Dr. Tessa Lau is passionate about developing technology to give people super-powers. She is the Founder and CEO of Dusty Robotics, a company that creates robot-powered tools in the construction workforce. She spoke with AWIS member Steff Lebasck about her journey.
Tell our readers about the company you founded, Dusty Robotics, and the FieldPrinter. How does it work? What problem(s) does it solve? What was your inspiration for this design?
I got into construction because I was looking to find a robotics company, and I had just remodeled my house. I witnessed inefficiency—and a dependence on skilled manual labor that is endemic to the construction industry—firsthand, and I knew that there would be opportunities to introduce robotic automation to improve the industry.
Layout is a critical-path task on every single construction project. Contractors consult the building blueprints and mark out on the ground where to install each building component. The first time I saw those marks on the ground and discovered that they were put there by people reading paper plans and using measuring tape and string, I knew there was an opportunity to build robots that could do that job more accurately and efficiently. My co-founder and I invented the FieldPrinter to solve this problem. Today, contractors all across the United States are using the Dusty FieldPrinter to construct high-quality buildings more efficiently.
Engineering, robotics, and construction have historically been male-dominated fields. What drew you to these spaces? Did you face barriers due to your gender?
I’ve always been drawn to fields where my work can have an impact. I love problem-solving. It’s why I studied computer science originally. I got into robotics when I realized that computer software is limited to displaying bits on a screen, whereas robots can actually move atoms around in the world. With robotics, there’s a much bigger opportunity to create innovations that can actually change the world.
When I got into construction, five years ago, it was for the same reasons. Construction is the largest industry on the planet. Every single day, people touch and use products of the construction industry. The roof over your head, the hospital that cares for you and your loved ones, the data center that sends that TikTok video to your phone—those are all products of the construction industry. I love the opportunity to help build the robots that build the world.
Amazingly, I haven’t gotten any pushback from the construction industry, despite being a woman of Asian descent trying to make inroads into [this field]. One of the things that I love about construction is that it’s full of very pragmatic people. If the product works, they don’t care how you look or where you come from. They’re all about solving problems and getting things done.
Starting your own company is no easy task. Did you experience moments of doubt or other barriers? How did you overcome them? What best practices can you share with future entrepreneurs?
I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t experience moments of doubt, especially when doing something as high risk as starting a new company. However, what helped me was reformulating my perception of risk. I was fortunate enough to have a small financial cushion that allowed me to take a few months to try something new. Given that, what was the real risk? In the worst case, I’d gain valuable experience that would be a huge résumé builder. I knew that, given my experience in engineering and robotics, I would always be able to find a job somewhere if the new venture didn’t pan out. And in the best case, I’d create and lead a successful company. With this attitude, there really was no risk in deciding to try to be an entrepreneur and to see where it took me.
What is the best advice you ever received? What advice would you give to women and girls who want to pursue a career in engineering or robotics? Is a PhD necessary?
[As someone who has] gotten a PhD, my advice to women who are considering getting that advanced degree is that it depends on what they want to do with it and on what stage of life they’re in when they’re considering that option.
I got my doctorate because I wanted to climb the academic ladder and to reach that pinnacle of educational achievement. I’m proud of the effort it took me to get that degree. It also taught me a lot of skills that I use on a daily basis, including how to communicate complex concepts clearly and how to listen to customers to understand [the ways that] technology could help them perform their job better.
On the other hand, a PhD isn’t for everyone. If you want to have an immediate impact on the world and aren’t interested in teaching or in mentoring future generations of students, then an engineering PhD isn’t necessarily required to achieve your goals.
What is your leadership philosophy? How has it helped you and your company be successful?
My leadership philosophy is to hire people who are smarter than me and to give them the autonomy to do their jobs successfully. I like to surround myself with people who challenge me, who bring different perspectives to our company’s problems. I believe that only by considering that diversity of opinion can we create the best possible company.
As a CEO, what keeps you up at night? What are the biggest trends impacting your industry?
The biggest challenge I’m facing right now is in hiring. I’m working on building a world-class team of people, from individual contributors to executive leaders. Finding the right person for each role is an ongoing challenge that my company and I face on a daily basis.
[As for trends,] . . . the construction industry is always being pushed to do more with less. Builders are under pressure to finish buildings faster, at lower cost, with fewer people. Chronic skilled-labor shortages impact their ability to hire the talent that they need to produce the quality of output that their clients demand. And buildings are getting more and more complex, with increasing emphasis on sustainability, seismic/climate protection, and more connectivity. All these trends point toward an increasing use of robotics in construction.
What comes next in your career? Are there other industries you would like to tackle?
I’m excited about growing Dusty from a Series B company to a Series C company and beyond. Each stage of company growth demands more from me as a leader, and I’m constantly having to grow and learn new leadership skills in order to be the best leader I can be.
Industry-wise, we are planning to stay focused on construction. As a $12 trillion industry globally, construction has no shortage of opportunities for robotics and automation to increase the efficiency of the industry.
Any last questions, comments, or areas that you would like to reflect on for the article?
One of the best pieces of advice I heard in grad school was to follow your passion. My passion led me to software automation, then to robotics, then to construction, and now to growing and leading a company. If you default to doing what you find interesting and are passionate about, you will build a career that you inherently love. Right now, I have the best job in the world, doing all the things I love to do. I was able to do that because I followed my passion, and it brought me here. Best of luck to all of you!
Steff Lebsack is a Speech-Language Pathologist, high school cross country coach, and experiences chronic lung disease. Steff is a PhD student and adjunct faculty at Baylor University and Florida Atlantic University. She is an expert in the treatment of stuttering and most of the people in her life stutter, including herself. She’s guest lectured nationally and internationally, with recent research focus on autonomy and stuttering in children. Steff lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two children.