Allison Lami Sawyer '03 is the CEO of one of 24 companies chosen to participate in the Wall Street Journal's WSJ Startup of the Year, a 20-week documentary featuring entrepreneurial challenges. Allison's company is currently in the final five. You can watch and vote here.
We are excited that Allison is coming to speak with Randolph's 8th grade and Upper School on Tuesday, November 26.
This article will also appear in the Fall 2013 issue of the Randolph Magazine, but because of her visit and the WSJ program, we are running it online first.
According to Allison Lami Sawyer ’03, growing up in Huntsville’s “tech bubble” was her own good fortune that ultimately lent a hand in the cultivation of her multimillion dollar company, Rebellion Photonics, which commercializes unique "snap-shot" hyperspectral imaging technology, the first of its kind, shooting live footage through microscopes to detect chemical leaks for markets such as defense, biological research, food contamination detection, rig/refinery safety, quality control, and forensics. Founded in 2009, with $2.4 million in projected revenue from military and industrial contracts and a variety of other applications in the works, there are no signs of slowing down for Allison, her co-founder, Robert Kester, and their “Rebel” team of seven based out of Houston, Texas.
Allison’s inspiration and accomplishments have certainly not come overnight with ease or without support. Her recipe for success has called for boundless courage, diligent study, cohesive teamwork, family and mentor support, but most importantly, a sense of “rebelliousness” as the company’s CEO and fearless leader. Her life-long vision of becoming an entrepreneur to develop something that would ultimately change the world is no longer just a dream. It is a constant and evolving reality centered on Allison’s passion and fervor for the technical industry that began at an early age at home in Huntsville.
Hi-tech Southern roots
Allison appreciates how her Southern roots—her formative years here in Huntsville, and particularly at Randolph—played a large role in shaping her passion for the tech industry and entrepreneurialism. Allison attended Randolph from 1st through 9th grade and graduated from Choate Rosemary Hall. She received a B.Sc. in engineering physics and a M.Sc. in nanoscale physics from Leeds University, U.K., and an M.B.A. from Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University.
Growing up in Huntsville was a unique experience compared to anywhere else in the region, where having a tech background is actually seen as “normal.”
“It’s not like anywhere else in Alabama or really the South. It really is a tech bubble. It may be something that the community takes for granted.”
In the Huntsville neighborhood where Allison grew up, most of her neighbors, men and women, were engineers, “Same with many of the parents at Randolph during that time. So growing up here, it’s not weird to think I’ll be an engineer, a doctor, an astronaut. That’s something very special.“
Allison also reflects on her time at Randolph and how it shaped her perception of technology and the hard sciences: “Computers were big, and starting to become really exciting. We had a computer lab at Randolph. I have a comfort level with technology, and I think that is really important because I think to a lot of people, especially young women, technology and hard sciences seem so daunting. The first hurdle you have to overcome is normalizing it. Huntsville and Randolph did that. Technology didn’t seem like a distant field, it was more like everyone does it. Randolph’s diverse and well-rounded community also encourages students to dream bigger. Dreaming big may not come naturally; sometimes you have to be pushed in that direction and Randolph encouraged us to do so. Being born into that and having my mom send me to Randolph was my own good fortune.”
“We need more ladies in physics! @nprnews: Why Aren't More Girls Attracted To Physics?”
Allison has proven that she is not afraid to be bold, not only as an entrepreneur, but as a young woman in the world of physics where many girls choose not to go. She feels strongly about changing their perception of technology and hard sciences from intimidating to intriguing.
Like many 20-somethings, Allison uses Twitter as an outlet to share her thoughts. In late July 2013, she posted the question, “We need more ladies in physics! @nprnews: Why Aren't More Girls Attracted To Physics?” Allison always knew she wanted to start her own business. With a master’s degree in nanotechnology and an M.B.A., it was never a question of drive or mental preparedness, but certain stereotypes and stigmas shaped her path, making her a stronger, more passionate industrialist along the way.
“I used to think it was only Southern thing, but I’ve lived in Connecticut and Colorado and England, and I think, in general, there is an opinion that the most important thing a woman can do is bear and raise children, which I disagree with because it comes with the assumption that the woman is inherently a better care-giver than a man.
