Interview with Stephanie Rowe

Stephanie Rowe is currently an entrepreneur in product design and innovation. She worked as a senior executive in larger organizations such as Managing Director at Accenture and Program Executive at TSA. She now advises start-ups and has her own company that designs educational smart home (IoT) technology products for children. She has extensive experience developing hardware and software products and leading large-scale technology implementation programs. She is also a speaker, panelist, podcast guest, and expert judge on topics including customer experience, design thinking, innovation, product design and development, entrepreneurship, business transformation, building ventures, and women in technology.

In this interview, Ms. Rowe talks about her work with the TSA, pulling together large-scale technology change projects, her entrepreneurial endeavors and lessons learned, and her consulting work on product innovation. She also shares what she sees as the “branding” problem of STEM, and how STEM can be rebranded to be more welcoming of women and girls.


Wei Zheng: Thank you for coming, Stephanie. So Stephanie is currently an entrepreneur in product design and innovation. She worked as a senior executive in organizations such as Managing Director at Accenture and Program Executive at TSA. She now advises startups and has her own company that designs educational smart home technology products for children. She also has extensive experience developing hardware and software products and leading large scale technology implementation programs.

She is also a speaker, panelist, podcast guest, and expert judge on topics of her expertise, including customer service, design, thinking, innovation and product design, development entrepreneurship, business transformation, building ventures, and women in technology.

So Stephanie, welcome to our event and thank you for being willing to share your experience and insights with us.

Stephanie Rowe: Thank you. It’s so exciting to be here. Thank you so much for that awesome intro. Listening to that I’m like yeah, maybe I actually do know something as an entrepreneur. On any given day, I feel like I don’t know anything, so it’s really nice to hear that. I’m so excited to be here.

Wei Zheng: Wonderful, thank you. So let’s get started. So Stephanie, could you tell us how you got interested in technology in the first place?

Stephanie Rowe: Yeah, it’s really funny that I was thinking about this recently. I think it comes from just a broader curiosity. So I would say my mother laughed, she said how when I was a little kid and you know how kids have cardboard houses, I actually had a storefront. I actually wanted a storefront and apparently when I was little, I used to love to push buttons. So whether that was on a cash register or whatever I had this digital-like a cash register and basically people who came to the store and bought things and myself could push the buttons. I don’t know if that’s the earliest sign from when I was really little, because that’s before smartphones, right? And it was a long time ago, so I find it funny. Now looking back at that, I was always very clear. According to my mother, even all the way back, I just loved things that I could interact with and buttons I could push. So I think it started a long time ago.

Wei Zheng: That’s really interesting. Let’s continue with your time at TSA, which is an interesting organization that a lot of us have experienced, but we never thought about the organization itself, despite us all having experience with them. Could you give us an example of one major project you worked on there? What made it successful? What were the challenges?

Stephanie Rowe: Yeah, I’d be happy to do so. Just for context, I majored in Management Information Systems coming out of undergrad and my first job was as a programmer, so I was a tech person from undergrad all the way through my time at Accenture.

Then I found myself at TSA, which in my wildest dreams I never would have thought of when people said where are you going to work? I would have never said I’m going to work at TSA and Homeland Security. It just was not on the list, but I found myself there for a variety of reasons. The head of TSA called me and said  you come to work at TSA, and so that’s how I found myself there. I didn’t seek it out. I was at Accenture and I got recruited there for my large-scale business transformation and leadership skills and I was asked to run all of their digital identity.

So what that means is identity management. There are all sorts of background checks TSA does to physically pat you down. They also have something called Secure Flight, which is a program that when you buy an airline ticket, you put your full name, date of birth and gender, and it does a name-based comparison against the watch list. So that’s an example of a background check program for all flight crews in any plane that goes in out of and over the United States. All of those flight crews got vetted.

