Female entrepreneurs are a tough breed. To make it in the world of hardware – and this goes for men too – it takes guts, persistence, and relentless motivation.
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we want to take a moment to tell the stories of some of the amazing women developing technology here at HAX.
Fueled by a motivation to change the world – and improve the lives of people around them – this is the first in a series of profiles where we’ll explore how they got here, where they’re going, and the mentors that shaped their lives along the way.
By automating breast massage and compression, the Lilu bra reduces the problems related to breastfeeding and helps mothers pump, track and manage their breast milk supply.
How did you land in the world of tech?
I grew up in Mexico City and pretty early on I developed an interest in tinkering with different kinds of machines. I sort of became the person that my grandmother and family would call to fix things, so at some point, I guess I developed a taste for technical things, especially computers.
I remember one day in high school very clearly. At a fair, there was this incredible teacher who taught computer science that was demonstrating a computer program. I was fascinated by how with just a few lines of weird commands and gibberish, they made this amazing thing happen. I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be a computer scientist.
I was fascinated by how a few lines of weird commands and gibberish were making this amazing demo happen. I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be a computer scientist.
I also remember being the only girl in my computer science class, but from then on, I just continued down that path. I did a summer robotics camp at the University of Pennsylvania and eventually ended up going to MIT for my undergrad.
And for the very formative years of college, I was surrounded by incredibly talented computer scientists and mathematicians and robotisists, which I found super exciting.
Where did you go from there? What led you to Lilu?
After MIT, I worked in FinTech for a financial services firm in New York City. It was a different experience: MIT was very academic, with us constantly thinking about theory, but we didn’t do a lot of practical work. It was focused more on algorithms and research.
It wasn’t until I started this job that I got exposed to hands-on experience beyond programming and software development. It was understanding what people needed out of a piece of software – I think that’s what really intrigued me; understanding how people experienced technology.
Sometimes, I think when you’re focused on programming and the technical aspects, it can be easy to forget that in the end, there’s someone on the other side interacting with these programs.
When I think about my path and transitioning into user experience and user research, it wasn’t until a couple of years into this job that I decided I wanted to combine all of the different things I’d learned and was passionate about.
I really lost a tie to my early years in computer science – like that robotics program at Penn – and I knew I wanted to bring user experience and technology together to start building products.
So from there, I went and got a masters in product design at Penn. That’s what eventually led me to design for interesting interactions and physical products. And in many ways, that’s what shaped my path toward Lilu.
How was this experience being a woman?
I had a wonderful experience with women in tech early on. And I say that because of some of the current trends that we’re hearing about. It’s a really challenging environment for women, I definitely agree with that, but I think when I started I was completely oblivious to it all.
As I progressed in my career, and further up the ladder I went, the more I started to realize the challenges for women in technology.
I keep going back to those early years in my career – telling myself that I can do everything and anything that I set my mind to. Nothing, either in my cultural background or my gender, or anything, should stop me from setting out to do whatever I find fulfilling or interesting.
How did you identify the problem you wanted to solve?
When I was in New York, I saw colleagues that were returning from maternity leave, coming back just a few months after having given birth, and despite there being a very supportive environment at work, I recognized there was this unspoken assumption that nothing in their performance or time commitment to work should change – when in reality, everything in their personal lives had dramatically changed.
And if you’re not aware of the challenges of being a breast pumping mother at work, it’s hard to relate to what’s happening in your colleagues’ minds. It wasn’t until one weekend, a friend told me a story about a woman who had her breast pump and milk thrown out of the fridge.
To sort of wrap up all this sentiment: I recently read about the launch of the SpaceX rocket in the news. If we can achieve that, why can’t we make better breast pumping technology?
At the time I couldn’t fully grasp why this was so tragic, whereas this mother was clearly upset. I thought, “Oh, she must be really upset because they threw out her breast pump,” but in reality, she was more upset that they had thrown out the milk. It wasn’t until years later that I understood all the hard work that goes into breast pumping at work, that I fully comprehended what an eventful thing that had happened.
So in terms of Lilu, it was a gradual relationship. The more and more I heard about this, I started asking myself, “Wait. Why is this such a big problem?”
Adriana Vazquez and Sujay Suresh Kumar presenting at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017 in San Francisco
How did you hone in on Lilu?
While pursuing my masters in product design, I was speaking to friends about the challenges that women face when returning from maternity leave. One day, we decided to start talking to moms. I wanted to dig deeper and understand things they thought could be improved or changed, especially when returning to work.
Invariably, everything kept coming back to the breast pump. And having heard the strong emotions mothers expressed about how challenging and painful they found their current options, that’s what moved me into wanting to improve the breast pump experience. Even today, it’s what keeps me going.