“You do see young girls opting out very young in the South, and their parents letting them opt out, which is an issue as well. The question in high school becomes, ‘Do you take calculus or wait until college, or not at all?’ I had a lot of friends whose parents would almost always let the girls drop out without a fuss. But I remember my brother hinting that he didn’t want to take calculus at Randolph, and my mother was like, ‘Okay, then you don’t get the car!’ These decisions we make when we’re young may seem like no big deal, when in fact they will shape the entirety of your life. They’re just kids, and it’s really important for parents and teachers to help.”
New studies have found that girls are more likely to take high school physics if they see women in their communities working in science, technology, engineering and math. In what little spare time she does have, Allison visits with young girls in area schools to speak about the many opportunities and career paths that exist within such fields of study.
“I think one thing we, as adults, take for granted is that we know we can go get a degree and do tons of different things with that degree. But I find when I go talk to high school girls, this is not obvious to them. I visit a lot of high schools in the Houston area and I try to make sure they are raising awareness on this issue. Having a technical degree does not mean you will be working in a lab all by yourself for the rest of your life. In fact, maybe only five percent do that. So, I just try to get my face out there and try to educate them on what it is really like to have a technical background and an engineering background. As adults know, your undergraduate degree does not necessarily determine the rest of your life, and typically has little to do with what you actually do in life, but middle and high schoolers definitely don’t know this.
“My undergraduate is in applied physics, and I do use it in a general ‘I need to understand it’ way. But in other ways, it was really just proving that I could. Then, I could have gone into banking or law or medicine, but half the battle was just proving that I could do it.”
Girls need to learn to fail early and often
“One thing I see over and over again with young women is, ‘Oh but I’m not as good at math as I am in English.’ And I have to laugh because everybody is better at English!
“Especially in the South, unique to girls, there is a lot of pressure to be perfect. I don’t see that as much with the boys. You have to have the high pony tail with the ribbon, be perfectly clean, have straight As, a thick skull and a big smile. That’s fine, but when you get out in the real world, if you put perfection above anything else, then you get a huge fear of failure, which will put you at a disadvantage. There is no way that you are going to get through an engineering degree without failing one test. It will happen. That does not mean that you switch majors. That does not mean that you’re not good enough. That means you may have struggled with that professor or that particular test, or maybe you didn’t study the right thing. Who knows, but, it’s just the perfectionism and that need for it that we place upon young women in the South. At first it doesn’t seem like it’s so awful to think like that, where they say, ‘Look they’re getting such good grades and they did great on their SATs,’ when in the long run I think it hurts them. Girls need to learn to fail and learn that it’s okay. We need to teach our young women to fail. That’s how you get women in entrepreneurship and really tough degrees. Electrical engineering and computer sciences, these are tough. I think when they shy away, it’s just that girls just aren’t emotionally prepared for the failures that will inevitably come with it.
“I think it’s always a good idea to showcase roles and women in particular who are out there with technical backgrounds. Even if they’re not doing tech in the future, I think that would be beneficial.”
Disbelief and doubt fuels the fire to launch and lead a multimillion dollar company
Upon receiving her MBA, Allison still remembers the sting of the words from her entrepreneurship professor, who pulled her aside amidst the launch of her company, Rebellion Photonics. “He told me gently, ‘You know you aren’t good enough, right? You need to get a real CEO.’
“By that time, I was already on a path and had a mindset that nothing could stop me. I knew I could fail, but that didn’t matter. I think I was at risk more when I was younger. The hardest thing is saying out loud, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur.’ Before you have found the right technology or the right product, or before you have any tangible ideas, it’s a risk to say it out loud. Think about how many women you’ve actually met who have said that. The first time I said that, they laughed at me. Not being mean, but just kind of like, ‘Oh, good for you!’ with a pat on the head while thinking that’s never going to happen. And their immediate question is usually, ‘what’s your backup plan?’