So I did anything that was a digital identity, background check, or comparison against the watch list, so any sort of the digital checks. I was responsible for building and running all of their identity management systems, which I can talk more about it with an entire suite of programs. TSA pre-check is one that I didn’t have at the time, but I had another program called Registered Traveler that was like that. I was responsible for all of that which was really interesting and I could talk about the challenges of that. I also ran something that was called Checkpoint Evolution, which about a year into my tenure at TSA, the administrator asked me to also click on that and so I took on that project, and that was all about innovation. So you could almost think about it as like a Chief Innovation Officer role. It was cross functional. I had a team that was across the entire organization and it was everything from retraining the security officers to looking at liquid technologies that would basically look for explosives to detect.

Now when you go to the airport, we call them the whole-body imaging machines, but the big they’re like an octagon and they sit there. They did the little swoop for completely redoing the checkpoint technology so it was like everything related to the checkpoint, kind of trying to reimagine it and bring new technology to it from the bottom up. So those were the two different programs.

I think what was really interesting for me going into TSA was, I think as many of you know, tasty food has a horrible reputation, right? Like it’s the worst. I’m not sure, the IRS might be worse, but in terms of places to go and work, and I was coming from Accenture which had a great brand, I went to one that had a terrible brand and people were like have you lost your mind? Like why are you doing that? But I did it and I thought of it more as giving back to my country and my skills and so that’s kind of how I thought about it. But it was really interesting.

So I was responsible for taking over a suite of programs that were basically broken. When I arrived, they had spent $124 million on Secure Flight which violated the Privacy Act and had deployed nothing. It was a mess and so I think that in terms of going in and doing transformations and making change, I was hired to come in to do that, but I was lucky because when stuff is a mess and broken, it’s easier like the change.

If you’ve heard the term the burning platform, the burning platform was clear in that it had to change. So I went in, and I was known as a change agent. That was kind of my reputation. It was like there was a new sheriff in town and that made it easier, but talking about motivating people was dumb. There’s so many tools you have to motivate people and in the government I couldn’t offer them brand because the TSA has a bad brand and the government doesn’t pay a lot. So what do you have?

So I think in terms of trying to motivate people, what did I have? I had a compelling mission. So you know you are going to be able to help secure airplanes and secure flights.  Before the pandemic, Secure Flight vetted over 2 million people a day. So I was trying to hire ahead of time for Secure Flight and I can give you massive skill programs that affect U.S. citizens and beyond every single day. So depending on what you’re doing, I think you have to look for it or what it is that’s motivating about that particular thing because you might not have a brand or money and so just have to think about that. And when you have a startup, that’s a whole other situation of how you motivate people. But those are the two things I did at TSA and both are interesting for different reasons.

Wei Zheng: Thank you. It’s very helpful to know specific things, targets, or goals that you try to achieve. So in TSA, which is sort of like you mentioned in our prior conversation, sort of like a former military culture, and I assume it’s very bureaucratic as well, how did you make those large scale changes? I assume there must have been some resistance or cross departmental conflicts, overlaps, or other sorts of things. How did you navigate that? Did you have any conflicts or resistance like that? How did you navigate around that?

 Stephanie Rowe: It was so painful. I came from the private sector, so I was a private sector person. I wasn’t a former military, former law enforcement, or even former government, so going into an organization that is heavily law enforcement and a former military was really interesting because in the business and private sector where I had come from, you relied on people to help you bring those skills to the table to get something done. You also had specific goals where in law enforcement, if you’re running into a building where people are shooting at you, you care more about doing that if a person has your back. And it’s a very different mentality, so sometimes I would be like why are they making those decisions? Or why are they operating in that way? And once I stopped kind of taking a step back and thinking like what’s going on here?

It starts to make sense when you start to look at what is the culture and the experience of people in the military or law enforcement and I think that for me, as an ex-student of an expert in design thinking and empathy and understanding how you need to design for people, the biggest thing I would say about when I go into an organization to make change is I go in as a wide-eyed child and I go in to try to understand the good, the bad and the ugly.

I come from a place of not judging that organization, but my success is dependent upon how much change I can make. I have to really understand everything about that organization and I say to people I’m going to ask tough questions and hard questions, but it doesn’t come from judgment. It comes from trying to understand deeply because once you understand, you can actually start to architect and put together the structures that are going to help you move that organization and I think most people know this through change.

