Tech Female Founder Bronwyn Morgan
When Bronwyn Morgan was a child, she wanted to be a fighter pilot and eventually an astronaut. But, as she laughingly explains, a physics course during her third year of university kind of killed that dream. Instead, she forged a path in business and worked for companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, and became a seasoned executive in sales and marketing and strategy work.
Bronwyn continually found herself working on projects in the realms of innovation, upstream technologies, and in research and development. As she left her post at Coca-Cola, one of her sunset roles was being part of a group that focused primarily on startups around the world to discover ways to commercialize the company. That reignited her excitement about science and technology.
Years later, she left the corporate world to become an entrepreneur. For many years, had professional stints in innovation and entrepreneurship, and worked in and out of Silicon Valley. Bronwyn shifted her work and became an innovation consultant, where she worked with Fortune 500 organizations to build future-proofing strategies. In other words, how can corporations look at different technologies to reinvent themselves and maintain relevance moving into the future?
When drones came up as a civilian commercial opportunity, it was a perfect marriage for Bronwyn. It combined her business skills with her love of aviation and aerospace. She studied to become an FAA-certified drone pilot, and her startup Xeo Air was launched. (Her other companies are in the unmanned aerial vehicle training space [UAV] and urban air mobility [UAM].)
We sat with Bronwyn — virtually, of course — to talk about her journey as an entrepreneur and black female founder in tech, and what the future holds for the drone industry.
Tell us about your startup
Xeo Air specializes in drones as a service that focuses on data collection and data analytics through artificial intelligence and machine learning. We’re also working on autonomous solutions. In addition to Xeo Air, I also have Airversity, which provides FAA drone pilot exam preparation, training, and consulting.
What’s your experience been like with Xeo Air gaining traction and scaling in the last few months?
I won't say it hasn’t been challenging, because the world has been turned upside-down in more ways than one. We’ve been making phone calls and reaching out to customers. And many of those calls, there’s just no one on the other end. A lot of our customers are still trying to figure out how they’re going to move forward.
It’s been an interesting and challenging time because people are now just starting to understand what the new world will look like, how companies will operate, what they need, the staffing, and how they're solving their customers' problems.
As industries in and of themselves are evolving, what's been demonstrated with drone delivery is a need for additional types of unique services. How will they continue to foster that growth? And what’s their spend? But I think it's really helped us to take a look at what's important, where the growth will be, and where the needs are.
Some companies are trying to pivot by hopping to different industries. And from my understanding, it sounds like you’re helping your existing customers in industries you currently focus on. And to offer solutions.
Correct. We’re highlighting how our services can help them be more productive and make decisions faster. Because we're able to do things that in the past where they’ve had to hire helicopters or fixed winged aircraft for, and hire people to climb towers. We’re able to go up and down with a drone in a significantly less amount of time for a significantly less amount of money — and provide sophisticated analytics.
The customer can also make decisions so much faster with the kind of detailed data and the speed that we can provide. For our focus sectors of telecom, energy, oil, and gas utilities, civil infrastructure, and government, drones are able to revolutionize how business operates. So I'm very excited about what's what's to come. I think people are seeing that this is where technology really can make a difference and help society, especially during challenging times.
What have you learned during this time to help your business thrive?
I think a skill that’s always been there, but one that I’ve honed in on more recently, is resilience. We've had a couple of customers literally close. They’re no longer going to be working with this industry. And some have had to close their doors, period. Others are making a strategic choice. It’s a little bit unnerving.
But we realized that those gaps will be filled by customers and sectors that need drones as a service, to provide data and autonomous solutions for quick access to information. We’re staying nimble, and being patient and strategic. We’re looking for new ways to solve customer's problems and working with them collaboratively to figure it out.
And one thing that will help propel you forward is the founder's passion. I think that encourages customers and attracts potential investors. So you've got to love it, and you've got to really want it. Right now we’re hit with the global pandemic on top of other nuances happening in our culture, with racial injustice protests. Instead of throwing in the towel, you’ve got to stay the course.
Let’s talk about the funding process. Do you feel females or black females receive the funding required to launch and grow startups?
