Powerful Women in Consumer Technology 2019: June Lai
To see the full 2019 class of Powerful Women in Consumer Technology, please check out the program's home page.
Tell us a little about your career history.
I was a scientist in biotech working in a lab cloning genes before I went back to school to do my MBA, CFA, CPA, and CMA. I focused on finance, analyzing companies, opportunities, and evaluating business and product strategies. I also worked on M&A, product licensing and intellectual property. In a nutshell, I evaluated, analyzed and positioned very complex businesses in a global market for growth and/or acquisition. As I progressed in my career, I used my skills to focus on corporate development, leadership and strategic change. By the time I started Catalyst, I'd had a lot of experience with business cases, greenfield strategies, buying and selling companies, and integrating them.
This was all before I found my passion project in consumer technology.
What attracted you to a career in consumer technology?
I’ve always been a self-proclaimed gadget geek. As a climber, outdoor enthusiast and scientist, I was fascinated by the gear I used and would research products in detail. It was natural to follow the latest groundbreaking innovations in technology that allowed people to adopt a more efficient lifestyle and combine it with my first-hand knowledge of how technology functioned (or didn’t) when you got into a more rugged setting. The fact is, today people use their devices for everything – but very few people live, work and play in the perfect environment – so their technology needs to be equipped to work for them no matter what their daily environment looks like.
This is where I saw a huge gap in the market. Between my experience in global business and my business partner’s talents as an award-winning industrial designer, we knew we could bring something to consumers that would fundamentally change the way they used their devices.
What are the best initiatives available to attract women to careers in technology—and what hurdles are left to overcome?
I think encouraging a passion for life-long learning and creating a structural process to explore and experience new things is something we should be developing in all young women. I chose to pursue a career in health sciences and biotech, because my mother nurtured my natural curiosities and fostered my unique aptitude, even a young age, to solve complex problems. It was not as easy for her, growing up. Only one generation ago, my grandfather didn’t believe women needed to be educated beyond ninth grade, so would not pay for my mother to attend high school. Determined to pursue a path to higher learning, she tutored others to pay her tuition and transportation. She graduated, then enrolled in correspondence courses to study accounting. I watched my mother pursue her career and raise a family without missing a beat. She’s been in public practice nearly 40 years now, and is such a value to her clients, they won’t let her retire.
That mindset has vastly changed over the course of a generation. Today, women are not only educated and working in STEM fields but are leading companies from startups to Fortune 500 organizations.
There have been many efforts, especially over the last decade, to train and recruit more women into STEM careers. When you talk about initiatives, there are opportunities at every level to support and encourage a future generation of women leaders in tech. Starting at home and in schools, we need to teach girls to recognize barriers and have the courage and confidence to overcome them. As a community, we should be encouraging girls early on to feed their curiosities about technology and support their educational path to success. I encourage young women to not be afraid to ask lots of questions, because that’s the path to learning and understanding.
The numbers are getting better, but there is still a huge disparity. Throughout my career and in my hobbies and interests, I’ve most often been the only female (or one of a small handful) at the table. Unfortunately, it’s not unique to tech. I have experienced the same gender gap in investment banking, M&A, consumer electronics, and within several groups of seven-to-eight-figure e-commerce sellers that I’m a part of. It even crosses over to my outside interests like rock climbing, getting my pilot's license and serving on executive committees.
Technology is a broad and exciting field for women – we just need more women to step up to the plate and share their talents with the world.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career?
I’m proud of Catalyst. We did more than start a company that makes protective cases. In less than a decade, we built a global brand that has become an innovation leader in the space. We started with one product – a true startup in 2010. Today, we have more than 200 SKUs, and people look to Catalyst for the next innovation.
We’ve invented new categories of products for consumers like the Waterproof Case for AirPods and the Waterproof Case for the Apple Watch. Today we still make some of the ONLY products in their category due to the unmatched complexity of design.
Beyond the product, I’m proud of our team. We embrace diversity in gender, culture and age. We embrace the strengths each person brings to the table and recognize our success is a product of their collective work and contributions.
But I think what’s most important to me is the value we’ve brought to people through our designs and innovations. We’ve enabled people to live their every-day adventure. Understanding that their devices go where they go, we’ve removed barriers and limits to how, when and where people can use their technology.
Any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
About six months ago, I sat at a table with 19 other CEOs that collectively did over $300 million in the technology and e-commerce fields. We shared best practices, challenges and strategies to overcome hurdles we all face in a global business environment. It was one of the most engaging and productive conversations I’ve had the opportunity to take part in this year. I’m not shy, and I'm curious, so I like to understand details and synthesize them into nuanced strategies. My experience, knowledge and breadth and depth of understanding makes me an active participant in any such discussion. I am always remembered and talked about for my contributions – not because I was the only woman in the room. In fact, they organized the meeting around my schedule just so that I could attend.
My advice to young women is – know there are seats at the table. But when you pull up a chair, be sure you’re bringing value, not just trying to fill a gender void. The more value we each bring, the more seats we’ll open for other women in technology to not only be accepted but respected as leaders in the space.