Mieko Kusano, industrial designer, is a quiet force behind the Sonos product line. The Senior Director Experience Strategy for the Company holds more than two dozen patents. She went from designing a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) system for Philips to creating the Home Sound System for Sonos. In an interview with impactmania, Mieko speaks about the challenges of being a female leader, business cultures in the Netherlands versus the US, and creating new experiences.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
The ratios are getting better, but they used to be really bad. So even though they’re improving, we have a lot of ground to make up.
There is a lot of unconscious bias going on with both females and males. I certainly believe that the bias impedes the growth of women in companies. I don’t think society—especially in the US—has totally figured out how to deal with women when they become moms.
We see a great amount of women doing quite well early in their careers. Then when they become moms, there is a dramatic shift. We acknowledge this as well at Sonos. Music is very gender neutral. In fact, you could argue that maybe on average more women listen to music than men during the day. It would be super beneficial if more women would be represented in boardrooms and in product decision making, because the product we’re making targets a general population.
You mentioned gender bias. What have you seen?
I’ve realized that the unconscious bias is just human behavior. We make so many decisions to survive every day, and we have been living in a society with a certain view. The unconscious bias happens with both men and women. If you have a culture where there is one type of population that is over-represented, the dominant representation is the one where all the bias goes in a certain way. If the group is 90 percent men and 10 percent women, then the way men communicate becomes the dominant way. This is not necessarily the way women would interact with each other.
Should women adapt to become more like men? I don’t think that is right. Should men adapt to be more like women? That’s not the right thing to do either. We are different for our own reasons. What we need to do is to show empathy both ways, it is the only way to really resolve this.
What are you doing personally, specifically in your role, to making it more equal?
That’s a good question. I try to focus on the things that are in my control. For example, I focus especially on women who are 10 to 15 years younger and mentor them to show how they could best work within these conditions. This is how we could all lift each other up.
Among the women you mentor, what are some of the most challenging things they have trouble grasping, or find very difficult to master?
What I am most able to speak to are things that I’ve undergone myself. In my career, I did a lot of things very wrong, but you learn from your mistakes.
When I had my son, I felt like I couldn’t give the company as much as I did before in terms of work hours. I wanted to have a balanced life between being a new mom and being at work, so I decided to work 80 percent. But in reality, I worked 150 percent. That’s me finding the right borders and figuring out the right balance, and holding onto that.
I think women sometimes get stuck. I’ve been stuck many times, where you just feel the world’s against you. Because you have a pregnant belly, people discount your work. That’s hard to break through and you can get super frustrated about it. In fact, when I was pregnant with my son, I was in a different mental state and I think I produced some of my best work.
What are the things women can do to be happier and to be more successful? A friend of mine, Ayse Birsel, has written a great book called Design the Life You Love, which was very introspective in terms of figuring out her real motivations. A friend of hers recently wrote a book entitled How Women Rise. It’s a leadership book written for women, and it’s so different compared to the conventional books out there. One of the other things I am doing is starting a book club for women. Let’s read these kinds of book and let’s talk about it. And what can you do to help each other?
Do you also feel that women could be much better supporters of other women?
I’ve noticed in group situations with male and female participants, there are different communication styles. It’s a well-known fact that men more often interrupt women. They also don’t necessarily listen all the way to the end to what a woman has to say. There is a tactical thing you can do, which is that when a woman is speaking in a meeting, everyone (including the men) become a bit more sensitive of making sure that she gets to finish her thought. Then we might also spend a bit more time emphasizing that to reaffirm it, because when two people say it, it registers better.
Men are just wired differently and so this is a way to break through that. But in general, I always find it very sad when you see some women trying to take down each other. In our industry—we’re trying to get from a participation level in the tens to the twenties percentage as a first step—we’re far behind. So let’s not try and take each other down. Let’s enable each other and go from there.
We always ask our interviewees, who has left an imprint on their professional DNA? I’m sure there have been many. Is there anyone who stands out and helped you become a better leader?
One of the early mentors in my professional career is Stefano Marzano. He was the CEO of Philips Design and he really helped me understand the process of how to design with keeping people in mind—an experience-driven design. He is somebody I greatly admired, and there are many more.
What stayed with you when you think about the former CEO of Philips Design?
Stefano was very passionate. In consumer electronics, the dirty little secret is that it’s a bit of a replacement society. Companies want you to buy a new one version every so often. Stefano was one of the early thinkers saying that is not how you design products. Coming from Italy, it was much more about things that should last. The whole concept of aging with dignity is something that I very much took to heart, and try to apply with Sonos. And so in Sonos, 93 percent of the products we ever shipped, including ones we did 13 years ago, are still working, and people are still using it.
You had an enormous impact on the Sonos. Often, people merely see the executives; most people don’t know how instrumental you were in designing and creating the products. Can you speak to being among the first 10 employees and actually creating the company’s entire product line?
Yes, I was the only female leader in the early days. The experience-driven process I stood for made it all the way in the company values today. It is one of the three key values for around the 1,500 people at Sonos. For me, that’s perhaps more valuable than an individual product I have made. But I’m really passionate about making great products. Seeing all the YouTube videos being posted of people using Sonos to have fun times with the families and kids dancing. That’s what gets me excited. I don’t necessarily need to be in the limelight. Although, lately, I have realized that maybe again, that’s is part of being a female.
It is not necessarily about being in the limelight, it is inspiring others to make a difference in their fields. Most stories we hear are of men change makers while there are phenomenal women who contribute greatly to our society as well.
