Ann Marie Sastry | CEO & Founder
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Hi, welcome to the Catalyst podcast. I am Andrea Lechner-Becker, CMO at LeadMD and your host for this episode with Ann Marie from Amesite. Tell all of our listeners a little bit about you and Amesite, and then we’ll dig into how you got started and all of those good things in a little bit.
Ann Marie Sastry:
Well, where to begin. I am an entrepreneur. I used to be a professor. I was a professor for a long time. I’m an engineer by training and I love to build things. I love to build people and companies and ideas. And very excited about what we’re doing right now at Amesite. This is the second company I’ve started and the first one was also during a recession. That one was called Sakti3, and prior to that I was a professor and I taught lots and lots of thousands of students over the years. Some of them still call me on my birthday, which is very nice.
That is very nice. I don’t think I know a single one of my professors’ birthdays.
I’ve had a lot of them so they can take turns.
And so there has to be an interesting story there. How do you decide to go from professor to CEO, founder? Talk to me.
I was a faculty brat. My dad was a math professor and I grew up around the university as my dad’s sidekick and teaching always came naturally to me, but it wasn’t just the teaching. It was about being around ideas, being around people who are always doing things, always challenging convention, challenging conventional thinking. It was actually a pretty smooth segue from graduate school. I did a year at Sandia National Labs as a coder. I coded out of the big Cray, the Department of Energy. And then I was recruited in Michigan to be a faculty member there. And so there were many things that were great fun about the university. The students were great fun. Great fun to get a chance to grow people and mentor people and see people really blossom. And then of course the world of ideas, getting able to work on whatever
As long as you can figure out how to get a grant in the area, you can work on whatever you want when you have a PhD, which was wonderful. And I got to work in bioscience and polymer processing, complex variables, percolation statistics, all kinds of different subjects, including batteries. And I got to start a couple of research centers. I was in a very good university and great colleagues, very well treated. Started one research center in bioscience, in intracellular signaling, and another in cleantech in clean drive vehicles, batteries, power electronics, electric machines and the like. And then I also started a large global graduate program. And that was, I started the graduate program because at that time, sort of like now there was a talent gap. There was a skills gap that some of the technologies were ready to go, but there weren’t enough people to execute on them.
And so around that time, about 10 years ago, General Motors was building the Volt and they needed more people. They needed to train more people on batteries and power electronics, electricity. I started a large global graduate program and they put 250 engineers through it. And we took that thing all over the planet. And then I also started a company because the reason I started the company was that the technology was the missing piece. There was this potential to do solid state batteries with no liquid electrolyte, but the only batteries that existed in solid state format were really research batteries and they weren’t very high energy density. I looked at that problem and thought, oh, I want to work on solid state batteries, but I didn’t want to look at it through the lens of a professor.
I didn’t want to look at it just to write papers about it or characterize it or study it. I actually wanted to get them out there because I’m a big electric vehicle fan and always have been. I thought the right mechanism was a company on that one, because you could raise enough money to do the proper work of inventing it and scaling it up rather. Would have been far too expensive to do it as a university project. And then from there, I did both jobs for a few years. I was the CEO of my company Sakti3 and also a chaired professor at Michigan in mechanical biomedical material science and engineering. And then ultimately I decided to leave the university. They were pretty surprised because most of the time, people just do leaves of absence or the professors over at a company or whatever. But I didn’t want to be that professor. I wanted to really just focus on the company. And I felt that that was a better use for me. Then I built up that business and ultimately sold it and then started another company.
Got it. I’m going to be honest. I understood about half of the words that you used because you’re so smart at something I know nothing about. And so what’s interesting to me is, a lot of our listeners are marketers and marketing leaders. And what struck me as you were talking is what a just obviously different discipline that idea is.
I think the word you’re looking for is nerd. That’s fair.
You’re just in a really different discipline. But I think, how did you go about sort of sizing the market, actually starting to sell this product? Was that mostly you in the beginning too? Or did you find people who could help you with that?
