This essay is written by one of our first alums from our CEO Bootcamp, Sooinn Lee, CEO of LocoMotive Labs. Last fall, Sooinn also spoke at TEDxBayArea Women in a talk called ‘When Learning is Painful’, in which she shared more of her story and the passion that prompted her to start her own company. In the article below, she shares more about her journey to becoming CEO. – Ali
Embracing Leadership as a Reluctant CEO
By Sooinn Lee, CEO of LocoMotive Labs
It was this Twitter message that first caught my attention last July:
RT ‘Being the CEO of a startup is hard. And no manual. This is why @jerrycolonna created the CEO Bootcamp’
Hard? I’ll tell you about hard! I am a woman and first-time founder who came to the United States from Korea 5 years ago. I’d never experienced US workplace culture and was not fully comfortable with conversational English. My 12-year career in the Korean game industry as an artist, game designer, well-known game industry blogger/writer, and corporate strategist for a global game publisher was not exactly a typical CEO resume. In the past, I usually worked alone to develop creative solutions and didn’t experience much of a leadership role. When I was first told that I did not fit the ideal CEO image in Silicon Valley, I could only agree.
My decision to start a company was not due to entrepreneurial dreams, rather the result of a chain of events: being a parent to a child, feeling frustrated, and taking action. I started LocoMotive Labs with my husband in our home in Berkeley, CA. We had a strong mission to make high-quality learning apps to empower children with special needs to be independent learners.
Even though our team had been making meaningful progress for a year and had received a million-dollar investment from heart-warming VCs and investors, it was not easy to maintain my own confidence as CEO. I knew how to make a good product, but running a company was a totally different challenge. I had so many questions: Do I have enough understanding to run a company in the US? How can I better project the ‘CEO image’ that others are used to? Am I the leader my team deserves? I had never been taught about leadership or management, so I didn’t know how to find the answers I needed.
These questions caused me to doubt my ability as CEO. I looked at my own foreign background, communication skills, and culture as a risk factor for the company. I was not sure that I could even call myself ‘CEO’. I signed ‘Founder’ instead of ‘CEO’ to company documents. I put ‘Creative Lead’ instead of ‘CEO’ on my business card and LinkedIn profile.
When I first saw that brief Tweet about Bootcamp, I wondered whether this could be the place to find all my answers. Once I finally arrived, I learned that the answers were inside of me all along. Jerry started the first session with the strong statement, “This being so, so what?” He talked about the many things a person couldn’t control, which we needed to let be. He shared his own story, as a successful VC who was depressed, which was a powerful start to the evening. Soon the conversation in the group turned into a frank conversation about the challenges each of us face as CEOs.
From that night onward, the 4 days at Devil’s Thumb Ranch was a life-changing experience, totally different from what I had imagined.
The most important lesson throughout the weekend was that I am not the only one who struggles with the burden of leadership, family, and self. As our stories unfolded through intimate conversations, it was surprising to hear so much self-doubt among a bunch of passionate CEOs who were all very smart, mature, and good communicators. They looked like the ‘ideal CEO type’ that I wasn’t. Through the conversation, I learned that all other CEOs are fighting their own fight – regardless of their heritage, age, or background.
As part of a husband-wife team developing learning software for young children, I’ve found it hard to separate my personal life from my company, or my roles as wife, leader, mom, and app designer. The borders were so blurred, and I was breaking almost every rule around work-life balance. Whenever I made a misstep in either direction – which I did often – it affected both sides of life. It was great to hear other peoples’ opinions and experiences concerning work-life balance issues and to work together to figure out how to reduce the tension.
Bootcamp offers various self-care programs such as meditation, yoga, and hiking, but most of the cohorts talked restlessly from morning to night. The openness and compassion that was shared among our 13 cohort members was amazing. Each of us shared our very unique story and our hopes for the future. Sometimes, the experiences were quite emotional, so Coach Ali joked that she would bring more Kleenex next time.
“The CEO must be the most confident person in the room.” I learned it by heart with the stories of each cohort member as case studies.
Four days of Bootcamp came to an end, as all good stories do. We hugged and patted one another’s shoulder in a graduation ceremony. I was already longing to come back. I had arrived alone, with a feeling of weakness. I now left with a large support group and a feeling of empowerment.
After returning to work, I told to the team, “I learned a lot this weekend. I couldn’t become a different person in one weekend, but I will try every day to become a better one.” One of my long-time colleagues cheered, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘better leader,’ but you look a lot more comfortable!”
At that point, changing the title ‘Creative Lead’ to ‘CEO’ on LinkedIn was easy. Finally, my team’s supportive voice started to penetrate my heart. I had been distracted too much by how I look in stranger’s eyes, and hadn’t been listening enough to the positive energy our team built together. “We can fix it, one day at a time…,” has been running through my mind since the Bootcamp.
I’ve learned that CEO is a job that requires many skills, which can all be improved with training. Self-care and life/work balance also require good training to achieve. It took 15 months of being CEO to realize I needed job training! The program encouraged us to be realistic about challenges, and provided us the confidence and empowerment a lonely leader needs. Much of this we knew already, yet it took the group experience and leadership to draw it out of us.
After a month of arriving back home, I visited another cohort CEO, Greg, at his office. We sat in a small meeting room and quickly regained the openness we had developed at Bootcamp. “How’s everything going?” he asked.
“Well, there is tons of work that needs to be done. The product looked awesome yesterday, but we need to fix a lot today. Balance between family and work is still not clear enough. And I still face my own insecurities and doubts every day. But Bootcamp taught me that all these struggles don’t mean that I am disqualified as a leader. I set up the vision and started the company – so I will meet all the ups and downs through the journey as a leader. Small wins and loses, celebrations and regrets are just parts of my job, and there’s much to learn about this work,” I replied. “So I need your opinion about some issues…”
His advice was so good and true. After all, he knows well who I am and he walks the same road I do. When I left, we hugged as we did at Bootcamp.