I had a boss and I was brought in to make changes and so given all that I just said yes, you’re designing for the best adoption for that organization, whether that’s transforming Secure Flight or in the case of Security Evolution, one of the biggest things we did was we were trying to give the frontline security officers more autonomy on decision making and more power so they did that. Citizens don’t feel like rules are stupid, right? A lot of times people think their rules are stupid, so you’re trying to work within the bounds and keep the country safe by giving the security officer on the frontline more power for decision making. That was massively scary, so that was probably the hardest thing because for a lot of reasons, from a legal perspective, from a security perspective, from the aesthetics of how that is going to look to the public, they’re going to make mistakes and you know TSA is a lightning rod for the media, so all those things shape how you get the most adoption, but you also have to understand that sometimes you have to move people out. I moved out a lot of people and you just have to do that. I don’t walk in doing that, but I do that after really kind of trying to diagnose and understand what needs to be done. And sometimes people are blocked, they just can’t make a change, and other times it’s just wrong skills in the wrong roles and it’s just a mismatch.

Wei Zheng: That’s very helpful. Thank you. So can we dwell on this point a little bit in terms of understanding a new or new place culture? Let’s imagine you need to quickly understand what the clients want and what the culture is like. Let’s imagine you’re walking into Stevens, our university, what are some questions you would ask? What are some things you would do to help you quickly acclimate to the culture of a new organization like Stevens?

Stephanie Rowe: One thing I always do when I go into any place is create what’s called a power map and I literally take the organization and I map it out. I did this when I was at Accenture as well and I took the entire org chart top to bottom and I color coded it less about the functions and more about the power, so who has power, who doesn’t? Who’s an influencer? Who’s been there longer, who’s newer? I try to map in the leadership boxes kind of all the way down and then when you’re trying to say okay, what is an organization trying to do, you want to frame it. It may be something like TSA, like the head of TSA brought me in and we were making changes there, but it doesn’t always have to be at the top. It could be something within a division or a unit. So you want to understand who is asking for this change, why are they asking for this change, and what the outcome looks like? I think first of all you’re trying to get a picture of where they want to go and then after that you want to ask how well-equipped they are to get there. So it’s generally not just like you’re going to implement a new technology. The hard part is generally not the technology implementation. You can solve technical issues. It’s generally the human problem or it could be external and external problems come in, so you understand not only the internal influences, but also the external ones that are coming in and pressing on the organization. So at TSA, you have a lot of that. The public is a massive influencer. If you ask the airlines to do too much, the airlines get mad and they’re going to lobby, so depending upon the organization and I can potentially see this at a university, you may have a lot of external factors that are then imposing. So I start to get more diagnostic and say if I’ve got the leader here, if the leader has a clear vision, if the leader has the wherewithal and the desire to do this, then I start to move out from there. So I think it starts with clear vision. What do they want to do? Are they themselves ready to do this? And if they’re not ready to do it and make hard decisions, then it’s massive change. I mean, I know you guys all know this massive change really just starts at the top and I think that what you can do is help a leader, if they haven’t been through it before, understand how hard it’s going to be and help them understand the blind spots that they’re not seeing in terms of, as an example, stakeholders that they may need to start bringing along now where they may not have thought about the breadth of the change. They may say, I want to go from here to there, but I haven’t thought about what they are all like and who are all the people that are going to be impacted by this?

Wei Zheng:  Great, I like the idea of a power map, so it basically prepares you mentally in terms of where the priorities are in terms of your work. Interesting.

Stephanie Rowe: I just was going to offer one example. So I was on a project with a large oil company and we were doing an SAP implementation and it was actually going to change  how the jobs were done, so I created a massive power map at the headquarters building in a conference room where all the executives were and literally put it on the wall and any of those executives could walk in and they could look and see what functions of SAP were going to hit their organization.  They loved it because it kind of overlaid that kind of power, but with the change and it was really helpful. The leaders really liked it. I don’t think they understood how that system was going to impact them. It visually mapped everything out and I think it helped them get their arms around it.

