ADRIANA VELA is the founder of NanoTecNexus.org. Her team works from all over the United States and Canada in their mission to both transform how individuals learn about nanoscience and inspire K–12 students to pursue STEM education and careers. Adriana’s work takes her all over the world, so she works while on the go. She has honed her ability to work from anywhere with tools and creativity.
Her tips for working remotely:
- Pack only the essentials when you’re on the road.
- Buy an extra power cord that’s always in your travel bag.
- Take time to get familiar with new tools.
- Change environments to stimulate creativity.
- Be savvy about identifying the right sort of profile and mind set for new hires.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great, and we’re live! Good afternoon everybody for those that are watching in Europe. And good morning for those who are on the West Coast in the US. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today, I’m very excited! We have Adriena Vela. Adriena, you’re the founder of the Nanotech Nexus, and when I looked it up on the website, the mission statement said you’re “transforming how individuals learn about nanoscience and inspiring K-12 students to pursue stem education and careers.” So, fabulous mission! I am excited to talk to you about that. We’ll also go into your virtual office space. So, welcome Adriana!
Adriana: Thank you so much, Lisette, for having me! I really appreciate this and this is exciting and I love to be able to have this conversation with you.
Lisette: Great! Let’s talk a little bit about Nanotech Nexus and what this organization does and what you do with this, because I think that this subject of stem education and career, this is important and needed. So, I am curious to know more about that.
Adriana: Absolutely! And, it’s funny the way this all came about. But, 10 years ago, I started an organization called Nanotech Nexus Inc. and my purpose and mission was for the benefit of the industry. So, I’ve always tracked technology trends and I knew that the trend was miniaturization of course, in 20 years we’re spending my time in the high-tech industry. But when the human genome project was defined, I knew at that time, saying, “that’s the light bulb!” Okay, it’s a convergence of life science and technology and miniaturization. So, the natural thing was the nanotechnology. So, I started paying attention to that, and, at that time, in 2004, I founded NanoBio Nexus. And it was all about studying the industry and applications for applying nanotechnologies to life science – from therapeutics to diagnostics to medical devices. And that was fascinating!
But again, I was working with research institutes, doing consulting services, doing educational forums, bringing companies, doing interesting things in that space, and sharing it with industry professionals. So I was stimulating collaborations, and knowledge and awareness. So that was great! In the back of my mind, I always thought that the ecosystem heavily comprises of obviously the academic and research institutes, industry and general public, and the next generation, which is our K-12.
So, I’ve always had a philanthropic bend and it wasn’t until last year that I’ve finally excited, you know, I can’t just do that on the side, the K-12 things. I have to really put some real effort into it. So I launched a new organization called Nanotech Nexus learning group. And, it’s a sister company. So now, I’m taking those 10 years of industry experience and applying it in a way that we want to bring the relevance of this exciting technology field and inspire the K-12, the next generation of innovators, basically. We need to see that because we have a shortage of stem professionals. At the rate that we’re going, we’re already going to be a million stem professionals short, in the next 10 years.
Adriana: So, we need to address this shortage and we want to continue to apply this in a way that it helps to solve the vast majority of society problems: from the environment, to medical, to aerospace, it doesn’t matter! It touches all industries and it touches all areas of our life. So we’re in the early stages, developing some programs, internship programs, content, but repackaging it for the audiences of K-12. And we want to do it in a different way, and this is why I call the mission “transforming the way we learn about it.” So we want to create programs that allow people to learn about this in an incidental way. Not “here, read this white paper” because nobody really wants to do that.
Lisette: Right! They probably want to get their hands on something. They want to dive in and really understand it, probably. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve been far from K-12 these days, so it’s hard to remember actually. But, it seems like that would be exciting!
Adriana: Well yes! Hands-on is absolutely the best way to learn. But, how do you do a hands-on when you’re talking about something that you can’t even see with regular microscopes, because it’s at the nanoscale. It’s at the atomic and subatomic levels. And therefore, we need to figure out a creative way of doing that. We have some plans – from product development, early pilots that we’re working on that we hope to be able to share further as we get some funding for it, and as we all progress and further build those teams. But we are in the relatively early stage still.
