Interview with Sherisse Hawkins
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, NCWIT, the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Today we have another interview with a woman who started an IT company ‑‑ a very innovative company, very technical ‑‑ I'll be talking with her.
With me, Larry Nelson, w3w3. Larry. what's going on?
Larry Nelson: We are really interested, in particular, working with entrepreneurs. We love working with women ‑‑ I have four daughters, so I have that leaning. In the mean time at w3w3.com, we have thousands of actual interviews up on our website right now and the better ones, of course, are NCWIT Heroes.
Lucy: Like the one we're talking to today...
Lucy: ...who happens to be a former Disney Imagineer/Engineer, I have to say, which is pretty cool. I'm sure that she had that little Mickey Mouse on her business card from when she was working there. She has a great passion for large‑scale projects especially, were she can lend her creativity and technology skills together.
Being an engineer by training ‑‑ she did go on to become vice president of product development and also software development at Time Warner Cable.
Today, we're interviewing Sherisse Hawkins, the co‑founder and CEO of Beneath the Ink. Just a really awesome company that I know she's going to want to tell us a little bit about. But it provides Apples enhancements for E‑Books. It's like you get to provide additional content and not disrupt the flow of your story or the flow of your book.
The way authors do that is, they embed these enhancements called Binks which, I think, is so awesome, like beneath the inks. Anyway, they give readers more insight into the characters and data, places and things like that. Just so you can do that if you want to and not disrupt the story either.
Before we start, Sherisse, tell us a little bit about what's going on at Beneath the Ink.
Sherisse Hawkins: Beneath the Ink is at a very interesting phase in our life cycle. I think every day is an interesting phase in the life cycle and I was joking with the co‑founder of Loyalty about how we're in what I referred to as engineer or entrepreneur hours. That is every hour of physical work to a week in real world, every week of mine is once a year.
It is an incredible fast paced. We're looking at bringing on new authors to the office portal and they are releasing our fifth book this week into world. There's no shortage of excitement and not a lot of sleep.
Lucy: I remember when you were just kind of hatching this idea. How long ago was that? That was, couple of years ago, right?
Sherisse: It was. I actually left my corporate position with a great role. I really enjoyed that phase of my career. It was on Friday, April the 13th. I left my corporate position back in 2012.
Lucy: It's exciting to see you bring this concept forward! I know it's something you are really passionate about. Sherisse, tell us a little bit about how you first got into technology. You have an awesome technical background. How'd you get there?
Sherisse: I really credit my interest in technology and pursuing my education as well as my career, with one person. That was my high school geometry teacher. His name is Mr. Worth. He knows that I speak about him whenever I have an opportunity. He turned math into a very exciting experience.
I believed I could conquer anything in his class. I excelled in that particular class. It was through that experience of really loving math and science in his class that made me pursue and even think about taking on an engineering degree. I knew as soon as I left high school that I wanted to be an engineer. It was just a matter of what type.
Lucy: That was a real gift. Excellent teachers. I had a high school math teacher in [inaudible 03:53] that piqued my interest, also. Just that subtle form of encouragement of having a great teacher. It's awesome!
Sherisse: Literally, he put on a cape with a Pi symbol on back and come into class with this enthusiasm and tongue‑in‑cheek. He made the entire class so much fun. He wasn't afraid to take risks and just really be...Bring some life into a subject that can often be taught in a way that's not as engaging.
Lucy: As you look out at the technology spaces today, and you're a technologist, what technologies do you think are particularly interesting?
Sherisse: I'm absolutely biased because I love content. It wasn't until I started this company that I realized that my career has pretty much been associated with entertainment, leisure activity and content for the past...over 20 years.
At each job I've thought, "Oh this is different. I'm doing video now. I'm doing invented software for..." In that case, it was that [inaudible 04:49] . When I really sat back, I realized that in every case it was the wrong story. It was the wrong content. It was the wrong entertainment and learning.
I have a very strong bias around those things. How we learn. It's the stories that impact our lives. It's the analogy that helps us learn. I'm very interested in things that allow us to unlock the story behind the story and learn to go through that process and connect with other people through that process.
Nelson: That was all the different things you've done! You were with some very big and important companies. Why are you now an entrepreneur? What is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Sherisse: My boss at my last job, he would ask me every year, "Where do you want go? What do you want to do?" Each time, I would say, "I can't wait until we get this product out."
