Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry identifies as a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in tech? In this interview series called Women in Tech, we spoke to successful leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead flourishing careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karolyn Hart.
Karolyn is an award-winning entrepreneur, technology executive, activist, speaker, author and the leader behind the IHUBApp platform that is seeing traditional website builders abandon web platforms in favor of building hub-based apps. The company started with a request to help Nelson Mandela unite South Africans. The unique product challenges that presented gave way to innovating an entirely different approach to how the world currently builds. With inspiration being fueled from innovative solutions found in Detroit (and not Silicon Valley), this is one of the most fascinating product journeys we had the privilege of exploring.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had the privilege of being apprenticed in IT at one of Canada’s oldest and largest financial institutions. At the time, I was working on a religious degree but needed a job to help pay for school. The company put me through some technical aptitude testing and that opened the opportunity to apply for a tech support role. The support role was robust. We all had to support and troubleshoot everything from hardware and software, but also the mainframe legacy systems. I’m very grateful they had this in-house program because without it I don’t know if I would have found this untapped passion. I like to joke that I put the “IT” in faith. Truly, I am so grateful the company put their faith and investment into me and allowed me to have the career I do.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As I graduated through my tech career, I eventually came into a role that had me working with communications around the world. One day, a woman down in Chicago sent out a note to all 25,000 of our global staff letting everyone know there were doughnuts in the kitchen. Back then, this was a very expensive email. I was tasked with sending her a note to explain why we need to be careful about our emails, how an email like this impacted our servers, and how much it cost the company.
I remember feeling so much compassion for her and just knowing she was probably having the worst day ever. I drafted the note to be incredibly kind and even made a joke that if I was ever in Chicago, I would take her up on that doughnut. I signed off telling her to keep her chin up. After putting it through the approvals I was ready to respond, and I did.
With “reply all”.
It was only a matter of time before my phone rang and she was on the other end. I was mortified at my mistake, but I have never been more grateful that I had been gentle and kind. You reap what you sow, and I remember everyone being good-natured about the innocence of it all. Still, it is an amazing reminder to always be kind.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment? We’d love to hear the lead-up, what happened, and the impact it had on your life.
I’m living it right now. I was recruited to a project to help Nelson Mandela because a professional in the states read a technical automotive whitepaper I had written. At the time, digital signage was brand new, and I’d written a whitepaper on how it could drive ROI to a dealerships Fixed Ops. I was invited to meet with a group of industry leaders who represented some of the largest brands in the US. In that room was an executive who would ultimately make it possible for me to do what we are doing today.
When our team started working on this initiative over a decade ago, we had no idea that we’d be at the forefront of using progressive web app technology in the way that we did and still are. At the time, we just needed a way to solve a practical issue. As you can imagine, working in South Africa with doctors meant we were dealing with some significant and heart-wrenching challenges. We thought we were building a communication platform that would help with fundraising to provide support for the pediatric healthcare crisis. Like most tech stories, we ended up fixing a different problem.
That said, I remember sitting with one doctor who pointed out to us that for every hour her people were struggling with a digital platform, there were children dying. I’d worked in healthcare previously, so I understood the seriousness of healthtech. Yet, something in the way she presented it, brought it home. We weren’t just trying to solve a tech problem to “save more time” for the sake of productivity or making money. It impacted me in a way that is hard to put into words.
I grew up in the Windsor-Detroit area and Greenfield Village (aka America’s Village) is one of my favorite places to visit. I go there when I really need innovation inspiration from historic figures like Edison. Walking through one of the buildings, I remember thinking “Why is it that in 1933 they could figure out how to produce a Model T off the line every three minutes, but we can’t figure out how to get a website or app up without hundreds of hours of effort?”
My ‘lightbulb’ moment came when I realized the problem was who digital platforms were being built for. You don’t need to be an engineer or understand how engines work to drive a car. Today’s “do-it-yourself” digital platforms were built by engineers for junior engineers. They say they are “self-serve” because they are drag-and-drop but could you imagine if you wanted to buy a car and the person asked you to decide where you want the gas tank? You might have an opinion on where it should go, but do you truly understand the implications? That’s the challenge with the current do-it-yourself platforms. They still require a level of expertise that many people don’t have or don’t have time to figure out.
