tell me about all the reasons why my product or company wouldn’t work out. Oftentimes, people would insist that I could never go from an engineering degree to running a company. It is interesting, the sheer number of people the number of people who will show up and tell you how or why you can’t do something. Maybe these people are trying to protect you or maybe they are naysayers. But you need to have the conviction, and the belief that you’re on the right path. And on the days that get particularly hard, find those who do believe in you.

Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.

I was sitting at my first pitch competition to test out what people thought about a potential product that I dreamed up. We won second place that night. It was exhilarating. But as I started to attend more pitch competitions, I saw that plenty of people did not agree with different aspects of what I was pitching. I would tweak my work to remain coachable (which is very important, be coachable!), but then I realized I was listening too much to what others wanted from me and losing my own sight of the end goal. I was waiting for someone’s “permission” to proceed with the “perfect” company. Yet, I was the one who was obsessed with my customer and market. I talked to over 200 people face-to-face who would be my potential customers. I worked hard to figured out my market. Ask for forgiveness, not for permission. Take your leap. Get started. No one else is going to tell you it’s a perfect time to start.

You can be what you can see.

We are in a unique time in history where people are questioning typical career roles and how people need to look, be from, or act or be educated to fit into those roles. A few months ago, I was in an Uber and the driver asked me about where I went to school, and they learned that I completed a PhD. He asked, “what did you do your PhD in?” and I said, “Mechanical Engineering” and he replied, “I wouldn’t expect someone like you to have studied that. You don’t look like someone who studied that.” This isn’t an uncommon conversation. Over decades or centuries, society has defined based on how we look or speak, what our future should look like. But we have a responsibility to change those outcomes and open the door for others. I think we’ve all dealt with the status quo long enough.

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

  • If you hired someone because you thought they’d be great for that job, then get out of their way and let them take ownership!
  • Be willing to also take out the trash at night and clean up at the end of the day.
  • Make sure everyone feels listened to and heard.
  • Care about who the people on your team are, outside of their daily job title.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I don’t have a large team yet! We are still small. But some things I can recommend from that perspective are:

  • Maintain the company culture you strive to have and reflects your mission and vision.
  • Remain communicative and transparent, no matter how difficult it may seem in the moment.
  • Keep the door open for others.
  • Be authentic with your team.
  • Be willing to have the hard conversations, because when you avoid them, it will be detrimental in the long term.

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?

I agree entirely. We stand on the shoulders of giants. When I was a PhD student, I remember doubting my capabilities as a mechanical engineer, because I had switched majors from my undergraduate/masters. I felt like I was flailing in my curriculum, and my lab mate, Avanish Mishra, was the most supportive person in this journey. I remember wanting to quit, because I thought I would never feel “smart enough” and he told me “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. I carried this with me every day for years and successfully graduated with my PhD. Avanish was right, I came in with a different skill set, but I grew in my PhD.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I don’t know if I have reached a point of success or not! But I do think that I am grateful to be surrounded by amazing colleagues/teammates who have the same love for global health and/or social impact. I also love to mentor other entrepreneurs, engineers, and graduate students.

You are a person of enormous 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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to be part of the movement to make healthcare more accessible to everyone on a global scale, particularly from a proactive perspective, such as with preventative diagnostics and therapeutics. I think COVID-19 has initiated some of this movement through the rush to put diagnostics on the market and with the advancement of telehealth. I want to see this in all parts of the world and empower many communities.

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

I think it’s easy to get bogged down in all the difficulties in life and worry that the worst scenario is going to happen. When I heard the lyric “most things I worry about never happen anyway” from the Tom Petty song Crawling Back to You,it resonated with me. I realized that outcomes likely won’t be as bad as you dream up in your mind.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂

It would be Dr. Paul Farmer. When I was a master’s student, I read the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder that traces Dr. Farmer’s life and his work in infectious disease. He is someone who practices what he preaches and is of the main people who inspired me to remain in my pursuits in the global health space.

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