Whilst developments in mobile robotics never seem to cease, one aspect of the industry that lags behind is the representation of women, particularly in positions of leadership. Olivia Wake is part of our Warehouse Automation and Intralogistics team at CrimsonXT and with this blog series, she hopes to increase the visibility of women working in robotics and encourage more women to take roles in the sector.

Last week, Olivia spoke to Solutions Executive Callie Moriarty about choosing the right working environments and having it all as a career-oriented woman. Callie has been part of the team at warehouse mobile robotics firm 6 River Systems for over four years.

 

You can watch the conversation here or read the whole interview below:

 

 


 

To start with, I’d love to know a little about you and what inspired you to get into the robotics industry.

Sure! So I’m Callie, I work at 6 River Systems and what we do is reduce risk and address labor shortages for our customers via our mobile robotic systems for warehouses.

The way I got there was – I was interested in entrepreneurship and in 2018 had just left a failing start-up. I was thinking “OK, I need to do a bit more due diligence this time on the company I join.” So, I started researching and came across 6 River pretty quickly. They had raised 46 million in three years, which I thought was pretty compelling; they had two co-CEOs, both with industry and founding experience; and to top it off they were based in Boston, Massachusetts, where I’m from.

I figured I really wanted to get into a company like that, specifically 6 River, so I was open to any role they would give me. I started in 2018 as a Customer Success Manager and then progressed as a Sales Rep in 2020.

 

Had you worked in robotics previously or was it 6 River that really stood out for you?

No, I had not. I had come from public service advertising – which is not my most linear transition – but, as I mentioned, I sort of said “Look, let me just start with a company that’s likely to be really successful” – and by that, I meant get acquired or IPO – and based on what I had read about 6 River it looked really promising.

 

And how have you found the robotics industry so far?

I love it! I mean, I know you and I have talked about why there seems to be a lack of women in the industry, and I actually don’t have a good answer for that. When I found 6 River, I was kind of industry and role agnostic and the roles I’ve had have always been customer facing – whether it be customer success or sales – and I’ve spent a lot of time in the field. I remember when I got there thinking “Where are all the women?”. But I love it, I think it’s full of very hard working, high integrity, wonderful people and I would welcome anyone considering it to explore it further.

 

What would you say are the main challenges for women in robotics and have you encountered any yourself?

Yeah, it’s a perplexing question and I don’t know that I have a good answer. I think perhaps the proportion of women in robotics being lower than other industries is acting as a deterrent to women considering joining. But there’s nothing I can tell that’s inherently not a good fit for women – so I really don’t know. I think maybe we in the industry need to do a better job of marketing to women and featuring women who are succeeding in the industry. But from my perspective, it’s a great place to be.

 

No, I completely agree. I think that a lot of women might not even consider the industry. They also might think that it’s all engineering positions, but there are also sales roles and that commercial aspect. So are there any women or mentors that have inspired you throughout your career?

Oh yes definitely. There are many, but I’ll just tell you about two specifically.

The first is Condoleezza Rice who was, of course, the first black female US Secretary of State. I had the chance to attend a talk that she gave in 2019 and got to ask a question at the end, which was really cool. I asked her, “What advice do you have for career-oriented women?” and she said two things that I thought were really interesting. The first was she said: “Your mentors don’t have to look like you.” which was really inspiring – of course if she had constrained herself by looking for a mentor that looked like her, she never would have gotten where she was today. And the second thing she said was to work twice as hard because it’s pretty hard not to stand out if you do that.

The second person is Melissa Smith, who is the CEO of WEX, the leading global payments platform. She was CFO in 2005 when the company went public, and was then appointed CEO in 2014. Shortly thereafter – like within the year – she announced that she was pregnant via an article in The Wall Street Journal, which I thought was really inspiring, to have a female CEO of a public company be very open about being pregnant and having a family.

And then to top it all off, I was cheering for the Portland Marathon in 2019, and I was at mile 25 or so, and I saw Melissa Smith go whizzing by! It was so wild to think that not only was she leading a public company and having a family, but she was also running marathons. As someone who’s 30, and about to get married, and who loves to run marathons as well – I had previously thought to myself “OK, between career, family and marathons I need to pick one, maybe two”. It never crossed my mind to try to do all three and seeing her do that has certainly triggered some introspection on my end – why had I told myself I couldn’t do all three? It’s inspiring to have that example; she’s just making it all happen.

 

She’s bossing it, and it’s great that she made you realize that as long as you’re excited by what you’re doing in your career, you’re able to conquer everything else elsewhere. How have you found work-life balance?

Yeah, I think about that one a lot, especially as it kind of relates to happiness and fulfillment. Something my dad has always said is that what differentiates people who move to the top of an organization versus those who don’t, is that they have control of their time. So, they’re not waking up with an influx of emails and thinking “My day just got taken out from under me”, instead they’re deciding “Here’s how I want to spend my time and I’m in control of that”.

I think about that as it relates more broadly to life and thinking about, “If I like to exercise and be mentally challenged and stimulated, and also do restorative activities like spending time with family and friends, what’s my ideal ratio of those three things?”, and having that drive my behavior versus being in a situation where I’m reactive.

