Joan Wrabetz: Creating Business Impact with AI-Powered Computer Vision Technologyby Analytics Insight October 16, 2020
Fyusion is a computer vision company with the mission to make cutting-edge, AI-driven 3D imaging solutions accessible to every enterprise.
The company’s technology enables cars and other products to be captured and published in a lifelike 3D image using only a smartphone, providing a rich customer experience without the need for expensive equipment. Fyusion’s 3D images encourage consumers to spend more time browsing, create greater trust with the vendor, and ultimately increase sales.
An Outstanding Leader
Joan Wrabetz is the Chief Operating Officer at Fyusion. She holds a master’s in engineering and has 20+ years of experience in C-Level positions at tech companies, big and small. Joan served as a CTO at EMC as well as VP of Marketing and Product at Western Digital. She also founded two startups, one of which was focused on AI and machine learning on text, video and audio data. At Fyusion, Joan sees the opportunity to blend her operational and technical experiences in a way that benefits the company.
Making Disruption Through People and Technology
Since Fyusion’s product is highly visual and interactive, the company is always balancing the innovation that results from pushing new technologies into its products to make them more visually appealing with the innovation of making them simpler and more intuitive to use. And, sometimes these two things conflict with each other. Commenting on the same Joan said, “Our research and development teams are amazing. They will work just as hard to come up with an easier way to capture images of the inside of the car as they will to invent new technology for visualizing those images as a single, interactive 360-degree image.”
Further, she believes that Fyusion has to balance listening to its customers with creating entirely new ways of working that might ultimately eliminate the entire set of functions the user must perform today. The best innovation happens when the team tries to understand the problem the user is trying to solve. Often, businesses can re-frame or eliminate the problem entirely, creating a much more innovative result than simply trying to optimize customer processes.
The Evolving Role of Technology and Leadership
Joan observes that new technologies are creating countervailing forces in some ways. For example, cloud computing and big data technologies make it possible to innovate with low barriers to entry and much shorter cycle times. Indeed, the development of tools to support and simplify the machine learning pipeline lower the costs of getting into AI and machine learning. On the other hand, the growth of AI and machine learning are driving organizations to seek much larger data sources. This can make it more difficult for smaller organizations to even be viable in the market; much less have the ability to innovate that someone with billions of data items does.
Owing to the rapid pace of technology changes and the depth of technology available in all areas, leaders today need to be more technical than ever. They must be able to evaluate the risks and opportunities of new technologies when determining whether and how to deploy them quickly. Already, the cost of doing this at subpar levels is getting much higher, for example, as data privacy and security concerns are growing.
One side effect of all of these changes is that the role of a leader has shifted from being a “director” to being a “facilitator/community organizer”. Experts within organizations must be engaged to work across technical and functional boundaries to address complex emerging technology issues and opportunities. Thus, leaders must establish the vision and culture clearly so that the experts can engage in evaluating risks and opportunities.
Hallmarks of Innovative Leaders
Catering to transformational leadership traits, Joan says leaders must have:
– A willingness to see outside the box and beyond the patterns they know. They should also listen to ideas from within their team.
– The ability to delegate to their team, with enough authority so that they can achieve success in their own right.
– The zeal to convince the management team to work together towards a joint mission.
Though this sounds quite easy, in practice, it can be tough to do successfully. One of the lessons that Joan learned is that her team is not a team of people who work for her, instead it is a team of her peers, in collaboration with whom she manages the organization. Joan believes that often, managers think of their team as the one that they lead, and they miss the need to manage as a team with their peers. At the executive level, management teams must work together to run the company. If they don’t do this, the company fails.
Navigating Gender Disparity Challenges
Joan became CEO for the first time at age 29 when she started her first tech company. During that period, she learned that the gender expectations of her investors, board members, partners and employees were inconsistent with their expectations of a successful CEO. “I heard that I “wasn’t tough enough,” and that I looked too much like a “soccer mom” to be a CEO. Actually, I was both.
“Even though it was the early days of the internet, some of the comments written about me in investor forums were truly hurtful. In the end, I just had to be true to myself and try to be a good leader on my authentic terms.”
Joan had few mentors, no role models who could help along her path. Since then, she has tried to be a mentor to both men and women she worked with, helping them achieve their aspirations while learning a new gender norm for women leaders. Joan is most proud of her accomplishments in this regard.
Remarkable Accomplishments that Inspire Others
Joan had a keen interest in math and engineering at a very early age and has been passionate about technology for her entire career. She was a math whiz in school, winning competitions throughout high school. She started programming when she was 15 years old. Joan was one of only three women in her engineering class at Yale. These passions have led to many successes throughout Joan’s life and career. However, as a woman in engineering, each of these successes has not come without obstacles. Joan stresses that many of her teachers in her rural high school told her she should not pursue math, while others tried to convince her not to go into engineering as a profession. “My professional career has sometimes seemed like an endless test of learning to deal with peers and managers who didn’t think a woman could do the job,” she said.
At the same time, Joan was helped and supported by others who encouraged her at every step of the way. Her teachers, professors, family, managers and mentors encouraged her to use her skills and abilities for the betterment of society. With these experiences, Joan learned that obstacles are opportunities to learn and improve. She learned how to find and align herself with people who are encouraging and supportive whenever possible, and that failure is also a stepping stone to success.
“I think I am now a ‘blue–collar’ leader. By that, I mean that I try to lead by example and not ask others to do anything that I am not willing to learn to do myself if needed. And I recognize that as a leader, sometimes I will fail,” Joan added. She is aware that as a female leader, sometimes people will wish her to fail. However, she also acknowledges that failure leads to learning, and that will polish her as a better leader over time.
The Future Ahead
Fyusion is at the helm of creating digital experiences in markets that have historically operated heavily by face-to-face interaction. The company is achieving that by leveraging pioneering technology in computer vision and machine learning. Joan sees a bright future ahead for Fyusion as the market moves to mostly, if not wholly, digital interactions (especially in the world of COVID-19), and as technology continues to enable machine learning on large datasets.
Sculpting Next Generation Women Leaders
Joan’s advice to emerging female leaders is not to be afraid to be one’s most authentic self, even if they don’t fit the norms around them. People are drawn to authentic leaders who can chart a course with a vision that is inclusive of all employees and customers. Therefore, possessing the ability to hear different views and incorporate them into decisions and strategies is an invaluable strength. She urges people to find mentors and be a mentor to others. “I have learned as much from people I have mentored as I have from the people who have mentored me,” she concludes.