I love this project that you’re doing because I think that is the way to do it. And I realize it’s bad that you have to seek us out. I recognize that I have probably things to give too to the community. I am trying to figure out how to be most efficient about it. I used to say no, and maybe I should have said yes and speak up more. [Laughs.] Which reminds me of an incredible leader I was fortunate to meet: Shonda Rhimes, and her year of saying “Yes.”
Can you tell us a little bit more about the first project at Philips?
The first ever project I worked on actually grew out of my graduation project (1993). I saw that there were Gameboys, but there were no Gamegirls. Even the parents said, “We’re spending $200 buying an electronic toy for the boys but there’s nothing for girls.” I thought, “This is a crazy situation, and also a really interesting opportunity.”
What if we make an electronic product that is more focused on girls? In the end we made a personal digital assistant. It was a touch screen base portable product that was gender neutral. Kids could write on it with a pen, they could make messages and communicate with each other. There were little games on it. That’s how my career started.
How were your experiences working in the Netherlands versus in the US?
I ended up in the United States through being expatriated from the Netherlands via Phillips. The company sent me to the Tropical Institute in Amsterdam to learn about the differences between American culture and Dutch culture. I thought, well, I can speak the language, now how different can it be?
There were some things I learned that are probably still true. One of the reasons why we see a lot of innovation happening in the US is because there is a little bit more of an optimistic “let’s just try it out and see what happens” culture.
When I started talking to the Sonos founders of whether or not this would be the right company for me, they indicated, “We know it’s going to be hard. We have no idea if we can do it, but we’re willing to try.” I like that.
In the Netherlands, we don’t have a lot of respect for hierarchy in organizations. In Phillips, by no means did I have an executive role. There were many different layers above me, but I always felt I could just speak up and say what was on my mind.
The Dutch labor laws have something to do with it. [Laughs.] You cannot be fired in an instant. We consider ourselves all equal. In the Dutch culture, a lot of things are decided through a cross-hierarchical debate, which is quite healthy.
In the US, I had to learn that if I would speak in the wrong situation, that the leader would actually feel that it was a show of distrust. That had nothing to do with it; it was just input. Sonos is actually a company that really believes in transparency, so through that value we do have a better opportunity to say what needs to be said, but still you can see the difference between a US company and a Dutch company.
We see more and more companies responding to the change in consumer landscape and making products that last, but that are also meaningful. You spoke about the importance of experiences. Obviously, Sonos will have more opportunities outside the home thanks to an increase in interaction with technology in cars and even public spaces. Can you talk about where Sonos as a company is heading concerning social and cultural impact?
We had the same mission for 15 years, which was, fill every home in music. We all love music, but we also learned along the way that music is a unique type of content that really can change your emotions.
We’ve changed the mission recently to listen better, live better. Listening of course still has to do with music and great content but we believe people should listen better to each other.
We should listen better to our customers. If we do that —create a more two-way communication—then we will live better. So that is quite a broadening of a mission. It means that we are looking into many different spaces now that we might not have looked at before.
The other area that you highlighted is that there is enormous technological change going on driven by some of the big tech companies out there. In China through Baidu, and in US through Google, we now have artificial intelligence voice systems that are now above 95 percent accuracy level. That means it’s more accurate than you listening to me or me listening to you because humans are not 100 percent either. This is a change for the world and clearly for Sonos because we can now use one of our senses—like you mentioned our voice—and interact with the product. For Sonos, we started out making speakers and sound systems that you control through your phone or another controller. And the speaker itself was more about the output. It’s beginning to become the conduit that you can interact with directly. I can’t speak to any specific solutions we make in the future. A lot of it is based upon what could happen in that world, when people who use more of their natural senses to control and enjoy listening experiences, and what can you do with that.
I started in the world of PDAs, the personal digital system with little screens you could write on. Suddenly the smart phones appeared and that was a big seesaw change. This is another major change propelling the future. Not everything in your life will be controlled through the phone.
Every 10 to 20 years there’s another big change that comes along, and so I’ve been fortunate enough in Sonos to have seen a couple of those big pivots happen. Because then suddenly you have to actually think, “Okay, this is not just about this product, this release, of this particular software. But it’s about how do we plant ourselves in this new world?”
We’re talking about experiences; give me a few words that describe your personal experiences so far.
One of the experiences I’m getting better with is the juggling of work and family and friends. There is definitely a lot of juggling going on. The other one I think is balance. I always try to spend some time being introspective, trying to figure out where do I sit, what am I doing, does it make sense?
It’s good to take some distance and again force yourself to think about what you are doing, does it makes sense? And where do we go from here? I had to do that several times in Sonos. When you’re only with 10 people it’s a totally different company than with around 1,500 people. I literally had to reinvent myself several times.
I don’t know if it is the demands on people today, but everybody seems to be a bit unsettled and in transition. Do you have a process, or steps you go through, to guide yourself?
I conquered my insecurities. I know what I am good at. I really try and take a step back from my job. Where do I want to be in three to five years? That has made me make some unconventional career moves. Hierarchically, I’m pretty low on the ladder. I wanted to work on some specific areas of strategic impact to the company as more like an individual contributor. I’ve moved laterally, which surprised people because I wanted to figure out how to create new experiences. I basically switch positions every two years, but there is some thought process behind it. Don’t get stuck in conventional structures and hierarchy because that is just all superficial, that’s not reality. Think about what you want to achieve, what you want to learn, and then find out about it.
You’re only on this earth one time, make the best of it, and figure out what makes you happy and what are you passionate about. It’s hard sometimes. I’ve had situations where there were a lot of things that made that picture very blurry.
A good friend once told me to live in that uncertainty. That is maybe a good thing to acknowledge and then take it head on: it’s called liminality.