When the leader has a slow day, nothing happens! And her mood affects everyone who works with her.
As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Hussenot. Alexandra is the founder of Immersionn, the world’s first VR Discovery Engine and she is also the UK lead for ‘Women in Immersive Technologies’, a community of 1000 members that aims to empower European women working in XR. She is also a member of the UK5G Creative Industries working group reporting the department in charge of Digital, Medias, Culture and Sport (DCMS). Prior to this, Alexandra pursued an international business career at insurance firm, Allianz, managing an £80M global business. She has also worked all over Europe during her 11 years at Sony Ericsson (now Sony Mobile) and has solid experience designing and launching software and service products, particularly covering user experience design and continuous improvements. She also lead large scale operations for mobile phone repairs and remanufacturing.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Alexandra! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Iwas living in Stockholm and looking for an internship as part of my bachelor’s degree program. At the time, my dream company to join was L’Oréal, but instead Ericsson offered me a position. I had no idea I’d be getting into tech for the rest of my life, but the mobile phone revolution was fascinating, we were changing the world, connecting everyone, so there was no going back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The startup life is a roller-coaster of encounters and opportunities, so there are many stories. Here is one.
After a design workshop with our team in London, we needed to prototype our idea quickly. No one had time for this and our budget was limited. A former Ubisoft game designer based in Casablanca reached out on Linkedin in the same timeframe. I told him about our idea and we clicked. I did not want to work with him remotely on this job, which is fairly common, but I wanted to work side by side to allow for a more creative exchange. I also wanted to explore the potential of setting up a small team of developers in Morocco. He invited me to stay at his family’s home with his parents, brother and sister. He was probably just being polite, but I could not resist and accepted the invite. For three days, we worked together afternoons on design, then he would work all night by himself on the prototype. I’d get up 5 am and do my other tasks such as calls with Europe etc. His dad had been assigned to bring me coffee at 7 am and his mother and sister made amazing couscous and tagine for lunch and dinner. By the third day I felt like a member of the family. We even discussed politics, culture and religion which underlined our diverging points of views. Great people can be everywhere and diverse points of views make ideas richer. I always try to keep that in mind.
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?
In 2003, I was asked to explore eastern Europe with the aim of establishing a mobile phone remanufacturing operation. I remember visiting an old Kalashnikov factory that we ‘could transform’. I then pushed further east to see if we could find something in a country outside the EU. We found a readily equipped empty space with 100 seats for a call-centre including computers, phones, factory lines for top tiers electronics repair (including calibration tools, 3G testers), top of the line security equipment and very compact logistic boxes tailored to fit over 300 phones. We were told the boxes were the same ones used to transport cash and that the boss knew the transport minister very well so we shall have ‘no issues or delay at the border’. In order to quickly setup the call-centre operation, we could leverage their collaboration with an Italian jail who had ‘good and affordable workforce’. In the boardroom, my colleague whispered to my ear “look at his hands”. The boss missed a pinky finger which we believed it was a sign of Mafia membership. At the end of the meeting we were warmly invited to join the next Monaco F1 Grand Prix ‘all inclusive’ and we thanked them for the visit and never returned. Lesson learnt: if it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our team structure for the stage we are at is very unusual. The standard tech startup model is expected to be two guys both in their early 20s where one can code and the other can pitch and they share the company 50–50. Then they go to a Y Combinator to get funding and grow their team with sales, marketing, more developers.
In contrast, I am a woman in her 40s with successful business and leadership experience as well as 20 years in the international tech and insurance sectors. I have one failed venture. I cannot code (yet).
We are setting ourselves up as if we were already a multi-million turnover company, so at pre-seed, pre-revenue stage, our team includes capacity in business development, marketing, technology, legal, HR, finance and venture capital. I have a clear majority share and I am the one who steers.
We have already thought about our culture, so it makes it very easy now to spot someone who would be a good fit or not. Our values are: entrepreneurship, can-do, collaboration, integrity, trust, co-creation, fail-fast-start-over. The team is regularly engaged through product ideation and design workshops. We use external developers and have established R&D collaborations with tech consultancy, Digital Catapult plus are also partnering with a University. We are currently looking for a new tech lead/advisor for the team, so I am the one managing the stack and external development team over the past 2 months.
A story: I once had to re-do my business cards 4 times to get one with a good design. A business card sounds like a trivial thing to have to do but it’s a real skill! These days, you can’t have a business without a website, social media handles, a brand, contract templates, accurate accounting…I quickly learnt a needed a team.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am very excited to be a member of the UK5G Working Group for the Creative Industries that kicked off in August. As well as working closely with industry partners across the sector, this working group will provide policy recommendations into the DCMS 5G Programme. I want to help connect the dots between 5G and the VR/AR ecosystem and create new routes to market for VR/AR developers. The immersive sector can be a key driver of mass consumer take-up for 5G if we can combine useful applications to low latency streaming.
It’s like a new chapter of a very exciting book to me because as an Ericsson intern in 1999 I proudly travelled to trade fairs with their first 3G smartphone prototype called ‘Emil’. We knew Smartphones were going to be the vehicle for 3G adoption back then, but didn’t know exactly what a mass-market smartphone was supposed to be like until Steve Job released the iPhone and the app store in 2007. We are trying to figure out what the killer app for 5G will be. My feeling is that it could help expand our capacity to access information and make better decisions.
