'You can leave the workforce and come back in': ex-MakerBot CEO Jenny Lawton - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Jun. 29, 2016 12:21 pm

‘You can leave the workforce and come back in’: ex-MakerBot CEO Jenny Lawton

At Tuesday's Startup Spectacular, the tech exec described her journey from unemployable math major to serial tech entrepreneur, with owning a bookstore in between.
Jenny Lawton at the Startup Spectacular.

Jenny Lawton at the Startup Spectacular.

(Photo by April Joyner)

Jenny Lawton “rode the Internet wave way up and way down,” as she puts it, and part of that wave meant taking a sabbatical from tech.

In 2001, after more than a decade working in many corners of the tech scene, Lawton moved to Old Greenwich, Conn., where she bought a bookstore and, later, a café.

Thanks to her solid contacts, she was able to scout opportunities once she decided to come back to tech. That led her to 3D printing company MakerBot, where she eventually took the helm as CEO, and then hardware company littleBits.

“Here’s a lesson for women,” she said, “you can leave the workforce and come back in.”

On Tuesday, Lawton spoke at the Startup Spectacular, an event featuring workshops on building, growing and funding a business. Organized by TechBreakfast and held at the Fordham University School of Law, the event featured several Brooklyn entrepreneurs, among others, who spoke about the lessons they had learned throughout their careers.

Lawton, who’s currently advising a handful of companies, started her talk with her personal story, one of seizing small opportunities. As hard as it may be to believe today, given the emphasis on STEM careers, her degree in applied math wasn’t much of a help in her job search.

“Now, it speaks to being logical, practical,” she said. “But back then, there was no slot for an applied math major.”

She wound up as an assistant at an engineering firm, where she wrote a newsletter on a CAD system, then a relatively new technology. Her familiarity with CAD earned her a promotion to running the system.

Lawton picked up coding in one of her next jobs, at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where she worked on stealth radar detection systems. Her new skill led her to Stardent, where she worked in Unix administration. Though the company ultimately shut down, its IP was valuable and it seeded a host of new companies. Lawton saw an opportunity: by launching her own consulting firm, she could serve all of them as clients rather than going to work for only one of them.

After selling her consulting firm, she worked for a web hosting company, then moved for a brief period in venture capital, where she worked with prominent investor Brad Feld.

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One of the biggest lessons Lawton imparted was the importance of being deliberate in decision-making. She described her own method of choosing which activities she decides to pursue. She scores them by how enjoyable she finds them, then weights each one in terms of importance, and finally adds up the scores and ranks each activity accordingly.

“It’s a way to check myself so that I don’t fall in love with an idea,” she said.

Another lesson from Lawton: Though a decision may not have the best outcome, it may be the best one to take given the information you have on hand at the time. For instance, she addressed Stratasys’s 2013 acquisition of MakerBot, which later led to the company’s revenue dropping sharply and its manufacturing moving to China. Rather than raise another round of venture capital, she and Bre Pettis, MakerBot’s founder, decided to take the acquisition deal.

“We felt that we could go faster with them than if we had to onboard another VC,” she said. “I think we would make the same decision today.”

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