We caught up with Kristin Smith, COO at Dolly, to pick her brain about entrepreneurship, working at a start-up, and being a woman in tech. Kristin holds an MBA and 3 Engineering degrees from MIT and the University of Michigan, as well as several patents. She is an avid inventor, writer, and paddle boarder. She also volunteers at ChickTech, where she keynotes and participates in events whenever time allows. She is dedicated to helping any organization focused on getting young women excited about tech!
How did entrepreneurship play a role in your life when you were a teenager?
KS: The earliest hobby I had was music. I started playing violin when I was four years old. When I was in seventh grade, a group of friends started a string quartet. We quickly realized that there were events that needed music, and we – without really thinking – started our first business together. Without really realizing it, we had organizational structure, operational and marketing challenges, legal needs and customer support functions at just thirteen years old. While we focused mainly on the quality of our “product,” we had to figure out all of the rest of the business pieces as well. We had a ton of success really quickly and learned incredibly fast. This was my main source of income up through the first couple of years of college. And I was hooked on building products and businesses!
How old were you when you received your first patent? What was it for? What inspired your creative process?
KS: I have (at first unwittingly) always liked building and inventing things. In my first “real” job after graduation from university, I took the job that was the scariest to me and then found myself in the midst of designing operational technology systems without any real experience to speak of. My operations training coupled with the technology needed to power a completely new manufacturing and supply chain process led to my first patent as we found ways to do mass customization at a huge scale in the business computer industry. I’ve always liked the challenge of imagining what seems like an impossible capability or vision and then finding the ways to use existing tools and structures to build toward it quickly. In short, the biggest inspiration for creativity for me is usually either competitiveness (usually with myself or the idea that something may not be possible) or laziness (finding a way to not do the things I don’t like to do).
Ideas are all around you. Don’t wait for someone else to do it.
What advice would you give girls who are interested in patenting an idea or invention?
KS: Ideas are all around you. Don’t wait for someone else to do it, because they may never! You can make the world better – today! Also, patenting can be a time-consuming process, so don’t do it just to do it. Make sure that you have something that you really believe in and then get a little help if you decide patenting is the right thing to do. There are lots of resources online and in local communities for first-time inventors – and many times, you’ll have patent attorneys who are happy to help, especially if you are doing it for the first time and/or are young. Just knowing the jargon and the process makes it so much simpler, so it’s usually helpful to at least have a mentor through your first time.
What is your favorite part about startup culture? Is there anything you don’t like?
KS: Most of the great things about a startup are also the challenges: I love the fact that startups provide you with a ton of freedom to invent and build, that no two days are alike, and that you’re constrained so you learn how to be really efficient and prioritize and move fast! The pace, the creativity, and the feelings of accomplishment through rapid iteration are my favorites! However, some days, it can be frustrating that nothing is solidified and that you don’t have all the resources you’d like. You have to keep finding ways to turn those minor irritations into challenges that lead to innovation and accomplishment.
I felt like I didn’t want to be known as a woman in anything. I wanted to be known as a kick-a professional person.
You contributed to the book Women in Tech and have published many articles in the same vein. What inspired you to write about the female experience in the tech industry?
KS: Honestly, at first, I felt really uncomfortable. I felt like I didn’t want to be known as a woman in tech or a woman in STEM or a woman in anything. I wanted to be known as a kick-a professional person. I also felt really uncomfortable representing all women by speaking on their behalf. However, I started talking to women and men and learning a ton that eventually tipped me toward engaging in the conversation more. I got feedback that I had a platform that I could use to tell the story and a somewhat even-keeled/logical approach that wasn’t focused on blame and instead was positive and collaborative. I felt an obligation to share my experiences for women who get discouraged and feel alone. I felt empowered to try to affect a few people who can make a difference in even a few lives. I still feel a little uncomfortable, but I now feel like it’s almost a duty. I’m still learning every day, too!
Have you ever experience impostor syndrome? What did you do to overcome that feeling of exclusion?
KS: I feel this every day. I think every woman I know does. It really can be crippling. My mantra really has become “why not me?” Instead of letting the beginning of my mental conversation stay at “why me?” or “why do I think I can?” I make myself turn that around to “why not me?” After a few successes that came out of situations that, at first, scared the heck out of me, I can switch the lens or tone of the internal conversation much faster.
Aside from Dolly, what other startup(s) do you admire for their innovation in the field? Why?
KS: It’s so hard to pick any one. There are so many talented and innovative startups out there improving, changing and disrupting their corner of the world.
What’s one thing you do to relax and take a break from work?
KS: Get to the water! The water is so relaxing and energizing to me. I love paddle boarding and wake surfing, but just sitting and listening to the water and watching eagles fish is the most relaxing thing in the world to me.
Can you speak to the female role models that have inspired you? How important are they to your success?
KS: This question is always really difficult to answer. Most of my mentors and role models growing up were super supportive, awesome men. The first woman, outside of my family, I really looked up to was my second grade teacher, Miss R. She was beautiful, and so smart, and so lovely. She seemed to have this perfect life (she rode horses in her spare time!) and was so nice and inspirational. She was a great role model at the right time in my life to keep me positive and interested in school.
We’re getting closer to proving that we can do anything!
Today, I’m so thrilled that we’re looking at a female presidential candidate. Say what you will – whether you agree with her politics or not – she has not had an easy go of it. If I’m having a tough day, hers is an inspirational story. She’s been knocked down, bad-talked and outright hated, but she still manages to get up, get things done, stick to her guns and rise above it all. When CNN projected she would win the nomination, it was such a crazy feeling. I don’t even like politics, but I got tingles all over and started tearing up. I’m so glad that we have a role model in the race for the president now – it shows that we’re getting closer to proving that we can do anything!
If there is one piece of advice you could give your 16-year-old self, what would it be?
KS: You don’t need to be perfect.
At Metiza, we are challenging everybody to do one act of kindness a day, 365 days a year. What would you say was your act of kindness today?
KS: OMG! I love this!!!! Gratitude has really been my thing recently. I say thank you and try to appreciate the people around me – those I know and those I don’t – as much as possible in a bunch of different ways.
Interview sponsored by ChickTech.