Katelyn Coghlan was only twenty-five years old when she became the General Manager of In-It VR, a virtual and augmented reality company for brand marketing based in New York.
Since taking the position, she's overseen the development of Adweek's first Augmented Reality magazine cover, as well as the play experience “Muzebox," which debuted at Toy Fair.
To say that Coghlan is making waves in a male-dominated field would be a major understatement, considering women hold only 11 percent of executive positions in Silicon Valley. Of course, the percentage of female executives in tech who are twenty-five and younger is even lower.
Coghlan grew up about an hour south of Boston in a coastal town called Duxbury, where she attended Duxbury's public schools and later earned her BA in Film, Television & Media Arts at Fairfield University.
To say that Coghlan is making waves in a male-dominated field would be a major understatement, considering women hold only 11 percent of executive positions in Silicon Valley.
As a kid, Coghlan says she was what you might call an introvert/extrovert. “On the one hand, I loved being on my swim team and going for runs on the beach, but I also loved staying in on a Friday and watching movie after movie with one of my five or six best friends. I was always in between being the outgoing jokester and the quiet kid who you'd never notice. It was all dependent on my mood."
Tech was not something that was ever on her radar. In fact, she says, two years ago, working in tech was the furthest thing from her mind. “My fascination with tech comes from my love of movies, TV shows, and storytelling in general. After getting my first job at Nickelodeon, I thought had it all figured out, but I quickly learned how dated linear television is." After working on an experimental project internally at Nick Jr., Coghlan says she realized that AR and VR were going to be the next major mediums in which we consume content. “So, I decided to make the move while I was in my 20s and the industry as a whole was still new." However, she always knew she wanted to entertain people. “I could never focus on what I wanted to do," she admits. "I flip-flopped between actor, novelist, graphic designer, singer, and a whole host of other media-based professions, but could never settle on one. I think that lack of focus ironically helped me out as an adult since it trained me to have an open mind about everything I did."
Coghlan's path to tech began when she was a freshman in college, she explains. She was starting film school, thinking that becoming a director was her destiny. “But after stepping foot on one-to-many bad film sets I thought to myself 'This is stupid, I can run this set better with my eyes closed.'" So, she switched gears from director to producer and that, she says, is where she found her niche. “A few internships later, I found myself working at Nickelodeon as a project coordinator under a manager who immediately saw my potential and wanted to challenge me in ways my traditional entry-level job could not. She suggested that I manage a passion project started by the SVP of Digital Content at Nick Jr. & Noggin, which involved transforming archived preschool shows into interactive, play-along vignettes."
She was only twenty-three at the time, and it was her first shot at managing a team of professionals, as well as creating a development, approval, and delivery process for something that had never existed, she explains.
Contrary to popular belief, Coghlan says, virtual and augmented reality can be a vital part of the human experience.
“After a year of troubleshooting behind the scenes, we demoed our interactive episodes and were met with immediate excitement. Viacom was ready to fund this project fully and make it a company-wide priority, but due to personal bandwidth restraints, I was unable to remain on the project," she said. “I was crushed, not just because I had to let go of a project I had devoted a year of my life to, but also because I knew in my gut that this was the future of media, not television. I did some research into what interactive content was available to the masses, which lead directly into VR and AR. I knew then I had to chase after that industry to stay relevant."
Coghlan's attraction to virtual and augmented reality is simple.“It's new, meaning there are no rules, no biases, and no 'best practices.' I am a part of a generation of minds that are going to write those rules, not just for the software itself but also for the industry that employs the professionals that develop it. That is an incredible responsibility that would not be available to me in any other industry."
Spending days, weeks, and sometimes months educating people, only to hear the word “no," was Coghlan's greatest challenge in terms of getting to where she is today. “When you work at a startup, you are going to have to work overtime to sell yourself, but you need to work twice as hard if you also need to explain what you do.