Black women in a tech startup tend to raise less money than our male counterparts. If you look at the national statistics, we raise on average, less than 1% of all VC funding. And we are the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs in the country. So those two things don't necessarily match.
Especially in an industry that's heavily dominated by men, it's a bit more challenging. Xeo Air is at a very early stage. We’re not expecting to walk in and ask for half a billion dollars. We’ve primarily been focused at this stage in angel grants, and presentations and pitches. I’m expecting a very solid summer and fall in our fundraising goals.
But it feels very much like you're a salmon swimming upstream, even with good ideas, experience, and maturity. You’re not often considered as a viable player, because people who are investing don't necessarily look like you, and they don't see themselves in you, and they question your abilities.
But there’s a lot of new capital on the market, and funds being led by women. There are also funds specifically dedicated to minorities and people of color. So I'm encouraged to see that in the marketplace. We certainly expect to be able to tap into some of those resources, because traditionally this has not been an easy path.
I'd like to see more black female minority women getting funding because we're solving big problems. We’re doing the heavy lifting. And coming from a background where I’ve worked for some of the biggest companies in the world, doing hard stuff is not uncommon or frightening.
Specifically as a black female to work diligently through adversity, manage multiple things at once, and still be able to produce and show up, is not necessarily appreciated nor is it understood.
I'm also encouraged that more women want to join tech and do things that may be unexpected. It’s also encouraging that the women behind us, you know, girls in STEM, want to follow in these footsteps. I want to see more of us on the cover of Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and The Economist.
What resources and tools have you found to be the most helpful?
I’ve found that the communities and the leadership of these entities have been extremely helpful and engaging, encouraging the growth of their founders. We continue to reach out and support, and to hop on newly created podcasts. We just created the Xeo Cast podcast this week that went live on all podcast platforms.
And our academic partnerships have also been great because we've been working with professors and PhDs on advanced elements of our vision.
My board of advisors have been so meaningful. And of course, fellow entrepreneurs who are going through the same thing. Being able to pick up the phone and call somebody when it’s been an awful day. Knowing that other people are also in the same boat helps, so you don't feel so alone.
Any surprising silver linings during this time?
I think the silver lining for me is that it has given me an opportunity to really step back from the hard-charging, and be even more intentional and strategic around how we're operating. I think we were on a good path, but this really kind of gave me a little bit of a time cushion. It’s been very difficult to step back and really think about where we want to start to focus.
I’ve had the time to investigate, to look a little bit deeper, and gain more clarity and resources and tools. Having the ability to step back and look at things, versus constantly being in it and churning, has been a blessing
What do you think the future holds for the drone industry?
In the next five years, we really expect our industry to be thriving, and the company to be thriving. We expect to be well along in our new technology and solving problems, operating in certain instances with autonomous systems, and actually uncovering problems that we didn't know existed. We also expect to be adjusting and pivoting solutions to meet those needs. For my company to be nimble, I see the future as an ever-evolving fountain of innovation, especially for my sector.
I have a saying: Your size and your money won't protect you. And I never want to feel comfortable thinking, ’Oh, we've got it all figured out.’ Because I think that the future will require us to have a very flexible mindset, and to really think about continuous improvement on how we're operating and showing up for our customers every day.
As an innovation consultant, that was something I led a lot with. Having worked for major global entities who are very financially secure, we always thought, ‘Oh, we're fine. Startups can't take us out.’ When you look at Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, Spotify, you start to see a completely different experience for people, and a shift in spending investment. Companies have probably thought that they were completely safe from startups, and they never even saw it coming.
So we’ve got to think in ways that it's really about future-proofing. It doesn't matter how much money you have or how big you are. You can be disrupted. Or how smart you think you are, or just because you're working on really cool stuff.
Somebody else might be coming on with something that leapfrogs you. And you're like, ‘Oh man, why didn't I think about that?’
It’s not even about thinking outside a box anymore. You've got to really immerse yourself in so many unique ways of thinking, in diverse experiences and thoughts. That’s when inspiration comes to you. That will move your business forward, and propel it. It’ll help you be a better provider and partner to your customer.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
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