For me, everything comes back to this: we need to support and encourage women. We need to start by not only changing cultural norms and creating brighter and better education, but also be sure the technology is there to support that. I think that’s a very big part of the puzzle that’s missing.
Going back to why I care about this and why I started: As a technologist, maybe I can’t change legislation, but I can certainly try to put my technical knowledge and gather a cohort of really talented engineers to help us solve this problem.
Are there any female entrepreneurs that inspire you?
Yes. I love this question. I’ve encountered so many women that are always willing to go above and beyond to help other women entrepreneurs.
One that I don’t personally know, but I’ve heard her speak, is Ladyada. I think her name is in tribute to Ada Lovelace, who was a pioneer in computer science.
She’s the founder of Adafruit, a company that allows people of all ages and skill levels to access microcontrollers and things that people without expertise may not be able to use; but she makes them available for people who want to create. She’s a big influencer in the maker community. I really admire her. She’s completely fearless.
I remember being at an event in New York and she was speaking on a panel at a hardware event. Something that really struck me – it’s mostly a room full of men, she’s got this bright pink hair, and the room goes quiet when she speaks.
She’s really respected by the maker community, regardless of the gender of the audience, because of her talent. I really admire that – she’s a great example for women in tech.
As for someone that I know personally: Fran Maier. I met her recently; she’s one of the founders of Match.com. She was speaking to us with another very early entrepreneur about how the company got their first customers, and how it was a really big deal to put a business on the world wide web.
I see her now and how excited she is to build more companies – but beyond that, how she takes so much time to mentor young entrepreneurs. I admire that because she really embodies and represents the sort of person that’s enabled us to be where we are today.
I feel like we [Lilu] have been a small team for a really long time, but I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. But it’s not just because it’s Sujay and myself – or the people that came before – it’s all the mentors and advisors that have not only provided hours of shared knowledge and expertise but making introductions.
I really admire someone that’s been an entrepreneur for many years and is still willing to dedicate so much time to guide and mentor other people.
Were there any role models who shaped you into the person you are today?
My mother, of course. She’s my number one champion and supporter. You know, in Mexico, it’s very common for parents to not want you to leave home (and put so much pressure on you to be home).
My mother was a pioneer in many ways. She studied in France and Israel and, at the time, Yugoslavia. It was very uncommon for someone in those years to do that and it was frowned upon by her family, but she still went ahead and she did it.
Adriana and her mother.
She would always tell me: “Adri, we’ve given you support and love – and the wings to fly wherever you want to.”
She would always tell me: “Adri, we’ve given you support and love – and the wings to fly wherever you want to.” Even to this day, that’s what she tells me and I really appreciate her for that.
I left my home country when I was 18 years old and, I know many people do it, but I don’t think that discounts how difficult and emotional a decision that is. If it wasn’t for her and her support, I would have never been able to do or accomplish the things that I’ve done.
Now a not-so-serious question: do you have a secret talent?
Haha. I don’t know if it’s a talent but I’m very persistent – and have a surprisingly high hit rate of convincing friends to go running with me. So, even it’s a person you wouldn’t ever imagine running, I’ve managed to convince them.
Would you say that persistency is your recipe for success?
Absolutely. That and the fact that I’m sort of foolishly optimistic (something I definitely embrace). I definitely reach for the stars, but have a healthy degree of skepticism that I know I’m probably going to fall at some point. Regardless, I will always go out and do it – and strive to maintain that optimism.
Sometimes I try to contain it – like people will think I am naïve or something – but I believe that optimism is what’s given me the energy to do the things that I’ve done.
If you could give advice to females wanting to enter the startup world, what would it be?
Firstly, go for it. The truth is: people want to help. I heard it before I started Lilu, but it isn’t until you experience it that you realize that help is all around you.
I touched on this in one of the earlier questions, but being an entrepreneur, I’ve met an incredible amount of amazingly talented people that take time out of their schedule to talk to us.
When I think about Lilu and what we’ve done – sure, there are two people that are the face of the company, but there are hundreds of people that have helped us along the way – whether it’s giving us an hour of their time or making certain introductions.
I also think that we women sometimes have a hard time asking for help. And I would say to future (and current) female entrepreneurs – get rid of that fear because the best companies and best products are built by not one person, but a community.
If you have the motivation to go out and do something, do it. You won’t find yourself alone.
And, you know, there obviously still needs to be that one person to rally the crowds and get things going, but if you have the motivation to go out and do something, do it. You won’t find yourself alone.
Featured image source: Electric Runway