The Joy of Disruption

Growing up in Ghana, virtual reality entrepreneur Mary Spio learned that technology can be not only mind-blowing but also mind-expanding

By April Kilcrease

When Mary Spio was growing up in Ghana, members of the military took over the government. “Some of my schoolmates’ parents were shot to death by firing squad, and my own dad was tortured,” she says. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed, and Spio’s family sometimes went days without food. During this time, the family’s little black-and-white TV became her “magic box.” “Television was the place where we escaped,” says Spio. “That’s what got me to think of greater possibilities beyond our existence.”

Spio, age 44, moved to the United States on her own when she was 16 and eventually became a deep space engineer. But her heart always belonged to media. At Boeing, she developed a way to distribute feature films digitally via satellite. And in 2005, she launched her first start-up, Gen2Media, an online video platform used by the Coca-Cola Company, Microsoft Xbox, and the Tribune News Company.
Her current company, CEEK, creates and distributes virtual reality experiences using its patented virtual reality (VR) streaming technologies. She hopes VR will expand people’s minds, much as TV once did for her.

Diversity Woman spoke with Spio about gender bias in tech, the importance of embracing your difference, and what it takes to launch a game-changing technology start-up.

Diversity Woman: How did you first get into VR? What business potential did you see there?
Mary Spio: Every decade or so, a new technology disrupts the old and we leap forward. When I tried on Oculus Rift at Facebook about three years ago, I knew instantly that tech had turned a corner. I was profoundly moved by the ability of the headset to put you inside the content. It didn’t feel like you were surrounded by content; it felt like you were in a different time and place. I instantly saw so much potential for every aspect of life—from education to entertainment and beyond.

DW: Do you feel there’s a connection between your early experiences with TV and your VR work now?
MS: Absolutely. People don’t realize the importance of content creation. They think, oh, it’s just a movie. Movies show us what is possible and how we see ourselves. The fact that minorities are the biggest consumers of content, yet so few of us are creators of content, is such a tragedy. It is a personal crusade for me to create content that is reflective of our experiences and to paint new images of possibility for others like me.

DW: Do you have personal experience with bias against women and minorities in the tech industry?
MS: As an employee, I didn’t experience any gender bias. However, as an entrepreneur, I’ve had experiences with VCs and investors who do not believe that minority-led companies will give them the same successful outcomes as nonminority-led companies, since they haven’t seen big exits and IPOs from minority-led companies yet. It’s a catch-22, because if you don’t have the same resources, it’s impossible to create the precedent that they are requiring. If for every 97 males, you’re only investing in three women, or 0.36 percent of African American women, then you’re creating a mathematical equation that will always lead to a loaded deck.

DW: According to TechCrunch, women hold only 5 percent of leadership positions in the tech industry. Why do you think that is and what should we be doing to change this?
MS: It goes back to how investments are being made. If you have a 97:3 ratio, then you are going to see it reflected in the leadership as well. I believe the best chance we have to close the gap is to support more diverse entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is a means to open untapped markets and take back revenues from companies that do not represent us in the boardroom.

My mom used to say, “He drew a circle to keep me out; I drew a bigger circle to keep him in.” When people block you out, find a way to get around it. Create something bigger. Many companies are doing acqui-hires to bring in great talent from start-ups. If you believe you have something significant that the glass ceiling is blocking, use entrepreneurship to make your skills a million times more valuable.

DW: What was the biggest challenge in launching CEEK?
MS: Getting funded has been a big challenge. Investors initially said no for different reasons—some because they felt VR was too early-stage, others because CEEK wasn’t where they needed it to be, and others because the business wasn’t a fit or I didn’t fit their notion of a tech founder. For whatever reason, some of the VR investors who were throwing millions around didn’t invest in my prior company, Next Galaxy, even though we were clear industry leaders. We ended up running out of funds and were forced to shut down operations, which made it even more difficult to raise capital for CEEK, because investors were concerned about the debt that CEEK inherited from Next Galaxy.

DW: What are your hopes for the future of VR?
MS: My hope for VR is that it will become universally accessible. Exposure is critical to human imagination and creativity. I heard that fleas are trained by putting them in a jar with a lid. As they try to escape and hit their heads each time they jump, they learn not to jump higher than the lid of the jar. Most people are like the fleas, unaware of the vast possibility outside the jar. I’m hoping that VR will be what unscrews the lid, opening the aperture of possibility for every human to see more, so they can dream of what is possible. What we are doing at CEEK is my life’s mission—to be that catalyst for billions of people.

DW: You’ve founded three companies now. What is a key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
MS: A lesson that I learned in my childhood, which I had to relearn through my last three companies, is that your difference is what will create your value. If you are like everyone else, then you are a duplicate—not valuable. By having the courage to be a different kind of engineer, I came up with a different kind of company.

My experiences have also taught me to trust my instincts, which have been sharpened by the wins and losses over the past decade. Leading by instinct and heart is a very empathetic way to build a company. When you walk in others’ shoes, it’s easier to know what motivates them, which leads to a happier, more productive team. It’s ironic that companies are now discovering and embracing emotional intelligence, something that is an intrinsic female trait. That’s also a sign that more women are getting into leadership and that our style is beginning to help create the balance that has been missing for ages.

DW: You are one of only a handful of African American women who have raised over $1 million for her company. What does it take to launch and fund a game-changing start-up?
MS: A lot of persistence, belief in your vision, hard work, and pure unadulterated focus on the mission. There will be challenges—be prepared. It will take longer than you expected—budget for contingencies. To go bravely where no one has gone, be willing to do what no one has done. When you are doing what no one has done before you, no matter who you are, you will have opposition and doubters.

Don’t internalize what the critics say. When I was president of Next Galaxy, which was a publicly traded company, some critics attacked me on the basis of being a woman, a person of color, or other random buffoonery. It’s easy to be enraged, but as a leader you cannot internalize everything people say, especially if it has no basis. You will face negativity no matter what. Know that it’s part and parcel of being a leader, and keep pushing forward. DW

April Kilcrease has written for the Guardian, the New York Times, the travel magazine Afar, and other publications

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