Category: Q&A

Getting to know Karen Tillman

Meet Karen Tillman, the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s newest employee as the Interim Executive Director. Tillman formerly worked as Chief Communications Officer at Oracle, Cisco, GoDaddy and Brex and brings more than 25 years of experience from the tech world. Growing up in San Luis Obispo and traveling through work, Tillman has found her way back to her community. 

Tillman recently sat down with us and discussed her passions and excitement for her new role: 

Q: You’ve had some big roles: Vice President at Oracle, Chief Communications Officer at Cisco, Senior Vice President at GoDaddy, and Chief Communications Officer at Brex. So, what intrigued you about working within Higher Education and why did you choose San Luis Obispo? 

In my tech career, I traveled a ton and I lived in the Bay Area for a little. But, for the most part, I’ve always lived in San Luis Obispo. The reason I wanted to change to this role specifically and work in higher education was that even though I worked on some amazing projects, I always felt pretty disconnected from where I lived. I’m pretty extroverted — when I go downtown, I love running into everyone I know. But, I wanted to understand what it felt like to work and live in the same community. I hope that some of my previous experiences will help shape the work that I do here on behalf of the University and local region. I always knew that I wanted to work at Cal Poly and I sort of rattled through the years’ different iterations of what that could look like. But this ended up being such a great fit.

Cal Poly has such an awesome community, the institution is so impressive. What the CIE is doing has to be one of the best in the U.S. and I think that the best days of the CIE are ahead of us!

Q: What is something that has surprised you about working in higher education? 

This wasn’t necessarily surprising, but when you actually experience it, it’s pretty amazing, which is the depth of knowledge in different areas at Cal Poly. I’ve sat in on some talks around campus, attended classes on various topics, and learned about so many different things — it’s totally mind-blowing. Every time I go to a talk, I always come out thinking: why didn’t I major in that, why didn’t I major in Social Science? It’s so eye-opening, the schools of study are so immense and fascinating. Where people specialize – how they do it and how people find their niche also fascinates me – I just love that part of the process. 

Q: What does the future look like for economic development in San Luis Obispo? 

The University has had pockets of economic development for years and some really cool projects. When President Armstrong made my role a position out of his office, it was because he saw there was so much opportunity in our region right now. For instance, the Morro Bay wind area and the three wind developers that are looking to build the first deepwater offshore wind installation in the US. We need to think, how do we as a community come together to not only shape these opportunities in alignment with our regional goals and values but also drive economic growth? We always have to think about how we can keep our community vibrant, innovative and alive. A lot of that comes from economic development. So, when you think about projects even in other spaces like Space Commercialization, Precision Manufacturing and Ag Tech, these are huge opportunities that could create massive jobs in our region which is also a huge opportunity for Cal Poly. 

In some respects, it’s an embarrassment of riches and I don’t know which amazing opportunity to focus on first because there are so many that have so much benefit for us! This is a very rich area to develop and over time it will become clear what paths are going to be the most beneficial. 

Q: Describe your perfect day. 

My husband and I wake up at five every day, by design. We love it because we sit and have coffee for an hour and stare out the window at Madonna Mountain. Then, I would go take my dog Frida out to run — we usually go to Madonna Mountain or Poly Canyon. Then, I would come back and have brunch somewhere yummy. After that, I would take a nap — a perfect day would have a nap. Then, in the afternoon, I would go up to our horse ranch in Creston and take my horse and maybe another horse out on a ride. Then, I would sit out with some friends, have wine in the backyard and look at the sun going down in Creston. That would really be a perfect day.

Q: What do you admire most in other people? 

Authenticity. I don’t know how you have a real relationship with somebody who isn’t authentic to who they are. I’m not interested in someone’s status. People who are completely themselves are fascinating and I love learning about who they are, what motivates them, what they love and what they don’t love. So, I think authenticity and vulnerability — vulnerability is kind of necessary to be authentic — are the things I deeply admire and am attracted to. I enjoy it when things don’t feel produced or forced. 

Q: What is something that you are passionate about and why? 

That’s part of my problem, I tend to swing back and forth between a few different passions. My family is an obvious one, I have a 19-year-old daughter at the University of Oregon. We have that kind of relationship where we just click and I cannot say how much I have loved being her mom. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever experienced. 

I’m also extraordinarily passionate about anything outdoors. I work with a nonprofit horse rescue that rescues Mustangs, so that’s probably where I spend the vast majority of my concentrated time. Our ranch has over 20 rescues right now and we adopt them, train them, then adopt them out to other homes. It’s pretty heartbreaking what we do to wild horses and so wild horse advocacy is something that I’m super interested in. 

I’m also really interested in women in technology issues, women’s rights issues and social activism. 

Q: What is a movie you could watch every day and why?

Pride and Prejudice. If I wake up too early and I can’t go back to sleep, I watch Pride and Prejudice. I was a literature major in college and I love the story. I love the way it budges around social classes and the role of women. It’s an extraordinarily progressive concept, especially for when it was written so I love that. 

Q: If you started a business, what would it be?  

I used to want to run a cheese shop. I love understanding what people are doing and how they are looking for cheese to be in their life. Then, I like matching them with the right cheese. In fact, at some point, I registered a domain called The Cheese Algorithm, which was basically matching somebody to cheese. 

The other thing I started at GoDaddy was a reverse mentorship program. I was blown away by how beneficial it was for people earlier in their careers to mentor more senior people. I always thought that would be just an amazing nonprofit to start in some capacity. 