Lisette: Super interesting! I’m gonna be following this to watch what happens. I think this is particularly fascinating. Think of what we can solve with the technologies that we have these days. So, I can imagine how motivating this must be to work in this field. So, tell me then about what your virtual team looks like. Or, your virtual office. Give us a picture of what that looks like.
Adriana: Absolutely! Well, over the last 10 years, we’ve certainly evolved. But, I’ve always had remote teams. Some teams I had some offices in Arizona, in the Bay Area, while I was in San Diego. So, having remote teams is something that’s really common to me even when I was in the high-tech industry in corporate America. So, it’s just natural to just extend that. And, because I have contacts everywhere, I’m always looking for the right person is what matters first, regardless of where they are. So, through my contacts, you look for like-minded people. And, then we use the tools to be able to communicate and collaborate.
So, I’ve had teams pretty much everywhere. Today, most of my teams are in San Diego. I am in Washington State and I also commute a lot to San Diego. I have one person in New Jersey, I have one person in Toronto, Canada. And, I have one person in the Bay Area. Am I forgetting somebody? I think that’s it for right now. Oh, and I do collaborations as well with a company and a research institute in Florida.
Lisette: Okay! Wow! So there’s a lot of different places, all relatively close in the same time zone, relatively. But, as we learned today, things can go awry with time zones any time, and also with professionals who are used to time zones. And, I mentioned this as I mischeduled our meeting because I miscalculated a very simple time zone. And, I thought, “Oh jeez, I am one of the experts and here, I missed it.” So, these things do happen.
Adriana: Absolutely! And, not a problem! Somebody who has lived through that and has gone down that road and made the exact same goof, I’ll call it. I certainly understand that, and it just reminds me of the time when I was in Grenoble, in France. And, I was working for Hewlett-Packard at that time. And, I was actually a little bit under the weather at the time. And I remember calling my boss, saying, “if I could just cut the trip short.” And, so I called him up and I said, “I’m so sorry! I hope I’m not interrupting your dinner, but I really wanted to talk to you about this.” And, the first thing he says is “Adriana, it’s 3 o’clock I the morning.”
You could just imagine the energy. I was like, “Oh, rats!” It happens, and I am like, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry!” That’s when I realized, I miscalculated the time, obviously. But, it happens to the best of us. So, all you need to do is laugh it off , roll with the punches and laugh it off, because even when I travel a lot to South America, I would wake up in the morning in my hotel, not some hotel. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. So, I would wake up in my hotel room and the first thing in my mind was “okay, what country am I in today?” It wasn’t what time zones, like what country because I was jumping through different countries, you know, one or two days in each one. So, I have to really think even before coffee, “what country am I in today?” And, that’s when you start thinking about your activities for that day.
Lisette: Uhuh! So it sounds like in terms of why you went remote, or why you had remote teams. If I’m paraphrasing correctly, it’s because you were looking for the right people for the job. And I can imagine that in this field with nanoscience and nanotechology, that those people are not all in the same place. I mean, it’s probably, they’re all over the place.
Adriana: Yes! They are! And you always want to look for the best of breed and who’s doing exciting things. So, it’s wherever they happen to be they are. Of course, (00:10:10) that occur at some of the top universities. I mean, there’s a lot in San Diego, but, from a nanotechnology perspective, that’s definitely not necessarily the majority of it by any means. And I never limit myself to just one area, in just one relatively small backyard. The world is much bigger than that.
Lisette: Indeed! Especially when you are trying to get the best people together. So, is there anything then, besides time zones, is there anything that is particularly challenging for your team or are the things that you guys probably struggle with because you’re remote?
Adriana: Well, certainly! I remembered when I used to travel around like 50-75% of the time when I was in Corporate America. And, at that time, because my audiences were C-level executives, CTOs, CIOs, for that, face-to-face is always absolutely the best thing. And, therefore, my peers and I were known as “road warriors” but we sometimes we’re really known as “road killers” as well, because you know, we are rugged a lot of times.
