Women In Tech: Experiences, Challenges and Lessons Learnt Along The Way

As a nod to national women’s equality day Women’s Day we honour women leaders in technology, who are quietly making a difference in their field.

Isabelle Ohnemus, founder/CEO of EyeFitU, Leanne Luce, founder of Omura, Tania Boler, founder of ELVIE and Giusy Cannone, managing director of Fashion Technology Accelerator give us a glimpse into their experiences, challenges and the lessons that they have learnt along the way.

Women In Tech
Isabelle Ohnemus – Founder/CEO of EyeFitU, Leanne Luce- founder of Omura, Tania Boler – founder of ELVIE and Giusy Cannone – Managing Director of Fashion Technology Accelerator

Can you tell us a little bit about your career path?

[Leanne Luce]: Like many entrepreneurs in the fashion technology space, my career path has not been a straight shot. I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a BFA in Apparel Design. After a few experiences in the fashion industry in New York, I knew that the industry was on its way to undergoing massive technological change. I am starting seeking opportunities in which people were challenging the status quo.

[Giusy Cannone]: I’m an industrial engineer. After graduated I immediately decided to work on new enterprises and startups. I’ve worked for some months in the US for the Kauffman Foundation. Then I decided to come back to Italy and covered some roles such as Investment Manager in the largest Italian business angels group. Afterwards, I decided to join Fashion Technology Accelerator as Managing Director to start-up this fantastic concept in an exciting and growing organization.

What made you decide to pursue the careers that you are in?

[Tania Boler]: I’ve always been passionate about women’s health. After my pregnancy, I realised a lot of issues women face are often swept under the rug, one of which was how neglected pelvic floor health is. I never planned to start a tech company, but I realised there was a massive need for innovative and empathic technology to support women, and so I founded Elvie.

[Leanne Luce]: My career has been focused on two big ideas in the fashion space: customisation and augmentation. Customization, led by the manufacturing side of the apparel industry and augmentation by the wearables side. I’ve done some experiments in the customisation space including Omura. A cryptocurrency hardware wallet company you featured recently at FashNerd. I’ve also worked on several wearable robotic exoskeletons under military contracts at institutions like Harvard and Otherlab.

What made you decide to pursue the careers that you are in?

[Leanne Luce]: I chose to study fashion design because it gave me the opportunity to exercise both the technical and creative mind. With apparel design, pattern-making is all about 2D to 3D transformations. Apparel designers create works of expression and engineering using non-euclidian geometry on a daily basis. There’s a tension in balancing this duality that makes fashion an exciting field.

Beyond fashion design, I became interested in technology in part out of the frustration with the current tools being used in creative offices in the fashion industry. I started looking for answers to what other industries were doing and why the fashion industry was so late to adopt. This curiosity sparked a lot of exploration.

Tell us about your leadership style and philosophy.

[Isabelle Ohnemus]: As a CEO, I believe it is imperative to build a team of experts with shared principles and passions. Creating a strong company culture with different voices and opinions working together on a shared vision produces excellent results. I like to hire people from diverse backgrounds as it contributes to the business in many positive ways – especially people who are way smarter than me!

CEOs need to make sure that team members are satisfied with their roles, working hours and projects; a happy team is a productive team, working proudly together toward the same goals.

What are some of the challenges have you encountered and how have you overcome them?

[Tania Boler]: We’ve never had a problem raising money from investors, but being a startup there is always going to be a push to increase more and budgets can be tight. Like any startup in the wearable space, we’ve found that hardware is hard! We were lucky to have Alex Asseily (of Jawbone) on board to help us hire the very best engineers from Dyson, and work with Tier One manufacturers. We have to be very strategic with where we invest our time and money, but so far it looks like we’ve made the right choices.

[Isabelle Ohnemus]: One of the most significant challenges is that technology is not developing fast enough for our vision. EyeFitU is a groundbreaking platform and that in itself can be a challenge as everything we have done did not exist before. Hurdles and challenges are a natural part of the journey to building something that works and is unique. To progress, we know we have to continue to learn and educate ourselves, and we do this through integration, testing, automation and re-testing.

What’s more, being a startup in the Fashion Tech industry – a relatively new field – has it’s challenging too. Due to legacy systems, the retail sector is often not able to embrace new and advanced technologies very quickly. Fortunately for us, we are now experiencing a new wave of intrigue from retailers who are keen to test new technologies that will help improve conversion and retention rates.

