Note: This series is being written along with two outstanding women in the industry, Penny Sitler of Draper Inc. who will handle content and interview for Part Two and Kelly Perkins of AVI Systems, who will handle the same for Part Three. I am handling this Part One of the series. And why not? — since Cory is my namesake (just spelled a bit differently).
In my 15 years in integration sales, prior to what I do now, I worked with women both inside the company and those who worked for the manufacturers. In fact, my relationships with them were established just as closely as the men who existed within the company as well as those who represented and worked for the manufacturers. One of the companies I worked for was woman owned and the Director of Sales (my direct report) was also a woman. I did my own furniture design for Higher Ed – podiums and workstations – and my contact at the manufacturer (who was my co-designer), I considered her one of the best in the business. My Area Manager at a major interactive whiteboard manufacturer, was one of my closest manufacturer’s contacts as she went above and beyond to take care of my needs. She knew that her business was a major cornerstone of mine. One woman, who I got to know several months back, is an Applications Programmer II for a major university who also happens to be an audio engineer.
Women in the AV industry make important contributions every day – as owners, executives and employees in manufacturing, integration and rental and staging. They work in sales, technical, marketing, administration and more. In short, they work to achieve, as much as their male counterparts do. However, women in the industry have faced numerous issues and situations that seem to at times compromise these contributions and achievements. Why? I don’t really know, I scratch my head every time I try to come up with answers. I previously wrote a blog about women in AV and certain challenges they face, however this blog series goes beyond that topic to focus on important role models of the industry and their commentary on career, the industry and certain issues they have faced personally. This series will highlight three well-known executives in the industry who come from different realms – manufacturing, integration and rental & staging. Respect? I believe they earn it every day. In fact my blog’s participant has been a pace-setter in manufacturing for years and has received the accolades to prove it. She is in fact one of the most well-known executives in manufacturing.
Cory Schaeffer is the co-founder and vice president of business development at Listen Technologies Corporation, a Utah-based company that manufactures audio solutions for assistive listening, sound field systems and conferencing. First as vice president of worldwide sales, she worked to grow Listen Technologies from zero to where it is today. In 2011, Listen Technologies was named the most recognizable brand of assistive listening system in North America and Listen products are now sold worldwide in more than 30 countries. Cory recently changed roles within the company and now serves as vice president of business development.
CM: Cory, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this highly important blog interview. What was it that first interested you about the realm of audio visual technology, and at what moment did you decide it was time to enter into your chosen field of AV, in essence when and how did it all begin?
CS: I was young and I’m so glad I was so young when I “fell into” this industry. I had recently moved to Salt Lake City and I was working and while going to school. was working “entry level” jobs. Since I was in school for marketing, I saw an opening for a marketing assistant position at Gentner Communications, now called ClearOne, and I was hired. I worked extremely hard at this company and soon learned that “marketing” just wasn’t for me. Although marketing wasn’t going to be my passion, the AV industry certainly was. I found it to be extremely challenging and I was learning something new every day and I was learning from some great people. There were many people who invested hours and hours of time to help me learn and grow. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions and I asked many.
At this time, I wasn’t technical — again I came into the industry under marketing. I knew quickly that I needed to get my technical chops and I do not learn by reading manuals. I learn by using, touching, installing and tweaking. I remember when I didn’t understand “echo cancellation” and it took me a while grasp it. However once I did, I really got it and I found this to be an advantage as I trained and talk to other people because I was able to talk to anyone at any level because I knew it and I knew it well. It was at this company where I spent nearly 13 years. I started “entry level” here and when I left, I was running the teleconferencing business unit. I went through a lot of levels and I learned a lot. I found this to be a interesting and challenging industry and one that I feel right at home in. I learned how fun technology can be and I was able to speak “technology” in terms that were understood by the most technical as well as those without any technical knowledge.
CM: Did you always know you wanted to run your own company? Was there a specific moment, event or person that really influenced you to make the jump?
CS: Honestly, it was never on my bucket list. When the opportunity presented itself, I dismissed it. Then I talked to my husband Tim about it. He gave me some great council. He told me that not everyone has opportunities like this and that before dismissing it, I should give it some careful consideration. We talked through the worst case scenario, which helped me a great deal. What I learned from these conversations with my husband was what he learned from owning his own companies and I knew that if I made the decision to take the leap, he would be my greatest cheerleader. This has proven to be true time and time again. This man was supportive from day one and his support has never changed. He understands the role and responsibilities that come with owning a company and I know that he will always have my back. Just knowing this, made this decision so much easier as no one wants to fail. He assured me that I wouldn’t.
CM: Financing a business is always a challenge, and women compete for a smaller pool of funds. In the July issue of Inc. magazine, Kimberly Weisul writes, “Women entrepreneurs get just 19 percent of angel funding and about six percent of venture capital.”* Would you share a little with us about your financing journey?
