Allison Lami Sawyer – CEO of Rebellion Photonics

Make a list, prioritize, delegate, delegate, delegate. It’s so important to trust your people.

Allison Lami Sawyer is the CEO and co-founder of Rebellion Photonics, an advanced optics company spun out of Rice University in 2009. Rebellion Photonics is commercializing its unique snapshot hyperspectral imaging technology that’s used for chemical imaging video cameras for industries such as safety, defense, and biological research.

In 2012, the company launched its Gas Cloud Imaging camera for continuous monitoring of dangerous gas leaks for the oil and gas industry. The unique Gas Cloud Imaging camera images gas leaks in real time so leaks can be fixed more quickly while simultaneously reducing false alarms caused by traditional point detectors.

In 2013, Rebellion Photonics won The Wall Street Journal’s “Startup of the Year” award. In 2014, Rebellion launched a truck-mounted periodic monitoring service, offered for smaller sites such as wellheads or storage tanks.

Allison Lami Sawyer has an MBA from Rice University, as well as an MSc in nanoscale physics from the University of Leeds in England. Before Rebellion Photonics, Allison worked at the Houston Technology Center, the region’s largest technology startup incubator. Allison was named to Inc.’s “30 Under 30” list in 2012 and Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list in 2014.

Where did the idea for Rebellion Photonics come from?

I met my co-founder and the inventor of the technology, Dr. Robert Kester, in October 2009 in grad school at Rice University. I had switched to the dark side and was getting my MBA instead of my Ph.D. I do have a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in applied physics, but no Ph.D. Robby was finishing his Ph.D. when I was finishing my MBA.

The core innovation of Rebellion’s technology was actually Robby’s invention and his Ph.D. thesis, which is pretty amazing. Robby was working in the bio-optics field and had figured out a way to make hyperspectral imaging into real-time video, which had never been done before.

Previously, you could take single frames, but that would take minutes (or even hours); it was predominantly used in astrophysics and occasionally for biology research. Robby wanted to do real-time video instead of a few still frames. He completely changed the optical design of this type of hyperspectral camera.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Make a list, prioritize, delegate, delegate, delegate. It’s so important to trust your people.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

One business-wide trend that is personally exciting to me is seeing more young women in the C-suite at tech startups. Sadly, I don’t see much change on the venture capital/private equity side. I almost never see women on the tech money side, and we aren’t going to see real change on the entrepreneur side until we get movement on the money side.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Focus. I focus on the things I can change. There is always a Plan B, followed by a Plan C, D, E, and F.

I have to play my own devil’s advocate. I’m very open and honest with investors and board members. We have a “no surprises” policy. Failure is OK — just let everyone know as soon as possible.

I work from home about twice a month to get big projects done, and it’s nice to meditate on the big picture. I try not to think about the company at all on Saturdays, which is hard.

I also consciously practice active listening. It’s easy to interrupt when people are talking to immediately give them advice. They need you to listen. They almost always know what to do. That doesn’t mean you should sit there silently, but you can give that person a safe place to be heard. I believe most people just want to be heard. Active listening builds trust, and trust is everything.

Finally, compliment people more. It’s so easy, it feels good to do, and it feels good to receive. You shouldn’t give fake compliments, but when you have a pleasant thought about someone, take that extra step to really tell him or her. We don’t compliment each other enough.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

This is my first paid full-time job. I nannied a little, but that wasn’t so bad — just boring.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Not much. I’m not saying we did everything perfectly, but I think we needed all the twists and turns to get where we are today.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Brainstorm out loud with other people. Sometimes you need to keep talking about your plans —during the act of talking, you’ll suddenly have a great big idea.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Start the business before you’re ready. Launch the minimum viable product. Don’t just listen to the customers; listen between the lines. For minorities and women, make a point of finding other CEOs in your situation. Don’t suffer in silence. You are not crazy. It really is harder, so don’t also be too hard on yourself.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One? Ha! It’s hard to pick just one. Whenever I momentarily lose faith in myself and fail to listen to my gut, it never works.

Hiring takes a long time, but it’s worth it because your people are everything. We built a wonderful Rebel Family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A lot of people apply for a job at a startup because they’re in love with the idea of a startup, but most people aren’t ready for the sacrifice, the stress, and the mandatory obsession. Don’t get me wrong: I really push people to take vacations, and we’re flexible about work hours. But at the end of the day, working at a startup — especially a hardware startup — is not glamorous. Changing the world is a long, glorious, terrible journey, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. You have to be crazy to work here.

I think the most important thing for a CEO to understand is what your customers, employees, vendors, and board members are feeling. How are you making them feel? How are they going to react? What are they afraid of? How much do they really care? I think sometimes we get lazy and make snap decisions about what’s “right,” where I find it takes time to really get to the root of most problems.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Airbnb for workspace — I think there could be a more active subleasing market. And anything to do with Grumpy Cat. He is so great.

Tell us something about you that very few people know.

I’m just as surprised as anyone else that we’ve been somewhat successful. It’s pretty funny to walk into work every day and see all these people who have joined the Rebellion. I don’t know, though. I guess I’m one of those people who can completely and utterly believe two opposite ideas at once. I fully believed Rebellion would work, but I’m still shocked that there is a Rebellion at all. I believe them in parallel. I don’t just vacillate from one extreme to the other.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

The best thing I do is find quiet time with an old-fashioned pen and paper and let myself just meditate on the company. Letting my mind wander is the most important thing I can do. We all have the answers usually; you just need to give yourself the time and space to let the great ideas bubble up. You need to have the courage to listen to yourself.Lean

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’d recommend “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg and “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White. Both made an impact on my path.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Sheryl Sandberg and her In movement have meant a great deal to me.


Allison Sawyer on LinkedIn:
Allison Sawyer on Twitter: @AllisonTheRebel
Rebellion Photonics on Twitter: @RebellionPhoton