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Tech is still dominated by white men. Lola Han’s business is on the rise, but the road to success hasn’t ever been easy. In growing her business, Han said that she has faced many challenges, but they’re usually more related to her gender than her ethnicity.
In 2017, Han founded CultivatePeople, a consulting firm that helps startups and emerging tech companies develop better payment structures. The company’s main mission is to make compensation painless for companies while helping to solve pay disparities for fast-growing companies by using machine learning to match employees’ jobs to reliable, global market data. CultivatePeople’s software launched publicly in July 2020, but even with all the success, Han still has to deal with people who doubt her.
“About a year ago, I was at a happy hour, and a guy asked me what I do for a living. I told him I’m the CEO and founder of a tech startup that helps make sure employees are paid fairly,” Han shared in an email interview. “Later on that night, he circles back and says to me, ‘You know, earlier, when you told me you were a CEO, I thought you meant a CEO of a handbag company or something’.”
Situations like this, which have happened on more than one occasion, have motivated Han to prove people wrong about her abilities to lead a company. When it comes to scaling from a startup founder to a CEO, she values mentoring and educational opportunities the most.
Where She Started
Han is a first-generation U.S. citizen born to Korean parents who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1973. Though she was born and raised in Rockville, Md., she didn’t speak any English until she entered kindergarten. Her parents worked hard and saved up every penny to open a coffee shop in downtown Washington, D.C., where Han would work during summer vacations in high school.
While the coffee shop experience was beneficial, Han didn’t see herself making lattes and cappuccinos for a living. She always envisioned running a business of her own. She ventured into tech after working as a compensation manager in 2012 for Ellucian, an education technology solutions provider, where she eventually worked her way up to senior director of people operations. It was in this role that Han learned the common departments and functions of a tech company.
“When I was growing and scaling a non-tech company, I felt like there were less intricacies to consider and plan for.”
“I knew I eventually wanted to start my own business helping startups, but I knew I had to have the actual experience working at a startup to have credibility,” she told Lifewire.
Han has lived in the D.C. area virtually her entire life, except from 2015-2017 when she moved to San Francisco to gain some true startup experience. During that time, she worked at Lookout and Zendesk before returning home to launch her own venture. When she saw a need from her client base to create inclusive compensation software, Han did just that.
“Many of my clients, who are mostly heads of people or HR, kept asking me if I had recommendations for any compensation tools or software that helped make compensation less painful for them,” she shared. “There weren’t any on the market, so I decided to build one myself—one tool that has reliable global market compensation data but also helps automate companies’ routine compensation processes.”
How She Leads and Plans to Grow
Han continues to indulge in startup training opportunities, and she’s learned the value of delegating tasks to her six-person team to evenly distribute tasks and avoid burnout.
“As I hire more leaders, my job is more about removing obstacles and giving my employees the resources they need,” Han explained.
Prior to the pandemic, Han already had her employees working remotely, with most of them residing in the D.C. area. Having an established virtual culture helped her company adjust to the health crisis a lot more quickly than others.
“In the past couple of years, I’ve worked from D.C., Hawaii, California, and even Slovenia,” she said. “We’re a passionate team, and with us growing fast right now, we celebrate every new client virtually with lots of funny GIFs and emojis.”
Han said growing a tech-focused consulting firm has had its perks and challenges. She said she’s struggled the most when looking for tech employees (as opposed to non-technical professionals) to join her team. Even with this, the speed of growth at her company is fast, so she’s constantly looking to hire new team members. Tech startups have to make sure their products are secure and safe for consumers to use online, she said, which adds another thick layer of priorities to focus on.
“When I was growing and scaling a non-tech company, I felt like there were less intricacies to consider and plan for,” said Han. “I feel like it’s [a] more intense velocity and with more complexity.”
One of the main reasons Han decided to move back to the East Coast before launching her business is because she wanted to build closer to home. As she works through the challenges of growing a tech startup, and pushes through those experiences with people who write her off quickly, she’ll lean on the strength of her hometown roots to pull her through.