Women in Business Q&A: Ann Whittaker, Co-Founder, Rethink Robotics

Women in Business Q&A: Ann Whittaker, Co-Founder, Rethink Robotics
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Ann Whittaker

Ann Whittaker is the co-founder and vice president, people & culture at Rethink Robotics. She has developed strategic and tactical expertise in the operational and human resources domains, creating an engaging, vital culture in which corporate objectives are achieved and employees flourish. Prior to co-founding Rethink Robotics in 2008, Ann held high-level administration and communications roles in educational, philanthropic and life sciences organizations. Her past affiliations include MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the David Rockefeller Jr. Family Office, Millennium Pharmaceuticals and PAREXEL International Corporation. Ann holds a Bachelor of Arts from the American University and an MBA from Babson College. She currently serves as a mentor with the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, and is vice-chair of the Development Committee on the Board of Trustees for the Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
In claiming my own space as a leader (and believe me, this took a long time), I needed to be okay that my skill set is more on the "squishy" side and that while nurturing, encouraging and cheering people on is not seen in conventional business wisdom as qualities of an "A Player," these things really do matter. So my leadership style has come into its own; I had to be the one to affirm that it had value because I wasn't going to get validation from the outside. And now I'm able to be out there with all my vulnerability and fallibility, as well as with my highly effective, instinctual read on people and situations.

I've worked in a variety of settings, and seen that the human tendency to protect and serve one's ego first and foremost, can kill opportunities for creativity and growth. I see my current role as a platform to create a work environment where ego is honored, but in service to achieving results and to the greater good of the team. And, I think it's important for people to feel safe expressing their authentic selves, because that's when life and work get interesting. People really do want to connect with one another, create community with their colleagues, and support one another to be their biggest and best selves. This is how creativity can be unleashed.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Rethink Robotics?
I've worked in organizations developing and testing pharmaceuticals, in academia and in philanthropy. One of my best mentors was Josef von Rickenbach at PAREXEL: He was the first person who told me I'm smart. Thank you, Joe! So I just wanted to keep developing my natural curiosity and newly found "smarts" by being around people who had more focused intelligence, and who were doing things I'd never done before. And of course, working at MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab was just amazing. Being around the super talented students and principal investigators, and even learning how to machine small metal robot parts from the master machinist, Ron Wiken... wow! I was just learning all the time.

When asked to help found a company - something I'd never done before - it was an immediate yes. And for providing this incredible classroom of a start-up, I am grateful to Rodney Brooks. So, everything I've done has taught me that learning must never cease. And in hiring people for Rethink Robotics, one of the key qualities I look for when I meet someone is his or her desire to keep learning. I've seen that teams comprised of people want to learn from one another, to grow together in the pursuit of creativity.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Rethink Robotics?
We are lucky to have dedicated investors and a market with seemingly endless opportunity. So our idea of bringing a collaborative robot to market has been beautifully supported. Our biggest challenge is that building robots is really difficult. The technological challenges are daunting, and yet we are overcoming them in novel ways. And, of course, finding the talent to bring our ideas to manifestation is huge. The competition for the disciplines, experience and native intelligence that fuel our development is fierce. Robots are freaking cool, and that helps get people in the door. But we have to attract and retain people with the dynamism of our culture. And most people I interview tell me they feel it immediately when they arrive or after some time spent with our team.

To take it to the simplest measure: My biggest highlights and challenges have always been the people who make up Rethink Robotics. When we had to make a strategic decision to lay off 30 percent of our workforce in late 2013, and it was hugely discouraging for all involved. But we can happily say that several of the employees who were let go left full-time jobs to come back to work with us again. To me, that is an enormous shout out. And every day, walking around and seeing people so engaged with their work, and with one another, it just makes me so happy. Then to see the team hit milestone after milestone together, watching Baxter and Sawyer come to fruition, seeing creativity play out - it doesn't get better than that.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
When making decisions to evolve my career, I've had to teach myself to trust my intuition and follow new stuff that scared me. Go after what moves you, regardless of what other people have to say or what they think about you (very difficult, I know). I also want to encourage women to trust one another. Do not play like a guy. They have a different set of rules, and that's okay. But they don't apply to us. We need to honor what each one of us brings to the party. Some of the most hurtful people in my career have been other women who didn't value my skill set. I expect men to have to get over their initial biases; it disappoints me when I have to deal with this from a sister colleague.