CS: I was able to pull financing from three areas: 1) my personal 401k – I had been mentored early on in my previous company to contribute the max into my 401k and I started my 401k at the earliest age possible. So when making the decision to finance Listen Technologies I pull out all of my 401k and took a “loan” from myself as well as I did a second mortgage on our home in Southern California. Talk about a scary move, however I firmly believe that this contributed to our success as there was only one option: Make this company succeed! Lastly, my partners and I agreed that we’d take zero compensation until we got the company to be profitable. We thought this would take four to six months and it took nearly a year. So, I went from being an “earner” and a significant contributor to my household to no take home for nearly a year. Again, my husband cheered me on and supported this decision. You have to be in this game for the long haul. From that first year of becoming profitable, I’m proud to say that our company has been highly profitable since. We’ve been able to fund our growth ourselves for now 17 years.
CM: According to a 2013 study by the Kauffman Foundation, it has been determined that women-owned businesses (private technology companies) have out-performed male-owned businesses, achieving a 35 percent higher ROI.** Can you tell us about your perception of these results and what may separate yours from other business models?
CS: I’m familiar with these stats and there are stats that also reference companies with women who are on their boards excelling beyond boards with only men. This is a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t really know what separates our model from others. Also, I don’t feel comfortable in believing that we’re successful because I’m a woman. We’re successful because we continue to work hard and we want to succeed; both men & women within our organization. What I do know is that at times it’s difficult for women to navigate leading businesses. We’ve come a long way, however there is still a lot of discrepancies. Women who are aggressive are viewed negatively. Men who are aggressive are viewed as “leaders.”
Let me share a recent conversation that happened just three weeks ago to me. I was at an industry “association” gathering which had 99 percent men and in fact, I was introduced around the table to everyone there and then we come around to the one “woman” who had recently joined this group. The person doing the introductions said and I’m not kidding… “Cory, I think you’ll really like her. She fits right in with the group. She’s a lot like you. What’s the word… you know… “bossy.” Then he goes on to say, “What’s a better word for bossy?” One of the gentlemen speaks up and says, “Aggressive?” the person doing the introduction says, “Yeah… aggressive. That’s a better word.” The woman I was being introduced to chimed in and said, “How about “Leader?” They said, yeah, that works… and conversation continued, without another thought. I was in this conversation, in the year 2014, and I’m thinking, ‘Did they just say bossy? I mean really!?!’ I read the book “Lean In” and Cheryl Sandberg referenced being called “bossy” yet I don’t recall ever being called this. Here I was at an industry dinner and this was the one word they could think of to describe her and me? Honestly, I’m still digesting this whole conversation. I sincerely believe that the person doing the introductions meant no disrespect. I’ve known him a long time and I don’t believe he even thought about his choice of words. I know that there is no way a man in our industry would have been introduced as “bossy” or “aggressive.”
That same week, I reflected back on a management meeting we had in our company where one of our leaders (a woman) was very direct in the meeting about an issue. She was spot on in the meeting, she was right on point with the issue. She is a go getter and well respected. After some members of the meeting left, she then turned to a few of us and said “Was I too bitchy? Do you think I was too direct?” “No,” I replied. “You’re a leader.” I left wondering why we women have so much self-doubt and why a women in her position would even give it another thought. My guess is most men don’t.
Cory’s final statement:
My goal for women in our industry is to not be “segmented” rather just to be part of the “industry.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to be recognized in this way and pointed out, however I think all of us women want to be recognized for our achievements, not our gender. I have two daughters in their twenties and I’d like for them to be recognized for their achievements. I’d like them to be paid equal to their counterparts based on their contributions, I’d like them to have the same opportunities as their counterparts. I’d like women in our industry to be get paid what they deserve, I’d like to see them not just on boards, I’d like to see them running boards. I’d like women not just in executive roles, I want them at all levels, including the highest levels. Studies like the one mentioned is validation that women are worthy, we’ve earned it. When do we earn being just part of the industry and not segmented into a category? I hope it will be soon so that my daughters can lead the way!
Thank you so much Cory for participating in what I consider a highly important and again a highly personal experience for me as the message is delivered here — it should not be looked at just as an industry of men and women, it should finally be defined as an industry as one, where all have the chance to achieve at the highest level that they can attain. Think about it…
* Finally, a Financing Strategy That Favors Women, By Kimberly Weisul (@WEISUL), Inc. Magazine, July 2014 (Note: the article does go on to state that on Kickstarter, according to a new study, things work very differently. In that arena, women’s odds of successfully getting funded are actually slightly superior to men’s).
** When It Comes to Tech Start-ups, Do Women Win? By Peter Cohan, Forbes, February 2013
One thing you may not know about Cory — she loves to paraglide. Check out the videos:
Paragliding in Valle de Bravo, Mexico