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"Walk a Day in Her Shoes" with Claire Chen

By Sirisha Chada

Claire Chen, the Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer of Clobotics, oversees overall marketing strategy, general business operations and HR related activities, etc. for the company. Clobotics is a
global leader in intelligent computer vision solutions for the wind power and retail industries.

Message from Claire to Her Century

What was your inspiration for leaving the corporate world and going into a start up? What inspired you to make this big transition?

Relocating from Seattle back to Beijing in the middle of 2013 triggered this process. I’ve always been in the corporate world, my family has always been proud of me working for Microsoft, including my grandpa who is 92, because it summarizes everything they had hoped for their grandchildren

China has changed significantly in the past decade. A strong Chinese economy and success stories of many Chinese entrepreneurs inspired me to get into entrepreneurship. I was doing the on boarding for landing the US Microsoft Azure business to China in 2013 when I started engaging with startups in China.

The startup culture is very different from the corporate work culture, where things are more structured; it was something I craved to be part of. The work environment, sincerity, passion, it’s just the vibe that really attracted me to the startup world. When there was an opportunity to join Clobotics, I took it up.

What is your experience as a female co-founder of a tech company?

It’s been great! There are lot of women doing startups, but it’s mostly in the consumer field, there are fewer female founders in the tech companies, high tech companies or AI companies. I have been lucky to be one of founders of Clobotics , the rest of my co-founders are also from Microsoft. We’ve known each other a long time, we understand each other’s strengths and our roles are defined to play on our strengths.

My co-founders trust me on everything I do as Chief Operating Officer; with HR, Marketing, the people, policy etc., I have a great team. As a co-founder for operations, I need to meet investors and talk to them when necessary. I represent Clobotics at various forums, spreading the word about what we do and who we are. I’ve always been in the technology industry, so it helps when I address technical questions. I am always learning the latest technologies as it relates to our core business.

There are very few female founders, in the tech related field? What is your experience? Is there a difference in pitching to investors?

The investor world is slightly different, most of them come from a financial background. They are very sensitive towards numbers, it doesn’t equal to being very technical. Interestingly, the most technical question from all the investors I’ve talked to, came from a female investor. She has a PHD from one of the top universities in China and her major was in computer vision. Whether it is finance or management, I think women are always better because we are very down to earth. We know a lot of details and we don’t forget things, that is very critical. So whatever questions anyone asks we always have an answer.

There are fewer women in the STEM fields compared to men, what helped you to choose this field? Are we doing enough to nurture young girls’ interest in STEM?

For women in the STEM, it is getting better now, with widespread awareness and strong female role models. When I was growing up in China, especially because of our culture there was a perception that STEM, is really a boy thing. Girls are more artistic and that singing, dancing is more suitable for girls, it’s a subconscious, psychological barrier; "Oh women can’t do STEM.”

Even when picking a major, like Sheryl Sandberg says in her book “Lean In”, the first thing women think is, “I can’t do it” or “I am not good enough”. While men probably say “I am the best” even if they are not as good. I think psychologically women keep on intimidating themselves by saying, "I can’t do that". I’ve been reading some stats recently that girls are doing better in the STEM fields nowadays.

AI is becoming an integral part of many industries; do you see a strong pipeline of women leaders in this field? How can we make sure we stay on par in the game?

Women are part of this field, but as the statistics show, majority of the founders, co-founders, technology owners and developers are still male. There are cultural aspects that we’ve discussed previously that favor men. It could also be that men and women are wired differently. Women are more detail oriented, we are good at multi-tasking whereas most men prefer to do one thing at a time. We must accept our differences and women should focus on what is right for them.

Clobotics has women in different technical roles such as developers, testers, project managers, sales, procurement etc. Women can be successful in advanced tech companies like Clobotics in different areas. We have a leadership committee which is adequately represented by women from finance, HR etc. The women in Clobotics who are in leadership positions are willing to learn, they often express how they would like to engage with others. It is critical to have women leaders in any tech company. This makes the overall leadership environment more balanced..

Who are your role models, people who’ve inspired you? How did they influence you into being who you are?

I worked for Phillips electronics and Microsoft; two very good companies and I was lucky to have good managers. My manager at my first job, is an American born Chinese, and a good friend. He gave me a lot of perspective on how American born Chinese and native Chinese think differently. He helped me understand diversity and respecting other people’s opinions. He encouraged me to do a lot of reading in English and brought back lots of English newspapers and magazines, this was in 2000 when I was still in Shanghai. He gave me more responsibilities at work to help me develop.

Microsoft has a great mentoring program and I was very lucky to have great mentors from different countries who gave me a different perspective. I had a mentor from London who helped me understand how to communicate effectively to get results.

