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Women on Top in Tech – Emily Rotolo, Founder/CEO of SimpleForms



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Here is our interview with Emily Rotolo, Founder/CEO of SimpleForms. My company actually just went live on a crowdfunding website to bring accredited and non-accredited investors the ability to invest in startups.

What makes you do what you do?

There are a few things!
I realized I can help more people in the world from the CEO chair of a Public Benefit Corporation then I can working at the non-profit I was at helping 3 people at a time. Mix that with the fact that I lived a problem SimpleForms now solves. Luckily I was working at a Startup in Utah when I first encountered the issues around employment documents, the lucky part was that I was in an environment that was motivating and supportive. It really helped me realize that if you are not building your passion you are only helping someone else achieve theirs.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I went to Georgetown University where I wanted to be a doctor. However, I thought I should probably try and internship in another field before really committing. It was my junior year of college when I joined Bisnow Media as their first ever intern ( it was acquired this year) and I was hooked on the startup culture. I went from there to my goal company to work for in the Startup world which was Summit Series. I was a part of Summit Series when we purchased Powder Mountain. In these two startups I learned more than I could have ever imagined.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?

It’s definitely a challenge, especially being a female. I get asked the most inappropriate questions from investors, and each time it makes me stronger. The idea that something is challenging is really an exciting fact, not a deterrence. Also, I am REALLY open to help. I ask for it and seek it out, we’ve built amazing mentors and advisors into our company. So yes am I out of my comfort zone… every day. Did I learn to hire smarter, yes! Does that make it even more challenging sometimes — yes! But I couldn’t sit by idol. The idea that as a population we fill out government regulated forms without assistance just isn’t right, especially when it affects every paycheck in the country.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?

YES! I love my mentors. We have advisors (official and non-official) and tons of mentors. We were fortunate to complete Techstars this year, which if you know starts with mentor madness. The key is to really find someone you connect with whether it’s industry-specific or not. We do have some that are very industry specific joining us from Inuit specifically Turbo Tax, but then we also have mentors that build hardware, so while it might not seem like we have a lot in common the experiences and conversations are what elevate a mentor relationship
If you haven’t watched it yet- Ted Talk: The Art Of asking — It really allowed me to find the best mentors for our company.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?

One of our non-techstars mentors came from our engineer. He was friends with the VP of engineering at GoFundMe, so with him being the first employee, he was really able to help coach us and show us what it is going to take to make this work. The key is finding not only the mentor that you can connect with and have open, honest, vulnerable conversations but also incentives them so that they work that much harder to help you succeed.
I have 2 personal mentors that I’ve known for years one became our official advisor with his brand knowledge and design expertise the other, is a huge support system for me to turn to about the struggles of being a female founder, or the ups and downs of building a team. It’s a roller coaster!

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?

We have two really young employees, a college grad, and a college dropout. They are my favorite! I wanted to hire me when I was an intern at Bisnow. A sponge, someone with a thirst for knowledge and want to learn. Watching them grow has been one of the most exciting things to date. We focus on really deep learning, training, and onboarding in the beginning followed by autonomy for the second month. During the first month, it’s important to find the “puzzle piece” what made them want to join our startup? what excites them about what we are building, what’s the hook? The second month is really a proving point, can they keep up with outpace, does the work they are doing excite them, and can they bring new fresh ideas to our meetings. This level of independence and respect has really worked with our team.

We also do fun things along the way! If you stay with me for one year you get your birthday off PTO. Year two you get a second day until ideally you’re with me for 5 years and you get the entire week of your birthday as a paid vacation.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Consciously and unconsciously. We hire the best candidate for the job. We’ve been lucky to have a very diverse team, with a founding team of two females and two males. I wish I could say I favor females to hire, or race, however, any favoritism doesn’t help the system in my eyes.

I want to build the best product and to do that we need the best team. We do however Consciously give back to more diverse areas as a public benefit corporation we give back to low-income education.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?

It’s so hard! Just the other day I had one of my employees tell me that because he’s from the west coast and I’m from the east coast there is a tone difference and attitude difference, which is hard for him to feel like he’s doing a good job. (Being from the east coast I rolled my eyes). However, it’s really important to listen and learn what your employees need. I know that when I have a manager I need them to tell me “good job” we have a few of those on our team. We also have the employees that want to hear “good job” as a pay raise or promotion, or even just an afternoon off, or email announcing it to the team.
Really listening and learning how your employee’s work will make you a better leader. I try to stress, it’s not about the hours at the desk but the work that’s getting done. So if my employee doesn’t feel well, you’re not a child you don’t have to convince me, but if you’re going to stay home your work should reflect the same respect as if you were in the office.

Advice for others?

I could fit this into every answer: TRANSPARENCY — explain it. What you are doing and why. Especially in the startup world, I think it’s really hard on employees when they have no idea what’s going on with the company, upper management, or the founders. I share my schedule, my action items, my weekly updates as well as probably too much information. But it all comes together when you’re team has a question or you need to ask for help because you were transparent there is a better understanding.

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Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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