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WE@Yale Women's Innovator Breakfast: Katrina Barlow, Vox

Technology-Powered Journalism and Innovation, Katrina Barlow, Vox

Katrina Barlow (SOM ‘17), Senior Director of Emerging Business and Partnerships at Vox Media, discussed her interdisciplinary career in journalism and technology and her experience starting a clean-energy venture during her time at Yale.

Barlow began her journalism career at the family-owned Seattle Times, the leading newspaper in the Pacific Northwest, where she contributed to two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. “Over the course of five years, I really started caring about the newspaper industry, but it’s also easy to become disillusioned with the ever-present reality of layoffs across the industry,” she said of the declining print industry. “Selling property to raise money seemed like the only way to sustain an environment for journalism to flourish.”

In her role at The Seattle Times, Barlow spent a year and a half working on shifting the newspaper from a previous proprietary content management system to WordPress. “We were investing in digital journalism at a time when news organizations were making the leap from being manufacturing companies to becoming technology companies,” she said. She arrived at SOM interested in journalism, but also keen to develop her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and potentially starting her own company.

Although Barlow began her time at Yale without a venture idea, she found a data set about the various energy sources (solar, coal, natural gas) that power U.S. electrical grids, and learned that these sources change throughout the day. For instance, sources of energy used to power homes and buildings in the morning can be derived from dirty sources like coal, whereas solar energy creates cleaner energy later in the afternoon. “This data set needed a translation layer — which is journalism — to tell people when the grid is cleaner and when it is dirtier so they can optimize their behavior when cleaner energy is present,” she said, which led her to create a company called Powerhouse. “That’s where I started: giving people a grade for how clean the grid is, and looking for ways to automate this.” Barlow was the recipient of the Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize in 2017 and participated in the CITY Summer Fellowship to work on her venture.

Barlow started looking further into home automation, charging home batteries for domestic energy consumption and the possibility of shifting to cleaner energy sources. “We were trying to capture a market of people who want to do the right thing, but our idea did not break even from an economic standpoint,” she said. “It wasn’t cost effective enough to only be able to pay back 50% of their investment in a home battery and rely on goodwill for the rest.”

She acknowledged that she was not going to be the right person to execute this business idea, and ultimately shut down Powerhouse. “The way to have a meaningful impact is to do this at scale, and to have millions of homes moving energy consumption to when the grid is cleaner, and away from dirtier moments on the grid,” she said. “As the founder of the company, I couldn’t knock on enough doors to make a case to people. If a large-scale player like Amazon or Tesla were to roll this out, that gets interesting.”

Her experience at Yale SOM and with founding her own company equipped Barlow with the tools to take on large, innovative projects at her current role in emerging business and partnerships at Vox Media. According to Barlow, Vox Media is the fastest-growing modern media company, and employs a 150-person product team to work on developing the company’s large editorial properties.

“If I hadn’t done entrepreneurship at Yale, had journalism experience and earned my MBA, I couldn’t look at what I do today and say “I have all the pieces” to do this,” she said, explaining that intrapreneurship involves defining each next step for yourself along the way. “The advantage of intrapreneurship within a larger company is having everything at your fingertips: resources you can borrow from across the company like marketing and legal, and a support structure I could rely on,” she said. “Startups don’t have that, and I tried to run a startup without those resources.”

Barlow leads Vox Media’s new technology business by talking to everyone from small local publishers to big-name companies. “Unlike Powerhouse, when we knew there was a need but didn’t know who our customers were, the product market fit for our technology has been tested for more than a decade,” she said, adding that Vox Media is now bringing 150-year-old newspapers to Vox Media’s publishing platform, Chorus. “The company has rallied around the technology business in a really big way, as it is a major part of the company with growth potential.” For Vox Media, the SaaS business is a diversified revenue stream from the more traditional advertising business, although Barlow added that “the jury is still out” on how the news industry will be affected in a less favorable macroeconomic climate.

A key learning from intrapreneurship Barlow emphasized was the importance of “having the right people in the room at 2 a.m.” — and limiting your dependence on external factors. She noted that entrepreneurs later in life who have exited a successful venture or had a longer career often have the resources and credibility to hire full-time workers, and may find the challenge of building the right team a little easier.

“Failing fast is hard because you don’t want to let go of something too quickly,” she said. “There’s something to be said for perseverance and seeing it through, but that’s not always realistic.” She added that if an entrepreneur is really listening to market feedback, they would be quick to change their product or shut it down and start something new. “It’s hard to let go of something, but by the time it is 100% dead you’ve waited too long.”

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Veena McCoole is a senior English major at Yale who enjoys horse riding, traveling and eating croissants. Originally from Singapore, she loves hearing from entrepreneurs with game-changing ideas and companies, and is partial to the fashion-tech and wellness sector.