Doreen Lorenzo is a little quirky – and not just because she lives in Austin, Texas, the city that embraces weird like no other. Her eccentricity is mostly professional (with a nod to the fact she describes herself as a kitten herder on Twitter.)
But here is the bigger bit of quirkiness: From 2013 to 2015 Lorenzo was President of New York City-based Quirky, where she oversaw product development and operations for this fast-growing invention company.
Before that, she spent 16 years at frog design, a San Francisco-based product design and brand strategy company. For seven of those years, she was the company president, driving strategy, overseeing worldwide operations and delivery, and leading the design firm to record growth.
Beyond kitten herder, Lorenzo is a business leader, advisor to multiple start-ups and a strategic thinker. Her passion: "Helping creative people succeed."
As a thought leader on design and innovation, she's a frequent resource to various business publications. She's been featured on ABC News and Bloomberg Radio, and has been quoted in Fast Company, Fortune and The New York Times, among other publications.
She has also served as a member of two World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils on Emerging Technologies (2011-2012) and Emerging Multinationals (2013-present).
Lorenzo did her undergraduate work at the State University of New York's Stony Brook University and earned a Master’s in communication and media studies from Boston University.
We were more than intrigued — and sat down recently to hear more.
Sobel: You've credited your parents as a big influence in your life, noting: “Their view was, whatever you want to do, we’re fine with it ... My father told me, 'Don’t ever say no to anything.' That is always in the back of my mind, and it’s something that I use in leadership, too. You’re presented with an opportunity. Maybe you’ve never taken on a challenge like that before. But don’t say no. You take that leap and you take that risk." Can you talk abut that?
Lorenzo: Life is about experiences. You can watch it pass by or jump in and get your hands dirty. I choose the latter and have never regretted it. I coach many young people to do the same. It remains core to who I am.
Sobel: The people at the Columbia University Business School/Center on Global Brand Leadership introduced us. In fact, you'll be speaking at their annual BRITE Conference next week in New York City. But we have another connection, Carsten Wierwille, who we interviewed last year following his presentation at BRITE. While you were at frog design, you said you “waited patiently until Carsten could come and work for me. It took about 3 years.” Can you share with us a bit about frog and your work there?
Lorenzo: I started at frog leading its digital media practice before there was such a thing. The company had about 40 people. I became chief operations officer and then the last seven years I served as president. My team and I grew frog to about 1,000 people with 11 offices worldwide. The company became a global innovation leader. It was a wonderful culture and we worked on some amazing products across so many different industries. The most important part for me was the people. They were a truly incredible and talented bunch.
Sobel: Following 16 successful years at frog you pulled up stakes and joined Quirky as president. Quirky allows inventors to submit their ideas, while also playing a significant role in the development process. Can you tell us more about Quirky, what inspired you to leave frog and why you decided to leave Quriky after less than two years?
Lorenzo: Product development has changed dramatically over the past decade. Designers can easily access not only people’s attitudes and preferences, but also how they behave from minute to minute — who they talk to, where they go, what they purchase and how they use products over time. This information is a gold mine for product developers.
Quirky’s model was very interesting to me. There’s no more guess work. The public essentially tells you what to make. I wanted to understand more about this model since I knew it was the future. I am still an advisor to Quirky as well as several other companies that are doing similarly interesting things.
Sobel: I read that back in high school you said, “I was involved in theater. I worked on the newspaper. I did speech. I was always a very outgoing personality, and I think outgoing people have natural leadership capabilities.” Can you tell us more?
Lorenzo: Some people have a natural ability to lead, but they don’t develop it. I seemed to just gravitate towards leadership situations, enjoying the challenges and the profound learning opportunities I uncovered along the way.
Sobel: You originally wanted to be a filmmaker. You worked on a variety of films and eventually ended up at frog. Sounds like an interesting journey. Can you explain?
Lorenzo: It goes back to jumping at the opportunities life presents to you — especially the ones that push you outside your comfort zone. I loved working in film and video and still do. In the early 1990s I became fascinated with the Internet as a powerful new way to deliver content. I knew it could become the primary communication channel for our society, and that it was important to get in early.
I went to work for a computer company and got this crazy idea to sell computers online in 1995. To help us open our online store, I hired a small user interface (UI) design firm. During the course of our engagement, the UI firm we hired was bought by frog. In 1997 the founder of frog, Hartmut Esslinger, asked me to come and run his company’s digital media practice. The rest is history.
Sobel: Since leaving Quirky you have gotten involved with a number of unique projects including humanLearning, Reaction Housing, Shop Vida, The Network of Giving and The Foundry. Can you give us a quick snapshot of each?
Lorenzo: The Foundry is the de facto leader in visual effects software. It's been in business for 18 years, and today every major movie uses The Foundry’s software to create special effects. Now it's moving into design software and I am helping it.
HumanLearning has cracked the code on the concept of knowledge management. It has an easy, fun solution to capture important information and instantly curate it.
The next three are companies that are giving back.
- Reaction Housing has reinvented disaster housing, providing comfortable, dignified and easy-to-deploy housing for people who are displaced by natural or manmade disasters.
- Vida crowd-sources ideas for women’s clothing, manufactured in Pakistani and Indian factories in which a portion of Vida profits are given back to educate the workers.
- The Network of Giving is a small, 14-year-old company in Edmonton, Alberta that enables local giving in your community.
Sobel: Your presentation at BRITE next week is called “Leadership According to The Cat Herder.” What we can expect?
Lorenzo: I’ve been asked for years to talk about my leadership style. It took me a very long time to actually think about what I did, because I just did it instinctively.
What I’ve learned is that empathy is the most important skill for anyone who aspires to lead. But applying it in a fast-paced and often cutthroat business environment is easier said than done. At BRITE I’ll share some ways that managers and leaders can thrive by putting empathy into practice.