Blair LaCorte Wants You to Build a Diverse Team

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Blair LaCorte AEye

Blair LaCorte is the CEO and a board member of AEye. Not only that, he is also training to be an astronaut, hoping to be part of Virginia’s roster of the first civilians to visit space in 2022.

As an executive, Blair LaCorte has “transformed companies in eight different industries.” His experience ranges from “B2B, Technology, Logistics, and Asset Optimization.”

As a leader and strategist, Blair LaCorte also has a “long history of leveraging change management skills to drive operational alignment and growth within companies.”

His career as an entrepreneur started in the family. Blair LaCorte grew up helping out his stepfather and mother who ran an airline business. Together with his siblings, they would start by “getting up before dawn to clean and prep the planes.”

While working for his parents, Blair LaCorte discovered how hard it was to run a business. He saw his parents constantly stressed out, “trying to make ends meet.”

So, as he grew up, Blair LaCorte decided that there had to be a better way. He earned a business degree and eventually “found a niche helping entrepreneurs put process in place to eschew volatility.” This happened after much trial and error.

If you ask Blair LaCorte, he’d tell you that his career “has been all about being curious and taking risks.”

Check out more interviews with industry leaders here. Watch Blair LaCorte in conversation here.

I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed for a job. I’ve kind of fallen into jobs and they’ve all been entrepreneurial. Blair LaCorte

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Blair LaCorte: I grew up in an entrepreneurial household, where my stepfather and mother ran an airline, and all of us kids worked in the business, getting up before dawn to clean and prep the planes. It was a true startup: my parents were constantly under stress, trying to make ends meet. I thought there had to be a better way, so I got a business degree and, with time and experimentation across different industries and roles, found a niche helping entrepreneurs put process in place to eschew volatility.

I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed for a job. I’ve kind of fallen into jobs and they’ve all been entrepreneurial. My career journey has been all about being curious and taking risks — trying things that are different and that sometimes make me uncomfortable. I’ve switched industries eight different times, and — while some people would say that’s crazy — I think it’s been advantageous. I’ve been able to add value to companies by bringing people skills and patterns from one industry to another.

Jerome Knyszewski: What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Blair LaCorte: My dad used to say, “How you define the problem impacts how you build the solution.” When I was doing my due diligence on AEye, it occurred to me that others were trying to invent laser hardware that captured as much information as possible about their surroundings. We saw a different challenge: creating a solution that perceived the world in movement better than a human. To achieve that, we needed an intelligent solution that captured better information using less data. The focus needed to be on the software.

AEye built and named our IDAR™ (Intelligent Detection and Ranging) platform to stand out from traditional LiDAR solutions. We added “Intelligence” to the name to highlight that we were building a software-driven system that had LiDAR at its core. We worked down from the information the software needed, and then built the hardware to do that.

People often asked how we came up with a different solution, using “active” versus “passive” LiDAR, than the other 85 companies that started around the same time. The answer is as simple as Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, and one minute writing down the solution.” We took the time to understand the problem: not collecting photons with a hardware system. Rather, allowing a computer to perceive information like a human in order to make decisions better than a human. That made it clear the solution needed to start with software, and once we made that decision, the path became clear.

The lesson was that relationships, and having someone who helps you learn, are the real investments that drive opportunity and success.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Blair LaCorte: There was a point when COVID hit and our facility was shut down and all of our orders were delayed that the problem seemed too large to solve — too many things out of our control. The team sat down and looked first at negative consequences. We decided those consequences were unacceptable, so we framed the situation in terms of what we could control internally. We applied for a manufacturer’s special exception for limited access to our facility; we retrofitted our system for remote testing; we set up a central workstation in the testing lab; we built a web-based remote demo platform based on the Discord gaming platform to conduct interactive, real-time demos for customers and partners all over the world; we asked all employees to take a pay cut, with stock in lieu of their income. In the end, we bought time and found ways to keep moving ahead so, as the external factors improved, we were not at a dead stop. The whole experience brought the team closer, made everyone more committed, and enabled us to focus on what we could control and see results.

Jerome Knyszewski: So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Blair LaCorte: As a youth coach for 15 years, I saw during that time the strength of shared belief that allows teams to rally from a terrible first half. While many look at the progress we made in continuing to build the product during the worst of the pandemic, the real momentum was the culture and team dynamics that we achieved. Learning to run with a 100 pound weight, while helping others carry theirs, accelerated our momentum as we emerged, and the external factors that were out of our control became less oppressive.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Blair LaCorte: When I was a trainee, I was offered a job from a former boss who headed up strategy at a large global company. He called and asked if I would leave consulting and help him, as he was taking on a new job in a new industry. I was working on a project for a large oil and gas company, so when he said, “Join me at Sun,” I assumed it was Sun Oil. I remembered the advice my dad had given me many times, that when you have a chance to work with someone you respect, can learn from and will care about you, don’t get hung up on job specifics like title, bonus, or a cool company reputation. Instead, invest in the opportunity and personal growth, and — in the end — that path will lead to success. I said “Yes”, didn’t do any research that weekend, and resigned from my position. When I received the offer letter, (Yes, that’s how it happened before the internet!) much to my surprise it said Sun Microsystems in California. In the end, the job allowed me to learn about technology and it changed my career path. The lesson was that relationships, and having someone who helps you learn, are the real investments that drive opportunity and success.

As a youth coach for 15 years, I saw during that time the strength of shared belief that allows teams to rally from a terrible first half. Blair LaCorte

Jerome Knyszewski: Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Blair LaCorte:

  1. Leadership doesn’t mean you spend all your time with people that need you the most. What you’ll find in an organization, just as in a team, is that some people will need more help than others. You can help people up but you can’t hold people up, if you do they never learn to stand on their own.
  2. Be careful not to get addicted to solving problems. If you are a hard-charger and you’re excited about your job, you may find yourself spending more time giving the answer than pulling the answer out of people. it makes you feel efficient, but — over time — you need your people to only come to you with the problems that really make sense for you to solve. Your job is to teach others to avoid problems or to solve them before they get to you.
  3. Build a team that is diverse in the way they think and the way they see the world. It’s easy to hire people that you like because they’re comfortable, but remember that you need tension to grow, and if everyone is comfortable, you feel good, but you don’t learn as much. Hire people who are diverse in the way they think and see the world because they’re the people who are going to make you better over time.
  4. Understand the subtle impact of power. Understand the use of implicit and explicit power, and know that what you say is interpreted differently depending on what position you have. You may work with someone for 10 years, but when you’re their boss and you have the ability to determine how their career path goes, the things you say have to be recalibrated. Think about the words you say, and remember that, as a leader, people will interpret the same thing you say very differently.
  5. Appreciate that leadership is a privilege. Appreciate the privilege of leadership, which means thinking about it as something that’s bigger than just a job. The challenge with leadership is that you will have good days and you will have bad days, you will have frustrating days, and sometimes it will be hard and lonely. But remember that leadership is a privilege, because you get the chance to impact something bigger than just yourself.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Blair LaCorte: Follow me on LinkedIn.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

 

 

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