Boston Speaks Up is a multi-platform storytelling series from Fabric Media documenting the civic leaders, entrepreneurs, creators, innovators and artists with connections to Boston. Find the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play and SoundCloud.
Katie Hall graduated from Wellesley College in 1984 as one of only five physics majors in her class. She has since spent her career championing women in technology and bringing diversity to the C-suite.
Currently, Hall is the chief intellectual property officer at Ciprun Global, a company that aims to make it efficient and cost-effective for U.S. organizations to secure IP protection in the Chinese market. Simultaneously, Hall is a distinguished lecturer of physics at her alma mater, Wellesley College. She is passionate about showing the value of mentorship by mentoring students in and out of the classroom. Hall is set to become the faculty advisor of Posse, where she will have the chance to train a diverse group of high school students on leadership skills that will help them their whole lives. She is a strong believer in proactively identifying and breaking down the barriers in business that prevent diverse, minority populations from rising to the top.
Enjoy our pre-podcast written Q&A below.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, mostly Westborough, Massachusetts.
How would you sum up your childhood? I am the oldest of six kids, so I’ve had a lot of responsibility since I was young. I always felt like I was supposed to try to set a good example for my siblings. At the same time, I had a lot of freedom. My mom pretty much encouraged us to do what we wanted to do, but it was up to us to do the work or make the money we needed to make things happen.
What most inspired your career in technology? I didn’t take physics in high school so when I got to college and had to fulfill a distribution requirement, I decided to give it a try. I absolutely loved it from day one. Understanding why things behave the way they do and finding an endless source of puzzles that need to be solved hooked me. I also love the adventure of science and the fact that I might see or discover something no one has ever seen or understood before, and I don’t have to travel to outer space or the bottom of the ocean to do it.
What are the different challenges you face in your role at Ciprun Global and teaching at Wellesley College? Teaching at Wellesley College is all about helping students think critically and demand evidence, and of course to understand topics in physics and what it’s like to pursue a career in science. I spend a lot of time trying to present complicated topics into relatable ways, but I never have to worry that my students won’t listen to what I have to say or be motivated to learn more. In business, however, and not just at Ciprun Global, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what kinds of products and services we can offer to help others develop their businesses, but I can’t count on the fact that customers will be interested in what I come up with. I have to be ready to sell and market my ideas and to adjust them if they are not of interest to people.
What would you like to say to business owners about hiring more diverse employees? If you do not have an employee pool that is as diverse as the society we live in then not only are you are missing out on top talent but you are also missing out on the kind of creativity and fresh thinking that comes from people with different experiences and training sitting down and working together to solve a problem. I’ve often heard companies say they want people who will think outside the box. To me, the box is created when your team is not diverse and you get similar solutions from everyone because they have similar experiences, intuition and training to approach problems in similar ways. If you work with diverse groups of people, you won’t have a box that you have to think outside of.
Who’s been the most inspiring figure in your life? I would have to say my mom because she has always believed in me and taught me that if I work hard enough and don’t give up that I can achieve whatever I set out to do.
What advice do you give students that are unsure about what they wish to do in life? I always encourage students to follow their heart and their gut because that is where your passion lies. If they don’t yet know where their passion lies, then I encourage them to start sampling as many experiences as they can. Take different courses, attend different lectures, look for different summer experiences and just keep changing it up until something hooks them the way physics hooked me all those years ago.
What is one area you wish the tech industry and education would work more on together? People who succeed in the tech industry know that a lot of learning is from trial and error and then trying again. Students tend to think failure is fatal and must be avoided or hidden at all costs. If students could spend more time in real world tech settings and see that failure is a natural part of the process, I think they would be less afraid to fail themselves and would not only take more risks, but would not take themselves out of the tech game because they think they are not good enough. On the flip side, students are very good at asking questions that cut through the many assumptions that are built into they way we talk and think about technical problems, and serious consideration of their questions could help tech companies identify fundamental problems that will eventually be exposed.
What have you learned from your time teaching that makes you a better C-suite executive? I like to think that teaching has taught me to be a better listener. My mind moves quickly and sometimes I start trying to think of an answer before a person has finished asking me a question. But then I don’t really consider the full expanse of their question and I may be missing very important points about where their confusion lies, or what it is they think needs changing. I am trying to be a better listener in my business roles as well.
What have you learned from your time being a global C-suite executive that makes you a better professor? People are generally very busy and have lots of ways to spend their time. If someone agrees to a meeting with me to hear about my company or the services I am interested in providing them, I should be ready to do that in a succinct and impactful way and not waste their time. In that same way, I try to make sure my students see the value in what I am teaching them and I try to make every moment we spend in class worthwhile, because I know they have many topics competing for their interest and consideration.
Your work as a Chief Intellectual Properties Officer has you working in an international capacity. What challenges do you face that are different from working only in the US? I think the biggest challenge we face at Ciprun Global is one of perception, because many people and companies in the US have preconceived notions about the value of intellectual property in China. The world is not static and things change and if we hold on to old perceptions then we risk being left behind when the seas change.
Who are women in Boston tech that the community should be more aware of? The women that have been on my mind most recently are the MIT professors who sent a letter to the President of MIT demanding accountability for MIT taking money from Jeffery Epstein even after he was a convicted sex offender. It takes guts to speak truth to power and often there are negative consequences, but I admire people who are brave when it comes to their moral convictions.
What message do you have for diverse minorities about getting into the tech industry? Don’t take yourself out of the game. We have all heard about the “old boys network” and can look at the leadership pages of countless high tech companies to see the lack of diversity, but we should not accept the status quo. Just because someone like you hasn’t succeeded at a particular company yet does not mean someone like you never will. No company is perfect or has the exact talent they need and that might be you, so go for it. Work hard, be yourself and stay true to your values and slowly but surely the network will be open to all.