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Meet the Tech Startup Co-founder Making the Technology Space More Inclusive

Meet Camera IQ's Sonia Tsao.

camera iq
Photo: Courtesy of Camera IQ

In the last few years, cameras have emerged as the sidekick to many humans' existence. Though the traditional silhouette with their neck straps and tripods still exist, the cameras of today are pocket-sized, smart, and extremely high-quality. But any technology that becomes this accessible comes with a responsibility—both to its users and society at large. That's where Sonia Tsao and her company, Camera IQ, step in, to help brands and companies of all sizes navigate the exciting yet tempestuous waters of one of our favorite tools.

"It's a really exciting moment for AR and the camera," Tsao tells Coveteur. "And COVID-19 definitely had a role in accelerating that behavior because it really brought to life the need for people to connect, and the camera became a place to do that. Like even for us right now to do it, to have the camera open, it's the closest place where we feel like we can be in touch with our community. And so the sheer force of not being able to do that in person really brought the medium back to the forefront of how consumers interact with it."

Tech continues to enthrall the masses, but Tsao wants to make it clear that she and co-founder Allison Ferenci are not typical startup founders, and no one really needs to be in order to disrupt the market and make an impact. "I studied anthropology because I always had this curiosity and an observant love for culture and the things that impacted how we interact with each other, our products, and experiences." So the thread between Tsao's studies and career shifted from theoretical to tactical.

Here, Tsao talks more about Camera IQ's beginnings, how she and co-founder Ferenci work with brands on their AR strategy, how she's taking care of herself with a job that really demands constant presence, and more.

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Photo: Courtesy of Camera IQ

On how she sees brands leveraging camera and AR technology in the present:

"One of the things that we've been seeing in the consumer shift is brands using AR, especially on social media, as a means to celebrate launches, cultural moments, and engage with their community. It builds this kind of two-way communication, which has been super powerful. But the biggest shift we're witnessing is the need and desire to help consumers make better purchasing decisions. We're seeing commerce come into play in a bigger way. Beauty is our fastest-growing category, but this applies to almost every category we would even think about as a consumer to shop from because they can all be visualized virtually. Brands want customers to convert and shop in the camera too, which is definitely something new and exciting over the last couple quarters.

"There is no other medium that gives the same emotional response and engagement from a consumer. It's quite an intimate, personal relationship, and it has fundamentally changed the game in terms of what I understood to be the way that consumers wanted to engage with brands."

On Camera IQ's origin story:

"Before co-founding Camera IQ, I had already fallen in love with direct-to-consumer brands and the role that technology plays in their ability and need to find new ways in digital channels to engage and sell their products. I was running B2B brand strategy at Spring, which was a fast-growing mobile commerce platform. In 2016 I met my co-founder, Allison. We were both in L.A., and she is a creative technologist, so she had been working in 3-D and AR for many years. She saw this potential for it to become one of the main ways brands communicate, engage, and sell to consumers, but there were so many challenges. It was way too complex to build in these specialized environments, and it took way too long. But as we started to observe Snap, Instagram, Apple, and Google begin to double down in AR while seeing the camera starting to become intelligent, we both shared the excitement that there would need to be both a technology and human partner that would empower brands to do this at scale in the B2B space."

On how Camera IQ works with brands:

"Whether large or small and in whatever place in their journey they're in, we believe there is a place and role for AR. It starts with education and inspiration at scale, including just having content out there where brands are sharing their stories. This is a new space and everyone is creating their own rules. LoveSeen (co-founded by Jenna Lyons and Troi Ollivierre) is one case study of how they've adopted AR and were very successful. We're a technology platform, but we also find equal joy in sitting down and helping brands understand how they are going to translate what they do best using this technology and being part of the shift in marketing to consumers in this new age. We're equal parts technology and strategic partners in helping them understand how they navigate this next wave. Initially, it was e-commerce 10 to 15 years ago, and then it was mobile. Now it's AR.

"For me, it's about putting forward the opportunity to brands and really inviting them to the table so we can bring them forward, whether that's a traditional brand that has challenges reaching Gen Z and millennials, or a pre-launch brand that has no budget, no followers, and is looking to build something that's super viral. Actual strategy from an AR standpoint can be vastly different with each brand, but it's about understanding their goals and where they're at as an organization."

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Photo: Courtesy of Camera IQ

Her predictions on how AR will change shopping and brand building over the next few years:

"I see it as an acceleration of the path we're already on. Over the last two years, I think AR has been squarely in the marketing space as something that brands did to spark joy, to celebrate a moment, or to amplify a launch. And we're starkly seeing it move into a place where it really is more like a tool and a specific channel to represent all of a brand's products in the camera and to actually get consumers to start to shop through it. Snap Summit was a couple weeks ago, and even there, they were demo-ing some of the places where the technology's going. For example, body tracking, where you can start to do virtual try-on on the body, because right now a lot of the virtual try-on you see is mapped to the face, the hands, or the feet. But the technology is going to advance to a point where you can unlock so many more use cases. So brands will be able to help you customize the way you want an outfit to look, or a handbag, for instance, and you'll be doing all of that virtually.

"It's really exciting because we are helping unleash the ability to actually have consumers finish the full consumer journey through to checkout. There are technology advancements that still need to happen to support that at scale, but as that evolves, we're going to see different types of brands engaging with AR when it comes to a full-funnel, truly commerce experience."