Wei Zheng: That’s a great idea, so it’s not just your personal mental map, it can be a shared mental map so people are on the same page in terms where the progress needs to be made. Let’s pivot a little bit in terms of career choices. So you have an interesting career. You got into product development and you worked for Accenture Consulting and then TSA, a very different organization. Then you joined other organizations and now you have your own product and development or innovation firm. So how did you do it? How did you choose that route? Some of our audience is at different stages of their career, some are just about to embark on their formal career, and others are somewhere in the middle and pivoting toward the end.  How did you make those career choices?

`Stephanie Rowe: Such an interesting thing. Just a question. This is going to be maybe too much insight into my personality, but I’m a high energy type, and I mentioned way back in the beginning I’m a very curious person. So I started my undergrad degree in Fashion Merchandising and this goes back to the power of toys and why I can talk with them. I had a sister and there were no boys in my household and so we didn’t have a lot of boy toys. You know that is like building toys and making her toys and things like that, so I never had a lot of exposure. We didn’t have Legos. I never had exposure to that stuff, so I went into college, majoring in Fashion Merchandising. It ended up by freak accident that I ended up taking computer science, loving it, and then had an awesome professor and ended up changing my major from Fashion Merchandising to Management Information Systems (MIS), which makes me the statistic for girls in STEM, right? Most of them find their way to stem by chance, which is the source of inspiration for my company Joulez. So I decided I was going to major in Management Information Systems (MIS), I loved it and I had a lot of job offers coming out of school; one with an oil company doing computer work, one with Accenture, another consulting company, and then another one to join the GE management training program. At the end of the day, I ended up choosing Accenture because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and all I knew there was there would be a whole bunch of stuff I could do. I could change industries and I could change geographies if I didn’t like the people I knew I was working with. So it was the best decision I ever made to take a job in consulting. It was perfect for my personality, and culture really matters. I fit in culturally, except when I was 22 or 21. Overall, I liked it. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what it meant to be a cultural fit. Like what did that feel like? I understood the words but I didn’t know what that meant and so I got lucky and I chose there and I stayed there 15 1/2 years and went from analyst to partner. Then, like I said, TSA was just kind of a freak occurrence where you know I got called instead when you joined TSA, but over the course of time I started in tech and then Accenture had people, process, technology so these three buckets were super interesting. The people side was also really interesting to me because I was building stuff and people weren’t using them well, so I figured let me go ahead and work on the people’s side. Then I went over and I worked on change management or design and role design and job designing because it was like a missing puzzle piece in my tech space, so I went over and did that but then it all kind of comes back to process. I worked in the operational process, but it was out of a curiosity in an understanding of trying to solve big problems and there were many different puzzle pieces that had to come together to solve those problems.

Once I felt like I kind of understood the tech side and people side I was like what about operational processes. So I went and did that, which I wish I could say was purposeful, but it wasn’t. It was more out of curiosity and trying to say what’s the next piece that I don’t feel comfortable? What am I missing? I didn’t feel like an expert in these areas and I would go seek and build skills in them and that led me to having a skill set of this transformation person. So now I can go in and transform almost anything because I have deep tech skills. I’ve got the operational process analysis like throughput stuff, and then I’ve also got the people’s side, which is one of the reasons Holly was so interested in hiring me at TSA was because TSA has all those: they have technology, they have serious operational challenges around putting people through a checkpoint like time trials and how long somebody stands at the travel document checker or at the X-ray machine. All of this really matters. And so then in my time at TSA, I realized that I was missing the upfront innovation piece, so I was really good at it. I always thought of myself as technical and being really into deploying and building anything you want. Tell me what you’re going to build and I will build and deploy it. But in terms of inventing and saying, let’s create a new business model or let’s invent a new line of business, or a new consumer product, I didn’t know how to do that. It seems to me more and more relevant given the world that we we’re in, especially with trends of IoT coming and other things that I need to know how to do. And so again, just by freaks of nature, my boss wanted to hire a design and innovation firm, Ido, so I was like okay awesome, who are these peeps, let’s figure it out, right? So I was leading that innovation team. Well, we hired them as TSA and I was basically the client lead and I ran a 75 person audio team. It turns out I was like oh my God, these are my people. It was so interesting because they had tools and methods in language and structure for helping me build and invent new things and these were the sort of things that I was starting to learn or that I could almost have intuition about, but I didn’t realize that there was a whole vocabulary and suite of tools, so that was really interesting because I felt like it brought almost my left brain, right brain, and creativity in my technical analytical side into balance. And so I loved that team at TSA.

