In conversation with Cat Noone — founder and CEO of Iris Health and Stark
In this interview Cat Noone joins Rachel Simpson to talk about founding multiple businesses, sexual harassment at work, the pay gap, family and being a mother. A huge thank you to Cat, for gifting us with her time and sharing her personal experiences of building her career and motherhood.
A message from Cat: “There was so much I wanted to get to but wasn’t able to, and there was plenty that I didn’t say and would’ve loved to so if there are any questions or concerns or anything that needs clarifying, I’d love for people to reach out: @imcatnoone ”
Rachel: In the teaser questions, we asked about barriers that women face when progressing in their career. Do you have some more thoughts on that?
Cat: I’m one of the women that is privileged to not have been in a position where I think a lot of women in the industry — and in many industries, not just tech — are victims. I have witnessed it, I have been in the room when it has happened. I’ve been disgusted by it, so one of the big ones in the room is sexual harassment — I think that’s a heavy one. Depending who the victim is, [it] goes unsaid for a long time.
I remember working at a company (which I will not name, because I think they have very different people there now). A lot of the senior leadership would walk around slapping women’s asses. I think you can gauge from the questions I previously answered that I don’t like to be fucked with. I have a very low tolerance for things, and I think when you look at things very black or white it makes it easy to discern between the like the gray areas when you work in that way.
I remember telling one of them “if you go as far as to touch me, I’ll break your fingers”. I was raised by very strong women that didn’t take anybody’s shit and and I think we’re all raised very different and very similar, and there are some people that speak up, and there’s some people that don’t and neither is right and neither is wrong.
I think because I was in a privileged position where I had a net and I didn’t care if I got fired. I didn’t have a family to support at the time, and not everybody can do that. We can go on talking about this for hours, I think there’s so much to it.
The other thing is the wage gap, a lot of companies in tech are now starting to compensate for that loss that women face just because. When I say these things, it’s said with the understanding that small progress is important progress. So if five companies out of fifty are making this change, compared to zero last year, then that’s a win in my book.
Rachel: I feel like there’s a tipping point if five companies are making that change, then those are the companies that all of the most talented women will want to work at.
Cat: I’d like to think that we are in a place where a lot of companies are recognizing that this is something that won’t be tolerated, and that women are speaking up and standing up for what they feel they deserve. But it’s still an issue, I haven’t been part of that world for a very long time because I’m now going on six years of running my own companies, so I can only gauge based on what I see.
Rachel: I want to ask about the “I don’t take no shit attitude” because it lends itself to a very specific set of reactions to those kinds of environments. So tell me about like that, do you feel like that’s contributed to your path?
Cat: So unfortunately I think the reason why it made life easier for me is because it’s much more of the “stereotypical masculine” approach. I think if I were more “ladylike”, then that may have slowed things down and I imagine that I would have been someone who is more likely to be subject to more physical issues.
Rachel: My partner is also a founder and he’s been running companies for years and I think part of what I see in those type of stereotypical traits, the “don’t take no shit attitude”, also contributes to willingness and a desire to run your own company. Do you feel like that?
Cat: I think I knew from the beginning when I decided to jump into design. I left the NYC Board of Education, and previous to that I was working in special education with predominantly children with autistic children. I knew at the end of the day that I could do more good on the other side. Using design and technology to actually invoke change, and in order to do that, I needed to understand how businesses run and what works, what doesn’t.
So I freelanced, I worked in corporate, I worked for startups, I worked in an agency. Then kicked off my own, and co-founded my first. I always knew that I wanted to use my skills to actually invoke that change. I didn’t know what that looked like, I didn’t know at the time what it entailed, starting my own company. But I knew that I wanted to do something grand because that was the only way that I was actually going to move something forward.
Rachel: I want to probe a little more on the companies that you built, and the way that you went about building companies. Does the lens of gender and privilege play into the projects you take on and the impact you aim to have?
Cat: Yeah for sure and when I’m doing it it’s not just gender.
I think privilege, and in turn exclusion, manifests itself in a variety of ways from gender to religion to race.
As a kid, my parents dropped me off on my grandparents’ doorstep, and went their own ways. I think that even if, you know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think that it’s one of the most core forms of exclusion. That doesn’t mean that it’s worse than race or religion or gender but it’s coupled with abandonment from individuals that on a very basic human level should not be excluding you.
I spent a lot of time in my life unintentionally gravitating toward those that didn’t really feel they belonged. I spent a lot of time in high school playing sports, I think because I wanted to be part of that. Sports teams have done something for me that I can’t even explain. But those that didn’t think they belong, they were never invisible to me because I felt in a lot of ways that I was no different than them.
When it came down to the projects that I worked on, you know, I spent a lot of time working on a variety of things, when it came down to the problems that sparked in my head that I saw when I looked out on the world. They all have had this same question: How do we connect people? How do we move them forward?
They’ve all been, for the most part, for individuals who are kind of an afterthought. With the exception with Stark, it’s technically a tool for designers but it’s to aid of designing and building products for individuals that are typically not included. I gave a talk last month where I explained that a sustainable solution to making experiences accessible or inclusive will happen only when people who are privileged choose to dismantle a system that makes them feel special and powerful.