Yeah. First off, thank you for the compliment. Everybody sounds smarter at the thing they’ve been doing for decades. Been doing it a long time, but I’ll try to break it down so that people can follow along just like they do for me when I’m outside of my field. Sakti3 was an R and D company and so I built that company really for one reason, it was just to get solid state batteries into cars. And it was this completely whack idea. Solid state batteries were just in the lab and they were completely unscalable and terrible and had terrible energy density. It was just a concept. But I had this thought because a friend of mine who was running another research center at Michigan called me and said, “Sastry, we need a battery that’s about this big and we’re building this micro gas chromatograph.” Which is this little instrument that senses the air and analyzes chemicals and things.
I was like, okay, well, I said, “Why don’t you go to Radio Shack. That should work.” It was like, no, no, no, no, it’s really hard because little batteries are terrible. Okay. I started to look at this and it started percolating with me that if we took the liquid out of the battery, we could actually achieve very high energy density. And so my former student and then colleague Chia-Wei Wang and I worked out some calculations on that and it turned out that it was promising and that was really the genesis of Sakti3. What we did with that company was we demonstrated the solid state batteries. We filed a 100 patents on it, and we eventually were acquired by another company called Dyson who wanted to build an electric vehicle. And so that was pretty exciting because that was like completing an arc sort of that, merging the business into a big manufacturing company was an excellent coda to that experience.
And I stayed on for a couple of years as a leader in that business. But again, I felt itchy and felt like it wasn’t necessarily my best use. And meanwhile, I was observing that education technology was terrible and hadn’t gotten any better since I ran my graduate program. I thought, okay, well I’ve done technology and I’m pretty handy with mathematics and I’ve been a coder and so I should be able to use my skills to maybe address something in the marketplace that literally affects everybody on the planet. I love big problems. And I tend to think that even if you make a little bit of progress on a big problem, it’s better than really killing it on something that doesn’t matter. If you’re going to face plant, face plant on something big.
And so far so good. Amesite, we’re doing educational software, we’re helping people be more accessible, but I think I’m kind of driven by this set of, I have a peculiar persistence. And I think that marries well with kind of impossible or very difficult problems. And that’s where I’m happiest. I like to look for those problems in society. Try to help out.
I see. And so talk to me a little bit, obviously the title of this podcast is Catalyst. And so we’re always looking to kind of define catalysts and define early markings of catalysts, leading indicators. When you think of a catalyst, either yourself as a catalyst or even people throughout your career, what kind of makes them stand out to you?
They’re the people that the herd is going this way and they’re doing this. They’re the people who, as one of my old professors used say, “Are the turd in the punchbowl.” That everybody thinks one way about things and they’re writing the paper or they’re made in making the statement that challenges this. The catalyst person is the person in the audience that when they say, “Do you have any questions?” Or when the audience is asked the question says, “No, wrong question. You should be asking this.” The people who are a little orthogonal. And I think that most of the world notices the big challenges through people who are catalysts. It’s one thing to sort of look at a landscape and say, “Well, this is perfect. And the market is doing this and this. And obviously we need a $10 billion company here.”
Hardly anybody thinks that way. Most people are inspired by people saying, “Well, why are we doing it this way? Well, why don’t we just go over here and do this?” And so I’ve been inspired by lots of people like that. My dad was the biggest one. I was his sidekick. He took me to the university and when I was a little kid and gave me the key to the faculty elevator and I would ride up and down the elevator and he would take me to class and show me how to do a little calculus and then say, “See, my six year old could do this.” Needed bait so it was a little bit parlor trick, a little bit sidekick, a 100% fun. And I hung around at the university. I hung around with people who were doing interesting stuff.
My science fair project in whatever, sixth grade was out of holograms for heaven’s sakes. Because one of my friends was my dad’s friend’s was a physics professor and showed me how to do it. I loved that environment. And I saw each of these individuals is a catalyst in their own field, but also to their students and to people like me that they mentored. And I always wanted to be like that. I always wanted to be the person that people look at and go, “Wow, I think I can do this.” Or maybe I’ll do something more interesting and more difficult with my life or with my energy or whatever I can bring to it. I always really admired that.