Then after that, I came out and I decided to start my own consulting company and I wanted to learn more about this design and innovation space and so Ido hired me with my consulting company to actually help them operationalize things because they’re really good on the up-front piece, but not so good on the back end piece, so we were a good pairing. They hired me as a consultant for like a year and so that better helped me help them with the back-end process and they helped me learn the up-front process. I ended up teaching at the school and getting to know David Kelley really well, so what that allowed me to do was build this skill set that’s from start to finish, so the invention of new things all the way through deployment, and I wish I could say that it was purposeful, but it was more about almost reaching the end of my knowledge and trying to take the next challenge and really realizing that I didn’t have certain skills and was coupled with my curiosity in general. So I’m generally the person that’s like, oh, what’s this latest interesting trend and I go check it out and learn about it, and then that experience is what led me to Joulez.

Wei Zheng: Thank you very much. So let me pursue this line just a little bit. What helps you when you’re pursuing some new knowledge, something unknown? Is there fear? Or maybe you’re leveraging both what you already know and just and plunging into what you haven’t known yet. How did you balance that?

Stephanie Rowe: That’s such a good question. When I came out of TSA, I knew that I wanted to pivot my career in kind of a new direction, and so I was like ok I’m going to set a rule and I’m going to spend 50% of my time doing consulting around Homeland Security because I know it really well and it turns out that’s lucrative, so people will pay me for that, right? And was like I’m going to use that time and that money to pivot me to where I want to go. So in the other 50% of my time I’m going to take that money and I’m going to use it to go to training and do all these activities to build a network in this space. It’s not so much about making money or costing money, it’s about just time to kind of learn and build your network, so for my first year and a half to two years out of TSA, I was trying to pivot myself in that direction by using my Accenture background and my Homeland Security experience as the core to pivot me to get there, but I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was on a very tactical step to say, I’m going to do it, I want to go to this class, and I want to do these things, so I’m slowly but surely going to pivot myself there. Then I started taking on more and more work that was more design innovation than Homeland Security and so now adjusting some of my clients are a bit of both right there. They have invented new technologies and they’re trying to figure out where and how to use it in a Homeland Security space, so it’s that kind of meeting of both worlds.

Wei Zheng: Wonderful. That’s very helpful to note you didn’t just plunge in 100%, you gradually moved.

Stephanie Rowe: I gradually moved and I would say my startup was different and my startup was really scary to me because I was doing a tech startup. When you do consulting, that’s easier because you can pay yourself and pivot as you go, but when you do a tech startup, unless you’re independently wealthy, which I’m not, you can’t really do that, you have to try to go raise money, which I have done all of those things now, but that was harder and scarier because you aren’t going to make any money doing that. We ended up doing hardware for a long time because the development cycle of hardware is so much longer than with software and so that was scarier and I can talk about that and being an entrepreneur and advice I would give to entrepreneurs you know later if we want to talk about that.

Wei Zheng: Great, let’s go there. Let’s go there now. You talk about Joulez, that’s your own technology company where you build products. So what are some key lessons learned or key insights you generated in that journey?

Stephanie Rowe: Yeah, from a personal perspective, if I were giving advice to a new entrepreneur and there’s so much out there that it tells you how to get started as an entrepreneur, which is awesome and those resources are super important, and they’re great, and I leveraged a lot of them in the Cambridge area, but I think the one thing that I did really right was to set some parameters around let me take a step back for a second. I think the one thing that nobody talks about that is really important I you’re going to start a company is equally around how do you get started and how do you know when to stop? I can’t tell you how many friends I have that you know ended up divorced, sold their homes, and basically made themselves financially destitute.

