As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Drace-Brownell.
Denise Drace-Brownell, Founder and CEO of DDB Technology, is a visionary innovation and commercialization executive. In her career, she has consistently discovered untapped opportunities and built new markets. Her leadership abilities have enabled her to inspire management teams, reaching ever higher goals to achieve remarkable objectives at DDB Technology.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I am passionate about innovation and getting excellent products and services to customers and businesses. One of DDB Technology’s guiding principles is: “We believe directed innovation solves problems — whether inventions to improve daily life, or breakthroughs that transform the human condition.” During my career, I developed a multi-functional background, which led to higher level positions in companies, and eventually to founding my own company, DDB Technology.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are many of these. But the most meaningful was resolving a short-term vision issue I had, and then discovering a large unmet medical need among others who suffer from a similar condition. That led to many opportunities to develop diagnostics and new technology to aid the millions who have undiagnosed binocular vision disorder (BV disorder).
I found that BV disorder affects over 12% of the population in developed countries, and that estimate is conservative. Some clinical studies show prevalence numbers higher than 30%. With the increased use of computers and digital devices, the number of symptomatic cases is expected to rise.
Binocular vision problems often cause discomfort, blurred, and/or double vision which might result in loss of concentration, fatigue, and difficulty with learning, reading and math skills. Even working with Excel can become nearly impossible. Balance may be impacted. It is often misdiagnosed because many don’t realize that it is a vision issue.
The interesting part of my story was that I had developed a protocol to help other patients with my combination of BV disorder issues. I was running a business and wanted to donate it to a vision company. Unfortunately, their outside doctor used her own experimentation and gave me the wrong direction and excessive amounts of prism correction in my eyeglasses. I ended up back in NYC at the Lighthouse Guild for vision challenges, trying to resolve my own condition, which included falling every seven feet.
The next few years I lived our principle that directed innovation can solve problems and transform the human condition. I made several findings such as the annual economic damage assessments in the US alone are estimated at over $230 billion. And there are special challenges with an individual’s limitations in working with formulas, such as those in equations and algorithms. Ultimately, I found the transformation to a digital age will demand a transformation in vision diagnostics, treatments, and technologies.
As I developed new diagnostic tools and technology to resolve my own condition, I received multi-million dollar offers, which my team is assessing. In the meantime, I published a patient guide to the disorder to help the millions suffering from this problem: Binocular Vision Disorder: A Patient’s Guide to a Life-Limiting, Often Underdiagnosed, Medical Condition
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In 1986 I accepted a position as the executive director of the Northeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission. I was appointed by Governors Kean and O’Neill (Governors of NJ and CT, respectively) to head an interstate commission designated to manage and dispose of radioactive waste, from inception through successful national initiatives. Unfortunately for me I had not read the latest amendments to the federal law. On my first day of employment, I received an official letter from Congress stating I had 18 months to inventory the waste in the two states, perform geological surveys and feasibility studies for the two states hosting a radioactive waste facility, enact state siting legislation, choose a host state, and submit full documentation to Congress.