Over the past year at The Glimpse Group, I have written what seems like hundreds of 'VR/AR 101' type decks and have traversed the majority of the New York tri-state area demonstrating the capabilities of Oculus and HTC Vive. After all of that, I was often still rejected. This taught me how to refine my pitch, handle difficult individuals, and dispel the incorrect assumptions about VR/AR in a respectful way, so it was worth the struggle."
Being promoted to General Manager has certainly been the happiest surprise she's enjoyed in her career. She says she felt confident that she would be able to run her own show at some point. But, she says, “I never thought it would be at 25, and now 26. It's amazing that the team at The Glimpse Group has so much faith in my skillset that they would hand me the keys so soon."
Contrary to popular belief, Coghlan says, virtual and augmented reality can be a vital part of the human experience. “Right now people are glued to their devices, so there needs to be some way to take that construct and improve society using it. I think VR, when done in doses, can increase perspective and empathy in humans in ways that video cannot. Since VR is so immersive, the content being experienced affects the viewer in a way that is similar to experiencing that content in the physical world as if it is 'really there.' Yes, it is that powerful. AR is inherently more social since it's smart device driven, and is not as immersive. By its nature, it forces users to interact with the physical world and other people, making it the perfect pair with VR when improving the digital world we are currently so consumed with."
Coghlan is in a very interesting position at In-It. She has an equal stake in the goings-on of the company she runs together with a man in his 60s who has been working in the virtual reality/game industry since the 90s while at the same time managing a young woman, who is the exact same age as she is.
As for her lateral colleague, she says, “We ideate on projects together and pitch solutions as a team, which is hilarious because I don't think people know what to make of the dynamic we have going on. Honestly, though, I couldn't have asked for a better partner. He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge of the tech and how to create it, whereas I bring new ideas, new perspectives, and curiosity, which pushes the barriers of what we can do for our clients."
She says managing a direct peer who is also a woman is equally interesting. “It's a lot like the director/producer relationship I established with so many in college. She is very open with me about what she wants to do with her career as an artist, and I fight to make sure I land projects that fulfill that creative pursuit. It's nice to have instant mutual respect based on understanding where the other is coming from, and I think that is definitely a product of our age, our gender, and the industry we chose to work in."
Right now, Coghlan says, In-It VR is working on a lot of VR and AR initiatives that enhance brands in a vertical-specific way. “A prime example of that is the AR activation we created for Adweek, promoting the Super Bowl M&Ms spot that they had exclusive rights to air early. We are starting to break into the more experimental and artistic side of VR and AR, which is where my interests lie. I want to create stories and activations that inspire the imagination; be what technicolor was to 'The Wizard of Oz.'"
Perhaps surprisingly, but also happily, Coghlan says she's been lucky enough not to have faced much adversity based on being woman. But, she says, the stereotype that women tend to end up taking care of everyone around them, is all too alive and well. “I definitely have felt that in my young life as a professional. When you are a woman, especially the only woman, in an office, you immediately become everyone's wife, mother, therapist, and secretary. It doesn't matter what you are doing at that moment, if someone in the office comes to you, they expect you to help them out with their issue."
Where she imagined she might land one day is something Coghlan says she's left to, well, what some might call, fate. “I stopped trying to imagine what my life would be like in my teens; I find it much more rewarding to roll with it."
As for the future, Coghlan has one wish - happiness. “Personally, I want to create a quiet, happy life for myself filled with family and small animals. Professionally, I want to build a company that allows people to pursue their passion in a supportive workplace environment. Societally, I want everyone to live and let live – there's no reason for animosity."
Coghlan says that the key to turning your dreams into reality is remembering that, “It's not easy, and even when you 'get it' it's not easy, but you cannot give up. It's so simple for people on the other side to say, but everyone who has taken a risk started by reading an article like this and questioning their own ability. You have to be patient, agile, and willing to do things on the periphery of what you imagined you would be doing with your life, but it will all come together in time. You have it in you."
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.