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Louise Lu – Co-Founder of Kiree.io

INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: KIRA CHARRON 

Louise Lu is the co-founder of Kiree.io and former product manager. She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing initiative to write honestly about the experiences of women in tech.

Throughout our conversation, Louise told story after story that felt all too familiar: a female friend who discovered she was getting less paid vacation time than her male colleagues. Another woman who, despite being highly skilled, was reluctant to apply for a job because it required just a few more years’ experience than she had. Louise’s own experience of being talked over time and again in meetings, almost always by men repeating her ideas, just louder.

The stories are so familiar, they could almost be clichés. But they aren’t. Women understand because they’ve happened to us. And every time we hear that it’s happened again, the reaction isn’t surprise; it’s a heavy sigh. A “me too.”

Interestingly, Louise began our interview by telling me she’s never felt ostracized for her gender or her skin colour. Perhaps, she says, growing up in an immigrant family in a mostly white town, she simply got used to being different and learned to work past it. From there, we discussed being a typical woman leader, learning to speak up in meetings, and the subtle, sometimes invisible ways that workplace culture makes it harder for women to thrive.

Her story is for the quiet women who are still figuring out how to be heard. Her key takeaways? Speak up, learn how to say no, and always know your worth. 

PHOTOGRAPHS BY: NITI RANDHAWA 
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Being in meetings is where I am most aware of my struggles not just as a woman, but as shy and quiet person in the business world.

KC: Can you tell me about your experiences as a woman learning STEM?

LL: “I started my career in computer science at Queens University. I know that engineering and computer science classes tend to be predominantly male, but I was in biomedical computing and we were pretty evenly split. So for me, diversity really wasn’t forefront in my mind. It sounds odd to say that now, because there are so many women who’ve had different experiences than mine. It might be because I grew up in an immigrant family. I remember there was just one other Asian kid in my elementary school. So I think I just learned to blend in and work hard.

KC: What has your career journey been to date?

LL: After school, I began working as a java developer and then moved into consulting. Being a consultant was an extremely draining job from a work-life balance perspective, yet after eight years, it didn’t feel challenging. I wasn’t learning anymore, just getting burnt out. That’s when I decided to make the switch into product management at JibeStream.

I started Kiree because, again, I wanted a challenge. I’d always thought of starting my own business, but never thought it was possible. Finally, my other co-founder, who is male, just said: “you have nothing to lose.” We could spend a year of our lives doing this, and it could be humongous and change our lives…or not. Maybe we go back to being product managers. But we have to try. That’s been one of the biggest lessons I keep repeating: I have nothing to lose by asking, by speaking up, by trying.

Kiree is a collaboration platform that helps teams run efficient meetings. We realized that we just have too many meetings per day. You get tons of invites with a vague subject line and 15 other people in the room all wondering why they are there. It’s a daily pain point, so we wanted to reduce that friction and just make people’s lives less frustrating. That’s our mission: if we can make somebody’s workday a little easier and happier, that’s something worth doing.

KC: Meetings can be especially difficult places for women to be heard. What is your experience with meetings? And did that play a conscious or subconscious role in creating Kiree?

LL: It definitely hits home for me. Being in meetings is where I am most aware of my struggles not just as a woman, but as shy and quiet person in the business world. We are constantly interrupted, talked over, our ideas aren’t heard…or they are repeated by someone louder and people will agree with them instead. It’s infuriating! It makes my blood boil thinking back to all those times that has happened. And meetings are such an important time to share your ideas and show how you contribute to the company—they are too important to be taken away from us like that.  

[Side note: studies have found that men make up for 75% of the conversation in meetings. Even when a woman does speak, she’s more likely to be interrupted or to not receive credit for her ideas.]

So yes, not to self-promote, but Kiree was built to combat some of that. It’s online, so it’s all about team collaboration. It’s in real-time, but it gives people time to contribute their notes on their own time because everyone has different ways of processing information and putting it into words. For me, I’m a shy person. I go through five steps in my head before I utter a word. Is that what I want to say? How should I say it? Is it even a good idea? What will people think? I should say it like this instead…It can be excruciating because there are so many other dominating personalities in the room, and by the time you’ve said it, the moment could be gone, or somebody else has said it. Our idea was that if the meeting notes are online, people can process their thoughts and write them down when they are ready.

There are so many other ways this needs to be combated, too: leaders need to step in and be better moderators, for example. But first it’s about making sure that the loudest isn’t always the person who wins.

KC: Do you see yourself as a leader?

LL: That’s a good question…I don’t know. At the start of my career, I’d never thought about leadership or knew what it looked like. Even at home, my mom was a stay-at-home mom, so I didn’t have exposure. In my first job, there was no mentorship, no feedback, no transfer of knowledge…I quit after one year because I was so unhappy and thinking there was something wrong with me. Now I know it was just because I needed a better leader. I’m learning what I really want in and what makes a good leader. If Kiree grows and we have employees, I know what kind of leader I should be.