So, face-to-face is always the best. But, with the technologies now – video conferences – that’s like the next best thing. And, I think, the market and professionals out there have come a long way to embrace that technology. There are still people who are a bit nervous and uncomfortable because it is still relatively new to them. But, once they started getting used to it, it’s definitely not a problem. As a company leader, and soliciting or recruiting teams, it’s incumbent upon me to make it as easy as possible. So I have to master the tools first and bring them along. And having said that, you want to also be savvy about identifying who might be the right sort of profile of team members. They have to be at least willing to try it. They have to have that courage if they don’t already have that experience. Clearly, they have experience, that’s great! That’s one hurdle. But, if you have to be bringing them along so much that you have to handhold everything, and they’re not really picking up, then that’s probably not a good match.
So, finding the right people just from a knowledge perspective is part of it. But, the other is having it be workable, having them to be comfortable with that kind of environment. And for that, it really takes a lot of discipline. It’s not that different from the consultant mind frame. Not everyone can be an independent consultant, even if they think they can. Some people really do better in a structured environment. You go into a brick-and-mortars place, you put in your time and you’re done, even if you do some work at home afterwards. But that’s really different than when you have to structure your projects and you have to keep yourself in line. You have to manage that, and manage other people as well. So, it requires a discipline of structuring yourself and putting in the work and putting in the time.
Lisette: Right! And I can imagine that. I know in my experience, that there have been people that have said, “I’ve never worked remotely before, but I am sure it’s not a problem.” Like they think because you’re in your pajamas supposedly, that it’s easy. And I think I always raise my red flag where I think “you know, it’s not as easy as you think. Yes, you’ at home, or wherever you happen to be traveling, but, it’s not just about, it’s not as easy as people think.” There’s definitely personality tools, all kinds of things that come into play there.
Adriana: Absolutely! And in fact, if that’s the first thing that comes to their minds, like you said that’s a big red flag, because actually, part of the discipline is first getting yourself ready in the mindset of work. And it really takes a Pro to be able to have that mindset while you are, let’s say, “in your pajamas”. So, to give you an example of some of my remote or mobile offices, they can vary, because I’ve been at this for so long and I have the discipline. They can vary from obviously airports, bars, as long as I have power. You know, plug in my computer, then I’m golden. I’ll order a beer, and I’m like, “just working away, or having a conference call.” And that’s great! But, I can shut out the world around me. And, not everyone can necessarily do that. They’ll get distracted or frazzled, or can’t concentrate. For me, I can have a screaming kid two seats away and I don’t even think about it. And, even when my kids were younger and I was working, somebody else would take care of it, would address their needs if they’re making noises or something because I was focused. So, other remote office areas could be…I could be in Maui, in my bed, looking at this great scenery in front of me with the big windows and I am working. And, this is early in the morning, before everyone else is up, because of the time zone. So, I take advantage of that time. But I can do that. Or else, I could be at my mountain home in Southern Oregon, and again, great views, I’m not really ready to tackle the day yet with hiking or something. I’ll just work in the morning and sometimes I end up being up being there ‘till 11 o’clock in the morning, still in bed, with my little table top, remote little table top, and put my computer on there so it doesn’t overheat, or a pool side, on vacation somewhere in Florida pool side. And now, the computers are better with regards to the glare. Which by the way, a lot of that is due to nanotechnology, use of quantum dots in your screens.
Lisette: Awesome! Way to figure it out. I love it. But it’s a good reminder for people to know. I mean, technology has come a long way, even in the last 5 years. But in the last 10 years, it has come a long way. So yeah, making it a lot easier. So, you said something about tools. I wanted to get on the tools subject. I’m curious, what tools does your team use to work together and communicate together?
Adriana: Well, clearly laptops are great. We still have desktops, at the very minimum. But, there’s software tools and there are hardware tools. Obviously, the software tools will be like this product Zoom or I use GoToMeeting for my remote meetings. But, there’s so many tools out there. File-sharing, Dropbox. But, hardware-wise, when you’re on the road, the tendency would be to, you know, “I need to pack everything, pack the kitchen sink.” And trust me, you don’t want to do that, because it gets heavy. But there are certain tools that I always carry in my rolling bag. And, you also want to have a combination of different rolling bags, depending on where you’re going.
