I met Jenny Lawton on the first day of CES at the giant MakerBot booth. She had been interviewing with industry analysts all afternoon. On the table between us was a variety 3D printed vases and figures, made with MakerBot's newly announced composite filaments.
She looked slightly tired — it was her first CES as CEO of the company, and MakerBot was one of the stars of the show — but ready to talk printing. So when I told her I just wanted to ask her about her life, she looked positively relieved.
For three years, Lawton has worked for MakerBot, one of the most well-known manufacturers of consumer 3D printers, which is now owned by Stratasys. She started with no experience in 3D printing. She just visited Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot, at their office in Brooklyn and resolved she would work there. The energy was captivating.
Lawton has worked in a variety of industries — solar, medical devices, consulting, venture capital — and she was enthralled with them all for different reasons.
Her most exceptional venture, however, had nothing to do with technology, and it prepared her the most for her role as CEO.
After September 11, 2001, Lawton needed a break from the technology industry. She had worked through the dot com boom, and it was time to reconnect with the world and rework her career.
"I just wanted out," she said. "I took 10 years out."
Always a tremendous reader — her father was in the military and she traveled and spent a lot of time alone as a child — Lawton adored books. So she opened two bookstores: Just Books and Just Books 2, and a coffee shop: Arcadia Cafe, in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The bookstores didn't make much money. When she ran out of funds, Lawton was ready to return to the tech industry.
"In some ways the bookstores and the coffee shop were incredible failures," she said. "But the other way, they were incredibly successful. I got to meet Stephen King and Henry Kissinger. I knew everyone in the town and watched kids grow up, and taught so many how to read. That's an experience of a lifetime."
Lawton attended Union College in New York just 10 years after they started admitting women into the school. Her class was 70% male. She couldn't find a use for her applied math major after she graduated, so she worked in consulting for several engineering companies, running CAD software and then computer networks, before moving to the MIT Lincoln Lab where she wrote code for stealth radar systems. Then she worked for a company called Starden, which went under on Halloween 1991. So, she founded her own company to provide outsourced system administration.
Then the internet happened, and she was flung into the whirlwind that was the tech industry in the late 90s and early 2000s. She worked as a venture capitalist for a year after she sold her company, and that's when she decided to open the bookstore.
But she never completely left technology behind. She made a website for the tiny store and put in a point-of-sale system that she didn't really need. The job taught her "how to deal with customers and inventory, and [better] understand the value of cash, and of value," she said. She forged strong relationships and learned how the dynamics of a business really worked.
"I learned humility, and a lot more about myself and how the world works," she said.
Lawton called her longtime friend, venture capitalist Brad Feld, of the Foundry Group, and asked him to find her something interesting. He told her to go to MakerBot, and she was immediately captivated by the culture there.
Even though 3D printing is 25 years old, Lawton knew this was an opportunity to be a part of a technology that's going somewhere. She was inspired.
"It's at the bleeding edge right now, there's so much potential," she said. "Having been a part of the internet growth curve was an incredible experience, and you don't really realize it until looking back."
Lawton said 3D printing is on the same projectile as the internet was back then. She recently spoke on a panel with Walter Isaacson, the author of The Innovators, and now tells everyone that if they really want a roadmap for 3D printing, to read that book. It's the same story, the same ingredients. The internet didn't really take off until Tim Berners-Lee brought the World Wide Web to people.
"It's the same thing with MakerBot, we're really bringing that accessibility to people and it's not going to take off until that [happens]," she said. "It's really incredible to be involved in. The opportunity to do it twice is great."
In her own words...
What quality has gotten you to where you are today?
"It all sounds trite. I'm always trying to figure this answer out. In some ways it hasn't been very intentional. I don't seek out a new job, I usually go to the next thing thats interesting. I've done a lot of different things and don't usually do the same thing twice. I love to learn and grow. I love taking things that are new and being able to grow them up. The biggest thing is I don't take the answer no very well. 'You can't do that' isn't really in my vocabulary. If I want to do something I'm going to see if I can do it and do it to the best of my abilities. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail."
What do you look for in employees?
"I look for people who can tell me what they're good at and what they like doing. A lot of times you find people are doing a job they're good at but don't like doing and you get a lot of discontent when they're in that position. Also, it's just critical that people are on board culturally with what we're doing. I don't care how good you are, if you're not a fit culturally, it won't work. I [also] need someone with self-awareness to say this is a skillset I need to work on to get somewhere."
What are some of your hobbies?
"When my son was in high school he was a competitive rower so I became a rower. I love getting medals, I'm very competitive. As an adult coming into a sport and achieving it and being able to go somewhere with it is really interesting to me. When I [started working] at MakerBot, I couldn't row anymore so I started playing tennis. Now I play competitively. I love, on the weekend, being able to go and play a tennis match."
What do you like to read?
"I dont read as much as I used to. I'll read in batches. Now that I have my Kindle reader and can bring it around its great. I still like reading books in person....I like to read really bad mysteries and spy books."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.