As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Fatema Hamdani.
Fatema is the co-founder and president of Kraus Hamdani Aerospace, a Brooklyn-based startup that is disrupting the unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry. Her experience spans across the aerospace, financial services, life science, telecom, travel, and retail domains. Under her leadership, KH Aerospace is reinventing Smart-Persistent, ultra-long endurance UAS (commonly known as drones) using artificial intelligence, machine learning technology, and biomimicry. KH Aerospace has built the world’s first fully electric, zero-emissions Persistent UAS with the longest airborne endurance in its category in the industry. These intelligent, efficient, and cost-effective UAS can travel longer distances, stay in flight longer and at higher altitudes, making them ideal for jobs that are risky for humans, such as disaster relief efforts, search and recovery, military intelligence and reconnaissance missions, wildlife anti-poaching operations, and even human trafficking prevention initiatives. Fatema spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year on the topic of technology and gender equality.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve been extremely entrepreneurial all my life. After my MBA, I started helping a consulting firm with its offshore services in India. They wanted me to come to the U.S. to help build the firm and expand services into financial services and life sciences verticals. I made partner and help rebuild the firm after 9/11. That was the beginning of my career at the intersection of solving big business problems with technology. After that experience, I worked with one of the largest mobile solution providers in the world to expand its business in the enterprise sector. As part of an expansion of that business, I met Stefan Kraus as we were building a joint venture together. He would eventually become my partner at KH Aerospace. Even back then, we discussed the potential for drone technology. We didn’t know exactly how we were going to work together, but we knew it was going to happen. We shared a passion for what could be possible with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology. I usually say that the universe colluded to bring us together.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I think the story that comes to mind happened almost three years ago, at our first-ever customer exercise; we had a new pilot and were working with the Air Boss to get frequency clearances for our flight operations. Another provider decided to block the frequency we were operating on as part of their exercise, without realizing that it was assigned to us. That led to an aircraft crashing, which was devastating for us. So, we had the choice to either return home or do something about it, and we chose to stay up the whole night and try to save the aircraft. Using JB Weld and duct tape, we made the aircraft flight-ready. The next day, we had three beautiful flights and proved how rugged our platform is. The lesson we learned was, however dire the situation, if you are able to see the humor in it and apply yourself, you will discover things you would have never found out about yourself.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I have always been a voracious reader, even before the pandemic. One series that has always stuck with me is the Good to Great and Built to Last books. They’ve had a huge impact on how I look at business. One of the big take-aways from those books that I’ve used is having the “who” before the “what.” In other words, building the right team and culture to execute your vision. Growing up, one of my favorite books of all time was The Alchemist, a book about following your dreams, finding your inner flow, and creating from within.
More recently, I enjoyed the book Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall. It feels so relevant now, but it came out a year ago.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
KH Aerospace is a triple bottom line company. What that means is, we focus on social and environmental concerns just as much as we do on making money. It comes down to profit, people, and the planet. That vision is reflected in what we make and how our products are used. The mission of our company is to save lives by providing aerial intelligence and bridging the gap between data and decisions.
Being a triple bottom line company makes good business sense, as well. Purpose-driven brands are becoming more financially successful. It’s about creating businesses for the future. In order to have a future, we need to come from a perspective of sustainability for our planet. This approach also attracts great talent. When I hire people in the aerospace, AI, and robotics fields, they are more interested in working for a purpose-driven company. The type of people we want to work with are interested in using their skills and technology for the greater good. That’s the reason we have been able to build such a strong culture at KH Aerospace.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
One fundamental thing that entrepreneurship has taught me is that there is always a work-around to whatever is in your way. Once you are aligned with your purpose, you are more driven, and nothing will stop you. As an entrepreneur, you must get comfortable with hearing the word “no.” The only way to survive all the rejections is to know your purpose and keep going back to that. Your ability to pivot, to problem solve, comes from that purpose. Your commitment to your purpose will determine whether your business can survive.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Living in New York City, I have a front-row seat to the impact of this pandemic. Before COVID-19, I had a very full social and professional life. I was raising capital, traveling, visiting our customers all over the world. I spent about 60% of my time on a plane. Being at home has been so different. I’m single, and the biggest thing I miss is a friendly hug. I hug all of my customers, even two-star generals. Not being able to hug, not even my parents, has deepened the sense of isolation. However, I did order a Peloton bike, and I have to say, it has helped me maintain my sanity!
