How Inflight VR’s CTO Built a Strong Company Culture By Putting Her Team First
When Dr. Elena Kokkinara was studying computer science, she never imagined that she would end up being an entrepreneur or a leader. In her words: “I was always saying, ‘I will never have my own business. It sounds so stressful!’” Now, she’s the cofounder and CTO of Inflight VR, a company that provides airlines with the technology and hardware to offer virtual reality as in-flight entertainment.
Is entrepreneurship as stressful as she thought it’d be? Elena says yes, but not for the reasons she expected. Prior to founding Inflight VR, Elena earned a master's degree in computer graphics, followed by a PhD in Virtual Reality; while her academic background was the perfect foundation for building great products, it didn’t train her to build lean, efficient teams or lead people. This proved to be the most challenging part of starting a business for Elena, and the skill gap she has worked hardest to fill.
Elena’s growth curve wasn’t limited to skillset: she admits that when she first started the company, she was aware of the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field–though she didn’t lack confidence in her credibility: “I have a unique background in a relatively new field, and there aren't many experts out there,” said Elena. “I think that my opinion was always valued.” Rather, she says, her lack of leadership experience affected her confidence in connecting with her team, a mindset that she worked hard to change.
Elena has a pragmatic, product-building mentality: in her words,“if something goes wrong, it's okay–you fix it”. These traits allowed her to address her leadership blindspots head-on, and not shy away from asking for help when she needed it. While she managed with a small team in the first year, by the time her tech team grew to 10 people it became clear she needed support. Elena reached out to her investor network, mentors, and other CTOs to talk about these challenges and learn from their experiences.
In the end, Elena connected with her team by leading with empathy and sensitivity. She found that the key to gaining trust was very simple: be a good listener. The directional shift in communication had a profound effect on the team, and is a leadership strategy that Elena recommends for other founders: “Let them talk to you. Don't act as a boss, act as a colleague.”
When Elena applied for Google for Startups Immersion: Women Founders program, she prioritized leadership and management as her focus areas. She hoped to leverage knowledge from Google specialists who could advise her on both the human and technical aspects of building a company. She was paired with a management coach who gave her useful advice on leadership–in particular, bridging the communication gap between InflightVR’s tech and business teams. Her coach also connected her with tech leads who walked her through the technical sides of management and leading a tech team.
Elena says that the training and mentorship she received on the Immersion program had a transformative impact on the organizational health of her company. Through her focus on team management, Elena has been able to implement a company culture that has improved communication and efficiency–to the extent that Elena, who was eight months pregnant when we spoke, is confident about her team's ability to manage without her while she is on maternity leave. “I've learned that you need to build a team where there is no single point of failure–that if you’re not there, you’ve made sure other people can do your work.”
Founders Book Club
What book are you reading right now?
Baby books! Jokes aside, I really read a lot of baby books these days.
What’s your recommended reading for founders?
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott. She says that you have to treat your people right by being honest with them while giving them positive feedback. She was running companies while raising kids–to me, women like this are role models: who show that you can continue to have a career and also have a family.
The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, George Spafford, and Kevin Behr. It’s about management, but more on the tech side. It's very geeky but I highly recommend it for people that are dealing with complicated systems and processes.
Immersion: Women Founders is a 12-week, skill-building mentorship program for high potential women-led startups selected from startup communities across Europe, including the UK and Israel. The program aims to address predominant challenges for women founders in the startup ecosystem with the aim to close the gender gap, ensuring more equal access to funding, and leveraging strong professional networks.
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