And so obviously you have a ton of students that you’ve mentored and taught along the way and people in your professional career too. What do you say to them when they get disgruntled? Because I think you labeled yourself as a peculiar persistence. Having individuals without so much persistence, what do you kind of say? Because I feel like, as I continue to grow in my professional career, I see certainly there are the wow people that stand out, but I feel like a lot of people who probably in their youth were extremely eager and they had ideas get beaten down by the world and people tell them no, and they lose some of their persistence. What do you tell them?
That’s a great question. First off, I think you’re right. I think that people do get beaten down by the system. And I think that happens when they accept the system’s point of view on what they should be doing instead of going into every situation and saying, “How am I going to be my best self? How am I going to affect the greatest and most positive change? What do I expect from myself today?” And I think it’s a lot of blocking and tackling to carve out an interesting life and an interesting career. My husband says, I don’t have a career, I have a series of missions, which is probably true. But I think it’s blocking and tackling mostly. It’s not, oh, I feel like a superstar today, or I’ll just fasten on my cape and then I’ll go to the next thing.
It’s not like that. It’s you get up in the morning, you put on a clean shirt and polish your shoes and you do the job. And so that’s most of my advice to people is when you go into a situation, decide who you want to be to other people. And do you want to be relatable? Or do you want to be aspirational? I think most people, when they think about it and give it some thought would rather be aspirational. They’d rather walk into a room and when they leave the room, have people feel more motivated, more inspired, more apt to do good things. I think that most people want good things in the world. And I’m obviously a crazy optimist, but I think that’s true. I think tapping into that is important rather than letting situations judge you, you judge you and you be aspirational. You decide what you want. If that helps.
Yeah. I love that. And so let’s go back to 2008 when you needed probably a lot of grit, determination, optimism. Talk to me about the struggles of growing a company, starting a company during the last recession.
Yeah, that was a time. I would, my husband would say, “Well, how did it go today?” And I’d say, “Well, there’s still a 100 things that could kill us tomorrow.” We might make it tomorrow, 100 things that could kill us. Like I say, I’m persistent. In the science and the technology, which is really personally fun for me, there’s always another hill to climb. There’s always a reason to celebrate and you can even celebrate a negative result because you don’t have to work on that part anymore. You go figure out another way downtown. Science and technology never disappoints. Whatever’s happening with the economy, there’s always some great science or technology problem to me.
And I think designers feel the same about what they do and great salespeople feel the same about what they do. There’s always another great design. There’s always another great UX. There’s always another great sale. There’s always, for that part of you that’s your bliss, it’s really independent of the economy. In the economy, that’s a big set of exogenous factors though. When I was fundraising in the second year of my first startup, I remember walking through Detroit Metro Airport and a major battery company in Michigan where I lived had gone very publicly bankrupt. Just blew up. And I was a battery company, a little tiny battery company in Michigan. Oh no, I was on a fundraising trip and on the jumbo screen was this gigantic bankruptcy. And I was like, well, should I? Yeah, I guess I got to go do the trip.
And I remember I visited, I went to the Sand Hill Road and I was trying to fundraise. And one VC came into the lobby and I was there and he said, “Well, hey, Ann Marie, nice to see you. Glad you caught me now. The partners really aren’t into batteries right now.” It’s like, oh, okay. Because I’m really into batteries. Oh, that’s maybe not the best fit. And he goes, “Well, if you want to present and go ahead, that’s okay. But I just thought I should tell you, because we’re friends. There’s just not into batteries.” Okay. I gave the presentation like I always do. And it’s just, I thought to myself at the time, this is going to be a great story someday so here we are. But everybody is going to have experiences like that.