Dating has come to a screeching halt, but I have experienced some beautiful relationships blossoming virtually. We can’t touch, but we can still connect. I have also really missed nature and being near the water. Entrepreneurship forces you to adapt. You have to adapt to every curve ball. This is a big one, but what else can we do? We have to find a way through it.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We were among the first to have our office staff start working from home — one week before the State of New York ordered it. However, our manufacturing workers, engineers, and R&D team build hardware, and that can’t be done from home. We had to create a safe schedule for them to be able to go to work and social distance even when building and testing aircraft. We had aircraft testing that needed to be done in Yuma, Arizona and we thought long and hard about how to keep our team safe. Just the decision to send them there was hard. They had to quarantine after they went there. One member of my R&D team went back to Scotland to be with his family, and we don’t know when we are going to have him back again or when the travel ban will be lifted.
We are very fortunate not to have to lay off any staff. We made the decision that we were going to cut costs in other ways so we could still make payroll. We eliminated any non-essential costs. We applied for the PPP loan. We actually ended up hiring personnel during these times. We also hire a lot of veterans and re-train and re-tool them; this is when we cannot back away from that, either.
One thing that we started early on was to do a daily check-in with our entire staff. It’s just a 10-minute group meeting where we make sure everyone has what they need, and just talk it out. This was the best decision we made because it showed our employees that we will take care of them. More recently in these check-in meetings, everyone has been taking a moment to declare what they are grateful for. Even when things are going wrong, we can all find something we are thankful for. That ability to fall into gratitude has really changed everything.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I recently read a great article in the Harvard Business Review that perfectly captured what I had been trying to express. We are all experiencing grief. We are in collective mourning right now. There are five stages of grief and everyone goes through them differently. And we are all mourning different things — loss of loved ones, loss of the way of life we knew, loss of jobs, customers, businesses we used to support that are closed and may not come back. In our daily check-ins, no topic is taboo. We want our staff to be open with us about how they’re doing and where they’re at emotionally. We have to be able to vent and let that out or it will become a distraction. Personally, I have stopped watching television and it has helped me combat the anxiety of all of this.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
It’s beyond sad what has happened — so many lives lost. What is interesting is that this pandemic has exposed all of the weak links in our society. We have seen globally, nationally, locally, and at the individual and family level, how quickly things can unravel. To truly commit to the transformation, we need to experience the breakdown. This is the breakdown, right now. And breakdowns are painful. We’re experiencing loss at a degree we have never experienced before in our lifetimes. But the loss, pain, and devastation are what we will utilize to create the breakthroughs — to rebuild and make things better. All the gaps in our way of life have been exposed and there is no going back now. For too long, we’ve been taking, taking, taking. Borrowing against our future to enjoy the now. And we are seeing the results of that. Post-COVID, we have an incredible opportunity to create new practices, to figure out a cohesive existence with ourselves and our planet.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
One thing is for sure. We need new ways of working. This is a moment to recognize what wasn’t working, and replacing the models, and conventional ways of doing things that were not serving us. Working from home is a perfect example of this. Employees and companies are seeing the benefits of this and some are going to continue doing it even when this is over. Employees can spend less time commuting, which cuts down on traffic and pollution, and companies can spend less on office space and overhead. But then, these buildings will need to be repurposed. What will they become? There is an opportunity there, too.
One industry that will need to evolve over the next year is the events industry. We don’t know when we will be able to have large groups come together like we used to. But there is still value in bringing together groups of people to solve problems and connect with each other. What is that going to look like? I think there will be a revolution in this area. Already, startups like Konf www.konf.co are looking to disrupt how virtual events are being done. Expect a lot more in that area.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As a startup, we have been raising capital to help us get to our next growth stage. We decided not to put that on hold. Fundraising during a pandemic — during a shut-down — has forced us to become more efficient in how we do things. We have also seen incredible support from our customers, offering to help us connect with VC and private equity firms. Our customers standing up for us and fighting for us is the best testimony.
We are still recruiting and hiring, as well. We have a special focus on hiring veterans. Our goal is to retrain veterans to work for us in many different capacities. Post-COVID, we want to continue to create jobs in various jurisdictions. We were already building out our R&D functions in Puerto Rico before the pandemic to support the communities there. We want to increase that when the timing is right.
Right now, and after the outbreak subsides, every business has to think about supporting their local communities. If the communities don’t survive, then our businesses won’t survive, either.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I encourage other entrepreneurs to be really mindful of their spending. This is the time to account for every dollar. Cash on-hand will determine whether you will survive. Can you create some kind of payment model with your vendors for the short-term? Renegotiate things with vendors and partners to create more cash flow. Flexibility allows for growth, while rigidity leads to breaking. When you have to make a decision, go back to your business plan. Reinvent as needed, pivot where you can. And, above all, find your community. My network of founders and entrepreneurs has been so helpful through this. We all helped each other go through the PPP loan process together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Where there is will, there is always a way. Living and growing up in multiple countries, the one thing I have discovered about myself is that I am “thriver,” and this life quote has supported me in doing so.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can connect with me on LinkedIn.