Q: What makes you passionate about entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship defies logic in so many ways. I do not have an entrepreneur’s brain myself — I think I have an innovator’s brain but not an entrepreneur’s. The bravery and courage it takes to become an entrepreneur, it astounds me. I have an insane respect for those who are willing to walk that path because it’s not an easy one and it takes a special human. 

Spending almost three decades in Silicon Valley and seeing the actual impact and results of those who are brave enough to walk that path is amazing. When I started at Oracle, it had 40,000 employees and when I left Oracle, it had 120,000 employees. Cisco had 75,000 employees when I Ieft. You don’t know how people will do it but they make it work and end up employing hundreds of people around the world and powering governments, cities and corporations. It’s just mind-boggling what entrepreneurship and technology can do.

I have never lost my passion for the transformational power of technology. I think the pure nature of what many people try to do through entrepreneurship and in technology specifically is a marvel.

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Let’s Talk About Entrepreneurship

A graphic of two people having a conversation. A speech bubble is above them that reads "Let's Talk About Entrepreneurship."

With the goal of starting an open and honest dialogue about entrepreneurship, we reached out to the local entrepreneurial community to ask what questions they have about entrepreneurship.

Our subject-matter experts from the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) have answered those questions in support of their fellow entrepreneurs: 


What industries are the most successful? The least?

Judy Mahan, the Economic Development Director at the Cal Poly CIE and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) said that business-to-business (B2B) — especially software as a service (SaaS) — is generally the most successful industry within entrepreneurship.

“B2B is sometimes a long sales cycle, but the pricing is typically more compelling and you can sell for a higher price,” Mahan said. “And SaaS typically, you can keep your overhead pretty low. The one tricky part there though, is you have to have a really amazing CTO. Your software developers are really important, and that’s a hard talent to find.”

Meanwhile, the least successful industry within entrepreneurship is typically manufacturing, Mahan said. 

“It costs a lot of money, a lot of upfront investments. You might be left with inventory, and supply chain issues can really jeopardize your business,” she said.  


What does it take to build a sustainable and scalable company?

Mahan said that building a sustainable and scalable company requires (1) a strong foundational team and (2) sufficient funding. 

We’ll delve into the funding and investment process in the next section — but Mahan emphasized that regardless of how much funding a company receives, it is useless without a strong startup team.

“It is a key element to be able to hire the right people to do the right job,” Mahan said. “The right team can really help you execute on the business plan, the business model and hopefully generate revenue.”


How do I know if I need to raise money?

Tom Katona, a Cal Poly professor who teaches in the Orfalea College of Business (OCOB) and the College of Engineering (CENG), provided insight into when founders should begin raising money for their startups.

Startups should raise funding if the business has (1) a need for capital growth, (2) a plan on how the capital will be used to grow and add value to the business and (3) investors who see an opportunity for a return on their investment in the business, he said.

Katona explained that most startups will require funding at some point, but that funding can come from many different sources. 

“Venture investment is only one source and is appropriate for only a small percentage of startups,” he said. “Early investment in companies typically comes from friends and family who aren’t necessarily looking for venture type returns, and although they still want a return on their investment, they are largely investing in the entrepreneur because they have a personal connection or relationship with that individual.

Katona also pressed the importance of an entrepreneur finding a method of funding that is appropriate for their startup.

“In my opinion, the most important question for entrepreneurs to be able to answer is what is the right type of investor they should be looking for that aligns with their expected business growth and investment return, and being able to identify which investors may be appropriate for different stages of a business’s growth,” he said.


What is a mastermind group, and how do I find one?

A mastermind group refers to a peer-to-peer mentorship group composed of people in similar industries. 

Jose Huitron, the CIE’s Director of Student Innovation Programs and an OCOB professor, suggested that entrepreneurs who are looking for communities similar to mastermind groups use social networks like, LinkedIn and Facebook. He also suggested using existing networks for referrals, or finding like-minded individuals in on- and off-line gathering places — for example, one might find fellow book-lovers at a bookstore or library.

Part of building social capital is to become genuinely interested in connecting with others whether that means attending a meetup or relevant industry gathering,” Huitron said. “Everyone has a community.”


How do you convince your parents that entrepreneurship is a good choice?

Huitron advised students to explain the significance of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship teaches problem-solving skills and creativity, both of which are valuable skills in a world that is constantly changing.

“A student should use the opportunity to explain how entrepreneurship is an enabler for them to practice their skills and bring their talents to the stage of opportunity,” Huitron said. 


How can we level the playing field to increase diversity in the sphere of entrepreneurship?

Huitron suggested a number of efforts that can be made in order to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the entrepreneurship space:

Raise the narrative. Talk about it. Highlight the challenges and opportunities for growth. Celebrate progress,” he said.

He also said that it is important to “make equitable progress a focal point.” Organizations should take advantage of opportunities to increase diversity, and create strategic DEI initiatives with measurable impact.

“Find champions and have them model the way to drive an inclusive and open community where ideas and people can thrive,” Huitron said. 


How can heavy industry better engage with early stage startups?

Dan Weeks, a mentor to several student-led CIE startups, including our 2022 Summer Accelerator teams, teaches his mentees “how to test if new business ideas actually solve real problems [for which] target customers are actively searching for a solution,” rather than exhaust time and resources creating a product they assume customers want, he said.

Early stage startups can accomplish this through digital marketing advertisements and single-page websites for new product ideas, then developing products that generate consumer interest.

Meanwhile, Weeks said heavy industry “often has ideas on new products to add to their offerings but does not know how to test if the new product [is worth investing in.]” 

“Heavy industry can learn from the early stage startup best practices,” he said.

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