I think another piece of advice that people I have mentored and coached found helpful is don’t lose your sense of humor. Find your sense of humor. And when you feel like putting arms akimbo and stick your lower lip out, don’t. Laugh. Usually the situation, if it’s horrifying enough is actually funny. Find your sense of humor, pull up your socks and keep going.
I love that. And so now another recession, another startup. Same advice? Different advice? What are you reflecting back on as you go into this probably again? What are you sort of focused the most on?
I feel that same vigor. Because it’s a huge problem that needs solving and you kind of get, you go, by gum, it’s us. It’s us. And yeah, it’s us. And it’s great because for this one, for the last one, the last recession and the company that I started was in cleantech and of course cleantech blew up –– 20 or 30 battery companies went bankrupt. It was a bloodbath. And we managed to make a success out of that. And we were very fortunate. You learn some things from an experience like that. My personal feeling is that if you want to have a happy life, don’t have any sense of schadenfreude. Don’t rejoice in other people’s misery. When I look back at that era, a lot of very, very, very smart people of tremendous goodwill got unlucky or for whatever reason factors piled up and they weren’t able to execute or weren’t able to pull it through the chute.
And so, remember to feel lucky and that still stays with me now. Now, we’re in a pandemic and I started an online learning company when a 100% of the world is learning from home. It kind of feels necessary. But again, every day I spend significant time with people who are dejected and beaten down and don’t have the tools they need to do their job and are trying to reconfigure to the new normal or the new abnormal. Keeping that sense of optimism and keeping that sense of mission is very important. And frankly, keeping that sense of feeling lucky. I feel like I’m the luckiest woman on the planet.
How lucky is that to identify a problem and then all of a sudden, the world says, “Wow, this is an important problem.” It’s like, oh, I guess I’m working a 100 hours this week. But that’s better than being bored. I’d much rather be on the side of things involved intensely in something that matters rather than kicking back. It’s just not who I am. And I think not who most entrepreneurs are. If you want to start a business, that is, you want to be kicking it every day.
Yeah. And you kind of mentioned there that you talked to, I assume your customers, or maybe your prospects. Walk me through like a day in the life of Ann Marie. What are you up to? What are you focused on?
Wow. Every day is different. They’re packed. It’s all good stuff. I am fortunate to be surrounded by very positive people who are attracted by the mission. Very conscientious, very positive team. I think that as a team, when we have a demo or we meet with prospective customers or we meet with regulators or we meet with people from the government or whomever, I do think that our team has a tendency to make people happier at the end of the meeting than they were at the beginning. And that’s actually a good goal. We do try to do that. I do a little bit of media, like now. Talk to people and try to give some useful advice or just maybe have people waste some time listening to an old scarred lady. And then I spend a lot of time trying to coach and mentor and develop the talents of the people I work with. That is very important to me.
I also, in whatever you’d call my spare time, I read a lot and I try to look for best practices and ways to short circuit big systems to deliver better experiences. That’s important to me. I’ve always been a believer that people should have full lives outside the workplace, but the workplace can be humane. And my last company won six or seven workplace excellence awards, and this company has already won two workplace excellence awards. And I’m very proud of that.
And so I try to coach and mentor people because the culture matters a lot more than having a meeting with me. A meeting with me is only useful if after the meeting, somebody has a new skill or a new insight that they can go be a leader of the business. I’m there less than 1% of the meetings at the company, obviously. It’s much more important that in every single engagement I have, that I’m showing people how to do things, giving some of my experience, giving some coaching, giving some feedback, inspiring people so they can go be leaders in the business. And that’s probably a good chunk of my time right there. And then of course we do some tech too.
How do you effectively communicate your vision and what’s important to you?
Very straight up, I’m very transparent, very straight up. My last company, I did this at this company, I do this every morning I have an all hands Monday morning and it’s Monday morning sprint Amesite. And I go through the big three. Pick the three topics that either are big exogenous factors that are affecting the business or key observations that will affect all of the teams or things that I see happening on staff that I want to highlight. And then I try to use some examples of how that concept is working around the business. And I invite people to make their own comment. And I’m a pain. I’m a pain in the neck because I used to be a professor so I just wait until everybody says something. But that’s actually super important because having people parrot what you say is completely useless. It’s pointless.