On being an Asian woman in tech and a co-founder of a women-founded company in an industry that is slowly progressing with inclusivity:

"We've never self-identified as a women-founded company. We like to think of ourselves as passionate founders, and we happen to be women, but we have to acknowledge that we are a very small minority of the norm. We do see in our day-to-day the preconceived notions and the stereotypes, without a doubt. We've had so many conversations over the years, and disappointments, where we've accepted that as part of the mix. I'm a mom of two, so what does it mean to be a woman founder, have an infant at home, and show up at a board meeting? There might be preconceived notions, but it's very empowering to say 'no, this is what's right for me and this is how I'm going to run my life.' To say 'this is what I think is right for my company and my family.' And it's a little scary, but it's also a wonderful place to be, if you feel empowered enough to take that step.

"It's something I advocate for. Allison's on maternity leave, so it's something I advocate for when it comes to her and the women around me, including the women on my team. I've talked to women founders who have said, 'I just had to get off my couch after having my baby two weeks ago and go back to work.' Great, if that's what's right for you. But if you're someone who wants to take three months off, you should do that. Listening to what's right for you, especially as women, where there may not be a lot of role models and clear paths for us, is something I've learned. Initially, I was tiptoeing and a little bit shy about it, but now I've learned that you've got to stand up for it and ask for what you want."

On the responsibility to build inclusivity into camera and AR technology:

"It can be quite meta because brands are trying to be inclusive and diverse, but the camera as a medium demands that you think about this because you're giving a part of your content and brand experience over to the consumer, and your consumer can be every color, gender, or sexual orientation. They have to see themselves in it, and they share the content, which then becomes a conversation. Consumers become the creator of the content, so they have to see themselves reflected in it quite literally because they're putting it on their face or in their homes. So with AR and the camera, it really is about empowerment, and you have to think about your community more broadly and consumers more broadly. That naturally invites, demands, and challenges brands to think about inclusivity and diversity, which I think is a great thing.

"For Camera IQ, we're always striving for that. We think about inclusivity when we're designing our tools. Is the tool and the creative platform inviting diverse designers and marketers to use it? Everything down to the creative inspiration to advising brands to have an inclusive test group to test their content against, all of these things are part of the process. I think, subliminally, the brands that recognize this is important and that they need to have a strategy to invite everyone to the table will see that as relevant for AR. So in some ways they are more likely to prioritize technology like AR and Camera IQ because they understand that consumer behavior is innately about giving over a piece of your brand to a new generation that wants to build that type of relationship.

"Other brands find it terrifying, and I think many traditional brands don't know what to do and how much control to give over when looking at other brands that are part of the spectrum. LoveSeen, for instance, is thinking about product development this way and potentially wants to test products through AR and social. They want to actually crowdsource their product development, which is so awesome. But that requires acknowledging where a brand is in their evolution, and we want to support them in making that journey and the decisions that are right for them. It really is not a one-size-fits-all."

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Photo: Courtesy of Camera IQ

On filters and the responsibility brands have to think about their consumers' mental health:

"Allison's spoken about this for sure—about face distortion and our responsibility along with a brand's responsibility to reflect products accurately and its impact on the individual. This is definitely a conversation we have with brands on the regular. I think, because AR is a creative medium, we also see a creator community emerging, and a lot of these creative communities are using AR to push the boundaries of the medium. A lot of this includes face distortion and different filters that are being used by consumers. For a brand, it's about distinguishing between what's happening in the market and forming a stance on what their brand stands for. In beauty, it is very much present in every conversation, especially with skin-care brands, where a consumer might not be able to visualize something so explicitly like a color cosmetics product. A brand might want to give the effect of the product, but they certainly shouldn't want it to look like they've affected an individual's face.

"It's an interesting challenge because brands want to have that emotional connection like a before-and-after glow, for instance, but what is the line between a healthy glow for a diverse community versus something that might smooth the skin too much or lighten the skin too much? These are very critical decisions. Camera IQ takes a very strong stance towards the face-distortion technology that's happening, and I think most if not all the brands we're working with do, as well. It's about brands defining safety guidelines for every content medium. We're kind of at that point with AR, and it's almost more important, more intimate, and more critical in many ways, because you're putting the content on a consumer's actual body or in their world and it has the ability to mix with reality."

On how people can translate their skill sets into technology experience and jobs:

"Technology is human, and we need diverse voices to have it reflect that diversity, whether that's diversity of background, what someone has studied, or what experiences they bring to the table. If we only have tech people at tech companies creating technology, we're in big trouble. So I think it's really important that everyone feels like they can come to the table. I still think technology is a means to an end because it's ultimately a means to better reach consumers, a means to get a product or service easier, and a means to better provide to a community that may not have access. So it's just a way for people to do what they have traditionally done, better. I want to banish the fear because it is just a channel to help achieve your goals and mission in life. I've never thought of myself as a tech person, but I am a tech founder."

On how she takes care of herself with a job that invites always being "on":

"It really starts with awareness for me. How much time am I spending at work? How much time am I spending on devices? And making a cognizant effort to create space. It might not be the two hours I wanted, but I'm creating that space, even if it's for 15 minutes, and I'm creating that buffer. I can't remember if I watched it or read it, but there was a piece of content around it sometimes being really hard when people think about a 24-hour day and ask, how am I going to get everything done? So I've found thinking about it in a longer time period, like a week, can help. I might be working 85 percent Monday to Wednesday, but on that Thursday, I am going to take the afternoon to go do something with my kids. I think about it more as an ebb and flow, and that actually helped me shift and understand that not every day will feel balanced, but that in the course of my routine, I'm going to be able to find space for myself, my immediate family, my work, and my community."

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