Traditionally there haven't been a lot of women in the STEM field, but the world is changing drastically. Highly functioning emotional and intellectual quotients are needed in this technological world that is galloping at lightning speed. Engineering, administration, marketing, HR, sales, finance, you name it: We all are needed in the mix, and we need to honor and trust the very different skillsets we bring to turning ideas into realities. When we can extend compassion to our colleagues - and especially to those of us in the minority - we bring us all up to a higher level of effectiveness.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
A life path takes many unexpected twists and turns. I would never have predicted my own. A circuitous route toward a role can render you as effective - if not more so - than a traditional path. Make choices with your heart as equally as you do with your head. Approach those things that call to you with enthusiasm, but also don't be afraid to exercise your caution muscle. As my machinist guru said to me years ago, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." This is so very true. And sometimes working hard is just depleting, but there are other times when it is exhilarating. Stupid mistakes, failure, colossal errors in judgment - I've done all of that. But I keep going back to the idea of creating, and while you're in that process, the journey is super satisfying. With Rethink Robotics, I've taken the risk of trying something new and different; I might be lucky enough to see I've helped launch something that is successful not only for me, but for many people.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am not great at this, but I'm still learning. When you're a founding member of a company and feel responsible for how your team experiences its work lives, you're kind of "on" all the time. And until recently, I've been a one-person operation running every aspect of human resources for a team of more than 100 people. I never really disconnect at the end of the day because I'm invested in the mission and the goals of the organization. But I also know that this isn't sustainable, and I don't hold others to my same, ridiculous standards. I want people to have time to do the things in their personal lives that keep them at their creative best. I want them to feel happy and healthy in all ways. So, I encourage people at every opportunity I can; I express my gratitude for who they are and what they're doing, I smile genuinely, I find opportunities to laugh together, and to create an atmosphere of kindness. And while people work very hard at Rethink Robotics, we make sure they are taking time to adventure, relax, reflect and be with their loved ones.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
We have a long way to go to achieve equality with our male counterparts, in every profession. And certainly within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, despite efforts to evolve the status quo, there is still a significant lack of visibility or representation of women. Right now, there are not enough women being introduced to STEM at an early age, and the number of qualified women we come across isn't high enough. Thankfully, that's changing, but the lead time is long. Hiring women is a high priority for us, and we're actively trying to promote STEM to younger women still in school. Happily, our Baxter robot is being used in many K-12 schools systems around the country. And I will also go back to my earlier comment: We keep each other down when we don't trust that people with different skills are equally valuable. This applies to women, men and our entire human family; we need to include and embrace qualities and attributes that may be foreign to us. We grow as humans when we allow others to expand our experience.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I believe that finding an elder statesman/stateswoman, someone with a good heart and good instincts, is important. That person is more than just a mentor, but becomes kind of an all ears person who you can check in with you at different stages of life. This relationship is important, and something that everyone needs to have. It's also important to note that both women and men need influential people in their lives. Though I've relished opportunities to serve as a casual mentor to a number of people in various parts of my life, I've also recently taken on a formal mentor role through MIT's Venture Mentoring Service, which is something about which I'm incredibly excited.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire women who lead with compassion and a fierce intention to make the world a kinder and gentler place for all human beings. I admire women who work diligently to improve education and healthcare and make them accessible to all; who search for ways to halt environmental degradation; and who bravely stand for and demonstrate our highest human qualities. And there are women doing this in all aspects of life, every day, in ways great and small. It all matters.

What do you want Rethink Robotics to accomplish in the next year?
We are striving to continually evolve our products and lead the industry with our distinctive signature: collaborative robots that are uniquely designed by enormously creative humans. We've crafted an engaging work environment fueled by people who value teamwork, and we hope to maintain that vibe as Rethink continues to expand across the globe. It's an extremely important time for our company, as last year we introduced our newest high performance robot, Sawyer, and are aggressively expanding our global footprint. We're looking forward to hitting more major milestones and growth - something we're both excited about and extremely proud of as a company.

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