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 but yes, I do recognize there has been progress in the last few years. For example, we are starting to see the film industry produce content such as “Women in Black”. And females can be something else other than just a NPC (Non-Player Character) in video games. I find females in STEM communities such as Women in Immersive Tech for whom I lead the UK events to be a great support. Together, we are more visible and reachable to anyone who wants more diversity in their teams, events, product line or boards. Regarding specific changes: many of the women in this space that I have met fall into 2 categories: 1) Amazing potential but weaker experience and confidence than male counterparts, or 2) Amazing experience and confidence, but already working 24/7/365, active on multiple executive boards, diversity groups, charities etc. We need to shift ‘category 1’ women towards ‘category 2 and close the gap. This will require help from male counterparts. I have 4 males on my board of advisors. I think there are many men out there who are realizing the diversity opportunity and keen to move things forward. I think women need to take every opportunity they are offered and ask for help!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Regardless of gender, there is no silver bullet to help a team thrive. I like to think about the process of creating, discovering or winning, because I feel it’s a unique human ability. It starts with trust between people, then ideas are shared and work is done, sometimes lots of hard work which I call “the flow”. Finally, comes the creation. What’s interesting is the whole process; trust and mutual respect are at the heart of it.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Setup a common culture, values and goals, then let people do their job. I personally don’t like people who needs a lot of “management” and prefer to push people outside their comfort zone. It’s not for everyone… This morning, I enrolled my two kids — 8 and 11 years old — to climb and jump off a 50 meter cliff as part of a guided, ‘via ferrata’ trip. I know it’s good for them! The broader their limits, the more space they’ll have for creativity in life.
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 am very thankful for the whole Immersionn team and board of advisors. I am also thankful for our first partners and clients. More generally, I feel very lucky with the people that surround me in life professionally and privately. Everyone’s help counts. Last year, I started a tradition of spending a week off-the-grid in Sweden before Christmas. I make a list of all the people that have helped me and my venture during the year. I then go on and write a thank you note to each of them. I also consider the people who are no longer part of my life. It’s a way of acknowledging the present and the past.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We care about people, freedom of thoughts and we want to build technology that is good for society.
Immersionn™ is the 1st VR discovery engine. We combine VR-AI-Web to enable a first-of-a-kind spatial User Interface, to re-invent the way content libraries are explored. When we can travel somewhere different or try new experiences, our brain creates new pathways. Today platforms feed information to users who are targeted and steered by very accurate recommendation algorithms. We want to help people step out of their comfort zone and become more active in the way they browse and choose content.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
The “Glass ceiling” shall be a thing of the past
I experienced the glass ceiling due to my gender once and it was tough. I used the grievance process but meanwhile I found another job and exited the situation as soon as I could. That’s why I think diversity and minority groups are so important inside and outside organisations. Don’t stay on the fence, join one!
“Be the last to speak” but DO speak.
Nelson Mandela was the son of a tribal chief and someone asked him how he learnt to become such an amazing leader. He responded that as a young boy, he used to attend tribal meetings with his father and they would always sit in a circle, and his father was the last to speak. I think even if you are a good listener, you do need to get your voice heard in the end to be a leader. Many female leaders I know have an aura and are louder than average. So, listen and then speak up!
Treat your health as if you were an Olympic Champion
When the leader has a slow day, nothing happens! And her mood affects everyone who works with her.
Treat your mind and body like if you are a top athlete. Be an early riser, care for your diet (take vitamins, omega 3 etc…), do sport, avoid alcohol, surround yourself with positive energy people.
Sometimes I stop my work day around 3 PM. If you get up at 5 AM, everything you do in the afternoon is a bonus…you can keep on working, or you can go home and enjoy time with your family.
Don’t ignore the bubbles
One of my senior advisors told me that story: “The Sony executive behind “the world’s smallest camcorder” was reviewing the latest effort from his engineering team. They had managed to get all the necessary components and a fine array of features into an achingly small form-factor and they were mightily pleased with themselves. The Sony executive called for a bucket of water to be brought into the room. He then dropped the prototype camcorder into the water and watched as 2 or 3 small bubbles floated to the top. “Come back when there are no bubbles” he said. Unreasonable? How I use it as leader: often, the biggest problems are hidden as nobody wants to speak about them. When someone makes a pitch or delivers a presentation, look for the topics that are not covered in the slides, these are the “bubbles”.
Fail over and over again…and adjust until you are bullet proof
We just failed our third application for a government grant. We did improve from the last bid and reached a 72% score of 85% needed, however, that’s just not enough to pass. For our first bid, we had a 12% score. The feedback from these applications is very detailed and that is a big driver for us to apply in the first place. The 5 assessors made 30 points where we needed to provide more detail. For example, we didn’t highlight the impact of Brexit or how Virtual Reality affects the environment. Despite this, we were disappointed, we know we are getting closer. So, we keep going. In summary, be prepared to answer the same questions and repeat the exercise over and over again, turning criticisms to your advantage, until you get it right.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Step out of your comfort zone a little each day. Look for the other points of view.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
At the moment my favorite quote is “l’existence précède l’essence.” It is about the idea of freedom of thought and access to information. We can either let ourselves be controlled by what we like, what we buy, how we live our lives and what happens to the planet or we can make an active use of our free will. It’s relevant to me because we risk become machines when we do not use our minds and power of choice proactively. With the progression in AI technologies, machines could soon take over. I believe in humans and that the rest is for us all to imagine and implement together.
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? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d love a larger breakfast table! Nicky Morgan (UK Secretary of State DCMS), Antonella Faniuolo (Vodafone), Emma Lloyds (Sky group) and Mitchell Baker (chairwoman of Mozilla).
Thank you for all of these great insights!