“No one in my family is technical - my family has always been on the liberal arts side. I didn’t even know what engineering was until college,” explains Clara Vu, the VP of Engineering at Veo Robotics Inc.
Clara first realized her love for math in her eighth grade algebra class.
“It was like the heavens opened and the angels sang. I thought algebra was the coolest thing ever. I remember getting one of the highest scores in the city on an algebra placement test. My mom was just shocked. She was like, wow, really? You’re good at math? That’s weird.”
In high school, Clara’s favorite classes were math and science. When it came time to go to college, Clara decided to study math at Yale University, where she got her bachelor’s degree in three years.
“I had never met anyone who was an engineer, so it was never on my radar of possible things I could do with my life. I went to college and I studied math because it was my favorite subject but I didn’t know what I was going to do with that after I graduated.”
At a certain point, Clara realized she didn’t want to get a PhD in math and be an academic. She also didn’t want to work on Wall Street. About halfway through college, Clara started to look into other career possibilities.
“By coincidence, I was introduced to Bob Cassels, who was one of the original engineers at iRobot when it was a ten-person startup. I reached out and said, ‘Hey, I’m a college kid trying to figure out my career. Can I come to your work and talk to you?’”
Visiting iRobot was a transformational experience for Clara. During that visit, she realized she wanted to be an engineer.
“I didn’t think that I’d ever be able to get a job there because I didn’t know how to do the things they were doing. When Bob emailed me a week or so later and said they needed someone to write documentation, I remember thinking, ‘Great! I know how to write!’ So I accepted an internship.”
During her internship at iRobot, Clara began to learn programming and then returned to Yale for her final semester and took a computer science course.
After graduating, she went back to iRobot for another internship - this time as a software engineer. Shortly afterwards, they offered her a full-time position.
“I was at iRobot for about seven years. iRobot had projects in many different industries before it became well-known for the Roomba. I worked on a wide range of projects - everything from an oil well exploration robot for Halliburton to a series of interactive toys for Hasbro.”
When the iRobot Roomba took off, Clara switched over to their team. To this day, the Roomba runs a programming language that was written by Clara and her iRobot colleague, Daniel Ozick.
“My time at iRobot gave me a great foundation for the future. I learned about building autonomous systems that operate in challenging environments, and what it takes to bring products from an initial concept to a production system -- things like designing for manufacturability, reliability, and ease-of-use.”
During this same time period, Clara was also starting a family. When she was two months pregnant with her second child, her friends Joe Jones and Paul Sandin, the inventors of the original Roomba, asked her if she wanted to start a company with them.
“On the one hand, I thought the idea was completely insane because I had a steady job and I was about to have another baby—not exactly the time that you want to start a new company. But, it also felt like the once in a lifetime opportunity, so I said ‘Yes’.”
Clara left iRobot and cofounded Harvest Automation in 2007. Harvest is a leading provider of mobile robots for agricultural automation.
“It was very interesting in the early days. We were a tiny scrappy startup; we didn’t have any money and I still had childcare expenses. At one point my husband said to me, ‘Honey, we can’t pay the babysitter in stock options,’” Clara laughed.
Clara led the software team at Harvest through the development and deployment of Harvest’s materials handling robot. This was her first official management role.
“I learned that I really enjoyed leading a group of incredibly talented engineers to deliver a great product. The best engineers are creative and sometimes have conflicting ideas about how to deliver the product -- my job is to bring the team into harmony and move confidently in a direction that everyone is focused on and excited about.”
After Harvest Automation, Clara explored different opportunities and reflected on what she wanted for the next phase of her career. She talked to many people and considered several interesting hardware and robotics opportunities in the Boston area.
Before Harvest Automation raised capital, Clara had consulted on product management for Rethink Robotics. She worked directly with Patrick Sobalvarro, who was Rethink’s president at the time. While she was searching for her next career move, he reached out and asked her to join him as a cofounder at his new company, Veo Robotics.
“I absolutely loved working with Patrick at Rethink, visiting factories and distribution centers and engaging with customers. We both have a passion for addressing real market needs and involving customers in the product design process. When he told me he was looking for someone to run the engineering team, it really synced up well with what I love to do. I signed on and we closed our seed round last June. Since then, we’ve developed an engineering prototype that’s generating a lot of excitement in the market.”
Veo Robotics is building a system that gives perception and intelligence to big, fast, strong industrial robots so that they can collaborate with humans. Essentially, they’re building the eyes and brains for industrial arms. To learn more, check out this article.
Rapid Fire Questions
Brianne Shelley: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Clara Vu: I wanted to be an actor. I had a whole high school musical theater career. I remember one of the shows I was in, you had to write a bio for the program. I wrote, “In addition to acting, Clara enjoys singing, dancing and calculus.” All of the other actors in the play read that and thought I was kidding. That was my dual life back in high school.
BS: What is your favorite spot in Boston?
CV: Does my back porch count? I love the Boston Public Garden in the summer, I would definitely put that on my list as well. But my parents bought a family house in Cambridge back in the 70s when people could do things like that. We have a beautiful back porch and I like to spend time there. I’m a total Cambridge girl. I grew up here, I went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin for high school. There are so many places I love. I’ve been a city girl my whole life.
BS: How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
CV: Zero. I drink tea.
BS: What time do you get to the office and what time do you usually leave?
CV: I usually get here between 7:30 and 8am and I have to leave at quarter to 6 to pick up my daughter from after-school. Of course, starting a company is not an 8:00-6:00 job, and I’m often travelling to visit customers, coming in on weekends to rally the team to finish features, or answering emails after dinner.
BS: How do you handle stress?
CV: Starting a company is certainly stressful. But I work hard to never take my frustration out on my team - I want to hear any bad news and start leading us toward a solution. Luckily I can be open and get support and perspective from Patrick at work and from my husband on the home front.
BS: What do you do for fun on weekends?
CV: I spend a lot of time in my kitchen, cooking, baking, doing laundry and just hanging out with my kids.
BS: What piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?
CV: You’ll always be told to find your passion, but I’ve found it’s equally important to find your people. Ultimately, the team of people you interact with every day is a huge factor in how happy you are at work. If you work in a job you're passionate about but everyone you work with is horrible and your boss is evil, you’re not going to be happy. As a manager, I want to hire people who support each other and care about doing the right thing.
I also think it’s important to keep in mind, leadership skills in women are often overlooked. I went through many years of saying, “Oh wow, I’m so lucky. I’ve worked with these really successful teams.” It took me a really long time to realize that that wasn’t just luck. That was something that I was doing. That was something that I was good at. But it wasn’t being recognized or nurtured as a leadership skill. If you can ensure your team gets things done, it often goes unnoticed. But it’s a quality that should really get you put in charge of something. People will see what you’re doing and say you’re a great team player, but because you’re a woman, they won’t see you as a leader and give you a promotion. So you have to be aware of the skillset you’re bringing and the value of that skillset, especially as a woman in technology.