I think that I’m in a very unique position of privilege. I think I’ve done very well for myself.
The fact that I am a white woman puts me in the position to actually invoke change for others, and I don’t want to leave this earth not knowing that I have used privilege and the power that I have to actually leave the world better than I found it.
That was something that was drilled into me. I’m very proud to have a strong moral and value compass in that regard and I want to make sure that I’m always doing whatever I can to stay on that true north.
Rachel: How do you stay on that true north?
Cat: The position that I am in allows me to not work on projects if they don’t align with what I believe is right. Even with the companies that Ben and I invest in. We just say “no” to all white male teams. At the end of the day, you’ll be alright, and maybe you won’t get the investment, but you are in a position of power inherently: you came out of your mother’s womb in a position of power. We make sure that we’re investing in a way that needs to align with what we find to be good in the world.
You also need to be doing something in sectors that will make the world a better place: education, finance, social good, health and sciences.
It’s very easy to chase the next big thing or the next very attractive thing, or find a company that can make us money like that because their user engagement is just up the ass. I’ve worked on projects that have multi-millions of users and I understand the glory behind that, and that cortisol drip. The fight or flight and always going full on. But this fireball is not attractive, it doesn’t do anything for my soul.
I can’t be a good founder, I can’t be a good mentor, I can’t be a good designer or a good mother if I can’t say that I stood up for what I know to be right. I got lucky and I was given a chance to have a life that I would not have otherwise. I would not be talking to you right now, I promise you that, and I want and I think I need to pay it forward. That, I think, is the biggest one. It’s my job to pay it forward.
Rachel: Right now you’re in a position where I imagine you don’t need to sell the value of designing for the invisible or designing for more marginalised groups. Is it a hard sell, and how has it changed over time?
Cat: It’s funny because we were just talking about how Stark was just such good timing, we came in when people didn’t give a shit, and now everybody gives a shit. I think we have to sell less now, sell less on the idea. We still sell on the change, here’s what needs to be done and it’s not just about checking contrast. Here’s what needs to be done on a foundation level. I tell everyone, whether you’re a founder or someone new to design, you cannot paint the walls unless you have the foundation of a house.
It’s hard to change DNA, so we’re having a lot of those conversations. Especially now, Stark is actually a consultancy, going in and working with these teams and having a day conversation about culture change. And saying that this workshop will not work if you don’t understand culture change. I think it’s a different kind of sell, it’s kind of an easier sell because now we are in a position where we can actually have a conversation. Any time something is being discussed repetitively, it’s a good sign and because these are increments to the big goal, we are moving in a good direction. It’s great, and it’s nice knowing that you’re building a product that resonates with people.
Building Lyra, which is a symbol to speech app for children with autism, is something really special because you are telling the parents and the speech pathologist that this exists for you now.
You tell the world that this is a group of people that are human beings and they deserve great experiences.
When you give someone a great experience and you account for accessibility and inclusivity, you are telling them that they are seen.
I hear how it’s impacting others and I think that’s part of we’re working out these types of projects. It’s like, why wouldn’t you?
Rachel: One of the things you wrote fairly passionately about in the teaser questions is about being the kind of mother that you are. Given your experience and your personality, that you don’t take shit, and you push for what you believe in. What does it mean for you to be a mother and to also found companies and to be an investor, how does that all fit together?
Cat: I’m very proud to be in the position that I’m in, I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of how far I’ve come. If you were to talk to me a few years ago, you wouldn’t get the same person.
I’m in a position where I get to see a lot and that becomes part of the conversations that we have with Emma. I saw my grandmother going to work as a child — and that was just simply because of financial reasons — but she was someone who was proud to go out and work. She grew up in the Bronx, one of ten, like fucking eating mud puddles because of financial reasons, and because that’s how they grew up. So seeing that and growing up in a household again with grandparents that came from a time where that wasn’t tradition. I’ve always had this at the back of my mind.
[Talking about Emma] Sitting down with her when she asks the questions that come up, we talked to her like she’s a forward-thinking human being because she is.
Funnily enough she asked this morning why in Beauty and the Beast, Gaston was so mean to the Beast. So, shit, this has to do with fragile masculinity. It got drilled down to, he was someone that must have had a lot of hurt in his life and wasn’t taught how to recognise his feelings or how to manage them. So they became erratic. He learned that it was easier to make himself feel better by putting others down and hurting others physically and with his words. I kinda stepped back and was like, woah, that was loaded for eight in the morning. I’m happy that I’ve been given the toolkit to have that conversation, and to teach her what it means to not take anybody’s shit.
She knows that if there is a person, particularly a boy, at school that is bullying her that she is to make it very audibly that he is to stop. And if he doesn’t that she has to physically stop him. She has permission to clock his fucking teeth in. And why I think that it’s important is because if we teach her now, she will become a teenager that will become a woman that doesn’t think that a man can channel his insecurities onto her with his fists.