On top of this, the reality is that, especially in today’s mobile-first world, there’s only so much space on our devices for design functionality. We know simplicity works powerfully. The Google search page proves that, but making things simple is really hard.
I challenged our amazing team of engineers to design for the “digital driver” and not to impress other engineers. We asked, “What if we figured out all the complexity, so that all someone would have to do is put in the fuel (content) and everything else just worked?”
Essentially, we wanted to manufacture the digital build to get things up faster than ever previously attempted but to have it equipped with an engine that simply worked and got our customers where they needed to go.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There have been so many hard times in this journey as proposing an entirely new way of doing something means you have to get comfortable with people scoffing at you. It’s always amazing to me how much our society celebrates inventors but have no real understanding what it means to be in the invention seat. It’s fascinating to see that the people you think will get it, often do not. They are so deeply invested in what they know to be true of the world or have invested their money and effort into a particular technology or way of doing something, that anything contrary to that is a threat. So, they outright dismiss it.
That said, I have found that early adopters are often found in the people you wouldn’t expect. In our case, we found it was mothers running their own digital businesses that immediately “got it” because they saw what they gained. They are run off their feet managing businesses while also taking care of their children. If you can give them back one-hour, let alone 80% of their build-time, they are going to be all over it.
As far as giving up, any entrepreneur who says they haven’t had the thought at one low point isn’t being entirely truthful. They say that courage is not the absence of fear. I think the same can be said of perseverance and the feeling of quitting. The point is not what you feel, but what you do.
What kept me going, was a combination of things, but the credit really goes to my loved ones and friends. Those precious souls showed up for me when I was facing those dark moment. They held up the proverbial flashlight to the path I was on and told me to keep going. I feel so incredibly blessed for the family and friendships I have. They are everything.
Let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address? How does your company help people?
Right! (laughs) So, our patent-pending platform produces hub-based apps that are PWA-enabled. That’s a mouthful!
What your readers need to know is that the digital landscape is dramatically shifted. The digital walls we once knew are completely gone. Before you either built a website OR an app, but the tech today has blurred those lines. When you build a Hub, it detects the devices people are coming in on and offers up what they need. That’s really exciting, because it’s one less thing to worry about. A seamless, unified experience and to build it is completely different.
Imagine that all you must do is upload your logo, choose your color, create channels to hold your content, and go! Our engine kicks in and as people come in and use your Hub, it will automatically give them personalized email newsletters, notify them of their interests, remind them of events, and more. We even made it so that you can forward an email as a way to self-publish into the Hub.
The main point of the IHUBApp is meeting the human need for communication. We are seeing freelancers who build websites and traditional apps converting over to us. They are posting videos on how it’s giving them precious time back while making their customers very happy.
When I think back to the challenge from the South African doctor all those years ago, I am so proud of what our team built. This was the whole point.
If someone wants to lead a great company and create great products, what is the most important quality that person should have, and what habits or behaviors would you suggest for honing that particular quality?
Humility. Hands down. In tech, you need to be in a constant state of openness and learning. You need to constantly be open to the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know. The humble person is willing to learn from anyone, everyone, anything and anywhere. When I think of the team I work with, they are so humble that they wouldn’t even like the fact that I am talking about their humility.
I think the best way to stay humble is to stay learning. If you’re constantly learning something new it’s a reminder there’s still so much you don’t yet know.
Next, let’s talk about teams. What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
Build a team democratically but lead authoritatively. Back when we started, I was the main tech lead. I was writing the functional specs, coordinating our releases, leading war rooms etc. As we grew, it was clear I could no longer be the tech team lead. Instead of hiring someone from the outside, we took a vote as to who everyone felt would be the best to lead. The voting was unanimous, except for the person that was being voted in. He didn’t see himself as the leader even though everyone else did.
He has created a hyper-collaborative space and a challenge culture that is incredible. That said, he is the final authority and makes the tough technical calls. He and I work closely together and when he is struggling with a particular direction, we talk it through and challenge one another back and forth.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together, and can you recall an anecdote that illustrates the dynamic?