I realized it was a near impossible position I had accepted. We had minimal funding, so I formed a public/private partnership with large companies in the two states that needed a place to dispose of their waste to continue operations. I learned an important lesson: Enlist the cooperation of those most wedded to the end results. They will pull out the stops to accomplish the goals. What continued was one of the most successful operations in the US. We accomplished our federally mandated goals, avoided $4.5 million in penalties, plus the shutdown of disposal facilities with heavy financial losses.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful to Professor Louis J. Sirico, Jr. (now deceased) who was a professor of law at Rutgers, Camden New Jersey. Lou recognized my talent when I was in his regulated industries class. He understood that I came from a modest background. I mistakenly thought Rutgers-Camden was an Ivy League school I could afford. Instead, it was a small, recently founded law school in the heart of what was then one of the worst ghettos in the US. Lou helped me gain acceptance to coursework at the University of Pennsylvania. That led to my gaining full funding from the University of Illinois to start a telecommunications program. This was in 1979. I was only 24. I foresaw telephone and computer communication developing into a single medium. My work was cutting edge. Lou believed in me and became one of my most important early advocates.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It is important we develop and maintain diverse executive teams. They further the sharing of ideas that reflect our diverse populace, and the commercialization of products and services that are accessible to the population as a whole. Diverse executive teams inspire the ranks that they too can climb the ladder and receive recognition for their achievements.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
To become a more inclusive and representative society we need to recruit from not just Ivy League schools but include state schools in the top echelon of opportunities. Not everyone has the means to attend Ivy League or private schools, yet there is great talent and motivation in other populations. For hiring we need to reach out to broader geographic areas, and not just the east and west coasts. Recruiting from inner cities should be included. Corporations can help with local community centers and supporting services such as after school programs, and food for the underprivileged. Johnson & Johnson has helped over the years to revitalize the City of New Brunswick. Tech companies are developing new programs designed to take people from all types of ethnic, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds and provide them with the skills and opportunities they need to succeed in the tech world.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO is responsible for vision and inspiration, as are other executives. But a CEO has final responsibility for all outcomes. “The buck stops with the CEO,” to paraphrase President Harry Truman.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Being a CEO is less about managing existing protocols and more about vision and creating opportunities for the organization. A good CEO recognizes his or her responsibility to build value and is a proficient recruiter of talented managers to execute the corporate mission.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I had no differences in my perception and the reality of assuming executive responsibilities. I climbed the corporate ladder and had a good idea what was involved with the job from watching other CEOs to whom I had reported. I started working for Gannett Newspapers at age 16 and had an advantage of watching top executives early. Gannett was an excellent training ground.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Being a CEO requires vision, discipline, and the ability to inspire others. There are visionaries who prefer to work more in solitude, creating new products and concepts, but do not enjoy inspiring and leading teams. They would not be good candidates for a CEO position and would not enjoy it.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
People on my teams like working with me. I include everyone, and work to lead by inspiration, and to encourage their strengths. The whole becomes larger than a sum of the parts. I built one of the few risk management programs that became a profit center in a company we later sold to Foster Wheeler. One of my practices was “lessons learned” meetings. We analyzed situations that had not had optimal results and strategized how to do better without casting blame on the participants. Team members were excited to be part of the solution.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Making the world a better place was the “Greatest Generation” model. My father was a World War II veteran, and he exemplified that philosophy in his life. I have followed his lead while serving on several non-profit boards over the years and volunteering free legal services to those in need. My vision project was initially pursued by me as a philanthropic project. We later made it profitable to ensure the continuity of the mission.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
A) Be agile. Circumstances can change overnight which alter the mission. My short-term vision disability, for example, led to my finding a multi-billion-dollar market. I achieved an unprecedented accomplishment in the midst of chaos.
B) Carefully listen to all sides, but don’t ignore your own instinctive thinking. John Cronin’s advice years ago kept me working during many a dark hour when some of my vision findings seemed unbelievable. John said, “If everyone says you are crazy, you are probably on the right track.” John Cronin is the Managing Director and Chairman of ipCapital Group, Inc., an innovation and intellectual property consulting firm.
C) Pioneering women inventors face more criticism and hurdles than their male counterparts. I never experienced those in my previous corporate leadership positions. Just last week a business professional asked me in disbelief how I could have discovered a vision problem that had been ignored for decades. One of my colleagues howled with laughter and said, “Based on that logic, Columbus never would have discovered America.”
D) Expect failure. Failure is research until you give up. For example, I signed on to work with a SaaS business company which had serious challenges in their planning and execution. I learned from those limitations and developed IP Pro® as the more useful business tool. I have won awards for IP Pro® for innovation and business growth.
E) Take time out for rest and rehabilitation. Brian Tracy recommends taking weekends off. Often, I found myself so impassioned with a mission that I worked into the night. Putting it on the shelf for a period might have been more useful at certain stages.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My mission is to inspire a movement that helps millions resolve their binocular vision challenges. Individuals and society need this assistance. This is one public health challenge that we can readily address. One of my personal quotes is the following:
“The transformation to a digital age demands a transformation in vision diagnostics, treatments, and technologies.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my guiding quotes is from C.S. Lewis: “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth thrown in: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”
I found this to be true in business too. Look to the higher purposes and not just the bottom line, and the business will be more successful. It has been amazing how that has worked for me repeatedly throughout my career.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Sir Richard Branson. He is a visionary who never stops creating. I’d love to hear how he maintains the energy and inspiration to do that.