I think that I’m in a unique position. I grew up in a traditional household that didn’t behave traditionally. We are an Irish-Italian Catholic family in New York. We went to church for holidays and for weddings and when people died. The Word of God was present in our house, but my family is so unique. My family is off our fucking rockers and it’s filled with, like, everybody’s got their own trauma and everybody’s working through their own shit. At the end of the day though we are a pack, and you cannot divide us. I think a net in any form that doesn’t necessarily tunnel you but knows when to wrap itself around you when you need it is very crucial.
I think because my family are in positions where they could both go out and work, and they were both able to read and write and grew up in one of the major cities of the world, changed their worldview. It changed how they kind of stirred that information on to us.
Rachel: You mentioned earlier that if we had spoken a few years ago that you wouldn’t be this person, tell me about that journey and what triggered it and what were the steps and what did it feel like.
Cat: What triggered it? Almost a divorce. You put two people in a room that have a lot of shit to bring to the table, but that genuinely love each other and you’re gonna you’re gonna get some lovely stuff and some colorful words and, again, keeping in mind that I’m someone that is very hard. Cold, in a lot of ways.
Rachel: I get the sense that you protect yourself.
Cat: Yeah for sure, I’m better now, which could give me some insight into what it was. I think regarding my parents, I was at a point where I was okay, I was good and then my grandfather got sick and eventually died. That made me real angry. I was angry, I was lost.
I felt like I was sinking into myself, I drowned myself in work, and in anything that would take me away, for three years. Then the next thing you know, you meet someone. Ben had his own shit that be brought to the table.
I’m the kind of person that if I am feeling it, you’re going to know about it. You know, [it’s] a lot easier to put things out on the table and hash them through. With Ben’s family, that was not the case. He’s from the countryside, I’m from the city. I’m very forward, he’s very not, but now he is. So we both brought good and bad to the table and eventually it got to a point where it was just so bad.
You’re not given this toolkit to work through this, and that’s why the divorce rate is so high and so we almost had a divorce and then tried therapy. Finally acknowledging that that’s okay, it’s good. It’s necessary because you don’t have all the answers and can’t always find it by reading a book.
I think that opened my eyes to a lot of the things that I was feeling, and the things I thought I was feeling. Going on this journey of understanding where things stem from and at the point now where things happen like, “Oh I wonder if that’s because of, A, B, C”, and I would dig into that a little bit more.
All it takes is one person to break a system, and change the system, and so taking what I know and bringing that to the table with my family, I hope helps move us forward to be even greater than I think we are.
Rachel: I get a strong sense that you have a strong foundational vocabulary for those kinds of conversations, that’s the kind of vocabulary that you’re not born with.
Cat: Had I not been in that household, and if I was raised by my mom, it would have been completely the opposite. Her mom passed away when she was 16, she didn’t have a strong motherly figure and her dad went wherever he went. You see how that cycle would end up repeating itself.
Being with my grandmother, seeing her and my Aunt, being these very progressive individuals changed everything I knew about a woman’s place and it automatically coupled with me not really giving a shit about what you thought about me. It gave me the ability to understand that my place was wherever I wanted it to be. Not thinking that I had to spend my life serving a man. That’s not to take away from women that choose to be housewives or kinder to their partners, whether a man or a woman.
I think there’s a strong difference between choosing to cater and be a housewife or house mother and to take on that very important and very difficult role at home versus thinking you don’t have a place outside.
Rachel: How does it feel to know what your family sees now?
Cat: I’m a mom that makes mistakes, a mom that gets frustrated. Emma taught me a different kind of patience. She’s good, of all the things that I’ve done in my life, the universe gave me a
child with a very solid sense of humour. A child that is just genuinely good. She is everything that I could have hoped for in a human being and I firmly believe — and that’s not just because she’s my kid — the world is better with her in it. I firmly believe that morals and values and that compass I was gifted will hopefully play a strong role in that.
I think I’m learning on the job like everyone else. There are some days where I’m winging it, there are some days where you know I put her down, I’m like, “Did she feel loved enough today? Was I too hard there? Was I too adamant about something? Do I need to ease up? Do I spend too much thinking about work? Was I present?”
I’m not too strict. I’m bullish about respect and kindness and self-love. It may seem silly but, like, when talking about her outfit, you know never really like do you think you look good in it. I’ll always say, “do you do you feel good in your outfit though do you think. Do you feel those colours are some of your favorite?”
I’m someone that won’t talk about my body in front of her. I’ve been graced with never having body issues, which I’m grateful for. But when I’m at the gym, she’ll ask us why, it’s not a conversation that I want. I want my body to be more fit, it’s that I want to make sure that everything inside of me, in my brain and in my body, is as healthy as it can be.
I think in that regard I’ve been able to see by watching from afar what my mom has done, and my father for that matter, in comparison to how I was raised. And just the kind of state of girls become women and I’m trying my best to make sure that I take all of that learnt. Because I never want her to feel like she’s someone that wasn’t included, like she was an afterthought, like she’s not listened to, or that she’s not beautiful.
At the same time, wanting to understand that things like respect is beautiful and mental health and physical health is beautiful. I think I’m pretty damn good mum.
What I give myself most credit for is the fact that I’m trying, and the fact that I’m questioning these things.
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