We had a goal of having it reach every subscriber at Time Warner Cable so we could literally send it right to the people. We designed the system. We hired the team. When we started out, I was employee six starting out of this large company.
It just grew to the point of across the United States and every Time Warner Cable subscriber. I found out near the end of that journey, and my boss asking me, "What do you want to do next?" I didn't have good answers for him, because it was that part of starting from nothing and taking it to something really large, that's the part that I really enjoyed.
For some people, once you get to that place, it's, "OK, we can enhance that or we can move a little bit further." It's that really steep learning curve, that fear of whether or not it's going to work at all that I realized it really made me tick.
The same thing is that when I was at Disney and building their theme park in Paris and wondering whether it was going to open on time. It's that really steep learning curve, the pressure of getting it done, the pressure of bringing it to scale, that I love.
Once it's out there and in that scale, honestly, that's when my enthusiasm wanes and I knew it was time to move on to the next project.
Lucy: You've got your hands on something you're bringing to scale right now, huh?
Sherisse: That's true, yes. [laughs]
Lucy: It's so interesting. Along this career path of yours, and you mentioned your high school math teacher, who else has influenced you to take the career path that you've taken?
Sherisse: There have been wonderful mentors. There was a guy named Ron Howell that I worked for at something called [inaudible 07:14] and I had just had my daughter. He said, "I think you'd be great in management. I think you'd be a great project leader and I think you should try it."
I remember thinking, "I wonder if that's true. I don't know. It sounds like it could be interesting." But I made him promise that he would hold my system architecture job open for a few months, because I really wasn't sure I wanted to leave technology behind and lead others and go into a different role.
It turns out, I loved it. I loved working on new projects. I love seeing people excited about things and we can have such a broader region impact when you're helping others move through a process, whether you're leading them through the project or leading them through a successful new design process that's much, much than working as an individual contributor.
I credit people, like Ron, who were giving me the chance and encouraging me to take more of a leadership role, that really shifted my career into a completely different space of leading larger projects, having larger teams and impacting people in a broader way.
Nelson: That's super.
Lucy: Sounds like a real sponsor.
Nelson: Yeah, you bet you. Now, with all the different things that you've been through and that you've done and accomplished, what's the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Sherisse: Without question, it is when projects do not go well and when you are in that leadership space and you have to either cancel, downsize or change the dynamics of the team. People don't talk about that very often, but in the lead positions that I've had, there are situations where we had to lay off people or make major changes or cancel projects.
That's true whether you're [inaudible 08:53] or not, but it is definitely the hardest thing to do when you're dealing with people, projects getting lost in their livelihood. That's definitely the hardest thing on an overall standpoint.
The hardest technical problems we've had to solve are absolutely the ones we ran across with Disney. There was a project where they said, "Well, assume the fault," every two minutes and then, reform.
Sherisse: That was the hardest technical problem that we've ever had to solve and we did solve it, but I just can't tell you how.
Lucy: A secret, a Disney secret.
Nelson: I lived in Tokyo when they opened up Disney in Japan.
Sherisse: Oh awesome.
Lucy: Do you know any Disney secrets?
Nelson: Nothing that I can talk about right now.
Sherisse: That shows you that whatever you can imagine, there is a solution. It took us a lot of trial and error, but I truly believe that anything is possible if you apply yourself.
Lucy: Yeah, it's the power of invention, right?
Nelson: You've got it.
Sherisse: Yes, absolutely.
Lucy: If you were sitting here with a young person and giving them advice about entrepreneurship, what would you tell them?
Sherisse: I've thought about this question and the thing that struck me the most was that the description was a "young" person. I am not a young person and I started to be an entrepreneur.
There are advantages to realizing that you can be an entrepreneur at any age. I think that we focus very much on working right out of school and taking advantage of when you're in your 20s you should be an entrepreneur.
One of the things that's most powerful about our team is our collective ages. Our ages range from 21 to mid‑50s. We're all doing this for the first time. There's just something wonderful about creating a new experience and a new product, no matter what your age is.
Even to a young person I would say, "Don't feel like if you don't do this before you get married or before you're 30, that you can't do it." When you have a good idea and the market lends itself and you have the chance, I say you should go for it.
Lucy: That's an excellent point. I think the research bears out the fact that a very high percentage of first time entrepreneurs that are successful are not young. They are not in their 20s.