So I was coming from a place that I wasn’t starting a company when I was 22 or 23. I had money and so I ended up mortgaging my home apart from it to basically fund some of my startup. But what I did get right was this is the amount of money I have, so I’m going to say, ok I’m going to take this calculated risk financially. I’m taking this amount of money out of my mortgage and I’m comfortable with that, but when this money is gone, if there’s no more money, I’m stopping because I upfront agreed with my and I had a husband. So I agreed with him that this was upfront was the amount of money. It turns out, I think now looking back at it, I should have set other parameters around timing and I should have sent more specific milestones were like ok if you can’t raise X amount of money by this time, or if I can’t get traction for a product by this time, I would have set and I’m not talking about a lot of metrics, I’m talking about, just 3-5 for how you know when to stop because the mistake people make I think sometimes as individual entrepreneurs is they go too long and they literally destroy their lives. I can’t tell you how many people I know that have done that. So my biggest piece of advice would be setting that up upfront.

There was this term in grad school that this one professor used and I’ll never forget it, he said because you don’t want to be one of the walking dead because that’s the worst scenario he goes if you crash and burn, you crash and burn, and that’s easier than if you’re a walking dead company, which means you’re getting enough success, you’re not getting enough for it to really take off, but you’re not getting enough success for it to crash and burn. So he called it the walking dead and I just will never forget it because I see so many walking dead companies now. It just takes them too long to fail and time is money, and especially as you get older and dumb, and if you’re going to try again, you want to know it’s not working and move on to the next thing and know that it’s ok to let it go because I don’t know that we talk a lot about that. It’s ok to let it go, so when do you let it go?

Wei Zheng: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for offering that piece of advice. So let’s pivot a little bit about STEM, about inclusivity, and about women in STEM. You have spoken on this topic, and Joulez is part of your effort if I understand correctly, to help create an environment that’s more gender inclusive in STEM. You have a saying from one of our prior conversations, our technology has a branding problem. Could you elaborate on that a little bit and talk about what you have perceived as not that inclusive yet in the STEM industries?

Stephanie Rowe: For me, especially as a woman that started in Fashion Merchandising that found her way into tech, like I wouldn’t be talking here to you today and I wouldn’t have had the opportunities if I hadn’t found my way into technology, and so I think that I started when I came out of grad school like I wanted to build a tech company, but I didn’t know exactly which one or what it was. So I started my company, Jules, from the place of I want to solve a problem I care about and there’s many I could work on, but the one I want to work on is the lack of girls and women in STEM. And so I started from why is that? Why is that a problem? What is it about that circumstance? Why does that exist? So I started from that place to try to figure out how I might solve that, and so the more that I dug into it I was looking at everything from how kids develop to later stage career things and I kind of peeled it all back to and learned that I didn’t know this because I was an enterprise software person from Homeland Security and I’m now working in the space of consumer products for children, so this was not at all my background and I think a lot of times that’s how innovation happens.