A concept only matters if people can translate it into their experience and then go explain it to someone else. I put things in Ann Marie’s, you’ll put things in an Andrea E’s and whatever. And we’ll say, “Okay, the theme, one of the themes I’m talking about this week is how we communicate remotely and the channels we’re using. And here’s what I’ve seen. And here’s what I see UX doing. And here’s what I see software doing. And here’s what I see sales doing. And here’s where I think that we can be more effective. And so I’d like your thoughts on that. Or I’d like to see if you’re seeing the same things I’m seeing.” And then the meeting has value because afterward it becomes important to a particular person or a particular team. But just listening to a leader drone on is not helpful. I try not to do that too much.
That sounds like a good idea. How much do, totally off script now, but I can’t help it because I’m curious, how much do you talk to customers directly? Or how much do you make people like your UX team well your UX team I’m sure talks to customers all the time, but your engineers or people that aren’t typically customer facing, how important is that to you?
It’s really important. It’s really important. The market votes last. It’s really important. You can have this idea of some beautiful experience you want somebody to have, but then you ask them and they might not like it. People, right? You have to, it’s crucially important not to live too much in your own head. You have to talk to people, you have to get insights. I try to always swim the first lap for my teams. I try to always be at that first meeting and provide steady support and provide the vision and ask semi intelligent questions of the other people in the meeting to set the stage. And then I always am in meetings that are first of a kind that way, because you it’s too high pressure to do that to other people in a new business. And the CEO always has to be there and that’s just the way it is.
But then as quickly as possible, as people on team figure out how to do things, whether it’s execute a particular kind of ad campaign, or whether it’s just execute a particular kind of UX in K12 schools or whether its execute modularity in a section the code, then my coaching is always as soon as you know how to do it, teach it to somebody else. In a growth organization, as soon as you know how to do something, that’s great, good job, gold star, but it’s really great if you can show somebody else how to do it, then you can grow and they can grow. And so I like growth over comfort kinds of organizations. Now that doesn’t work for everything. But I think it works for nearly a 100% of startups that, if you’re really wanting to build a business, if you have this hard to get but very worthwhile mentoring culture, it’s amazing. It’s magic.
Love that. And speaking of when you started or growing your current organization, how do you start? How do you find the people that will help you at different stages of growth and you might call them catalysts or not?
Attitude? Certainly there’s some price of entry to every job. It may or may not be a college degree. It may or may not be a PhD. It may be four years of a postdoc. My last company, solid state batteries, the price of entry is probably eight years of education plus some scientific experience, some lab experience. And so the group that was really ready to come in and execute is relatively small. In that kind of a situation, sometimes you work with search firms. Sometimes you work with university networks, you use the usual channels, platforms and so forth. For this one, it’s a bit different. People can become proficient coders generally with a degree in computer science, but sometimes not. Sometimes people who’ve been to a code camp can be super helpful and super high performing and they can learn fast.
Again, the culture is actually more important than the individual credentials of people you’ll be able to bring in because if your own team has an attitude of everybody we can bring in, we’re going to invest in and we’re going to try to get them to the next level. That’s very powerful. That’s more powerful than missing three lines on a resume. But basically what I look for first, attitude. Attitude, is it a deal maker or deal breaker. And you can to some extent and inspire people, but that click, whether they really click with your mission and whether they find that part of themselves that really wants to be conscientious, really wants to be part of a high performing sports team, that’s either there or it’s not. Generally.
So important. The other question that I have is relating to your university experience and obviously your first startup was birthed out of the work that you were doing there. Do you think more entrepreneurs are, or should be looking I guess, at universities for what they’re doing to start businesses? Or what’s your stance there?
