Meet Shana Penna, Chief Operating Officer of Puffin Innovation
Last #WomenCrushWednesdays, we met Maria Luisa Mendiola — a female founder dedicated to helping women with disfigurements feel confident and comfortable in their own bodies.
This week, we’re got somebody just as admirable: Shana Penna is trying to use technology to make the lives of people with disabilities just a little bit easier. We’ll let her tell you how:
Describe your business. What is its main goal/function?
Shana: Puffin Innovation’s mission is to open up opportunities for people with significant disabilities by making all technology accessible. Using universal design with artificial intelligence and internet connectivity, we are ensuring that everyone has equal access to computers, phones, and smart environments.
We are now working to finalize the beta iteration of our device and software, with plans to launch in the next few months. In addition, I have also begun evaluating other prospects. Because anyone who wants to interact with electronics without using their hands or voice can use our technology, this allows me to explore potential uses with the military and intelligent manufacturing.
Why did you decide to become a female founder? What inspired you to start your business?
Shana: I have always been a hustler. I know that seems like an odd word to use, but my life has not been easy, and I have spent 90% of it fighting to get ahead. Early in high school, I made the choice to leave home and I had to figure out how to survive. The one thing I had going for me was my persistence and a confidence in my own abilities, whether it be street smarts or abilities academically.
I was always strategic, allowing me to succeed even in the most challenging of situations. I got my first management position at 20, while still in college, and at that point I realized that I had a knack for leading. Not to say I am always the best manager, but I recognize my weaknesses and am always trying to learn.
What are the greatest challenges of founding your own business?
Shana: The greatest challenge for me is the fact that our company is engineering hardware and software. As one of the founders of the company, it is my responsibility to ensure that product development is going as planned.
I am not an engineer. I have never even worked with engineers. So, I am learning how to let my engineers do their jobs, while providing some checkpoints that allow me to understand and help as needed.
I think of Lee Iacocca’s quote often. “I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.” Thankfully, running the company is overwhelming and it allows me to step back, which I know my engineers appreciate!
Growing up, what were your goals in life? Did you ever imagine you’d create something like what you created?
Shana: I honestly cannot remember any goal other than pursuing an education. Some kids grow up with grand visions of their future, and some don’t see much of a future at all. I think I was in between the two.
Oddly enough, as a child I was a lucid dreamer which means I was in full control of my dreams at night. Controlling my dreams allowed me to cope with my reality. Because of this control, I had the same exact dream every single night, with only slight variations. It was in these dreams that I foresaw my goals. Funny though, as I began to create the life I dreamed of I lost the ability to control my dreams!
I cannot say that I ever dreamed of building my product, as my cofounder is the inventor of it. However, offering an underrepresented group opportunity in education, employment, and inclusion fits right into my own passions. It is important for me to find ways to assist everyone and anyone to reach their full potential, as there were many people on my journey that did that for me.
Providing the tools to those with significant disabilities — a population that has historically had limited options — to surpass any barriers, is an incredible mission that makes me proud every day.
What’s next for your business?
Shana: Launch! We are looking to begin selling our product gradually over the next few months. We begin with a soft-launch at Boston’s Abilities Expo in September, then a pre-launch around Veterans Day because the Department of Veterans Affairs funded our company and we want to pay tribute to that.
This is especially important to me, because I served, as well as my brother, husband, father, uncle, and grandfather. The full launch will be in January, hopefully at CES!
What advice would you give to the next generation of women and girls looking to make an impact?
Shana: There are a couple pieces of advice I live by, the first of which is to fall in love with learning, because to make an impact we must constantly grow and evolve. I try to read every single day, both business related information and books for pure enjoyment. My love of learning started early, as I found school to be safe and satisfying.
As I have grown older, I attribute this love to my ability to push boundaries that many saw as unattainable (especially for me). I do believe that we are all able to learn, some in ways different than others, it just takes the right tools and motivations.
The second is important to where we stand in the world today. I probably heard it from somewhere or someone years ago, but it has become extremely important the past few years — form an opinion on something only after reading the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a local paper.
I believe that credible information and critical thinking is important and we in the United States are losing the ability to evaluate and form opinions, because we lack a holistic understanding of information.