It has been just over a year since I stepped into role of CEO at Affectiva - a roller coaster of a year but I've loved every second of it. I co-founded Affectiva with Professor Rosalind W. Picard when we spun out of MIT Media Lab in 2009. I acted as Chief Technology and Science Officer for several years until becoming CEO mid-2016, one of a handful of female CEOs in the AI space.
In early 2016, when a close friend and mentor of mine suggested I become Affectiva's CEO, I scoffed at him, adding that even though I really wanted to, it was next to impossible. It is only impossible if I don't believe it and don't plan for it, he responded back.
Because being CEO can feel lonely, I journal religiously as a way to express my thoughts, feelings and aspirations. Looking back at earlier entries helps me reflect on challenges and celebrate progress and successes. On my one year anniversary as CEO, I went back through my entries and took a moment to reflect on the year. I wanted to share the following four insights based on my experiences so far. None of these are particularly novel, but they still surprised me in how effective they are.
The CEO is Chief Evangelist
I underestimated the role of CEO as chief evangelist and chief motivator. I discovered that as a founder and now CEO, my commitment to and passion for Affectiva is super contagious. It is contagious with my team and at internal company meetings, injecting a new energy and sense of camaraderie. It is equally contagious on stage when I am giving a keynote or in a pitch meeting with a prospective partner or investor.
More people share our vision and have become advocates for what we do. More organizations want to partner with us than ever before. For instance, we are organizing the first-ever Emotion AI Summit which takes place September 13 at the MIT Media Lab. As we reached to potential speakers and attendees, we were blown away by the overwhelming responses and degree of interest. We now have an amazing roster of speakers and attendees who are excited about the possibilities the Emotion AI space holds for the future.
Of course, being passionate is not enough on its own. It is crucial to pair that with being an expert at what you do, which is another advantage of a technical founder being CEO.
As CEO, there are a plethora of things that have to get done - from building and shipping product, to growing the user base, driving sales and raising money. Thus, it is easy to de-prioritize all things culture related. But culture is the heart and soul of a company; it is the blueprint that depicts how the team interacts and how things get done.
So when I stepped in as CEO, I made re-invigorating Affectiva's culture one of my top 5 goals. I re-focused the company culture on getting things done, emphasizing transparency and ownership as key drivers of that. If you want to attract and retain smart people, then you have to empower them to take initiative, to lead, to take risks and make mistakes. And you have to make information available to enable people to make smart, informed decisions. I am a firm believer that transparency goes hand in hand with collective intelligence. In short, smart people need to have autonomy and ownership.
Prior to my transition into CEO, information was not always transparent. We only had company-wide meetings once a quarter, where the management team shared a high-level update. Moreover, there was little sense of ownership as most decisions flowed top-down.
One of the first things I started as CEO was the Wednesday Check-in, a weekly company wide meeting where everyone, including our remote team members, join and share updates. The first couple of months of Wednesday Check-in were abysmal! Except for the executive team and myself, no one spoke a word. I ended every meeting soliciting questions or feedback and got neither. There was general skepticism that any one person's opinion mattered.
Fast forward a year and the Wednesday Check-in has become a favorite. It is now a weekly forum for team members to share - with pride - what they are working on. Team members review product updates and do live demos. The sales team highlights key sales opportunities and accounts; marketing previews upcoming events and press activity. We celebrate RockStars of the week- team members who have exemplified our culture. We debate important topics such as whether a new business opportunity is in line with our core values or not.
We have fun too - like when team members share quirky trivia from the countries they grew up in or traveled to. We share information transparently even if it is bad news, like a delay in a product feature or losing a business opportunity. People feel empowered to ask questions, be critical, make suggestions and most important of all, step up and take ownership of initiatives they care about: everything from data strategy ideas, to expanding our internship program or starting a Women@Affectiva group.
Be deliberate about your goals
The incident with my mentor suggesting I become CEO taught me two lessons.
First, be deliberate about your goals. A recent study of over 200 people found that participants who wrote down their goals and dreams on a regular basis were 42% more likely to achieve those desires. After that conversation with my mentor, I added a new entry to my journal "Become Affectiva's CEO before the end of 2016". Once it was written down, I was able to internalize it and then plan for it. Becoming CEO no longer felt as daunting or unattainable as I originally thought.
Second, it is critical that you surround yourself by people who believe in you. It makes the difference between giving it a shot and feeling like you can't do it. When I was contemplating becoming CEO, several people encouraged me and cheered me on behind the scenes. That support was huge and I am truly grateful. Identifying who your cheerleaders are, is especially important for women who are looking to move their career to the next level but, like me, have doubtful voices in their head!
Take care of you
You've probably heard this before - a startup is a marathon not a sprint. I'm that founder and CEO that has trouble switching company-stuff off. While I draw energy from my work, I realize I need to pace myself and bring some balance to avoid burn out.
A few weeks ago, I dropped my phone in the middle of the Mediteranean Sea and it was the best thing that ever happened as it forced me to be present and in the moment and really spend quality time with my two kids. A powerful reminder that we all should make time to disconnect.
I also make time to exercise. My favorite is Zumba class, which I have marked on my calendar and my team knows not to schedule meetings over it! It may mean that on Fridays I walk into the office a little later than usual, but it sends the message that we are in this for the long run and that our wellness and family are important.
Resolutions for the year ahead
This year, I want to build deeper connections .. with my team as well as with the Boston startup and tech community. One of my 2017 goals is to have a one-on-one lunch with every single person on my team. So far, these lunches have been eye openers and we have already put some of the ideas coming out of these lunches in actions.
Building deeper connections is also the theme of our Emotion AI Summit. It is not too late to register! We have an amazing lineup of speakers who will explore how artificial emotional intelligence is moving us to deeper connections with our technologies and devices, between businesses and their customers, and ultimately with each other as humans. I can't wait to see all the connections that people will build at the Summit.