What happens when a good girl from Queens starts traveling and realizes that corporate America just ain’t gonna cut it? I had the excellent opportunity to chat with Lisa Besserman – Director of Operations for the mobile app development company AirKast and former good girl – about her journey away from the road well traveled, why women are rocking the startup world, and a harrowing tale of being kidnapped in India.
AirKast is a mobile app development company. We’re a startup; we’ve been around for about six years now. What we do is develop mobile apps across three platforms: iPhone, Blackberry, and Android. We create apps for big media and broadcasting companies. We do ESPN, Disney, Univision, 90% of the radio groups in North America. We’re working on CBS, Fox Sports… So, we do a lot of mainstream large media and broadcasting companies.
Okay, so the idea is that you develop apps for them?
Yeah, we have a templated system. We do custom apps as well as templated apps, mostly radio or audio streams. These companies will come to us and say, “We want an app. This is what we want to include.” We’ll take the graphics, we’ll take the audios streams, we’ll take the content and then we’ll actually create a mobile app across all three platforms.
And what exactly do you do?
My role there is Director of Operations. I lead the engineering and production teams and I’m the face of the company to all of the clients as well as the voice of the clients to the company. I’m the intermediary between client relations and engineering and production teams.
What did you study? How did you end up in that position?
I studied international business. I had intentions of going the corporate America route where I would work my life away, hate my job but make a shitload of money and live off of that. That was my essential American Dream at the time.
Then I backpacked Europe right after I graduated college and I realize that corporate America just wasn’t for me. So I thought, “How can I legitimize traveling and seeing the world but at the same time not be a vagabond and have a lot on my resume?”
I decided to look for jobs in Japan. I got a teaching job there, about an hour outside of Tokyo. I realized teaching wasn’t for me, but I really, really love the international workspace so I started doing sales and marketing for the same company.
Then I did some freelance marketing work for a fashion startup down there. That’s when I was exposed to the startup world and I love everything about it and I realized that corporate America just was never going to cut it for my life.
After that I can back to America and did travel writing for a bit, which was great but didn’t play the bills, unfortunately. Then I got connected with this current company two years ago through a recruiter.
When I heard about the company, I was in love with it. The clients are established companies but we also have the startup culture as a part of our company. I always like to be interfacing with people on a day to day basis, so having that client role is really great for me.
At the same time I’ve always wanted to be in a creative industry but I never had the background for it because I was always business-centric, so being part of this company was very advantageous for what I wanted to do, as it merged the creative side and the tech side (which I now love) and the client side.
So the tech stuff is something you’ve learned along the way.
Yeah, I had absolutely no tech background whatsoever. But anyone working for a startup will tell you that in order for you to succeed and in order for your company to grow, you have to wear many, many hats. While my role didn’t start off involving any tech, now it does. I do a lot of testing for applications, I do a lot of submissions into the app stores. We recently launched a client dashboard that links with the servers so I do a lot of training for the server as well as make any edits to existing applications.
So, for example, if the stream source URL is changing, I can go into our system and change those on the fly. I now have the ability to makes those changes, which is really, really spectacular because I never had a tech background.
I think that’s really, really cool. I love that you were able to make that transition.
What I really love about it is the industry itself. The tech industry is always promoting innovation, evolution, and there are always so many new and spectacular things developing.
Mobile, specifically, is a wonderful aspect of tech. We’ve only just begun to see what mobile is capable of. Everyone associates mobile with cellphones but in the next five or ten years we’re going to see mobile take the form of so many things. Think, for example, of the Google Glasses that are coming out or something as crazy as contact lenses that connect to the internet or something even crazier, like nano chips embedded into our skin.
I know it sounds farfetched, but it’s really not so far away as far as all of the development that’s coming out with technology and mobile specifically.
Whether a large corporation or small start-up, mobile is such an essential factor for growth these days. As a freelance consultant, I’ve been fortunate to help various companies integrate a mobile framework into their operations for increased performance, user experience and revenue generation.
The evolution of mobile will only continue to increase and I am happy to be in a position help companies (especially start-ups) manage and profit from that imminent growth.
Even videochatting seemed so far away, as recently as 10 years ago. That’s the example I always like to give: I remember watching Star Trek as a kid and thinking, “Oh my God! They can see each other when they talk on the phone? That’s crazy! That would never be possible!”
One of the things I really like about the emergence of mobile in our world is the effect on globalization. I’ve always loved traveling, but with mobile it’s all become possible. Anyone can conduct a meeting in the Swiss Alps or run a video conference from the beaches of Bali. It doesn’t matter where you are anymore, as long as you’re connected. It really opens up the world and allows people to have connections with countries and cultures and other companies that they wouldn’t other have access to.
I think this helps people personally, it helps them professionally, and it also give companies and people a global perspective on what else is out there in the world on so many different levels.