At the same time, I don’t think that I’m the traditional leader, because I am a very shy person. I was the unbearably quiet girl in the classroom. Of course throughout my career, I got better at what I do, and that’s what builds confidence. But internally, I’m still that really shy person at heart. I’m also the kind of person that wants to help others out. I’m the ‘yes’ woman. I’ll say yes to anything, first of all to make someone happy, and second, because I’m too shy to say no.

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And for me, it’s not just teaching people how to speak up, but how to know their worth. In my early career, I never felt like I was worth that much, which is why I stayed quiet.

KC:  That’s such a common trait among women I know. It’s easy to be a people-pleaser.

LL: Yes, and that led to another important lesson that I had to learn the very hard way: I had to learn to say no. As a consultant, my clients always needed more, faster, better, prettier. And I just kept saying yes. Even though I knew it would burn me out, I told myself that I wanted the challenge, that I didn’t want to let anyone down, that I had to do the work. After eight years, I reached a boiling point.

I remember I was on a project by myself, and the client just kept asking for more and more and more. I started getting multiple panic attacks a day, it was horrible. I couldn’t even spit out the word ‘no’ because I was in such a bad state. At that point, I thought to myself: Nobody else is going to say no. Your boss isn’t going to say no, the client isn’t going to say no. It was only then, in a very weak voice, that I said no.

To my surprise, the world didn’t end. The clients weren’t displeased. Things go on.

KC: Now that you’ve learned these lessons, has it become normal to you to speak up? Is there a time that you’ve had to speak up for another woman in the workplace?

LL: It’s definitely a conscious effort. In meetings, with clients…I still have to go through all those steps in my head before I say something. But I am able to make more of a conscious effort to say, like, “just screw it!” Just say it. The more I do it, the better I get, and the more comfortable I get. But it’s still the hardest thing.

I haven’t had a lot of women coworkers, but among my friends this is something we discuss a lot. For example, recently, a friend of mine found out she was getting less paid vacation time than everyone else. At first, she just figured ‘okay, whatever, what can I do?’ But as friends, we were furious! We all told her she has to ask for more time off. She has nothing to lose, and if she doesn’t ask, she’ll never get it. It’s so, so common, and it makes me wonder how can we get more women to just…do it?

It also happened to me in another role where I found out a much more junior male colleague was making $30,000 more in salary than me. I was in complete shock. I was baffled because I’d never even thought that he could be worth so much, or that I could be worth so little. I just thought we were all getting paid what we were worth. But of course, that’s so arbitrary.

The more I think about it, it does happen more often than I think. A few weeks ago, I sent a female friend a job description that said they were looking for somebody with 3-5 years of experience. She had one or two, but I know she is super smart and bright. Her reaction was ‘no, I can’t apply!’ If she were a male, she wouldn’t think twice, but women feel like they need to hit every benchmark just to be qualified.

KC: That’s a perfect example of how ingrained these ideas are in our workplaces—that we don’t even think to ask if we’re equal until we find out we’re not. And it shows that inequality and gender bias aren’t always about physical or sexual harassment, it’s the everyday things like being talked over in a meeting or not applying to a job because you don’t think you’re good enough, or of course, the pay gap.

How do you think we get past this and start to make it more acceptable and encouraged for women to speak up?

LL: After I found out about earning less salary, I was furious. My take away from that whole episode was: ‘next time, I’m fucking asking for more!’ Whatever happens to me, I have to take away and learn from it. So the next time, I did ask. And when they came back with something minimal, I was able to say no.

I think we do need to talk more amongst ourselves. And for me, it’s not just teaching people how to speak up, but how to know their worth. In my early career, I never felt like I was worth that much, which is why I stayed quiet. And when I was burning out and still saying yes to clients, it was because I wanted to feel validated: I didn’t want to feel inferior or for people to think I was less. But less than what? That’s a key difference between men and women: as girls and women, we always have to prove ourselves.

Now I’m more comfortable with knowing my worth. If I didn’t, I still wouldn’t be able to speak up, or say no, or ask for a raise.

KC: My final question is, why did you want to do this interview? At the beginning, we talked about just fitting in and not thinking too much about diversity. But clearly, it’s very important in your career. What is your one take-away for other women in tech?

LL: I wanted to do this because there are so many people who feel disadvantaged in tech, but who aren’t talking about it. I’ve come out of my shell in the past couple of years, but I’m still a shy person, and I wanted to speak for those shy people who are thinking ‘Oh, I wish I had the courage to say something’, or ‘I don’t have the qualifications’, or ‘I’m not worth that pay raise.’

I want to talk to those people and say: ‘You have nothing to lose.’ You can start your own company, ask for a raise, say no. If I hadn’t said no to my first initial pay raise, I wouldn’t have gotten the second, bigger one. That was really hard for me to do, but I’ve learned a lesson every single time. And these lessons aren’t just for women in tech. They can be boys, girls, anybody, really. So, that’s why I wanted to speak up today and share my story.

 

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