Of course it doesn’t work out ideally every day or every week, but the goal is that, over six months or a year, if that balance is not something that works for me, then I need to make a change. I’ve certainly had all those areas go in and out of whack, but that proactive mindset is helpful.

 

Yeah, I feel like if you’re in an industry that you love, you’re in a job that you love and you’re supported by the right sort of company, you’re more able to find that balance because you do feel more in control of the way that you’re living your life. So, what accomplishments would you say you are most proud of throughout your career so far?

So, the one that comes to mind is that when I joined 6 River in 2018, I was the only woman on the customer success team. I didn’t think anything of at the time, but it’s been really cool to watch the company, the customer success team and the larger go-to-market team grow in both the number and percentage of women on the team and I’m glad to have been there as kind of an early friend and an advocate for those first few.

 

Yeah, and because you’ve gone from an industry that wasn’t directly transferable into robotics, that must have been very challenging. So then to have that success and to really be enjoying yourself, I think that says a lot about you and the industry itself.

Yeah, it definitely is challenging. But I think perhaps the core of what I love about entrepreneurship is that it’s better to try and fail than to only be willing to operate in an area within which you know you can excel, and that’s really the mindset at 6 River. It’s great to find an environment where they’re willing to bring someone in who doesn’t have the right functional or industry experience and just kind of teach and coach and mentor that person and be OK with some failure along the way.

 

I think that says a lot about 6 River as well, for them to be able to bring people from other industries and then let them learn to love robotics and get involved in the industry says a lot about the company, the culture and their training program, that’s really great. Relating to that, have you ever felt any sort of self-doubt at all, how did you manage that?

I think if we think of self-doubt as defined by a kind of general lack of confidence in oneself or one’s abilities, I don’t feel that a lot. I certainly do feel stressed a fair amount and maybe the two are interrelated anyways, but I manage that very intentionally in a couple ways.

The first is for more general stress or anxiety, where you can’t really pinpoint where it’s coming from. I combat that, or ideally prevent it, with exercise; just so that my nervous system doesn’t have that extra energy to expend.

And then, if it’s more specific – like there’s an event or a presentation that I’m stressed out about or nervous about – I think there are two key things there and the first is over preparation. I’ll typically plan out what I would call the ‘happy path’ – everything goes as planned – and then also think through some options of different reactions or ways that the conversation could go, and then prepare responses accordingly. It certainly doesn’t mean that I always say the right thing and often it goes in some completely different direction that I haven’t predicted. But the preparation in itself, I think, calms my nerves and makes me feel more confident going into that.

The second is the environment, which we were just kind of talking about. Given 6 River’s mentality around, “It’s better to try and fail than only operate in your comfort zone”, I know that if something goes poorly and I did prepare as best I could, my boss will be on the other side saying “Here’s some feedback and good effort” – I’m not worried that I’m going to get reprimanded or fired or whatever. So I think selecting that environment accordingly eliminates a lot of the stress.

 

Yeah, I completely agree. The team here at CrimsonXT reflect very similar values to 6 River. I always feel super supported, and I’ve got a really great team around me so that, even if I was to make a mistake, they would pick me back up and completely understand and help and guide me, so it sounds very similar and I think that’s some really great advice. Have you been given any really great advice throughout your career that sort of stands out to you?

Yes, definitely. There’s a lot to choose from, I very frequently solicit advice and I love reading and learning and hearing about how successful people operate on my quest to hopefully be one of them one day.

But I’ll share one piece of advice that I think was very informative to my career trajectory. In 2018 when I was figuring out my next step, I had the chance to meet with Paul Maeder, who’s the Managing Director at Highland Capital Partners – a top decile venture capital fund in Boston – so who has a lot of visibility of companies and individuals that succeed and fail. And he said: “In order to be successful, you need to be a high performer within a high growth company – you can’t be selecting for one or the other.

I thought that was really interesting because the mistake I had just made was to pick a company that wasn’t growing very quickly and try to be a high performer within it. Which obviously pre 2018 didn’t work well. And he said “It’s hard to contextualise your success if you’ve done a lot at a company that didn’t really go anywhere. And conversely, if you join a rocket ship company, but you can’t tie back your impact and your success, that also becomes challenging for people to understand”.

I think it really validated my approach in finding a great company, even if your background is completely irrelevant, or you don’t have the right functional experience. Like it’s such a key piece of the process and I think it would benefit more young people – just like it would have for me if I had heard that sooner – to focus on really doing a lot of due diligence on the companies that they join.

 

So would you say that to be successful the company is a really important factor? To really do your research, make sure you enter at the right growth stage, with the right amount of funding, with the right amount of opportunities so you can really flourish in a flourishing company rather than be in a ‘sinking ship’?

Yeah, definitely. And it’s hard because I learned so much from being in a sinking ship, if that makes sense. But definitely a smoother path would be to do some research and at least have it be part of your process to try and identify companies that will be successful. Not that it will work every time, because, of course, in entrepreneurship 90% of start-ups fail. But I wish that had been part of my thought process sooner.