Nelson: That's right, absolutely right. What do you think has given you the advantages of being an entrepreneur, especially with all the things you've been through?
Sherisse: My husband would answer this question for me. He would say tenacity. Tenacity taken to an extreme can maybe not be as positive of a personality trait, but I'm one of those people that just won't quit.
If I want to understand something or learn something or I'm curious about something, I will continue to work at it until I figure it out. I think that's what got me through engineering school. It wasn't like I was some brilliant Einstein kind of brain going to college, but it was working hard and realizing that you take small steps to get to big goals. It's that tenacity that has really helped carry us.
I'll tell you a story about Beneath the Ink specifically. When Alex and I went to a book conference earlier this year, we had a particular piece of technology working. We had multiple people come up to us and say, "That's not possible."
We just sort of smirked, because literally in his back pocket was iPad running a prototype of Beneath the Ink where we had gotten this specific feature to work. It was almost a sense of we didn't know that you shouldn't be able to do it that allowed us to keep working at it months ‑‑ week after week ‑‑ until we had it to a point where it was commercially viable.
Lucy: There's no question about it. You all are really inventing some new technology with what you're doing, which makes it even more exciting for an engineer, huh?
Lucy: Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about how you bring balance between your personal and your professional lives?
Sherisse: That's another one that's hard. I think having done this for over 20 years have helped. I won't say that it's perfect yet, but I think making sure that there are certain priorities.
I go home every night, and I have dinner with my family. It doesn't mean that I don't have a second shift after everyone's asleep, but it does mean that I make it a rule to be home at certain times of the day ‑‑ help my daughter with homework, be available on the weekends, and have some balancing time for myself.
I'm a big believer in yoga. I like to do triathlons. There's carving out time each week to do those physical activities. They keep you healthier. They keep your mind sharp. There's always studies about if you go out and have a walk in the middle of the day, how much more productive you will be than if you skip lunch and you don't ‑‑ kind of change your perspective. I hold those things very, very dear.
I won't give you that it's not hard. In the one sense of starting an entrepreneurial business when you're younger, not having as many roles, I can see it being somewhat easier. But there's still a juggle to keep balance and to keep your health. Even if you don't have a family to go to every night, there are still responsibilities that you have to meet.
Nelson: You've done so much. You've achieved a great deal already. What's next for you?
Sherisse: We have a goal of having a billion books with Beneath the Ink content in them. We're very serious about being able to see this technology in places that we haven't even imagined yet and work this project goes beyond its initial commercial launch.
I believe strongly in giving back to the community. I want to see our Beneath the Ink core available at every school so that students can utilize the tools to enhance their projects, their research papers, and have ways for kids to compete, get awards, get recognition for their creative writing and their research.
I see the next phase of the project being a great product, revenues, sustainability, growth in all of the commercial sense, but also success for us being able to give back and seeing this used in the educational system across the US and maybe abroad.
Lucy: There's no reason why it's not a global product, right?
Nelson: You bet.
Lucy: Absolutely no reason. I'm sitting here. I wrote this down. It's a billion books with Binks.
Sherisse: A billion books with Binks.
Lucy: B cubed.
Nelson: I like that.
Lucy: I love that. I'm so in love with this Binks.
Nelson: I know. You talked about it before we called her.
Lucy: I love it.
Sherisse: We've been shocked at...Without any promotions, we've done several books as promotional titles without any advertising. We've gone from having 100 downloads a week to over 100 downloads a day ‑‑ not just in the US ‑‑ but I think we're up to 9 or 12 countries.
There's clearly an interest and the desire to explore different content. I wish we could talk to each of those people and figure out how they did hear about us, but it continues. The momentum is building, and we see a bit of a snowball effect. When we looked at the numbers last week and saw over 100 downloads in a single day, we were thrilled. I hope that trajectory continues.
Lucy: Best of luck. I'm sure it will. You've got a great concept, and we know you're a great leader and entrepreneur. Thanks for talking to us.
Sherisse: Thanks for having me.
Lucy: I want to remind listeners that they can find these podcasts on W3W3.com and ncwit.org.
Nelson: You bet. We'll make sure we'll have it on our podcast directory and the blog.
Lucy: Sherisse, thank you very much.
Sherisse: Thank you.
Lucy: All right, bye.