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5 Things My Engineering Background Taught Me About Launching A Product

Career

I believe that life does not need to be filled with day-to-day frustrations which is what inspired me to launch my company redesign. Our mission? To start with a universal gripe and redesign an everyday product to create a solution that’s better and more fun to use. We first tackled the impossible tangled knots that tend to overcome all headphones. This problem inspired the development of our first product, loopit - practical and stylish headphones that never tangle and can also be worn as a stylish necklace even through airport security.


Our solution is simple and elegant. Often I am asked how I came up with something so deceptively easy which is where an engineering background was very helpful. As a trained engineer with a PhD from MIT, here are five things my background taught me about business:

Observe

It’s important to look at the world around you and see where there are inefficiencies and problems. If you find a problem that you think is worth solving, immerse yourself in a place where you can observe the problem. In this case, I went to airports, train stations, street corners and took pictures of how people were carrying their headphones when they weren’t using them. I saw handbag stuffers, neck drapers, hand scrunchers, pocket danglers, constant earbud wearers. I also researched popular press and saw how tangled headphones were being showcased.

When President Barack Obama was pitching his health care plan he said it was easier to register online than to untangle your headphones. The Daily Show had highlighted tangled headphones as something that “Made America the Maddest.” It was clear that it was a problem that still needed a solution.

Test and Learn

One thing that can plague anyone starting a business is to overthink. There are a myriad of things that can go wrong and you can spend weeks and months planning for many scenarios. It is better to just start doing something, and in this case it was to start making prototypes. It may not be perfect, but if you can create a minimum viable product (it can be as simple as a mock-up) then you can begin to engage customers and get their feedback which will allow you to continuously iterate to make your product and business better.

Be Rigorous Where it Matters

There are places where it is important to be as analytical as possible. In our case it was having an extremely rigorous cost model so we knew down to the penny, what our unit delivered cost would be which would ensure that we could make a sustainable profit even when we sold at wholesale prices. This meant mapping out import taxes, looking at different shipping options and understanding how our unit cost would vary by the amount we ordered from our factory. Too often I see new entrepreneurs making intricate business plans and not focused enough on whether or not it is possible to make money on the product or service they are selling.

Network

Don’t recreate the wheel -- learn from others where you can. When I decided to launch my business I had never done anything like this before, so I went online and found people who had launched products and cold-called or cold-emailed them. In the first few months I had spoken to more than 30 people most of whom I still have not yet met, who gave me advice on the ins and outs of launching a consumer product. Entrepreneurs are the kindest and most generous people I know and if they can help, they will. So pick up the phone or write that email to someone that inspires you. I am sure they will be thrilled to share their lessons learned when they launched their business.

Take Calculated Risks

Exploring the unknown is exciting but it can also be incredibly daunting. Before I do anything, I always ask myself, “What is the worst thing that can happen” and if the worst thing is not that bad, then I try it. My favorite story so far is when I was a semi-finalist on the Today Show’s ‘Next Big Thing.’ During that round, you needed to get the public to vote for you and I was on the train back from NYC to Philadelphia. As I boarded the train, someone recognized me from that morning’s segment and asked me to do my product demonstration again. As I did it, the eight people sitting around us were intrigued and all of them took out their cell phones to vote for me. This group of strangers then convinced me to go car by car and ask the entire train to vote for me because this was my moment and I needed to get as many votes as I could. As they were urging me on, I realized the worst thing that could happen was that the other passengers would be annoyed and I would just embarrass myself which I would eventually recover from. So, with their encouragement I left my train car and went to visit the other cars. Amazingly the entire train was excited and ecstatic for me. It turns out that all the passengers on train 2165 voted for me which warmed my heart. The old me would have been too intimidated to do something like this but by realizing that the worst case scenario is not that bad has opened up possibilities that I never thought imaginable.

Culture

A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.


Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.