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Lisa Falzone

From Swimmer to Tech Entrepreneur for a Safer World

Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, all I wanted to do was swim. A childhood spent playing all types of sports gave way to a focus on swimming by middle school. My first job was as a swim instructor, and by the end of high school, I had my sights set on one thing: a spot on the Stanford swimming team, to be coached by the 6-time Olympic Swim coach Richard Quick.

Up until this point, swimming had been my main focus in life. Without it, who would I be?

Swimming competitively at a college level was something that I was good at. It gave me a boost in self-esteem and showed me that I could be a rock star at something if I set my mind to it. Swimming at that level isn’t easy, especially at a school like Stanford where actual Olympians are competing in the lane next to you. It’s a grind of a sport, day in and day out, to be the best. It’s the type of sport where you swim in meets all season, but the only one that really matters is the last one, the meet where you’re timed and ranked. All of the work you’ve done all season comes down to a two-minute performance. It’s a real lesson in performing under pressure.

Lisa Falzone
Stanford swim team

But real pressure hit three years into my college swimming career when an injury took me out of the water for good. Up until this point, swimming had been my main focus in life. Without it, who would I be?

I spent the next 3 or 4 years trying to figure out what I wanted the next phase of my life to be. The independent streak and singular focus that I had developed as a swimmer was hard to shake even outside of the pool. Even though I had swum as part of a team, ultimately each swimmer wants to be the best they can be. Your teammates, in some respects, are your competition. A swimmer wants to see her name on the record board.  A swimmer wants to be number one.

That mentality stuck with me until I finally realized what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: I wanted to start my own business.

There I was, at 25 years old, armed with a new dream and a few thousand dollars. With limited funds came the restrictions of practicality. I couldn’t afford to start a restaurant, lease a building, or hire a team of employees. To be successful at this juncture of my life, I needed something cost-effective. And then it hit me: technology. I couldn’t afford brick and mortar, but I could afford to pay some programmers.

Up until this point, technology wasn’t something that I’d had much interest in. My focus growing up had been so squarely on swimming, but I knew instinctively that to have a real shot at running my own business and to have that business be successful, the tech market was it. I just needed to find a way in. My initial idea was for a food ordering app, but I quickly came to see that a real problem for many restauranteurs was their point-of-sale systems. Up until this point, there’d be one or two computer stations in a restaurant where servers would input customer’s orders. These systems can be hard to use, I’d learn – they involve a complicated and sometimes outdated interface that makes it hard to train new staff members and makes it easy to make mistakes. They are also expensive, sometimes prohibitively so for a small business.

At the same time that I was conducting my initial research into the market, and growing increasingly interested and knowledgeable about the tech world in general, Apple was getting ready for its 2010 Keynote. I watched from my screen as Steve Jobs walked onto a stage and announced Apple’s latest innovation: the iPad. And then it hit me. Why does a restaurant – or any small business, for that matter – need a bulky, outdated computer to run their point of sales system? Apple had already done the work of creating a smaller, modern, less expensive device that would run apps just like the iPhone. Why not develop an app for the iPad that would replace the outdated point of sales system once and for all?

With that idea, Revel Systems was born. But getting from the idea to the finished product wouldn’t be an easy road. I knew that to have a real shot of not only developing my app but getting it out into the market before anyone else could come up with something similar would require more than the few thousand dollars I’d saved for programmers. I needed real funding. But the business world wasn’t exactly a friendly space for a young woman like me. It’s a male-dominated field, which presents challenges in nearly every aspect of starting a business as a woman, but especially when it comes to finding investors.

When you’re swimming, it can be tempting to look over at the swimmer in the lane next to you. Who is ahead? Are you behind? But a good swimmer knows to keep their eyes straight ahead and stay focused on their own race. A good swimmer has the confidence in their own abilities to just keep moving forward, and so that’s what I did. Buoyed by the confidence and work ethic I’d honed during my years of swimming and armed with a healthy dose of early-20’s obliviousness, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I knew it would be harder for me as a young woman, but I also knew that if I spent my time dwelling on that fact, I’d never achieve my goal. I knew if I was too scared to try, too scared to get into the arena, then there’d be no option but failure. I knew I had to be confident enough in my abilities and my idea to be fearless, to jump into the pool, so to speak and get swimming.

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard, because it was. I’d see again and again – and I still do, despite more and more women taking on leadership positions within the business world in recent years – female entrepreneurs fail to raise as much money as their male counterparts. Early on, I’d have older, established male colleagues set up introductory meetings with investors for me, letting them build me up so that I could then walk in as a young woman and have that credibility. The idea of needing a man to allow me entry to this boy’s club was infuriating, but I did what I needed to do because I knew I had a good idea, and I would do what was needed to make it a success.

I had my first child, a daughter, but found that being retired at 32 wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I missed the drive and purpose that came with running my own business.

And what a success it was! When Revel Systems finally launched, it quickly caught on from restaurants to grocery stores to food trucks to small businesses all over the globe. It allowed every business, no matter how big or small, to have a better way to run their businesses.

Lisa Falzone
Lisa and her daughter Ella!

In 2017, I stepped away from Revel and took a small break. I had my first child, a daughter, but found that being retired at 32 wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I missed the drive and purpose that came with running my own business. At the same time, especially as a mother to a young child, I was growing increasingly disturbed by the constant reports of school shootings that would play out on the news. And so, I had another idea: what if I could take everything I’d learned about business, and everything I’d learned about technology, and start another company that would somehow make the world a safer place?

I knew that the technology existed to pinpoint dangers in society, but that consumers were becoming increasingly aware and concerned by how this technology could infringe on their privacy. I decided to put a toe in the water and see if the market was there for a mission-driven business.

I decided to call this new company Athena, named after the goddess who served as the guardian of Athens. My idea was to use artificial intelligence (AI) gun detection software to recognize and alert whenever someone brought a gun into a place they shouldn’t. From day one, it was important to me that Athena be ethically driven. We would not use facial recognition, nor would we gather data on anyone scanned by the system.

there’s now an easy, unobtrusive way to not only keep students safe from guns and school shootings but also to discretely identify a child who may be carrying a virus and not realize it yet.

Once again, I found challenges in trying to raise investor money for this new business. From a financial standpoint, it’s can be easier to raise funding for a business that’s purely profit-driven. With Athena, I had a mission in mind and a clear set of ethical boundaries. I would not be swayed from my mission to adapt the technology into whatever the best product market would be.

Eventually, I was able to secure angel investment money, and Athena launched in airports, hospitals, manufacturing facilities, and government buildings. When COVID-19 broke out in the United States, we were able to tweak the tech to pick up on high temperatures in addition to guns. What excites me the most about Athena is that schools have begun to use it. Because the technology allows kids to simply walk past a sensor there’s no need for metal detectors, which can be traumatizing for young students. With Athena, there’s now an easy, unobtrusive way to not only keep students safe from guns and school shootings but also to discretely identify a child who may be carrying a virus and not realize it yet.

It’s been quite the journey from teenage swimmer to mid-20’s entrepreneur to mom trying to make the world a safer place. But what’s carried me through each transition was the confidence in myself that was developed as a young athlete. The same drive and determination that would allow me to perform my best at that final swim meet of the season is the same drive and determination that fueled not just one, but two different companies. And you can bet on the fact that these days, I don’t need any man to build me up before a meeting. I can do that all on my own.

 

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Turning Obstacles into Opportunities!

Born a Village Girl — Became a Global Social Entrepreneur

 

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