Meet Karen - President and Founder of KPM Power Inc.
Karen Lai is the President and Founder of KPM Power Inc., a customizable lithium battery solutions provider, with a specialization in battery management systems (BMS). KPM’s BMS ensures that the lithium batteries meet the requirements for functional safety to ensure optimal performance.
An ardent supporter of the advancement and implementation of clean technologies, Karen has nearly 20 years of experience with global supply chain management. Her other passion is encouraging and empowering more women in STEM.
Karen is a member of the advisory board for York University’s BEST Program, which supports entrepreneurial initiatives and programs with a STEM focus. She started a bursary to offset a portion of tuition for first and second-year female engineering students. She hopes that in minimizing the financial barrier many young women face, the path to closing the disparity gap between women and men in the field of engineering will be impending.
How did you enter the industry? What do you enjoy the most?
My background as a mechanical engineer led me to manufacturing. I previously worked in supply chain management, but I had a harsh burnout from my last job and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I ended up starting a job in a different industry, which opened my eyes to a gap for creating cleantech products.
What I enjoy most is building a company from scratch and creating an environment that I want to work in, and hope others will want to as well. We hire a lot of students, and new grads and see a lot of diverse backgrounds. I enjoy waking up every day and coming to work because everyone brings in new energy and they enjoy being here.
Why it is important to celebrate International Women’s Day? Have you integrated any of those key messages into your business model?
We need to bring power back into our hands. Growing up Chinese, I was taught that girls were less than. There was a horrible term Chinese people used to call girls at that time - its translation is “lost inventory”. Growing up my parents were very loving, however, there was always subliminal messaging about the value of a woman. I had to work twice as hard because I felt I had to prove myself if I didn't want to be “lost inventory”. I think it's important to shine a light on women so that we can strive for this equality and embrace everyone's diverse backgrounds.
For us to hire, in a pool of resumes (if I get 10 resumes) it's only maybe one or two females. What we try to do is give the female the interview because to have an interview is an experience on its own. We also started a bursary to pay for a portion of tuition at York University for women in engineering. This way their financial barrier is minimized for them, and hopefully, more girls will enter engineering.
Who is the most influential woman in your life?
My mom. She wanted me to be a good mother, and a good wife - very traditional. But she also made a career for herself, working in factories and working on minimum wage to support a family of five. She decided to go back to school, enter a completely different industry and transform her life in her fifties. I saw her incredible work ethic, and that's why she's my hero.
What has been one of the biggest hurdles in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Being in a very male-dominated industry, there were a lot of hurdles, and female coworkers did not necessarily seem to be equal to men. It was difficult because I had to work extra hard. I had to speak a little louder to get my point across, but in a way that people didn’t feel I was bossy or aggressive. Given my Chinese upbringing, that wasn’t natural for me.
Having a platform to speak openly without being judged was very hard to come by. I became burnt out at my last job - I could never put down my phone. The company was growing at a rapid rate, and I was the person bringing in that growth. Work was nonstop on the weekends.
Being a mom of two with my husband having a full-time job, it was just too much. You can't work that many hours and not expect somebody to burn out. This is something I’m mindful of with my own business. Especially as a start-up, we're in growth mode too, and have many client deliverables. I'm very mindful that I don't burn out my employees.
What advice would you give young women interested in manufacturing?
I find manufacturing interesting because it's a place to create process efficiency and improve quality. You can measure how well you're doing. As a woman, I think naturally, we have that innate ability to look for inefficiencies because we are excellent multitaskers. Also, don’t be afraid to speak up and create a time for an open discussion with your employer.
Entrepreneurship was not something I saw for myself. I was a worker bee all the way. Being a woman in the male-dominated industry of mechanical engineering, I was probably only one of four girls in my class of a hundred. My intentions were always misunderstood and in terms of career growth, there was already a ceiling. Now it's still only 20% of women entering the engineering field, so the challenge is still present. I found myself interested in engineering because I love math and the sciences and being able to incorporate them into a business was exciting. You never know where an industry can take you - be open and a field can take you many different places.
To learn more about Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME’s) commitment to supporting, promoting, and inspiring women to pursue careers in manufacturing, and discover how to get involved, visit https://cme-mec.ca/women-in-manufacturing/.
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