Female Founder Spotlight: Fifteen Minutes with Allison Wood and Sonia Tsao of CameraIQ

This week, as part of the Inclusive Innovation series that we announced this spring, we’re profiling Allison Wood and Sonia Tsao of Camera IQ: the first AR platform for deploying captivating camera experiences at scale . We chatted with the LA-based entrepreneurs about emerging technology, defining a new medium, and building a workplace culture they’re proud of.

Sonia Tsao (left) and Allison Wood (right), co-founders of Camera IQ

On the power of family and upbringing

While Allison and Sonia come from very different backgrounds, they both recall growing up with parents and grandparents who ran their own businesses — exposing them to life as an entrepreneur at a young age.

“We were raised with this idea that we could start a company and always understood the responsibility of being an entrepreneur ,” Allison says. “We’ve always felt like we could have a place at the table, which we know is unique for many female founders.”

“Our risk appetite is definitely high compared to some of our peers,” Sonia adds. “We got an upfront view of what it means to have an idea and the conviction needed to realize it. Earlier we were reflecting on what motivates us and why we are who we are, and a lot of that is grounded in what we grew up with.”

On putting complementary skills to work

A designer and creative technologist by trade, Allison can identify the moment at which she became fascinated with the power of technology while pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute. “I was taking classes in interior design and architecture,” she says. “I learned Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD, Rhino, Maya, and eventually Processing, Max-XP and Unity. It was the first time a computer was a creative tool beyond just researching and writing papers or surfing the internet. I thought, ‘wow, I can finally make real the things that are in my head.’ It was really empowering for me’.”

She started working towards a second degree in interaction design and founded her own agency out of the New Museum’s incubator program, New Inc — working with brands to create AR experiences. “I started building some tools to help me with my own client work,” she says. “At the time I didn’t know anything about software businesses so it wasn’t something that scaled beyond a creative agency.”

Sonia, on the other hand, began her career working for IMC Pan Asia Alliance Group, her fifth-generation family business headquartered in Singapore and Shanghai with interests spanning supply chains, real estate, investments, and more. “I was really interested in supporting developing economies and places where consumerism was just picking up,” she says.

After four years, she returned to Boston, where she had attended Tufts University as an undergraduate, to get her MBA from Harvard. “At the time, direct-to-consumer brands had started to emerge and I was really excited by the speed and pace of the online economy,” she says. “I was passionate about the intersection of tech, design and consumer behavior.”

After graduating, she joined mobile commerce app Spring to help run brand strategy and customer engagement as the team grew from 25 to close to over 150.

“When we met, Sonia was able to take what I was trying to build for my clients and the feedback I had been getting, and figure out how to operationalize it,” Allison says of their complementary backgrounds and skills. “She knew how to take it from an agency to a software company.”

“I didn’t know much about AR at the time,” Sonia adds. “But I saw first hand, the excitement around the medium from both brands and consumers, and I wanted to be part of the solution. . That was really exciting to me — taking the skills I had developed and building a category. Figuring out how to talk about it, how to sell it, how to create a new business and technology to service this new medium. A medium that was fundamentally changing how consumers engaged with the world around them.”

On building something that’s never existed

Allison describes the unique challenges they faced as they tried to sell not just a novel piece of software, but a completely new medium.

“Camera marketing hasn’t existed before now,” she says. “When we were first fundraising, people would say ‘we’ve never thought about a camera-first future.’ They all wanted to meet with us and thought we were bright and had a cool outlook on what the future could look like, but they couldn’t really have the conversation. ‘They’d say, aren’t you just talking about Snapchat?’.”

“Camera marketing hasn’t existed before now,” she says. “When we were first fundraising, people would say ‘we’ve never thought about a camera-first future.’ They all wanted to meet with us and thought we were bright and had a cool outlook on what the future could look like, but they couldn’t really have the conversation. ‘They’d say, aren’t you just talking about Snapchat?’.”

But it didn’t take long for the industry to catch up. A few weeks after they started pitching investors, Mark Zuckerberg got on stage at Facebook’s F8 Conference and announced that they were going camera-first. Google did the same at their I/O Keynote. “It has been a waterfall effect ever since,” she says. “We ended up raising a $4.3 million seed and things went from almost impossible to real. They say timing is everything, and that was true.”

On navigating gender politics

“We refer to ourselves as entrepreneurs and brand marketers, but we’ve never led with ‘female’,” Sonia says. “It’s an innate part of who we are, but it’s not how we define ourselves.”

Sonia and Allison recall preparing for their initial investor meetings, aware of the risk that some might discount their expertise as founders due to the fact that they were women in emerging technology.

“We found that our best defense was having a great offense,” Allison says. “So we were selective, looking for partners that appreciated our unique perspective and our ability to build a fundamentally creative product.”

As a part of this “offense,” Sonia and Allison proactively sought out partners and investors that they believed saw their gender, background, skill-set, and story as a strategic strength and unique value proposition.

Reflecting on this, Allison and Sonia believe that they approached fundraising this way due to the fact that female founders are often under pressure to demonstrate and perform expertise, often more so than male counterparts.

“I’ve been in the AR space for more than seven years,” Allison says. “I’m comfortable being a founder because I have a domain expertise. Sonia is experienced in operations and running a business. We’re not blind to the fact that being a female entrepreneur comes with societal obstacles, and we absolutely felt we needed to arm ourselves with a pedigree and a strong resume in order to get in the door. At the end of the day though, I’m a founder with the skill set to succeed, and our partners and investors recognized that.”

On building a culture they’re proud of

Sonia reflects on what it has been like to raise a baby while fundraising and running a young company, and what that has meant for the Camera IQ culture as a whole.

“It has been liberating to define my personal priorities,” she says. “We want to create a culture where where your personal values and passions are seen as an asset and contribution, not a weakness or distraction.”

“Work should be just one part of your personal growth,” Allison adds. “We’ve gotten feedback that for a small company, we’re doing things the right way such as having equal maternity and paternity leave. We don’t believe in drinking Soylent and never getting up from your desk, and it’s important to us that we build a culture of taking care of yourself. ”

Allison and Sonia’s approach to building culture is representative of their approach to building a company. To them, it’s all about giving people the space to create captivating experiences.

**

This week, we’re continuing to profile the startups participating in our Cannes Startup Academy, which runs from June 16th to June 22nd. Follow us on Twitter as we share updates from the festival and check back here as we continue to tell stories around Inclusive Innovation.