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‘Star Wars’ geek learned to go ‘zoomba’

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

As a child, Helen Greiner became captivated with R2-D2 in “Star Wars.”

When she discovered that the little robot was only an actor in a can, she vowed to make it come alive. “He saved the universe—several times, by the way,” she says.

Greiner has kept her vow with iRobot, the company she co-founded that supplied PackBots to search the World Trade Center ruins and later to detect bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“They’re not having a war without us,” Greiner had declared, and by mid-2002, PackBots were searching for bombs and terrorists in mountain caves.

On the consumer side, iRobot’s self-propelled vacuum, the Roomba, has sold more than 1 million units in two years.

As chairwoman, Greiner took her company public in 2005 and led it into 2008 with 15 consecutive quarters of year-over-year growth.

How she did it:

First, Greiner attended MIT because of its famous robot-building competition, studying mechanical engineering and receiving her master’s degree in computer science. After an internship with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she launched a two-person startup and struggled for years to build space and research bots, picking up these lessons in leadership:

  • Get over shyness. Like many leaders, Greiner realized she had to leave the research to others so she could go out and lead her company. Relentless, she overcame fears of public speaking and flying. “If I had to pick which woman was going to be a leading businesswoman, I wouldn’t have picked Helen,” says a college advisor. “She used her iron will to change herself.”
  • Failure is nothing to be ashamed of. Try something hard and learn, Greiner says. Her father told her girls couldn’t play chess. She played him for almost 10 years until she beat him. “Take the risk,” she says. “Especially when you are young.”
  • Responsibility toughens you. A daredevil at snowboarding, Greiner learned true fearlessness when she had to make payroll.
  • Stereotypes stink. “To me, leadership isn’t about the guy with a square jaw who’s taller than everybody else,” she says. “It’s somebody who has the passion, the enthusiasm to listen to people and their ideas.”

— Adapted from “Mother of Invention,” Jessica Seigel, Pink magazine.

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