Five Questions For … Allison Lami Sawyer, Rebellion Photonics’s CEO

Houston—As a woman who is a scientist and co-founder of Rebellion Photonics, an oil-and-gas related startup, Allison Lami Sawyer is used to plowing a different road.

She’s also tired of being one of the few women on it. “Where is the pipeline of women behind me?” she said to me last fall following the first SheHacks hackathon in Houston. “I want to see more women CEOs.”

That desire had prompted her to host the weekend hackathon, which was begun in New York by two women entrepreneurs who’d had difficulty finding a woman developer to help them build an app. Sawyer says part of her mission is to find ways to support other women entrepreneurs, especially those in STEM fields.

In this week’s “Five Questions For …,” we talk to Sawyer about how she defines success, her interest in electoral politics, and how she fills her downtime: science-fiction writing. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise?

Allison Lami Sawyer: I am an amateur science-fiction writer. It’s nice to have a project that’s all my own because everything else I do has customers, vendors, employees, board members, bankers. There are so many opinions so it’s nice just to be one thing on my own, no comments necessary.

I’m a physicist. We need more female authors. We need more strong female leads in science fiction. We need more popular science fiction. I got into science because of science fiction. We need more approachable science fiction so young girls can see themselves in the character. I know so many physicists who got into science because of this. I’m about 170 pages in; it’ll be about 300 when it’s done. I write every day, for 25 minutes every day.

I’ve been doing it for five years. Rebellion’s eight-years-old. For the first three years, all I did was Rebellion. I got pneumonia three times; I got it annually. I was only in my 20s, so I made an effort to get a life. I do work really hard to have my identity be bigger than just my company. I’m more than Rebellion, which is good because Rebellion is way bigger than me or my co-founder.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

ALS: Pretty much what I’m doing. I wanted to be a tech entrepreneur. I’m 32 and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were really hitting peak fame when I was a kid. Even as a kid in Alabama, I knew them. Entrepreneurship in the ’90s was really getting sexy. To me, for any kid interested in math, that was pretty rock star.

I did applied physics for my undergraduate [degree]. I never thought I would work in a lab.

X: Where do you think your drive comes from?

ALS: I don’t think I’m any more driven than anyone else. But I do think I’m efficient. I do pick areas that I think are scarier to other people. Physics scares a lot of people. I was the only woman in applied physics at the University of Colorado. That’s pretty ridiculous. They were all just scared off by it. I think I don’t scare easy. And I have a pretty high threshold for pain. That’s all you need really.

X: If you got stranded on a desert island, what’s the one thing you would have to have with you?

ALS: My husband, he’s the best-est. I love him. We could make do on an island… I think we’d just be fine.

X: How do you define success?

ALS: I have not figured that one out yet. The ironic part is when you’re getting the most praise, it’s not necessarily the times you feel proudest. It’s usually the times you feel most stressed. I don’t know; sometimes it’s just a feeling. I’ll be walking around, we’ve got 20,000 square feet now, I’ll be walking the halls and that makes me feel proud. I’m very much the journey kind of person.

I’m pretty interested to see where it goes—it being life. I’m 32. We’re living in an extraordinary time. One thing I’m also doing because I have more free time now, I am running for state representative of west central Houston. [The process] has been fascinating because it’s outside of my comfort zone. [My district has] been Democratic; then it flipped Republican in 2010. I keep expecting a good Democratic candidate to step in and take it back. We have extremely poor representation. No one really pays attention to state politics; it’s all federal or city. They don’t understand how much the state affects the day-to-day. We’re really going to have to transform our economy over the next 10, 20 years.

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