I remember my rolling bag, which is probably pretty deep so you can put files in there and also have some remote, a separate computer bag, so you can be lighter if you need to go in without your big rolling bag. But, I remember using my rolling bag and I was at this conference in San Francisco, which was very crowded. And, because you’re rolling it behind you, there’s all these other execs tripping on my bag, because you can’t see it, it’s crowded, so they’re tripping. That’s when you don’t want to be using a rolling bag. So, a backpack is actually much better or a lighter bag.
I always carry either extra batteries. But, a tool that I think is very simple but has been very helpful is a label printer, or a little printer for labels.
Adriana: This is one of my old batteries. I’ll read to you what it says. I just want to know what battery this is. It just says “Adriana’s old HP laptop extra battery.” And basically, this way, I know “okay, this is not the battery I need for that particular computer.” So, you want to label your things, you want to label your cords. My power cord has ‘Adriana’s power cord’ because sometimes when my husband, when I travel, I don’t want him to take mine or vice versa. And, I always have duplication. I have my power cord at my desk, but I have a separate one that’s always in my bag.
One last thing that you need to pack, always carry, if you don’t have a backlit keyboard on your laptop, these are great. These USB LED lights. They’re flexible, they’re bendable, and you can actually light your keyboard very easily. It’s great for working in the plane, without having to have those big lights above you. I always carry around a remote mouse because you’ll never know you’re going to have a meeting with a client if you’re going to be sitting in the right place, and your computer is going to be far away. If you want to be standing around and moving around, you want to have the freedom to be able to use a remote mouse. That’s it!
And of course, this is my pack of single-serve medications. Whether it’s antacids or aspirin, you know, things like that. Or a small first-aid kit. Because, when you’re on the road, you can’t be facing something and have to go find a drug store somewhere. So, being on the road means being as sufficient and self-sufficient as possible. And, the other thing that is that I do always without a doubt is just in case, even though I have a smartphone, I print out my itinerary, my car rental, agreements I have, the reservation codes. And I have this on the outer pocket of my computer bag, because it’s handy. So it’s my itinerary, car rental, hotel, and any other really specific things. This is from my last trip. I had my speeding ticket that I needed to take care of as well, that I was going to take care of on my next trip.
This was it’s just handy and once I’m done with it, it also serves as a documentation for my expense reports. So, I already have it. Yes, I can look it up online but if it’s slow, or server’s down, or what have you, and when you have thousands of emails that come in, you don’t want to spend time searching for that. So, those are some of the tips that I do or use every single time. And I travel, right now, at least one week, if not, 2 weeks a month.
Lisette: Wow! I must say, I’d love these tips for how to be on the road, because I think people don’t realize how unproductive being on the road can be if you’re not prepared for the types of work you can do in various locations. Maybe you can do some kinds of work in an airport, but then, other kinds of work by the pool. Or, other kinds of work in the hotel. To really plan for it. I love the efficient and self-sufficient aspect of that. Awesome, for how to be on the road!
So we talked a little bit about what challenges your team faces. But, I want to ask what is it that your remote team does really well? What’s something that you guys just excel at?
Adriana: Well, I think now that we’ve been together for a while, they all really do come to the table, the “virtual” table, and are prepared with what they need to share. It starts with me setting the expectation and saying, “you’re gonna have 15 minutes, and these are the things that I am looking for” in terms of the project status update for example. What’s the latest on your project? What are some challenges or issues occurring? And, what are the next steps? So, if everyone follows that format, all of us can be up to speed more easily, more efficiently, provide feedback and ideas. So, that works really well. I’m really, really proud of how that’s going. And, we just had our 3rd internship meeting, project status meeting with my interns. And so, they’re fairly new to this, because they just came on board recently. So, it’s more important to be very explicit and stick to that general agenda or process.
So, the process I think is important. If the process is communicated, and then, everyone knows how to move forward, instead of being so abstract.
Lisette: You know, when you say this, it reminds me of something, sort of an assumption that I have about people who work remotely, which is, they’re a little bit more assertive in terms of the work that needs to be done and the preparations that need to be done. It’s just a feeling from talking to people and I think it’s my own bias, but I guess maybe assertive is the wrong word. Maybe it’s entrepreneurial. Like, people are being more self-sufficient because they work remotely. And so, they come to the table and maybe they’re more autonomous, maybe that’s the word I’m looking for. I’m not sure, but, do you get that feeling?
