Women in Business: Elaine Zhou, VP Engineering, Captricity

Most recently, Elaine Zhou was the Senior Vice President of Development overseeing engineering and product development at Clean Power Finance, a solar financing company backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Google Ventures. Before joining CPF, Elaine was Head of Engineering at Ask Partner Network, VP of Product Development and Technical Operations at PlanetOut, Inc., and Director of Engineering at HomeGain.com, Inc. Elaine's 18+ years of experience includes software application design and development, system infrastructure (DevOps) implementation, product development and process improvement with specific emphasis on the technical and process choices that enable scale. Elaine received her B.S. in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from UC Berkeley. In her free time, she can be found traveling usually to an island, paddleboarding Richardson Bay, hiking a local peak or discussing life in a startup over milk tea with her husband, Ken.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
After my father passed away unexpectedly, shortly after my family arrived in America, I became my family's breadwinner. I worked multiple part-time jobs to support my mother and younger brother, and eventually put myself through college. I was fortunate to meet many people who helped me along the way, including Karen Greenspan, a former educator at the Community Educational Services, who opened my eyes to and encouraged me to participate in the world beyond the Chinese community. She, and the many others who helped me, made me a stronger person and made me believe I could succeed here.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Captricity?
Before Captricity, I worked for PlanetOut, a social and news network for the LGBT community. Interestingly, some of the key people who have helped me in my career were members of this community. Working for PlanetOut was a great technical challenge and also a chance to give back. Most recently, I worked for a residential solar financing startup whose mission is to make solar energy accessible to everyone -- another mission-oriented company. While I am passionate about software development, I now know I am happiest working for a company that uses software to make an important impact on the world. My previous roles have given me the technical and managerial skills to help the brilliant team at Captricity unlock, analyze and interpret one of the most important sources of rich information: paper.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Captricity?
Joining a team of extremely talented professionals is definitely the highlight. I believe I can have an immediate impact by streamlining our efforts, while learning so much from my team about computer vision, optical character recognition (OCR) and machine learning, and considering how to get the most out of these and other cutting-edge techniques. I am too new to talk about challenges other than coming to grips with the amazing science that brings our solution to life. I'm really looking forward to bringing to market solutions that combine the life's work of so many gifted scientists and scholars. I know it will be both a humbling and rewarding experience.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in engineering?
Men have historically set the standard for technical excellence in engineering, but I find that the profession is changing. Women are extremely capable of adapting to new environments and technologies, which is becoming much more important as the pace at which technology changes is accelerating. Women are resourceful and creative problem solvers and often play an instrumental role in getting technical teams past critical roadblocks. I think women should maximize these strengths and have more confidence in themselves, and know how important these skills are to team success.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I've learned not to measure everyone with the same yardstick. A great technical team is like an orchestra, composed of many different personalities and skill sets. If you get the right person in the right role, they will help the team make beautiful music. Along the same lines, inspiration and solutions can come from anyone on the team. I have been surprised so many times that I now know the power of diversity always wins.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This question implies that I already have good work/life balance, which is a goal rather than a constant reality. Women make sacrifices and choices daily for whatever goals we set out to achieve. I'm lucky that I have a great partner. My husband and I both work for tech startups, so we both have very busy schedules and huge workloads. The good thing is that we can talk about our challenges and bounce ideas off each other. Despite his tireless effort to educate me about American popular culture, I still have a lot to learn -- though I've now started to appreciate live comedy and political satire from the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I also have to admit I've become a bit of an IMDb junkie. We do unplug whenever we can, though, and we try to keep an active lifestyle -- hiking, biking, and (my new love) paddleboarding. We take every opportunity we can to travel from the Bay Area backroads to islands off the beaten path that are full of culture and adventure.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In tech, men working almost exclusively with other men has bred more aggressive behavior that tends to drown out women's voices. A woman's more soft-spoken nature can be seen as a lack of assertiveness or, worse, a lack of knowledge. In my role, I do a lot of recruiting. I can't tell you the number of times I've been mistaken for a recruiter rather than the hiring manager. As women, we need to show our chops in our own ways. Developing amazing solutions today is like creating great jazz. Each person has their strengths, but it's the ability to collaborate and play off of each other that matters most. Drown out any one instrument, and the whole solution comes apart. I find that women are ready collaborators and naturally encourage everyone to participate. We may not be the loudest, but we can play a vital role in the center of the scrum.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My mentors have made a huge difference. Bill Bain, an artificial intelligence expert and all-around great guy, gave me the benefit of the doubt as a developer at a large company and hired me for my first startup job. He also challenged me to take on leadership responsibilities and guided me through my first managerial roles. Our CEO at PlanetOut, Karen McGee, was also a huge inspiration to me. She taught me that soft-spoken gals with inner strength and conviction do get ahead. She also taught me what it's like to be a leader and, at the same time, still be a genuine, down-to-earth person.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
When I was a kid, I idolized Marie Curie. In China, before I moved to the U.S., I actually started out studying to be a doctor. I was a year and a half into my education when we moved here. After my father died, I switched to Industrial Engineering and Operations Research when it became clear to me that this would be a faster path to supporting my family. Somewhere in both decisions, Marie Curie was the guiding light.

What do you want Captricity to accomplish in the next year?
I want Captricity to exceed our commercial and humanitarian targets, and also to demonstrate our end-to-end vision. Captricity is knocking on the door of harnessing machine learning and computer vision to extract the records and memories of millions of individuals, which are locked in handwritten pieces of paper. I want us to show how we can automate this entire process, from form recognition to data extraction to analysis and visualization. Making this information accessible to the businesses, governments and NGOs we work with will be transformational to both these organizations and the people they serve.