Women in Business Q&A: Dr. Emily Cole, Co-Founder, Liquid Light

Dr. Emily Cole is Liquid Light's co-founder and Chief Science Officer. She co-leads development of its first commercial process for the production of ethylene glycol from CO2. Prior to joining the company in 2009, she worked in the lab of Professor Andrew Bocarsly, where she developed catalysts to convert CO2 to fuels and industrial chemicals. Emily earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University, where she was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow. Emily also holds a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Texas, Austin.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in a working class family. My parents were great role models who instilled values like hard work, modesty, and respect for all people. From them, I learned to try my best at everything I do, and take everything as a learning opportunity.

I co-founded Liquid Light right after completing graduate school, and it feels like I've been learning by the seat of my pants for much of the last several years. Growing a start-up has put me in situations needing tough decisions a lot sooner in my career than I would have expected - and the sheer number of opportunities helped build my self-confidence. At the same time, I know when I need help - and I've benefited from an extended support network, for technical, management, business and personal advice. From this experience and my upbringing, I strive to be a democratic leader and a collaborative team member, which I think works well in growing companies filled with highly-motivated employees.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Liquid Light?
It's hard for me to say, because Liquid Light was my first 'real' job after graduate school. My earlier jobs working as a waitress, a nanny, and at a preschool, helped me learn how to effectively juggle tasks. That kind of flexibility has really helped since you're often required to wear many hats in a start-up.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Liquid Light?
It amazes me to think we started as three people in a one room lab and now employ over 25 people. We've grown our technology base and are moving toward commercialization. I've enjoyed every day working with our talented team.

One of our first big challenges was deciding the focus for our first commercial product - our chairman of the board cautioned that the downfall of many startups is the lack of focus from the start. So we dove into that, and made sure that we could not only deliver the technology, but also a compelling economic advantage. For me, that was a big difference from my former academic life.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
First, that you must have passion for what you are about to embark on. You are going to rely on this passion and drive during the hard times, and it's what will keep you focused and positive. Things will not always be rosy, but if you can remember why you started your business in the first place you will find a way out of the hardest struggles. Second, you need a strong team. In a start-up it's important to have the right players in each role. If there is bad chemistry, it will affect everyone and your company's performance will suffer. At the same time, know that you do not need to do everything as the leader. Find folks with the experience and skills that are needed for your business to succeed and learn to delegate.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The importance of communication. Almost every failure or issue I see comes primarily from poor communication. Communication needs to go in both directions and needs to be frequent to avoid inefficiency.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
One of my co-workers lent me a book on prioritizing your time. The author highlighted that there will never be enough time to do everything on your list, so make sure you complete the most important things. I find that practicing this helps me feel I'm getting stuff done - and it allows for more personal time.

I am also blessed with a supportive husband. I think it's important that your partner supports your dreams and understands that starting your own business is not 9 to 5. But you also have to make time for your partner and remember that support is a two-way street.

I have one last tidbit for women who travel a lot. When I'm on the road I try to get more done and work longer hours so that I have more family time when I'm home. Skip the in-flight Wi-Fi so you can get work done without distractions from email, calls, or co-workers popping into your office.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think one key issue is promoting family-friendly initiatives for working mothers and fathers. It is still difficult for women to advance their career while also raising a family. It can also limit the companies that women want to work at, reducing their options and reducing the talent pool for many organizations. More cultural acceptance and initiatives that allow men to share responsibilities without similar negative career effects, such as paternity leave, will also improve work/life balance.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My 'formal' mentors helped me build my academic and scientific base. I'm indebted to my graduate adviser, Professor Andy Bocarsly, my undergraduate adviser and graduate committee, and Professor Keith Stevenson who let me work in his lab as an undergrad.

My 'informal' mentors include an incredible group of industry veterans with immense business, management, technical and marketing experience.

On a personal level, my good friend who is four years older than me, has acted like my big sister throughout my life. She has helped me with everything from college applications to work advice.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
As a tennis fan, I greatly admire Billy Jean King's efforts for equal prize money for women and founding the WTA. I think many enjoyed her win over Bobby Riggs as well, though the Battle of the Sexes was before my time! Venus Williams is also on my list for continuing the initiative and finally achieving equal prize money for women at Wimbledon and the French Open in 2007.

What do you want Liquid Light to accomplish in the next year?
In 2015, we'll be making our technology work on a bigger scale - getting us closer to commercial use. Our first product is a new way of making a commercially-important chemical - monoethylene glycol (MEG) - from carbon dioxide, which is a big deal. MEG is used in antifreeze and in the plastic used in water bottles. We'll also be looking to add our first big commercial partners and raising additional growth capital.