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From Microsoft Business Management to Leading my Own Startup as a Female Founder

During Microsoft’s Global Alumni San Francisco Founders’ Day, I gained invaluable connections, tools and a unique opportunity to reflect.

I’m Co-Founder and COO of Clobotics, a computer vision tech company that offers end-to-end enterprise solutions for customers including retail, wind energy and telco. Clobotics is the first Chinese company to apply this type of machine learning to industrial sectors. Clobotics applies the technology to real-world applications using machine learning and computer vision. It’s exciting to be a part of this team as we use science and ‘engineering to solve commercial challenges in seemingly unrelated fields. We are headquartered in Shanghai but recently opened an R&D office in the Seattle area.

Founders’ Day gave me the opportunity to explore key questions like how to leverage local talent and how to overcome cultural differences. As a Chinese company, it’s easy for us to tap into Chinese talent in the US, but it’s important for us to go beyond that, with the ultimate goal of shifting from being local to international at light speed.

Finding top talent is always challenging, as is growing talent within an organization, and there is both an intellectual and an emotional level to things when it comes to people. While decisions might be “right” logically, they still might be tough emotionally. It was wonderful to hear from other startup founders, who are facing similar challenges and are focused on growing an environment of compassion in their organizations. During the discussion we joked that only startup founders would be able to feel what we feel, and the experience certainly makes us better people.

Apart from Founders’ Day, which was wonderful, Microsoft has been a huge part of my life. I worked for Microsoft for ten years and amongst other things, helped Microsoft launch and establish Microsoft Azure and Office 365 in China. Microsoft Azure is an open, flexible, enterprise-grade cloud-computing platform, and O365 is one of the best and most successful SaaS software on the planet. I had an incredible journey and received an immense amount of support while at Microsoft. During my days at Microsoft, I had the opportunity of working both in China and at HQ in Redmond. This was one of the most important times in my life. The open and respectful culture at Microsoft offered me, a girl from China, an opportunity to grow by standing on the shoulders of a tech giant. I never felt that I was treated differently because I am a woman, or because I’m not from the USA.   

Clobotics had its unofficial founder’s meeting at a local Starbucks Coffee shop. In fact this whole journey started with one simple question: “Should we try and build a business on our own?” From there came lots more questions like: “What should we do?” “Where should we focus?” and “How can we create revenue?” We didn’t have all the answers back then, but then again neither did any of today’s major tech companies. When Google or Facebook or Alibaba began, they didn’t know who they would be and they didn’t have a long-term plan, but they were dynamic. All the founders had a similar thought: were we successful because of the name “Microsoft” and the halo that goes with it? Can we do better on our own?

I founded Clobotics together with three other Microsoft Alumni and we were thrilled to be part of the Microsoft Accelerator. In the Microsoft Accelerator program, we received enormous amounts of support, opportunities, exposure and resources. And though we left our official roles at Microsoft we all still feel incredibly connected to the company and I’m extremely grateful for everything they have provided us with. I felt most connected to the Accelerator when I was given my yellow Microsoft badge. It was a new badge and this time yellow instead of my previous blue badge. This is a symbol of my growth, from an employee to a Microsoft alumni, yet still very much a part of the Microsoft ecosystem, and receiving support from Microsoft’s programs.

Being a female Co-Founder of the company is a unique experience. It provides a good balance to a seasoned founder’s team. Thanks to my partners, I feel really appreciated and able to grow together with Clobotics. There is certainly a huge opportunity for a woman with a non-technical background to be the founder of a technically driven company. It proves that the business development, operations, finance, HR and marketing roles are truly essential to the healthy growth of the company. Being a female Co-Founder also balances the chemistry of the company, takes care of the details and helps smooth things out.

Clobotics is in the enterprise products industry and when we first started people didn’t easily understand what we actually did. Today everyone understands what the Cloud is and why it’s important; people are embracing it, but this was not the case seven years ago when we tried to establish Cloud services. Everybody talked about it, but at the time it wasn’t really clear how to monetize it. Today, artificial intelligence is a hot topic and so is the term computer vision. However, developing applications and penetrating the industry will still take time. Clobotics is committed to be a long-term value service provider along this path.

I believe Microsoft Azure is an amazing foundation for AI. Things that were previously deemed impossible are now easily reachable, and this is thanks to the Cloud infrastructure built by big tech giants around the world. I feel proud to have been a part of that journey. Enterprise solutions built on the Cloud can solve real business problems and that’s where Clobotics comes in. We produce a product that packages these technologies into one end-to-end easy-to-use solution that integrates into daily business operations. Clobotics was born in the cloud, and we can scale our business worldwide through the cloud.

It has been an amazing journey so far and I feel we have achieved so much! My three main insights from this journey are:

1. Find the right partners. Without the right people we couldn’t be where we are today. Having three co-founders on board who I trust completely makes this whole journey worthwhile. We have different strengths and weaknesses and the success of Clobotics definitely comes from pooling our talent.

2. Hire the best talent possible. We were lucky and had great employees from the beginning. Hiring the right people will allow to you grow the company as fast as you need. Hiring is a slow and energy intensive process but ultimately it will save you time and let you grow.

3. Having a supportive family is incredible important. I’m lucky to have an extremely supportive family. They don’t question my decisions but I can share my concerns and discuss issues with them openly.

Get to know Claire Chen, Co-Founder & COO of Clobotics