Women in the field of technology are the minority,  do you feel this has changed over the course of your career?

[Tania Boler]: It’s shocking how few women are in senior positions in STEM. However, we need to change attitudes from school age. I was one of the best at my school in maths, and at 12, I wanted to study maths at university. However, by 16, I decided not to as it wasn’t “cool”.  The same happened for most of the girls in my class. We waste far too much energy worrying about what people think about us. Most of the time, people don’t even care!

What advice would you give to women looking to break into the field of technology?

[Giusy Cannone]: Follow your passion and be determined to follow your path. Do not be afraid to do your job, even if it is in a mainly male environment. When I joined the business angels group, 90% of investors was composed by men with average age 50 years old – I was a woman and about 28 years old. At first, I questioned myself asking, how are they going to perceive my profile and my competences? but the second I forgot about it, I just started doing my job in the best way I could, and everything has worked out.

[Tania Boler]: Confidence is key, especially when you’re doing something that goes against the grain. It can seem daunting to want to do something that you haven’t seen another female friend or leader do. But it’s important that women know that there is a growing, supportive network of women in technology and female founders in the UK.

What has been your most exciting job so far?

[Giusy Cannone]: I love my current job, I feel so happy to have had this opportunity. Helping exciting new concepts to penetrate the market and so contributing to renovate the fashion industry, it’s a fantastic job. Being in Milan, I see how the innovation can match the heritage and tradition, even empowering it. Being part of this transformation is amazing!

How has your background prepared you for success in the industry?

[Tania Boler]: Technology is like any other field. To be successful, you need drive, determination, inspiration and creativity.  Serendipity is important too! Nothing much prepares you for starting your own company. It is an incredible adrenaline ride – I have learned so much and met so many interesting people and done things I never thought possible.

[Giusy Cannone]: As industrial and management engineer I received a very suitable preparation in dealing both with managerial and technological aspects, that is precisely what I do every day. Then, working on the innovation side, there is a lot of studying and reading to continually keep-up with new trends, solutions etc. But also my passion helps me in obsessively observing how the society is changing, so I try to interview people from different age groups to understand how they behave!

What are your thoughts on the next transformation in the tech industry?

[Isabelle Ohnemus]: With Blockchain, we can imagine a world in which contracts are embedded in digital code and stored in transparent and shared databases, where they are protected from deletion, tampering, and revision. In this world, every agreement, process, task, and payment will have a digital record and signature that can be identified, validated, stored, and shared.

[Tania Boler]: It is an exhilarating time to work on women’s health tech. Basic womanhood, from periods or menopause to pregnancy and postnatal care, has been entirely overlooked by technological advances. Women deserve better technology, so it is an exciting space. With Elvie trainer, we just launched two years ago and have already changed the way women talk about regular issues like prolapse, bladder control, vaginas and most importantly, we are helping women feel better and healthier through better technology.

[Leanne Luce]: I think manufacturing is the next frontier. Developments in artificial intelligence also enable developments in robotics. I’m looking forward to seeing more flexible manufacturing systems that produce garments just in time rather than batch. While some of the groundwork for this is already possible, managing the sheer diversity of available product has not been.

I just started working at Voodoo Manufacturing, digital manufacturing startup in Brooklyn. We are seeing an entire ecosystem flourishing around businesses and entrepreneurs with big ideas that are being enabled by services like 3d printing, digital printing, and sophistry new software. In the past, the costs of these services have been too high to build businesses around, but that is changing. Fashion hasn’t quite seen the impacts of this yet, but they will!

[Giusy Cannone]: I’m still so looking forward to seeing implementations of artificial intelligence and automation. I can’t wait to see the world with driverless cars and effective automated personal assistants. I believe this will again revolutionise our habits in so many ways and I look forward to seeing them. Also, on the other side, I see there is a latent desire and tendency to go “back” to some more human relations and touch, I’m curious to see how and if these two tendencies will somehow converge.

Read the entire Women In Tech series 

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Founding editor-in-chief & WearableTechStylist of FashNerd.com, Muchaneta has worked in the fashion industry for over 14 years. She is currently one of the leading influencers speaking and writing about the merger of fashion with technology and wearable technology and a regular contributor to digital news sites like Wareable.