I started to. Just look at what I did know was that going to the toy aisles like you go to Target or Walmart, right? The toys are pink for girls and blue for boys. Everybody knows it and that’s just kind of how it is, just for like a decade, but it would just infuriate me every time I would go to the store I was so angry so I was like why is that? And once I dug into a few things I dug into child development and I dug into how our toys were made. What is the user experience design like in Hasbro and Mattel? How do they invent toys? I started to learn that toys are made by a very small group of white, male, engineer toy inventors. And then the more that I understood about that industry and how toys are invented, the more it made sense. What I realized was that the set of contexts by which we teach children are very narrow, so it is cars trucks and this is just as you know, several years ago now. So this is changing, thank goodness it’s changing at all. So it’s a very narrow set and I was like, well why don’t we just broaden this? Like if we can broaden this and it wasn’t so much that I was designing for girls, I was designing beyond the default. Also, I did a ton of market research, but then I did a lot of ethnographic research. I mean, I spent a lot of time in toy stores. I bought tons of toys and tried them. And then I think my time at MIT and the MIT Media Lab was super helpful because I got context around what is happening with technology. Electronics are getting really small. Fabric is becoming conductive. There’s all of this stuff going on around pure tech and technology and there was a group at MIT called High Low Tech and it’s basically technology that’s not the way you would normally think about it, so it would be like wearable technology or again technology as fabric and that was a lot of inspiration for the work. Then I started looking at arts and crafts and recognizing that arts and crafts is a billion dollar industry largely targeted towards girls so this was really interesting. So what if we brought technology into arts and crafts? What if we fuse those things together and start from a place of decorating rooms like all kids, especially girls, want to decorate their rooms. So how might technology make decorating and designing your room cooler. And so it was by kind of just deeply understanding what was out there and what tech was coming. What were girls trying to do? I blended those different elements together to invent the Joulez product line and it was coming from a place of it’s not all girls want to build, like when I started this I was like maybe girls don’t want to build, but it turns out that was the case because I did a ton of research and they all wanted to build. They just didn’t want to build anything that was out there.

And then I think when I say that tech you know or engineering has a branding problem, it’s you know so much like almost any engineering class that you take the context through which they’re taught is also very masculine. So I had this as one example. I had an intern, a young woman from. Pennsylvania and she basically and we were working on a lighting product for the room and she was like oh my God, this is so interesting. She was taking a class about lighting and Fresno lenses and she was a mechanical engineer so we were doing it based on a car headlight but she said I couldn’t have cared less. She just didn’t care about the headlights of a car and she was like if you would have told me that now I need to solve this problem to diffuse light and create focusing light patterns in cool ways to add interesting patterns on the wall, she was like that would have changed my entire perspective on it. She goes what I’ve learned now when I go back to school is if I don’t like the context or if I’m not inspired by the context through which the engineering is being taught, I can actually change that context. I would have never thought about that, so there’s so much in this whole idea of context and bringing things to people in contexts that are relevant to them, or in this case, like she mentioned, it would have never occurred to me to teach somebody a different context so they can accept themselves.

Wei Zheng: Yeah, that’s really critical insight in terms of not just getting girls into STEM, but pushing and helping people to see how STEM applies in all kinds of contexts that we haven’t thought of before. I love that idea. Thank you for sharing it.

Stephanie Rowe: Everything is about that brand, and so whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg in a hoodie or whether it’s some there were some experiments done about computer science clubs at universities, and some of them had very tech focused kind of advertisements and others took it and said we’re going to think about technology through solving sustainable problems. The exact same content. Two different brandings had massively different attendance of women in each of those, so it’s the brand. It is how it’s presented. I think engineering wrongly has this brand, that it’s going to be some dude with the hoodie sitting in a dark room by himself coding. If you’re doing that, then your product is probably not going to be very good because if you don’t have any user input, I don’t know what to tell you because I would say the technological build, design, and development is equally as important as talking to the people and what problem are you solving and those things really have to come together, so there so much of this you know hoodie tech bro coding a room by yourself all night long and it is kind of a brand and I just feel like engineering has a very masculine brand associated with it.

Wei Zheng: I love it. The branding idea, the application, that’s wonderful. So now you’re in consulting. You’re doing consulting in this product innovation and design space, and I think some in our audience today are interested in that space. Maybe could you talk about it? What are some key factors that help you stand out in that space? I assume there can be a lot of competition for people interested. How are you? What does it take to be successful in that space?

