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."
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.