Whilst developments in mobile robotics never seem to cease, one aspect of the industry that continues to lag 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, Olivia hopes to increase the visibility of women working in robotics and encourage more women to take roles in the sector.

For her first interview, Olivia spoke to marketing leader Kristin Fornal about the challenges of balancing work, life and motherhood and the transformative impact of mentors in her career.

 


 

 

The main aim of this blog series is to encourage more women to join in the robotics industry and help remove barriers to their development. But before we dive in, please could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

My name is Kristin Fornal and I’m a proud mother of two, but when I’m not catching up with my kids, I’m usually found spending time in nature, or perhaps an art museum. I have a solid background in leading marketing teams and for the last four years I have led the marketing department at IAM Robotics. Currently, I’m a fractional CMO specializing in the tech space with Brand pH.

 

What was it about mobile robotics that really interested and excited you? 

I had been in marketing for software companies for some time and was looking for a new industry to express my skills. I’ve always been interested in science and tech and Pittsburgh is kind of a quiet robotics hub. I’ve always watched the robotics industry progress from a distance and, as more and more positions opened up, that’s when I was like “I’m going to give this robotics thing a chance”.

 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in male-dominated industries, and how did you overcome them?

Yeah, I mean it is no secret that there are not a lot of women working in technology in general, and more specifically robotics.

A lot of my experience, particularly when I was younger in my career, was just trial by fire and learning. I believe that as women, particularly in leadership roles, we’re constantly walking a fine line between being assertive and being likeable. If you’re too assertive and not liked, that doesn’t help you. But if you’re too much of a pushover, that doesn’t help you either.

Being talked over is another big thing – when you’re sitting at the table with your male counterparts and struggling to get a word in edgeways, it’s a lot of “Hey guys, I’m talking, can you hear me out for a minute?”.

Gender inequality is a real thing, and it hinders growth opportunities and pay scale limits – the glass ceiling. It’s unfortunate, sometimes I don’t even think that some companies recognize what they’re doing. They’ll say one thing, but then their actions are doing something totally different.

However, what really got me through those challenging times was leaders who can empower and encourage their teams. Who provided that guidance whilst also empowering people to make their own decisions, try new things, and push themselves. I feel like throughout my career, I have been very fortunate to have great mentors who have coached me and guided me when things have been tricky.

 

So would you say that having a really good mentor is a sort of a key to success? 

I think surrounding yourself with the right people is the key to success. When you surround yourself with people who hold you accountable, push you, and are open to idea sharing – where everybody can be on the same page of “We can agree to disagree but we’re going to listen to everybody and talk about some of the differences, no idea is a bad idea”. Those types of environments I think breed success.

 

 

I’ve been very fortunate to have had great mentors in my life, both men and women. A few of the women I’ve really looked up to have been Kim Ellis, Sally Johnson, Sheila Benny. These have been wonderful women who I sought out at different points in my career to ask for their help and be a sounding board.

And I met them through other mentors who were men; male mentors who valued the female perspective and helped put me in touch with them because they realized there are some things you can get different perspectives on from speaking with other women within the industry.

 

That’s very interesting because it’s great to see inspiring women within the industry but men, like you said, can be just as inspiring if they can see the value that women bring; fresh opinions, fresh outlooks, a completely different way of tackling challenges. What would you say have been your greatest accomplishments throughout your career?

Oh well, I mentioned my kids earlier – this is always a tough question because there are so many different ways you can look at what brings success.

I think I’ve had a lot of great ‘wow’ moments throughout my career, and I’m sure many more will come. But I think what I’m most proud of, what really gets me excited, is working with my team and watching them grow. There’s nothing like it. It’s always bittersweet when they soar and need to go somewhere else to expand. But it’s so rewarding to know that you helped elevate them to the next level of their career.

 

Yeah, I can imagine that that’s an amazing feeling seeing people that you’ve obviously inspired yourself and mentored go on to be very successful. Conversely, do you ever struggle with self-doubt at all? And if so, how do you come over that? 

Yeah, I think a lot of people fall into self-doubt when they start getting into an area that they’re just not that certain of. You get that imposter syndrome. Part of it is just fake it until you make it. But when I find myself doubting a thought process, or sitting in the boardroom with the rest of the leadership team with something contradictory to say, and I’m feeling that doubt of “Ooh this is going against the grain, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning” – when those situations happen, I really like to stick to the facts, talk about my opinion, try and take out any assumptions and really take a step back.