Adriana: Absolutely! And I think that, another way of describing that is “disciplined”. I think there’s a discipline that is born out of two things: one being entrepreneurial-minded, in that, you have to make do with what you have. And, the discipline part is one of my mantras as well, that says, “adapt, improvise, overcome!” So, you have to adapt to your environment, you have to improvise, and by doing so, you can overcome, whatever the limitations. Getting back a little bit to the profile of who would be successful in these types of situations or environments, and who wouldn’t. So clearly, the disciplined folks, the ones that can shut out the world, the noise rather, cancel out the noise and stay focused on the work. The people who do not shy away from low snags, that can roll with the punches. And, they don’t fear taking calculated risks. So, entrepreneurs are natural at that. And, they don’t shy away from change. You know, things are always going to be changing around you. The people that don’t do well in those environments are the ones that will get frazzled easily, or can’t concentrate unless it’s very quiet, or if it’s a perfect environment. If you’re thinking, “oh, that’s for somebody really much senior in their age” that’s unnecessarily true because I can tell you that another profile that would not work is the young and the reckless, that are not disciplined yet. So really, I think it comes down to being disciplined and having that appreciation for change and for limitations, because limitations are actually a really, really good thing. If you think about it, limitations are what actually makes us creative. And creativity is what’s going to help you address and meet some of these challenges.
So, when you don’t have change happening around you all the time, the creative part of your brain actually atrophies a little bit. So then, you don’t get creative in terms of problem-solving. So, limitations are actually the best. This is actually, and I don’t recall the study, I wish I did right now, but I don’t recall the study that I ran across one time. It said “if entrepreneurs had all the money that they needed and all the resources that they needed, they would seize to be creative or innovative.” And really, it stands to reason and that’s why there is that old adage of “invention is the mother of innovation”. I know I’m messing that little saying. But, it really comes back down to creativity and limitations.
So, the limitations, the more you conquer those, the more confidence you have, the more you get creative. So, being in an office, your same office all day in and out, the walls don’t change, the path, the process to get to your desk, none of that changes. So, your creative brain starts to atrophy a little bit, because you stop paying attention to those things.
Lisette: Yeah, it’s interesting! Somebody else that I interviewed, his name was Tao Harren, he’s a creativity expert from Sweden, he said exactly the same thing. He said “the best place for you to be productive on your tasks is a number of different places, not always in the office. I mean, maybe it’s 90% percent of the office, maybe you feel creative in the office 90% of the time. But for the rest of the 10%, you need to get out and do and go somewhere else to sort of stimulates the brain there.” Yeah! Sounds very similar to what he said.
Adriana: That’s right! In fact, I actually took this course from Professor Barbara Oakley. It’s a MOOK. I think you know what it means, open online course. That class was called “learning how to learn”. I was drawn to that class because it has to do with how do you learn about abstract science and math, concepts when they’re abstract. And because that’s in my field of course, I wanted to learn more about it. I also purchased her book, which I highly recommend called “A mind for numbers.” The subtitle is “how to excel at math and science, even if you flunk Algebra.” It talks about her story. She flunked Algebra when she was not good in Math. Yet, later on in life, she ended up becoming a professor of engineering at a university. So, it’s fascinating.
Back to the point on creativity, one of the things that she has tips as a method for learning and doing good in tests is actually that you want to practice test-taking in different locations, not in the same place, because you want your brain to be able to open up with other environments, other locations. So, not just in the same place because when that changes from under you, the subconscious of the brain actually gets thrown off. And, you’re not in your game anymore.
Lisette: I think that’s an awesome tip! In fact, I hired a speaking coach about a year ago to help me with some speaking gigs that I had, and he said, “when you practice, practice in all different kinds of places. Practices with the high voice and the low voice.” He said, “because when you get there, if you practice in your room alone, then when you get to the place, you’re going to get distracted by all the things that are different.” I love how these things come from all these different places. So, he does advice people, it’s coming from multiple sources, right on! Love it!
So, let’s see, I want to talk about culture because you’ve mentioned that you’ve traveled a lot and that you spend time. Sao Paulo in Brazil comes up a number of times. I want to ask about that. But in terms of culture and working with different cultures, what kinds of things are you are running into, if anything? Some people run into anything, but I always like to ask because culture is such an interesting, varied topic.