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. Obviously you’re a woman in tech and I guess I’m kind of a woman in the tech field. Where do you see women really dominating the industry right now?
Well, I think right now we’re at a really interesting point where there are certain women in tech who are really gaining a lot of momentum. I’m thinking of the Sheryl Sandbergs, the Marisa Meyers, the future Emmas and Lisas out there.
We’re seeing women take a stronger leadership role in tech. I believe I read a statistic that said that the tech industry is made up of 80% men and 20% women. The thing for me is that men and women use different parts of their brains. I think that the part of the brain that women use allows us to forecast and prepare, whereas men think more in the now.
Therefore, if a problem arises, men are programmed to fix that problem right here, right now; this is in tech and in life. Whereas women, we have more of an ability to forecast: see where problems could potentially arise before they actually do and we’re able to combat that based on how we think and react. I think that’s especially important in the field of technology because technology is a very unstable environment. Something could go wrong and you don’t even know and it could have an effect that could really hinder a big company or be very detrimental to the success of a company just based on coding or some sort of a script that goes wrong.
I think that’s really important and that’s why we’re seeing a lot more women leaders in tech. Maybe not as many developers and engineers, but we are seeing a lot of CEOs and COOs and Directors of Operations. I think that’s really important because we’re able to nurture relationship and form relationships, but at the same time we’re able to combat huge problems and issues just based on how we think and how we are as women. I think that’s really important for any company’s success: a strong female leader on board to help with their growth and their potential.
That makes a lot of sense to me and explains a bit more why we’re seeing more and more women enter what is, traditionally, a male field. Startup culture is different from tech culture, right? Tech culture is about coding and computers and, traditionally, you don’t really have to deal with people.
There’s also the sense that women are natural nurturers. We like to cultivate relationships long term. It’s just how we are; it’s programmed into our DNA to extent.
I think when it comes to being in the startup industry, having the longevity and having the longterm, strengthening relationships or the nurturing relationships or making new connections are really important. It’s all about the relationships and the relationships you form, whether it’s with your employees, your colleagues, potential investors, or potential collaborations. A lot of it has to do with interpersonal relations and that’s something we, as women, have always had the ability to do.
Or, at least, I think it’s partly that we’ve had the ability and partly that we’ve been trained to do that.
That’s true, yes, absolutely.
So, total change of topic again, but I know you’ve travelled quite a bit. Any great stories for us?
Oh yeah, I have a whole bunch!
I actually had a situation in Nepal. It was a Buddhist holiday and I was living with the monks. There was going to be five days with no classes, no electricity, no internet, no running water so I figured I might as well go somewhere.
So, without telling anyone – by which I mean my friends and family living back home who knew I would be disconnected because I was living in a monastery – I bought a ticket and decided to go to India for a long weekend. You know, just to eat some curry, see the Taj Mahal, take a couple pictures, and then come back to Nepal.
When I arrived to Delhi I took a bus from Delhi to Agra. I got taken off the bus and essentially was kidnapped for a whole day. I was held against my will, which was pretty scary because they threatened me with knives and I was in the middle of nowhere in India and nobody knew where I was, so they totally could have killed me.
It wound up being this big scam that’s worth mentioning just in case people go to India and the same thing happens to them. Essentially some locals will get a commission from shop owners for bringing in foreigners to their shops, whether they buy anything or not. For each foreigner that they bring in to each shop, they’ll get a few rupees here and there.
So what these people did is, they targeted me as a foreigner on the bus. I was the only foreigner, by myself, traveling. They took me off the bus in this town in the middle of nowhere between Delhi and Agra and they threatened my life with weapons and made me go into all these shops.
It sounds silly because it’s like, yeah, I got kidnapped and I had to go shopping but it was very real. I had to go to all these shops against my will, all day. It could have been a lot worse and definitely towards the end it was a bit comedic, like when you put it into perspective and think about what could have happened.
That is so bizarre, Lisa.
It is so bizarre. And the funniest part is they put me back on the bus, so I did get to see the Taj Mahal, which was great. But then I was sitting on the bus and waiting to go back to Delhi and the guy comes back on. I was like, oh shit, he’s back.
Then he asked me for a tip. He was like, “We took you all around India, do you have a tip for us?”
I was like, you have got to be kidding me. Here’s my tip for you: don’t kidnap foreigners and make them go into shops with you and expect a tip.
Lisa and I went on to chat about her further adventures in Thailand, where she happened upon some Muay Thai boxers and thought, “Hey, I could totally do that. Plus, I just got kidnapped so maybe I should learn some self-defense moves.” What she thought was going to be a few days (maybe a week) of training turned into a couple months of learning how to kick ass and competing with professional fighters from around the world.
Basically, Lisa’s a badass and she definitely earns the badge of Rising Startup Star To Keep An Eye On!