Later when I moved to Seattle, I had a mentor who kept pushing me to the edge, he kept asking me “Claire, what do you want?” Previously, in life no one asked me “What do you want?” Parents, adults and teachers in the Chinese culture don’t care about what you want. They already have a prototype of what a successful, good girl should look like. I think I look exactly like the girl in the handbook, like a sample girl. I never thought about what I wanted.

My mentor told me you must know what you want from your work and your life. In order to be happy, you must satisfy your needs before catering to others. This is something very important for a mentor to care about someone as an integrated person. I think the experience of having someone senior than me making me think about what’s important to me, knowing who I am, changed my life. If you know these things, you think they are very fundamental, but most people would probably would never understand or be given to the opportunity to think that way. I'm very lucky that in my early 30s someone asked me these questions and helped become what I am today, that's why I'm a very strong supporter of those mentoring programs, I can see the benefits of that.

How do you balance work with personal life? What kind of policies or initiatives does Clobotics have around this?

As for to me, I don’t think there is a formula for work-life balance. Everybody’s situation is different, your life is different from mine, your commute time is different from mine. I think work-life balance is a feeling of whether you are happy with who you are? Are you happy with your work? At the same time are you happy with your life?

It differs from person to person how you choose to do this. If I'm really tired this week, I might work little less, rest a little more, listen to some music, play with my pets. If I am energetic and in work mode today, I’d probably want to do 20 hours of work. The most important question is, do I have that flexibility? If you've been given that flexibility and you feel your life and your work is at your control, then I think it’s the perfect balance.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your career thus far? How did you handle it? What did it teach you?

The biggest challenge I faced was after we started Clobotics. In big corporations you are surrounded by well-established rules, by talented people and you take these things for granted. As you go higher up the ladder, you can tap into those resources..

After starting your own company; you realize why they only want to hire people from top universities, because statistically these are people of high quality. There are certain things that might not happen to big corporations because the HR has already filtered that environment to make it foolproof.

In the startup world, especially at the beginning, you work with whomever you can find; employees, government officials you must deal with, or a third-party hire. I came across several people that I never got to deal with or work with the past. It is a challenge when you don't have anything, and you don’t know, what to do; you must learn to crawl, then stand, walk and eventually run; that’s a unique experience.

It makes you a better person, makes you stronger and realize that you can do things. It is satisfying when you get the results that you want; because you've failed, because you went through disappointments and frustrations and eventually succeeded because of your persistence

Her Century is a mentoring organization for women, do you believe in the power of mentoring? Can you share your experiences as a mentee and mentor?

I am a strong advocate of mentoring, I benefited from mentoring at Phillips and Microsoft and have always believed that I should pass on these benefits to others. As a mentor you want to influence and impact the individual; but there are times when you are unable to affect the change in them because they are not open to certain aspects.

I think it's important for the candidates to be open and self-aware, including problems they want to address. They cannot shy away from conflicts and always have excuses for not taking feedback. People think they want mentoring, when you pinch them in the pain points, they will recede into their cave, making it not worth the time and effort. Some people would want to look up to you as a robot and want to become someone exactly like you, which is not correct either, because you are not the same. As a mentor it's your personal value proposition that impacts your mentee. It's very important we model our ways so that our mentee can learn from it.

I mentored more women than men; women go through a fragile period at the start of their career, there are certain things they feel frustrated about and need help with. Women tend to be less confident, they don’t know how good they are; the most important thing is to build their confidence. Secondly, women tend to worry too much about things that haven’t happened; as a mentor our goal is make them more confident in who they are to tackle challenges. Its important to learn to take conflicts head on; being nice always doesn’t work. You must be able to make hard decisions even if it makes others unhappy, especially as you take on more senior roles . It’s more challenging for women because we are more emotional, we tend to mix personal feelings and professonal results together.

What is and should be the role of men for women to succeed in their careers? How can they be a better “HeforShe”? What can women learn from men?

I would like to say, my dad is best “ HeforShe”. When I told him that I'd probably I want to quit Microsoft and do my own startup he was very supportive and encouraged me to follow my dream. He reads news, because of Clobotics he knows AI. He wants to learn about computer vision and Machine learning, he is quite tech savvy for his peers. He coordinated a lot of resources I needed for my research projects when we started Clobotics. If there was an award for “HeforShe” I would give it to my dad. He’s seen Clobotics come a long way, starting from scratch where we didn’t have one line of code to building products and customers and receiving awards and recognition, he is very proud of me. We talk to each other like we are peers which is very rare for Chinese father and daughter relationship.

Men are more logical and less emotional. Most men tend to control their emotions better, they complain less and execute more. I think if women can learn to digest a lot of challenges by themselves, that shows maturity. We must learn how to conquer the problem; but also know to ask for help when needed.

I think overall it doesn’t matter whether it is a man or a woman it is important to stay humble and keep learning. It is important to look for people that have positive energy and we need to build that positive environment for ourselves.

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