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."
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.