As someone who only knows how to go “full-scale,” Allison Lami Sawyer, like many people, is looking for some sort of silver lining to the current situation in which we’re living, and she seems to have discovered it.
The co-founder of Rebellion Photonics, Inc., Sawyer, who sold her company to Honeywell in December 2019 says, “The timing is not lost on me. It was a godsend.” While she cannot disclose the terms of the sale, she says she is “very happy . . . and thankful.”
“Honeywell has treated our employees great. Our investors are happy. It was a rare win all around.”
Sawyer and her co-founder started the company, which created a Gas Cloud Imaging (GCI) system designed to detect gas leaks, when she was 24 years old and sold it a week or so after she turned 35. “It was a full decade of my life. I jokingly call it my wasted youth. Before that, I was in business school at Rice and prior to that I was [earning] my graduate and undergraduate degrees in applied physics. Basically, I have been working from the time I got up until the time I went to bed my entire adult life. The only thing I know is to go full-scale.”
“It’s not healthy to work as much as you have to as a start-up CEO. You get so much positive reinforcement as a workaholic that you don’t think it’s a problem, and it definitely is. I don’t want to glorify that lifestyle.”
She may not have entirely overcome those tendencies. Sawyer, who tears up just talking about her two young sons, ran for public office (TX House Rep 134) “as a protest vote” in 2017 while still running Rebellion. A volunteer with children in foster care, Sawyer says it is “absolute madness” that Texas spends about half the national average on children in Child Protective Services (CPS) and, while she ultimately lost, it provided her with a platform for a cause she is passionate about.
Even though she is learning to appreciate a slower pace of life, Sawyer understands why it is so difficult for business owners or CEOs who retire to switch gears and why so many of them immediately go onto their next venture. “I wanted to be mindful about this transition because I know so many CEOs who struggle after a sale. It was my plan – and I’m still very passionate about this dream – to be on three publicly-traded boards by the time I’m 40, but I’m just not in a rush like I originally was.”
Prior to the pandemic, Sawyer had attended an invitation-only training seminar at Harvard to prepare to sit on a board. Walking to the bakery to get a cookie with her toddler now takes precedence. Even though the sale of the company, followed by a global pandemic, has forced her to slow down, she has discovered that she is enjoying retirement more than she had anticipated and says laughing, “I’m really good at it.”
Sawyer has stayed in touched with the accountability partner, a woman in upper management at Über, she was paired with through the Harvard program. She also has the benefit of the wisdom of women like Janet Clarke, retired CFO of Marathon Oil Corp. MRO (whom she calls “a legend”), Barbara Burger, PhD, president of Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV), and the late Irene Campbell, women she considers not so much mentors as friends.
“They would hear me speak [at an industry event] and come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Let’s grab a drink and we’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong – and right – but mostly wrong,” Sawyer says laughing.
During the early years of Rebellion, Sawyer was the only female CEO in the room and the youngest person in the meetings, and people often assumed she was a secretary. While she believes many roadblocks for women are external, she acknowledges some are internal. As a physicist, she says she didn’t associate herself with engineering, something that is still a common problem among young girls and women. “It’s not part of their identity.” The million dollar question is how to de-mystify and normalize it, so that women can find true fulfillment in their careers.
“I succeeded. I hit a home run after a decade, but so much of the joy was stolen from me. It should have been more fun. And that was based purely on my sex – my age, too – but mostly my sex.” She saw her male colleagues enjoying their careers more wholeheartedly and believes that disparity begins in math and science classes, where there is camaraderie among male students, who receive more attention and praise. “Being a tech CEO is an extreme version of that.”
Sawyer laments the state of women in the heavily male-dominated tech field. “When I started 10 years ago, there was nothing. We don’t have a lot of female founders. And there’s real ageism; at 35, I’m considered old. I mentor a 21 and 24-year old.”
That younger generation of women – Sawyer calls them “foot soldiers” and says she wishes they didn’t have to be – is part of the reason she wants to sit on publicly-traded boards and encourages other women to join her. “Struggle through Imposter Syndrome. Our voices, particularly those of women like me who have technical or engineering backgrounds, are desperately needed.”