Besides this team, there’s one other team that was just as strong. Both teams carry the same intrinsic values of integrity, radical candor, and respect. It takes time and trust to build this, and it also takes intention to keep it. For those who don’t work in this sort of environment, much can be misinterpreted.
For example, it took me years to get junior staff to openly tell me when they thought I was wrong or off-base. I’m their leader and that can be terrifying. Recently, some of the staff and I were in a meeting with some outside consultants. During the meeting we entered our typical challenge banter. I received a concerned call after the meeting from one of the consultants indicating they were worried that my leadership and authority wasn’t being respected.
So, that you understand the kind of culture we have. I brought that feedback to the team, and they didn’t just dismiss it. They asked, “Are we being disrespectful in our approach and desire to get this done?” It was a complex topic, and, in the end, we settled on the fact that where we failed was ensuring that “outsiders” are properly oriented to how we operate.
If you had only one software tool in your arsenal, what would it be, why, and what other tools (software or tangible items) do you consider to be mission-critical?
Anything and everything AI. The ability to save time and automate with it is critical.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
I recently was gifted memberships to the Detroit Institute of Art and Greenfield Village because I was dragging people their so frequently. I feel uplifted after a visit. During the summer, you’ll find me on the waters either kayaking or paddle boarding.
The one thing that really helps prevent burn out is exercise and sleep. These are game-changers.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?
1 . Step One - Establish your product's values, not just the value of the product.
No tech is morally neutral. It takes on the core values of your team. Is privacy and security important or is it growth at all costs? If you look at the tech world around us, there’s plenty of stories of how innocent tech features have been weaponized. I value privacy as a human need and not just a human right. I feel privacy is as important as food and shelter. So, it comes as no surprise that I set that as one of our top corporate values.
2 . Step Two- Establish a scientific approach. Everything is a Hypothesis.
If you’re approaching things as a hypothesis then you will understand that things are going to evolve and change, especially as new information comes to light. Creating a culture of experimentation will produce discovery mindsets. Discovery mindsets are focused on hypothesis thinking. Hypothesis thinking asks questions constantly. The results help to inform the path and it makes it less about “who” proposed the idea and more about whether the idea passes the testing.
3 . Step Three - Go fast and embrace being embarrassed.
Our first beta was with a customer using us at the Kakuma Refugee Camp. By the end of the second day, we had a robust list of things that needed to be fixed. There were moments where we all said, “How did we MISS that?” It doesn’t matter, that’s the point of the Beta. Just get your MVP into the marketplace and do it now.
4 . Step Four - Be willing to start completely over.
There's a temptation to hold on to tech debt. Developers will see all the investment in their code being lost if you re-write but that’s wrong. If it’s not working, it’s not working. There are valuable lessons from failure, and you will be stronger. Early on we had to go back to the drawboard twice. The first product maps didn’t survive customer engagement. They couldn’t complete the simplest tasks. We didn’t tweak the work; we threw it out and allowed another team member to take a totally different approach contrary to the first design. This time it worked.
5 . Step Five - Keep the faith and persevere in the face of fear.
It's going to go wrong. So wrong. In the end, nothing will be more important than making the decision to persevere. Team members will let you down, but don’t lose faith in your team. Some customers will complain about everything, that doesn’t mean they are wrong, but it also doesn’t mean their vision for your product is correct. All you can do, is keep your head down and keep working. One of Edison's stories I heard over the years was how he had a horrible meeting with investors who were threatening to take their money and walk. They wanted action, now! They wanted change, now! How did he respond after their outburst? He walked back into his lab and did the next experiment he had already planned. He made them all wealthy when he got his breakthrough with the sustainable light, but he kept his nose to the grindstone and his eyes on his next invention. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Absolutely not. When I started, I was apprenticed and there was only one man on our tech support team. I didn’t know that was unusual until I left that company. The biggest change we need is stories to be told in film and television with relatable and likable female characters doing amazing things in tech. Girls need to be able to see themselves and aspire to achieve. Research showed that the Elle Woods character from the movie Legally Blonde caused a significant bump in females becoming lawyers. We need these types of heroines and stories in tech.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
Melinda Gates. She wants to create an alternative Silicon Valley that helps women-empowered startups. As someone who’s lived this reality, I’d love to be a part of the solution for the future.
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