Stephanie Rowe: I would say depending on what you’re doing, you have to have some sort of expertise. I think what they’re looking for, I think they call them T-shaped people if you guys have heard of that. But basically, deep skill in one area, but then broadly understanding how you invent things, so how do you invent products. You might be deep in UX design as an example and you bring that skill to bear, but you’re also good at understanding the entire kind of life cycle at a higher level, so it’s not good enough to say I understand all this at a high level unless you have enough experience to kind of lead initiatives. If you’re younger, I think you have to come from a place of expertise. Whether that’s electrical engineering or UI or UX design, coding, or whatever it is, I think starting from that point of view and maintaining a curious mindset. I think curiosity and empathy are two really important things coupled with your deep expertise. So to me, I think it’s about being a well-rounded person. Like I said, I do call them T-shaped people, but to me it’s about being well rounded. Stuff is changing, the world is changing so fast that you have to have the skills, like you know CEO’s, now they have to know how to invent new business models because their business model is probably going to turn old very much faster if you go back 40 years, the life cycle of business models was a lot longer than the life cycle of business models today. When I say business model, I’m really talking about inventing new ways of operating new product offerings and new services, so I think being able to have that creative side coupled with the technical deployment execution is the ideal mix. It lets you be able to play in almost any space you want, so if I were advising people, I would say pwhat your core is, but then have interests more broadly. Make sure you’re focused on how to solve problems and how to really understand how to do that with humans.

Wei Zheng: Excellent thank you. I’m going to stop my questions here and give our audience a chance to ask you questions directly.

Speaker A: What excites you most about the next three to five years on the horizon? What is most exciting to you given your background?

Stephanie Rowe: Oh, that’s super interesting. I think the pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends that were already coming and I think one of the most exciting areas to me is actually around education at all levels. The university level is kind of all the way down. You’re seeing a lot of tech investment in education, and so I think we have had a year of kind of all virtual and seeing people working, so I feel like the humans are actually ahead of the technology which doesn’t normally happen. And so normally you have the tech kind of pulling people along, but I think in this case we’re coping with the Zoom and I was looking at Zoom today and they’re releasing new features so fast. All kinds of stuff I hadn’t even thought of like you can change your eyebrows. It was so interesting and so I think that is the case in education. And maybe there’s a broader message here around collaborations. I think people or the adoption curve has come so far by humans that I think that you’re going to see lots of really cool tech innovations that are going to open up and unlock a lot of really interesting things in the education space. Second to that would be healthcare. I think the same thing is true for healthcare.  I think we’re Ed. This Ed Tech is going. Is really, really it’s really interesting and has a lot of opportunity.

Wei Zheng: I think that you know adoption and new technologies are coming so fast and the adoption curve that you just mentioned. How do we keep everybody up to speed? By everybody, I mean all the generations. How do we know everything is moving technically? Everything is moving digital, but it’s moving very quickly and it’s going to be tough to keep older generations up to speed.

Stephanie Rowe: Yeah, it’s so funny you say that I think about this issue a lot one because I live in Washington DC. My mother is in her 80s and she’s in Ohio and this pandemic has been really hard. She’s really isolated and so I think about that a lot. And interestingly enough, I’m actually working on a project right now with a consulting company helping them.  I don’t know how many you guys know Next Door, so it’s almost like a neighborhood organizing solution. So this is something that I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but one of the comments we were literally talking about yesterday is that these products are designed for the tech savvy, so I don’t have an answer for you, but what I will say is it that entrepreneurs go where there’s opportunity and nobody has cracked this and so if I just take and I think we need to think about it as what are the problems to be solved. So one problem is if older people are isolated or that need help in their neighborhoods. I think we’ve seen a lot of people come together and organize neighborhood by neighborhood. I think is an area of opportunity for an entrepreneur and it has to be done. So I think that while I don’t have an answer, I think that by defining problem spaces and understanding the humans that have those problems, you can start to think about how you might be able to solve that, and I will say that sometimes when you have tension, like when two things seem to be in conflict, there’s sometimes some really cool innovation that can come out of those things.

Wei Zheng: Wonderful, well thank you so much Stephanie. Our time with you is up. I hope to keep connecting with you and maybe one day we can help rebrand technology and STEM in some big way that can be helpful to other people. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insights.

Stephanie Rowe: Thank you so much for having me and thank you for the questions and the engagement. If I can be helpful to any of you, please reach out and let me know I’d be happy to help. Anyway, thank you so much.