Adriana: Yes! Yes it is! So, one part of the world or two parts of the world that I’ve not traveled to is Asia and Africa. So, not a lot has drawn me there in particular. But Europe and a lot of South America, absolutely. I know that the business culture is very different in these parts of the world. In Sweden, I know that the entrepreneurial climate is a little bit more mellow. It’s not that there’s not an interest. It’s just that they’re not as quite as aggressive as, let’s say, in Silicon Valley or New York. So, the momentum is different. And in different parts of South America, where I have the most experience. I spent 3 years traveling about 75% of the time all over. There’s a huge difference! You would think that “oh he speaks Spanish” with the exception of Brazil which is Portuguese. But Spanish is really different. Spanish is my first language. And I could see a huge difference between the translation of my press releases, you know when I was in Corporate America, between Venezuela and Chile, and Argentina or Colombia, the Spanish was very different. You take one US American-written press release, and you have it translated, and they look different in those countries. So, I had to work with the local PR teams to make sure that the essence of the messages were conveyed the way I had intended them to be conveyed. So, you can’t take that for granted by any means. And then clearly of course, the local culture, the business culture, you know, you don’t talk business before dinner, but then you talk a little bit during dinner, and then, a lot more afterwards, in some of the countries. And so, you have to be on, all the time.
Lisette: Right! And it’s good to know that. How did you learn about this? Was it really trial by fire? You go to these places and you just absorb all you can? Or are there places you can go to help?
Adriana: Well there are books, by the way. Doing business with any given country, at least that gives you some of the basics. But then at the end of the day, it’s going to depend on the individual. So, it’s a person thing. How are you reading them? What are they seem comfortable with? And, you start with getting to know them first. And, it’s all about the person. At the end of the day, it’s all about the person, not about the culture. The person is not the culture, the person is the person, and the one that you need to engage with, regardless of what part of the world they’re in.
Lisette: Well, that’s a really good reminder that it’s still a person and that people are pretty similar the world over. And, we’re coming to the end of our time, which is crazy, but I think I can go on and on and on with you. It’s super interesting! We just started and when I looked at the clock, “Oh no! not yet!” So, I have 2 more questions. The second to the last question would be: advice for people who are starting out on remote teams. What advice would you give?
Adriana: Well, I think probably the best advice for someone starting is throw out the rule book on meetings when you’re dealing about it online, because it’s all different. If you’re just starting out, it’s just different. Get familiar with the tools, I would say that is a mechanic’s thing.
But, throw out the rule books in general. However, you do so only if you are certain that you’re keeping your eye on the objective. What is the objective? You know, for that meeting, for that relationship, for that project. If you keep that in front, then, everything else will sort of fall into place, and you’re rolling with it. Because again, you’re only starting out.
This goes back to one of my other mantras that “obstacles are what you see when you take your eye off the ball. And, that was actually something that I learned from back in college when I was playing Handball. And my Handball coach was the one that would tell me that, literally taking your eye off the ball, you see the obstacles; whether it’s somebody else or the wall, or what have you. But, it’s a great metaphor for life. It’s a great metaphor professional work.
Lisette: And I hear a lot that with remote working, you have to be results-oriented, and it sounds like this is sort of that same field, like keep your objective in mind. Like what is the result that you need to get from this particular interaction. So, I love that. Keep focused! I have a difficult time, I’m like a “shiny” kind of person. But, I have a particular time with this. So the last question then is an easy one and probably the most important which is, if people want to learn more about you and Nanotech Nexus, where do they go? What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Adriana: Well I can certainly be reached by email. It’s Adriana@nanotechnexus.org. My contact information and phone number are actually on the website as well, nanotechnexus.org.
Lisette: Nanotechnexus.org, great! I’ll make sure to put it in the show notes as well. And for anybody that has questions now or in the future, I encourage you to tweet out to #remoteinterview and we’ll get any of those questions answered anytime that they come up. So, thank you for your time, and especially since I was an hour off today. I really appreciate that we still got to have the conversation.
Adriana: Absolutely. Not a problem. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity.
Lisette: Great! And for everybody listening, until next time. Be powerful.