Posted on November 30 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is the incredible serial entrepreneur, Heather Russell. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Heather started her first business at nineteen, before moving to Japan in her early twenties where she started Rinkya.com - a global e-commerce and logistics company. Heather moved to London to found her third company, Biscuit Labs, an AI Building Automation Company. Heather is shortly moving over to San Francisco to scale the business further.
Danielle Newnham: Can you tell me about your background? What were you like growing up?
Heather Russell: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. I wasn't the most popular kid in school and kept getting into fights, so my parents stuck me in Catholic school.
I was always the "odd man out" so I reverted to being a class clown and the local hustler. I would sell jackets, mixed tapes, all sorts of knick-knacks to my friends. I tried to be funny so I wouldn't get my ass kicked. It also kept me out of trouble when I went to high school.
I went to Fashion Institute of Technology's (FIT) vocational HS and studied graphic design, found out I hated it and then chose theatre as a major in university. While I was always sticking myself in an artsy, creative box, I probably should have started business earlier. My parents always had their own business growing up, so it was inevitable.
Newnham: What led to you starting Rinkya and what were some of the earlier obstacles you had to overcome?
Russell: I had started a business selling Japanese animation cels when I was 19 mainly to support my hobby of collecting them. I am a big nerd and love Godzilla, Japanese manga, anime, video games, etc. I was going back and forth to Japan and decided I needed to stop messing around with theatre and start learning Japanese. This led me to just quit university, pick up and move to Japan. During my first year there, everyone in my fellow online nerd groups started asking me to buy and ship them stuff from Japan. Hence Rinkya was born.
In terms of obstacles, I had all sorts of normal startup business obstacles, but with the added dynamic of being at the edge of the empire in Japan. I couldn't get a visa because you need a university diploma to get one in Japan. Oops. Language was an issue in the beginning.
Culturally, the Japanese weren't exactly female/foreign business friendly. They still aren't. There was never a foreign business opened in the ward I lived in. It took me 20-30 times taking a three hour round trip to the city hall to register my business because they had never done it before. I did it every day till they got sick of me and just registered the company. They kept sending me back for more papers and various proofs.
I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I lived in this tiny Japanese apartment and one day a set of rims (tires) showed up. So I had to quickly scale up. But I had no one to tell me what to do or help me, let alone in a foreign country so it was super lonely.
However, despite all the crap in the beginning, I loved every second of having realized my dream to live in Japan.
Newnham: What are some of the most important lessons you learned growing your startup into a multi million dollar business?
Russell: I should have raised money to scale up quickly. We had over 300% growth year over year the first three years. By today's standards, they would have thrown money at me and I would have had a much, much larger business today if I had. Unfortunately, I was a kid with no clue and investors weren't exactly handing out money to American girls who lived in Japan at the time.
I also started Rinkya with the goal of employing my family. I struggled in many ways working with them, but in the end they helped Rinkya get to where it is today. Everyone tells you that you shouldn't work with family and that's complete bullshit. Working with my family is the best gift I ever could have. Screw the money, it was about family.
Newnham: Can you tell us about Biscuit Labs and the problem/s you are trying to solve using AI?
Russell: Biscuit is a hardware and software solution we developed for managing properties. We've consolidated all the sensor systems in buildings so we can provide robust intelligent suggestions for property developers and building managers.
Our AI helps to understand occupant behavior so property developers can design their spaces better and adapt them to the occupants inside. This is all while being energy efficient. Our North Star is to make each building a self-sustainable micro-grid. Buildings output 40% of the carbon in this world but In this day and age, we can easily remedy that.
An example of how AI solves problems is by understanding occupancy as a concept versus just counting occupants. For example, let's say someone is in the office working late at night and they get up and leave the room. Are they getting up and leaving? In that case, an intelligent policy would be to shut the lights. Or, are they just getting up to go to the bathroom and take a break? In that case, we wouldn't turn anything off.
Biscuit's AI understands human concepts so we can give people control of their spaces without disrupting productivity, all while reducing their carbon footprint.
Newnham: What advice do you have for other women wanting to start a business (in the tech sector)?
Russell: I think society puts women into a box on what it thinks they can do or what it expects them to do. Don't just fall back on what society defines as predominantly "female" sectors. You can do anything you want to and it's often the hardest things that will bring you the biggest challenges to help you grow as a person and be successful.
Always be a good person, especially to other women. Innately, we are all competing on some monkey level and I think if we sit back and recognize when we are being that monkey, we'll all just get along better and make better decisions.
There are inherent differences between men and women. I think women are more sensitive, which is an incredible and extremely powerful tool. The issue is, we need to be more introspective and figure out when to use it properly and how to wield this tool for the best results. Believe me, it's not easy and I'm constantly challenging myself to do it well.
Finally, you will be lonely, you won't be recognized and life is unfair. You cannot escape these things. It's OK though because all you need to do is put your head down and deliver outcomes.
Newnham: What are your goals for 2017?
Russell: Setting up shop in San Francisco for Biscuit and really ramping up our business. That's my main and only focus. Heads down.
Newnham: If you could go back in time to when you started your first business, what advice, if any would you offer yourself back then?
Russell: Enjoy and cherish every moment of being able to work with my mom. Thank her every single day for the amazing work she put into Rinkya and tell her how proud I was of her and how I loved working with her. I wish I could have done that more when she was still alive. Everything else was just business.
Thank you to the awesome Emma Sinclar for intro.