Dr. Lisa Burton O’Toole, executive director of HearstLab, a greenhouse for nurturing women-led startups, helps founders ideate and execute on visions of a better future.
Lisa Burton O’Toole, executive director of HearstLab.
O’Toole and her team invest in and support women-led companies in New York City, San Fransisco and Amsterdam. HearstLab provides seed investment and access to several resources at Hearst, including the legal team, experts in UX design and DevOps engineering, and orchestrates HearstLab Scouts, a group of 70+ women leaders across Hearst businesses who provide guidance and advice to the founders in the residency. In addition to investing, she works with the organization’s portfolio companies to design and develop initial data science solutions for their products.
“We now have about 70 women leaders from across our company,” O’Toole explains. “These are all women that work fulltime at Hearst, but then donate their time to help our companies. Part of my job was meeting with these women, understanding their background and where they were interested in helping our founders. Examples range from doing pricing analysis to helping with marketing messaging…I help introduce a founder to a scout or someone else that’s relevant to a business challenge.”
While studying as a mechanical engineer, O’Toole focused on data science. After graduating, she managed online ads for her aunt and uncle’s business. “I built out some basic models,” she states, “and got my feet wet. I figured out that I just like working in that area, and then when I went to apply for the job, I was able to talk about that experience and use their lingo; understand the space a little bit better.” As a data scientist working at startups, she was able to work alongside various departments of an organization. That experience became invaluable when she started consulting.
HearstLab Executive Director Lisa Burton O’Toole speaks on the “Diversity, Inclusion and Respect in … [+]
“I was excited to hopefully have influence on lots of different companies,” O’Toole smiles. “I really enjoyed that role, but what I found is that I was just a little bit too far removed to have the type of influence that I wanted. Luckily, through that experience, I met with one of my clients, who was just becoming my cofounder. He’d been looking at how to use social media data to help brands understand their customers online. At the end of the day, I really saw that this was a data science problem. This was exactly one of those problems where we could be thoughtful about how we did it…In combination with the idea of being able to build a company and softly hire people and create the type of environment that I hoped to see in another company was really exciting.”
O’Toole and her cofounder began pitching to investors. They were introduced to HearstLab. Her startup was accepted into the residency program. At that time the company relocated from Austin to New York City. “I continued working with the startup for a while,” she continues, “and then came to my next step. I was pretty wowed by all the other women in the program and saw that these women building these companies, who are the hardest workers and the most resourceful people I’ve ever seen, and I realized that there was another way to have an impact. It wasn’t necessarily building your own company. There was a way to help fuel these amazing people building these great teams and companies that I could have an even bigger sort of multiplicative effect.” At that time, HearstLab was looking for someone to join the team. O’Toole transitioned out of the startup to the executive director position.
“To be honest,” O’Toole humbly shares, “I didn’t know what I was getting into becoming a startup founder. It is both the hardest and the best experience I’ve ever had in such a condensed amount of time. I learned more than I ever did in any single year of school. I realized that technically building a product is not the hard part. There’s so much about speaking about clients and investors and people and there’s just a lot going on. In terms of supporting founders, it’s not necessarily that they need help understanding their business, it’s everything from just making sure they know that the lights are going to stay on or having a really warm client intro to just helping them stay resilient and resourceful. I try to make sure I think back on that experience a lot so that hopefully it makes me better in my job now to be really empathetic and understanding where they’re coming from.”
HearstLab’s Lisa Burton O’Toole joins panelists at HearstLab and All Raise’s co-hosted discussion … [+]
Through all of O’Toole’s pivots, she’s focused on the following essential steps:
- Gain experience in the area you’d like to pivot to before fully transitioning over. Having that experience will make you more valuable, and you’ll realize if it is something you want to devote 100% of your time.
- Don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Be open to different opportunities and continually learn new skills.
- Build a strong network. Your community is going to be your biggest asset and support system.
“This is my hope,” O’Toole concludes, “that our lab is a model that other companies pay attention to and figure out their version of it. I think big corporations have a real opportunity to help support diverse leadership teams at the startups…It’s not just investing externally in these companies and helping connect them into the network, but also the impact that it has on Hearst.”