Q&A: CEO Paige Johnson
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. What are you most passionate about?
I am a native Tulsan, and I started the company in the place where I was born. I'm passionate about other people and other entrepreneurs blooming where they are planted as well. As an entrepreneur and founder, I’m also passionate about giving people a good and respectful place to work. I didn’t realize before founding the company that people spend a lot of time in jobs in which this often isn’t the case. At Ten-Nine Tech, we focus on maintaining a respectful workplace and a place that rewards our team members for what they do. This allows them to express themselves and be the best at their jobs, and it has a lot to do with living a good and happy life overall. It's been surprising, even heartwarming, and important to me as a person, to feel as though I enable other people to achieve that in their workplace.
You’re the founder and CEO of Ten-Nine Technologies. What are you hoping to accomplish through Ten-Nine Tech?
I have two missions. The first is to develop and deliver the world's most powerful battery materials. We have to be a part of revolutionizing the electrification of the energy economy by making batteries work better. Batteries are a foundational tool for almost all other sustainable technologies. Reliable, renewable energy delivery depends on batteries, and batteries make an enormous difference in the life that we live every day. Most people think about battery life in terms of their cell phone, or an EV, but batteries are far more important in developing countries where they're running things – like light for a child to do their homework or an incubator to keep a baby alive. Batteries truly are one of those fundamental technologies that make a real-life difference to people around the world. And the second mission of Ten-Nine Tech is to build better batteries in a respectful workplace driven by our values of curiosity, generosity, and authenticity.
To date, what’s been Ten-Nine Tech’s biggest success?
Our biggest success to date is a scientific one - we were the first people to demonstrate fossil-fuel parity in a battery material. We developed a new material that is capable of delivering as much energy from the electrical reactions created in the battery material as can be garnered from combustion reactions in the burning of gasoline. That was an extremely significant demonstration, as no other batteries had come within a fraction of that sort of energy delivery, or energy density as we call it. Ever since then we've been working on how to practically use those energetic materials in batteries to make them perform better.
Why was it important to found your own company rather than working at an existing company? And what are some of the benefits and disadvantages of working at a startup versus working at an established company?
Let me tell you the story of how the company was started. I was approached by an angel investor while I was still working in academia who said, “you can't do what you need to do at a university,” and he was absolutely right! Universities do good things, but they're not set up to reach the marketplace or to make change in the marketplace. I think it’s important to recognize that. I've worked in academic, industry, and philanthropic settings, and I’ve learned that if you really want to change the world, you need to be in the marketplace. And the best way to do that is to found your own company. In addition, like many women I’ve found it very difficult to find a respectful and supportive work environment within existing companies. This is mainly because - for better or worse – existing companies (and universities, for that matter) were founded originally by men, and they were set up in ways that men found comfortable and appealing and that worked for them. It’s no wonder that women often find that existing workplaces don't work well for them. For me, it's been great to create a place in which the culture is respectful from the very beginning. It wasn't like we were trying to correct problems that other people set up. You're not trying to paint a door pink to get more women through it. You're just getting rid of the door and making a new entry. That’s one of the biggest advantages of founding your own company and building your workplace from scratch.
What advice would you give to a student who thinks they might want to start their own company someday?
I would encourage students who want to be founders to work at a startup. I certainly had an extraordinarily naive view of starting a business when I began in 2014. I've been able to overcome that deficit, but I would advise anyone to have a little more visibility on what a startup company looks like. One way to do that is to get an internship with a founder in your own community and bloom where you're planted. Don't think you have to go to Silicon Valley, or even work in the same type of company that you think you might start. But get a summer job with a start-up to see a glimpse of that world. Ask if you can shadow the founder - if you can sit down and talk to them about what the difficulties have been and how you should plan. Being on the inside somewhere and hearing from a founder who has walked that road is important. I’ve also found that once you start down that road, if you're a responsible person, you're very committed almost to the level of marriage or parenting. You are tied to that effort. It’s not something to take at all lightly but something to go into with seriousness and understanding. Learning from others will keep you from burning out or not being able to make and keep the commitments that you need to as a founder.
In an interview with Startland News, you noted a commitment to creating opportunities for women at Ten-Nine. What are the biggest hurdles facing women in technology startups?
The challenge for a woman founder is almost always that there are only women on one side of the table – and she’s the person asking for money or asking for a job, rather than the one handing out the money or hiring. When all of the managers or capital providers are men, that's never going to be a fair and equitable situation. Those men can be kind, they can see themselves as allies of women and advocates for women, but it is not an equivalent situation. The best way to overcome this huge hurdle is to get women on both sides of the table. When there are women on both sides of the table, whether that's a woman providing capital or a female founder interviewing for positions in a tech company, then opportunities for women will really change. The biggest outcome of not having women on the other side of the table is that women who found companies receive only two percent of the venture capital funding today. So, the biggest hurdle for women founders is simply getting capital. It means that you will have to pitch twice as many times as a man. You will have to answer twice as many questions, and it will take you twice as long. So right now, unfortunately, it's important for female founders to plan for that. I hope this will get better over time, but today, as a woman in technology, you must plan for what we know to be true.
One of the things I found fascinating about your bio was your breadth of curiosity including everything from children’s playgrounds to atomic gardening. Tell us a bit about your non-professional interests.
That's a lovely way to state it – “breadth of curiosity!” You know, of course, that curiosity is one of the company’s three core values. I find that because I'm a curious person, I want to create a company culture that's like myself in that way. Curiosity is obviously a key component of my personality and it's something we look for in the people that come to work for Ten-Nine Tech. I ask potential employees if they have a passionate second interest, and, as you noted, I have multiple passionate second interests. I often tell people that I have a hungry mind that works best when it is engaging with knowledge rather deeply. For years before I started a company I was blogging about children's playgrounds and the history of gardens. While I was still at the university, I was able to maintain all those interests and write about all those interests. I do love to write, which is something that has served me very well. As a founder, there's a little bit of additional advice to people wanting to start a company - you need to be a good writer. When you are early stage, you have to write your own press releases, your own ad copy, your own grants, your own reports, and your own board materials. Being a good communicator goes along ways towards giving you that additional boost toward success. Now about my non-professional interests - I love the creation of a space for people to inhabit. I love gardens. I love landscapes whether they are atomic gardens or children's playgrounds. I love to understand how humans deal with nature and utilize nature to create and inhabit space.
The last question is something we like to ask all our interviewees. If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what would the job be?
Because I like to delve deeply into things, I always have a far greater reading load than I can manage - from scientific papers related to batteries and nanotechnology to garden and history books. I've always said that my superpower would be to be able to touch a book and consume the knowledge in it immediately. As a lover of knowledge, I would hire a nanobot to read for me.
Paige, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! Good luck making our electric future a reality!
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