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Profile: Helen Fu Thomas, CEO at DMAI, Inc.

Women in Tech: “Don’t be discouraged. Carry on.”

Jean Kiltz

Four years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Helen Fu Thomas, CEO at DMAI, Inc.

research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Four years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Helen Fu Thomas, CEO at DMAI, Inc.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Helen Fu Thomas, CEO at DMAI, Inc.

Helen Fu Thomas is the CEO of cognitive AI company DMAI, Inc. and successfully launched their first education platform, with AI-driven algorithms to deliver the right content at the right time.

Prior to DMAI, Inc., she started her high-tech career at LeapFrog (NYSE: LF). She was part of the team growing the global business exponentially and became the founding CEO of LeapFrog China after she successfully built educational businesses in Japan and South Korea.

She also helped Livescribe launch the world’s first smartpen. At the beginning, she was the only female and minority senior staff member. She also started two other companies from scratch, Bluefocus Communication Group of America and Touchjet USA, Inc., as founding CEO.

Helen earned her MBA in Marketing at the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley.

When did you become interested in technology? What first got you interested in tech?

Math was my favorite subject at school. I participated in math competitions. I also remember that my uncle used to give me math problems to solve and how thrilling it was when I got them done every time. However, my major was International Finance in college. I started my high-tech career in Silicon Valley after I got my MBA from Haas Business School at UC Berkeley.

Let’s talk about your background. How did you end up in your career path? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

I started my career at LeapFrog (NYSE: LF), the EdTech company backed by Larry Ellison and Mike Milken. I worked very closely with industry leaders and entrepreneurs like Tom Kalinske, Tim Bender and Jim Maggraff. I spearheaded business growth in Asia Pacific and became the CEO of LeapFrog China.

Later, Jim started Livescribe, Inc., a consumer smartpen company. Tim and I both joined Jim as part of the senior staff. After Tim left to join Sony to lead their consumer gaming business, I became the Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales.

Since then, I’ve been the CEO of four tech companies across digital media, IoT, AI hardware and cloud services. The following are some of the obstacles I’ve faced:

  • People discount a woman’s value based her kindness; it’s like if you are not speaking the guy’s language or kicking ass, you are not the same as the white guys next to you.
  • When a woman uses football metaphors men feel weird. I had an executive jokingly ask me whether I really like football because I used the playbook as an example of winning strategy.
  • Men take a woman’s idea and act like it’s their own. This has happened to me multiple times.
  • Men chose another woman as if she is equally intelligent only because they had an affair.

Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?

Absolutely, I have two children David (19) and Catherine Lily (17) who watched me work fulltime while they grew up. We are loving and supportive of each other. They are self-driven and hardworking because they’ve learned it in their lifetime. As parents, we are the role models.

I have many mentors and friends as my sounding board. Peter Avritch, an entrepreneur, top architect and CTO in Silicon Valley, has become one of my best friends and a role model. He raised his daughter, whose mom is African American, so lovingly and wisely that I feel I can always learn and do better. He and his daughter, Alex, are the cofounders of Hello Gloss, the next-gen beauty platform that makes everyday makeup choices smart and connected.

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

No, I cannot name a single person who tried to stop me.

I am most proud of solving the real problems and making real impacts on people’s lives with our technology, products, and services.

A day in Helen’s life

I am currently the CEO of DMAI, Inc., a cognitive AI company that develops cloud-based content platforms that serve the right content at the right time across all devices. Our first product — Animal Island Learning Adventure (AILA) Sit & Play Preschool Learning System — was named the Best Tablet for Toddlers and won Mom’s Choice Award Gold.

My typical workday looks like back-to-back meetings across our engineering, sales, marketing, and operations teams, as well as meetings with business partners. At night, I also stay up and speak with my colleagues in Asia who are responsible for finance, supply chain management, and new product development.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud of solving the real problems and making real impacts on people’s lives with our technology, products, and services. At every company, I made a difference as an innovator who thinks out of the box, defines products with real consumer insights, and delivers products to market with a high Net Promotors Score (NPS).

Why aren’t there more women in tech? What’s your take on that?

There are many reasons why there aren’t more women in tech. It is a male dominated industry because of their personalities — law of a wolf pack. Men were hunters as we say.

My take is that we as women can use our strengths wisely and persevere. Don’t be discouraged. Carry on.

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

The biggest challenge is funding. Women founders receive a small percentage of overall funding; even though, women CEOs perform better by percentage.

Without capital and risks taking on women entrepreneurs, the ROI for women in tech is lower; that’s why fewer women would make the tech career choice.

Besides funding, the tech industry needs more mentors like the ones I have had throughout my career. I have faith in the next generation of women in tech, who are educated to solve problems and think out of the box to innovate.

It’s the journey that matters. Every day, we get a little better with diversity the sooner we see results. It’s an evolution.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM? What would be the (social, economic and cultural) impact?

Our world would be different if more women worked in STEM because women are natural caregivers and have great problem-solving insights. The world would be a better place with harmony, equality, and compassion.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?

It’s the journey that matters. Every day, we get a little better with diversity the sooner we see results. It’s an evolution.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career? What should they know about this industry?

My advice is to have the courage to start and the perseverance not to give up.

Some people may say the industry is brutal, cutthroat, or at least too demanding in terms of work hours. Work life balance is a challenge. My suggestion is to have fun while doing it. Use your creativity, think out of the box, and make an impact. Look at this YouTube video about how AILA makes an impact on American children and their families. It’s truly rewarding!

More Women in Tech:

For even more Women in Tech, click here

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Jean Kiltz works as an editor at S&S Media since March 2020. He studied History at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

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