 

Yeah no, I think that’s a great piece of advice. Is there any advice that you would give specifically to young women starting out in their career?

I would definitely echo what we heard from our friend Condoleezza around “Your mentors don’t have to look like you”. But additionally to that, I would just encourage women to be bold.

I’ve sat in so many rooms where I see a woman walk in and sit on the side-lines, even though there’s a spot at the table. And I hope that systemically we can figure out how to convey to women that we really need them at the literal and figurative table – in warehousing and all other industries as well. But until then, I think if we can be a little bolder than might initially be comfortable, we can help expedite that.

I certainly understand that it’s easy to feel out of place when you look around a room and there is a piece of your identity no one shares. But if we can push past that, we can learn a lot. And likely there’s a key piece of other people’s identities, that aren’t visually evident, but that maybe they are feeling a little isolated about. So there’s a lot we can do.

 

I completely agree. There’s no reason to be turned away from an opportunity or feel fear from an opportunity if people around the table don’t look the same as you. If they share the same sort of ambition and drive, I think that that says a lot more and I think that as women we should utilize the fact that we might be different to others around the table. We should use it as our sort of marketing piece, like “This is why I stand out and this is why I’m going to do really well in this career because I’m not like everybody else”.

Yeah, I think that’s such a great point. Like it’s a pro, not a con.

 

Why would you say then that there’s a lack of women in the industry?

I mean, I continue to think it’s a really tough question – as I mentioned I’ve loved it in the industry, so it’s not clear to me. My only thought is that I think within the industry we need to do a better job at marketing roles and featuring women.

MODEX is this large supply chain conference held every year and the keynote this year was on how we really need to focus on the next generation of leaders and go to the trade schools and make sure logistics is something people are aware of as a career path. So, from my perspective, there’s no reason that it’s not a good fit for women, and I hope more women will come join us out here because it’s really fun and rewarding place to work. So I would say it’s probably on us as an industry to be reaching out more and making more people aware.

 

That leads perfectly onto my next question, which was going to be about how we should go about encouraging more women, and I completely agree.

When kids sort of decide what career path they want to take I feel as though there’s not that much awareness of the industry. By marketing to schools and universities, that’s where there could be a huge influx of interest because a lot of women who probably have never even considered the industry would hopefully want to get involved once they realize the wide variety of opportunities that there are.

Yeah, definitely, when I think of my experience I really fell into pursuing entrepreneurship – an industry that I had heard about. So that’s a great point, that a lot of it is maybe it just doesn’t occur to people or they’re not aware of the opportunities that are out there and we need to be more clear about that.

 

So why then do you think there’s particularly a lack of women in senior positions?

I think it probably comes from what we were just talking about: needing to bring in the next generation, and probably needing to have done that sooner. But as we market better and compel women to join, we can slowly bring in a class that will eventually rise to the top. And we certainly need their contributions to move the industry to reach its full potential.

 

And do you feel like there is the opportunity to progress as a woman in the industry? Have you sort of found it so far?

I think there is, just like there’s the opportunity for anyone to progress. Certainly, the industry is a very hard-working group and they’re focused on integrity and character and work ethic and competence and all the things that you would hope for. So as long as you show up to work ready to demonstrate those, I think progression is inevitable.

 

I completely agree. So finally, what is it about robotics then that you love? And 6 River, talk to me about what you love, your experience so far and your plans for the future.

Certainly! So I’ll start by what I love about 6 River, and it really comes down to the culture – which I know is probably an overused answer – but I have some more specifics that I can share there.

When I interviewed, I asked our VP of Technical Operations, “What is the culture like at 6 River?” and was expecting to get the standard, “Oh you know, we are a family, it’s a great culture” or whatever – all the things that I think are over said. And he is a very, very precise person and he said “It is friendly and it is intense.” Those were his two words, and I thought, “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I’m looking for”.  I love the precision. I love the directness, and the culture has remained that way.

We were acquired by Shopify in 2019 and the culture has remained very friendly and intense, crafting an environment where it’s encouraged to try and fail and as opposed to operating where you’re comfortable. So the people at 6 River and the mentorship I’ve received as part of the culture have been some of my favorite pieces.

Then in terms of the industry as a whole, I think that warehouses are operationally fascinating. I remember I took an operations class in business school and didn’t feel that interested because it was all on paper and calculations. But you walk into a warehouse and think, “You have this warehouse just full of product and the right products need to get to the right person within like two days”, and it’s just operationally fascinating. So to be a part of solution that helps do that for folks is very mentally stimulating and a hard problem to solve.

 

I think also because the industry is so innovative and it’s constantly adapting and changing, it’s never the same. It’s always going to get better and better, and it’s great to sort of be part of a team that are helping the future and helping future generations.

For sure, I hope anyone out there considering or not aware of the opportunities in robotics and warehousing will think to join – we’d love to have you.

 


 

To follow the rest of our ‘Inspiring Together: The Women Revolutionizing Robotics’ series, follow CrimsonXT and Olivia Wake on LinkedIn.