Karen Robinson of Mountain View, CA is an electrical engineer who manages the design and builds of soft robots. She is the COO and co-founder of Breeze Automation in San Francisco. Karen loves to spend time with her husband and enjoys road biking, reading and visiting friends in the city.
Silicon Valley Entrepreneur Takes High-Tech to the Next Level
There are not enough words to describe Karen Robinson. As an MIT alum and Harvard Business School graduate, Karen is talented, tough, tenacious, and driven to improve our world. She has taken her STEM career to the top in her 30s…she is simply badass.
The Oklahoma native grew up in a home where intellectual conversation was encouraged. Her father, a physician, was a physics major in college and her mother was a nurse.
My parents are both very logical, so I grew up asking a lot of questions. They never acted like me being a girl made any difference---that was just something other people thought.
Karen became interested in engineering when she attended the Oklahoma School of Science and Math residential high school. She started to notice that there were clear divisions between sexes. For example, in literature class, girls were required to read mid-century feminist literature while boys read science fiction novels. Karen was named the “top girl” scorer on a high school physics test, but she didn’t like that label and thought there should’ve been a “top person” designation. This served as extra fuel for hard work that would propel her to succeed.
Karen went on to major in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. During the first term of her freshman year, she took a very difficult physics course and was one of only four women in the class, and one woman dropped out. She admits she felt a little bit lonely, especially when female colleagues would say things like "I could never do that," which was an attitude she just didn't understand. Karen toughed it out and it helped her become independent and self-confident.
There were situations where I would’ve been given more respect if I was a man, but I didn’t let that get me down. Also, people thought I was a lot younger than I was, which made things a little more challenging.
After graduation, Karen worked as an electrical engineer in Boston and Colorado. A few years later, she co-founded Genasun, a company that converted power for off-grid solar panels to make more efficient power systems.
She received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and decided to move out west coast for a prestigious job at Google. When she left Google, she ran into an acquaintance from Boston and they co-founded her current company, Breeze Automation.
Developing the Future…Today
Breeze Automation develops technology for compliant, or soft, robotics. The technology of compliant robotics is different from traditional robotics and is in its early stage, so Karen’s company is working with government contracts, such as the U.S. Navy and NASA. Karen tested their system with NASA’s Rover platform and often works with members of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.
Compliant robotics are not rigid, so they’re good for unstructured spaces. Anything that is automated that needs to follow a surface, such as sanding or welding, is good for compliant systems.
Karen learned about Xena Workwear from a former colleague and they each purchased a pair of boots. “I was attracted by their look,” Karen says. “At some point, if I need to be on a shop floor, I won’t have to carry clunky work boots to change into, and I can look professional.”