Yeah. I’ve had a lot of experience with this because like you said, my first company was a spin out of my own lab and then I’ve served on committees and councils around the country, trying to help universities figure out how do we improve what they call tech transfer or business engagement or whatever the moniker is. And it’s difficult because they’re really, really, really different worlds. If you talk to a faculty member and you say, “Okay, what is it that is important to you about this?” Yeah, 99% of faculty members will say, “I want to write the greatest paper about this. Oh, this is going to make a great paper.” And that is crucially important because any business is reliant on a body of work, on a body of literature, on papers that scholars have written that puts some facts out there and are in the public good.
None of us could exist without it. It’s vitally important. It’s completely different to what entrepreneurs do. Entrepreneurs say, “Well, I look at this and I want this thing to exist and I want to write about it. I want this thing to exist and I want to put together the pieces so this thing exists and people buy it for money and then we can grow and we can do more of the thing.” It’s completely different. Sometimes I think there are communication challenges between the commercial world and the university and the approach. I think that what I’ve seen is our best practices in looking at universities are really talking to individual faculty, first off. If you Google your subject matter and you say “Okay, who are the leading thinkers in this area?” Shoot them an email. The worst thing they can do is not answer or tell you to buzz off. Who cares.
There are probably going to be a few hundred people on planet Earth, no matter how narrow your discipline, that really know the subject matter. Make friends. Bring them in as advisors, consultants. Ask them if they have any students graduating soon. That’s actually, it’s a talent conveyor belt. A university is a talent conveyor belt. Forming those kinds of partnerships with actual human beings is important. And then of course working with whatever offices they have. There’ll be an office of tech transfer. There’ll be an office of business engagement or what have you. And so understanding that, and they can often be helpful in making those introductions. But yeah, I think it’s vitally important to try to go find what is fundamental about your business and what the best distillate of understanding is and go engage with that group.
I love that advice. Well, we’re about to wrap up. I feel like you prepared diligently for this interview. Is there anything that you prepared that we didn’t touch on that you feel like it would just be a shame not to mention?
No, I think you should ask me whatever awkward question you want. I just think it’s fun to help people. And I benefited a lot from the senior people in my professions, in academia and in industry who came and gave seminars and told the truth and said, “Yeah, it was really hard. And sometimes this sucks,” and whatever. And I’ve benefited greatly from that. I try to do that. I try to answer those questions that nobody wants to ask and try to fuck people up a little bit. Anything else you want to ask, you’re welcome.
Well, I think that’s a great lead into the end, which is if people want your mentorship and your ideas and to bounce anything off of you, how should they reach you?
You could always LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn. LinkedIn may send me a message. I’m pretty low key so just send me a message and if I can’t get to you, I try to get you later. But sometimes I also, when I get asked to do stuff, if I can’t do it, I give the names of four or five colleagues and friends who would be good at it and try to make those connections. And that’s always advice I give too. Always be building out your network and always be a positive force.
I love that. Well, thank you so much, Ann Marie, for joining us.
Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Catalyst podcast. You can find us on iTunes. You can subscribe there or you can find us at leadmd.combestpractices. And you can check out all of the videos that we have here. There’s a category called video and you’ll find us. There’s also a category called podcasts. You’ll find us there too. Just come on over, subscribe to our content. We have good stuff. We try to entertain and educate around marketing, sales, business entrepreneurship. Oh my gosh, the things we talk about. Come join us and have fun.
Andrea Lechner-Becker’s bio reads like someone who filled out a what-should-I-be-when-I-grow-up quiz and decided to try every option. Fueled by endless curiosity, Andrea has never met a problem she didn’t want to solve. This led her to managing sales and marketing at an art gallery, then loyalty and email marketing strategy for an NBA team and arena, then the delivery team at LeadMD, followed by a stint as a novelist and culminating with her current role as CMO of LeadMD. With a decade of experience in dynamic marketing roles, Andrea has had the opportunity to work with the most brilliant marketing minds at the best companies in the world. #hugemarketingdork
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