 

How did you manage that then moving into the robotics industry? Did you struggle moving into an industry that you didn’t have as much experience in as other people and how did you overcome that?

Oh yes. Entering the robotics industry, I really leaned on the leadership team and the engineering team to help fill gaps and help me to understand the product that we were developing. Even prior to getting the job, I started looking into other robotic companies and looking for a mentor in that space right off the bat. Greg Cronin and Sheila Benny were my two mentors while I was at IAM robotics and I still have conversations with a lot of my mentors, it never stops.

 

 

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a young woman who is looking to move into the industry? 

That’s a really good question. I think if you’re interested in it, follow these companies, and interact with them on social media and start formulating your own perspective on what’s happening in the space that you’re interested in and talk about it.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance and the role that the mentors that I’ve had in my career, how they’ve helped me. So I definitely think reaching out and meeting people within the fields that you’re looking to get into, just to help you with professional growth. It doesn’t have to be something that happens every week or anything like that, but being able to talk about “Here are the challenges that I’m facing. I’d like to progress in my career. Could you help me with pointers on how I can frame and position myself better?” You can’t beat that, and these people stay in your life forever.

But also, I think as a woman, everybody tells you that you can be whatever you want to be as long as you’re willing to put in the effort. And I think that’s very true, and I support that train of thought. But unfortunately, what young women aren’t told is you can’t really have it all at once. Because everything now becomes a choice and you’re faced with making sacrifices.

For example, perhaps your team needs you to be at a very important customer meeting, but it’s your kid’s final soccer tournament and you’re going to miss it. You have these sacrifices, and you have to evaluate and do what’s best for you in that current moment in time.

 

That’s a really interesting point to make. So how do you cope with the work-life balance, how did you go about managing that?

I was not very good at work-life balance at the beginning of my career, I was very gung ho. It took determination and looking back I see how unsustainable that was – it’s not easy. So, after a healthy dose of self-care, I now try and schedule like a three-to-four-day break on a quarterly basis where I just take a long weekend just to disconnect.

 

 

I think work-life balance is important and if it’s important to you, then it’s important to find those companies that also value family and work-life balance and mental health. The companies who have that as a core value and live it and demonstrate it.

 

So so important. It’s very common that companies might say that they offer that when in reality they don’t, so finding those companies with the culture where they really respect your needs and understand that mental health comes first and that sometimes family comes for first is so important.

Absolutely. It’s a lot of effort trying to find companies who live and mean that. I think when you’re going through interview processes, you’ve got to remember that you’re interviewing them just as much as they’re interviewing you. So for me, it’s great to have a casual conversation with people in the lobby while you’re waiting, or asking the right questions to really dig into how they react to questions like “Do you find that you get to have time to spend with your kids?” or “What outside activities do you enjoy?”

 

That’s a really great piece of advice. Before we wrap up, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on why there’s a lack of women within the robotics industry. 

I think the lack comes from losing interest in STEM programs during the most formative years. I think STEM outreach starts out really promising. But oftentimes STEM programs aren’t scalable enough to keep the interest of the trends that are happening in today’s society, with what young females look or aspire do in their careers.

I think the other thing that gets lost is these robotic companies need more than just engineers. They need manufacturing people, they need sales and marketing, they need operations. So even if you’re not interested in code or design or any of the electrical, mechanical engineering or software roles, there are a plethora of other opportunities to get involved in science and in technology.

 

 

You’re right – people don’t realize that those opportunities are necessarily available, so they sort of rule out the whole industry because they assume it’s not right for them. But actually, there are opportunities that could definitely be right for them. So how would you then go about encouraging more women to get involved in the industry? I personally think that a lot more women need to be present, and I think that social media has huge potential. If young girls see women speaking about the industry, see the success that they’ve had and the different roles that they can be a part of – it’s a great way to inspire young girls. How would you go about encouraging young women to get involved? 

Absolutely, Olivia you hit on a lot of them. It’s about having a voice, showing up, being present. I think there are a lot of organizations out there that are trying to reach the younger females and introduce them into the different opportunities that are available to them in the robotics, science, and technology areas. As females in this space, we need to also help these companies amplify their voice.

 

 


 

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