“That’s actually the most precarious point. And it’s not just with entrepreneurship. There are lots of big dreams out there with low success rates and a very unclear path to success. I was very, very lucky to have family and eventually mentors, who, when I said I wanted to be an entrepreneur, were like, ‘Yeah, you should definitely do that.’ I think you’re at your most vulnerable when you are sharing it with the people nearest and dearest to you. My mother and brother have always supported me 100% even before it was what it is now. Once you’re on the path, once you have a business, you will see it to the end. It becomes part of you. It’s that time before you’ve found your path, before you even have a starting line, when you’re most vulnerable, and especially for young women because there are so many other easier options, so many other easier paths. And sometimes it feels like the whole world is pushing you to an easier path. So, it takes a lot of help from friends and family to help push you.”
The “ah-ha!” moment
In following the dream, listening to her gut, and acting on the supportive push from friends and family, reality for Allison began while volunteering at a local Incubator, where she met her co-founder, Robert Kester. It was there where she experienced the “ah-ha” moment when she knew she wanted to explore the avenue of real-time chemical imaging.
“When I was a graduate student getting my MBA at Rice, I heard there was a Ph.D. student named Robbie Kester who had a cool new tech and he didn’t know what to do with it. Someone sent me a technical paper on biological imaging that he published in an optics publication. He had invented a camera that could see chemical reactions live within cells, which is important for cancer research. That’s how five years of physics education finally pays off because I could read that and knew just enough to be dangerous. I could then take it a step further and realize there’s other stuff you can do with this. So I set up a meeting with him right away. I asked him a few questions like, ‘Can it go out of the lab, and can it work real time video rate?’ He replied, ‘Sure! No problem.’ That was the moment. There was no going back after that. When you know something’s potential like that, it’s like fireworks.
“Then I laid out my idea for how the company would work, which is to fund the company by selling cancer research, which is very small market. So, I thought, why don’t we take the technology to a bigger and more profitable market? So we took on oil and gas, detecting gas leaks before they explode on the refineries.
“I’d be the CEO and he’d be the CTO (Chief Technology Officer), and let’s just grow this thing! And our personalities get along really well. We are similar ages and we even kind of look alike. We have very different roles, so there’s no overlap. Sometimes co-founders have problems, but our roles are very distinct so there’s no issue.”
What’s in a name?: Rebellion Photonics
To Allison, the team, and their customers, Rebellion Photonics is about a culture, a sense of pride, and a community based upon a revolution for the greater good. But, why the name Rebellion Photonics?
“Well you remember that entrepreneur professor? It stemmed from that and many of the others who were not that helpful and supportive. Plus, in the beginning, what we wanted to do was no less than revolutionize one of the world’s largest industries—oil and gas. We needed a big name to go with it. It was a way to set the tone of the company. We call our office “Rebel Base.” All of the employees and myself are called “Rebels,” so the emails and T-shirts are fun. We call our customers and early doctors “Honorary Rebels,” so we’ll have rebel parties. I think people enjoy it. A lot of engineers want to work on something that’s going to change the world. You want to work on something that’s important, so that’s what we try to offer not only to our employees, but to our first customers as well. This is tough and important. We all want to be dangerous together.”
For the future “rebellious” entrepreneurs
Tough and important is definitely how to describe Allison, her team, the journey she has faced and will continue to pursue moving forward. While reflecting on the challenges and realities of entrepreneurship, Allison shares a bit of advice for students or individuals who may be considering it as a profession:
“You have to be comfortable with failure, and with the unknown. I don’t know what tomorrow is going to be like, I don’t know how we’re going to get from A-to-B for this company. I have a plan, but the plan changes every day. You have to have a high level of comfort with the feel of the unknown. And I sleep okay. Over time, you build up your threshold. When you put yourself in harder and harder situations, before you know it, you really can handle quite a bit.
“Entrepreneurship is not about entrepreneurship. It’s about a specific thing you feel very passionate about. I am very passionate about this technology and would do anything to make sure it’s used in the world. I’m more in love with my company and our product than the idea of entrepreneurship. The idea and the glamour of entrepreneurship is so different from the day-to-day. If you’re going to get into entrepreneurship, make sure you have that reason that you’re doing it. And mine is that I just love technology! You’re going to make a lot of sacrifices and it’s got to be worth it. It’s also important to dream big and dream bigger. Your dreams should be big. Your dreams should scare you! If it’s not scary, you’re not there yet.”