Empowering Frontline Workers with Human Centered Technology
In this episode of Think Beyond Space Podcast, Blake sits down with Andrew Chrostowski, the CEO & Chairman of wearable technologies company RealWear. Blake joins Andrew at their corporate offices at historic Fort Vancouver and they discuss the origins of the company, transforming work for frontline workers, and dive deep into their flagship product, the Navigator 500.
The video version of the conversation with Andrew and Blake launches tomorrow on Cresa Portland’s YouTube channel.
Andrew Chrostowski, CEO & Chairman of RealWear, joins host Blake St. Onge, Managing Principal for Cresa Portland, on the Think Beyond Space podcast to discuss transforming the work of frontline employees with their innovative wearable solutions.
We use AI transcription service and please disregard any errors.
Blake St. Onge 00:57
Welcome to Think Beyond Space | The PDX Workplace Insider Podcast. I'm your host Blake St. Onge Principal for the Portland office of Cresa, a global corporate real estate firm. From the people to the culture and their thoughts on the future of work, we sit down with leaders from Portland's most respected companies to learn about what makes their workplaces tick. Subscribe at or wherever you find your podcast.
Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast, I am really excited to have the chairman and CEO of RealWear with me today, Andrew Chrostowski. We just had an awesome demo of their product. So Andrew, welcome to show.
Andrew Chrostowski 01:32
Hey, thanks for much Blake, excited to be here today.
Blake St. Onge 01:35
So Andrew, we just had a chance to meet about an hour ago as we're walking through and go into the demo and certainly see the actual use cases of what you guys are building here at RealWear But before we get into all of that, I want to know more about you. Where did you come from? Right? I mean, we're sitting here at Fort Vancouver, at RealWear’s headquarters. I know that you have a military background, but you've done so many things. And it seems like you're an engineer to when you're talking about the product. Let's just walk through a little bit of your career journey and how you got to where you are now.
Andrew Chrostowski 02:03
Sure. So origin story, let's see how we can do. I'm a physicist by training. So I actually was an Air Force Cadet went to Oregon State University. I majored in Engineering Physics, I wanted to know that I was gonna go in the Air Force, I wanted to know how things actually worked, right think high energy lasers. So I want to know the physics behind things. But I also want to be an engineer to know how you build it, how do you actually make something work. And so that was sort of the motivation in there. I also minored in German or got close to it when one class short of minoring in German was my fun, my fun class that turns out to be important later in my career. But so I had this passion for really understanding technology and how systems work together. I spent nearly 10 years doing research and development as a physicist in the Air Force, worked on what they call command control, communications, intelligence work, I went on to high energy systems, radar, RF systems, lasers. And then to space division in Los Angeles, we worked on space-based assets. So there I got very interested in the whole problem of quality and major systems. And what I discovered as I got deeper and deeper into these major programs, as you're moving from, you know, how does the technology work to how do you get the technology built and deployed, I began to see that it wasn't just a question of physics, engineering, it was a people issue. And that's where I got my passion around organization and people because everything you'd go, you'd say, oh, I'm just gonna fix this program. It's gonna be an engineering problem. Well, it would always be that, but it was really a people issue. So I got a master's degree in system assistance management from USC and Southern California, and then went beyond the Air Force as I left and started thinking about, you know, what other system problems are out there. So think quality, I actually met my wife at a Deming seminar. So you know, Dr. Deming, one of his last public things, we talked about quality and system was an automotive industry, learn quality manufacturing, with Hitachi went on to do and create a Six Sigma manufacturing process for Schick Wilkinson sword, one of the world's largest razor and blades and super products companies, and then went back to my roots sort of later on in aerospace with good aerospace, etc. And then into the industrial world. Or as I went through this whole arc of getting closer to the customer, understanding that technology, applying it in different ways. You know, I stopped off at Wharton and got some my executive it just a quick stop off, quick stop off at work was working, you know, and then, you know, you come back, and you say, now I kind of understand the executive level, how things happen. How do you create teams, how do you do innovation? And so as that part of my career advanced, it really started moving back towards startups where you really start seeing small groups of people with great ideas, trying to bring technology to market and do it in a way that's efficient and successful. And that's really the Nexus that got me into the orbit of real work.
Blake St. Onge 04:56
So are you from Oregon,
Andrew Chrostowski 04:58
I went to high school in Oregon. As I said, when to graduate from Oregon State University, but I was actually born in Washington, DC. So I grew up in Virginia and Utah, and then on to Oregon or
Blake St. Onge 05:09
Oregon State. Wow. So first question, I'm just thinking, like what dry? I mean, first of all, physics is like, you know, AI is an incredible focus. But what drove you to do that? And then, I mean, there's got to be some sort of drive behind you from a leadership perspective, too. Did you learn that growing up? Did you learn that through school? Is it just as you've built your career? I mean, what, where's that come from?
Andrew Chrostowski 05:33
I think people come with natural curiosity, and maybe have curious but different. Yes, I was one of these people who had actually a school of thought about the idea of expanding sphere. So if you imagine you sitting at the center of a sphere, and this is a thought I had as a child, right, and everything that's inside that sphere, you're an expert on, you know, you know how it works, you know how to do it, you feel comfortable, you might say, it's your comfort zone. Right? Right. My visualization as a child was my goal in life was to push that expanding sphere out further and further so that more and more things in the world and this great big, beautiful, exciting world, this universe were under, you know, inside this fear, not in the outside, right. And so that was my curiosity that drove me towards physics and understanding how things work. I mean, it's totally built in your DNA. , it's 1,000%. And, and my military background came from my dad, who has served in both World War Two and Korea in the Navy. And so I knew from the beginning that I was going to be in the military thought about that knew that was gonna be a place where I was going to go and serve until very passionate about that. And so I actually had choices as a high school senior to go to the Naval Academy go to Naval ROTC or to Air Force ROTC and ultimately chose the Air Force.
Blake St. Onge 06:41
That's what she did. Wow. So as we get into the last two years, I mean, so you came in and around, you came in as chairman and CEO a couple years ago, at real where, so maybe that sort of Dawn of what's going on now, from a pandemic perspective, maybe just a little bit before that. So how did you get to where I mean, you talked a little bit about what your background and then sort of getting back into that people, you know, small organizations, people trying to do things and then implement and do that. How did you hear about real where, what were like, what's, what's that you know, that a little bit deeper, and what that piece is, because there's so much around that. And as we did the demo, your passion around what it is that you guys are building here is palpable. So I'd love to dive into that.
Andrew Chrostowski 07:20
So it's really one click down on that story is that I was hired by George Oliver, who's now the CEO of Johnson Controls and largest IoT companies in the world. Yes, you think smart buildings, etc. At the time, he was the CEO of Tyco. And he had a business called Scott safety and some assistance with part of life safety products there that he was trying to do what I call a hot transition, he was trying to take that company from a holding company, to an operating company to a technology company. That was when the first executives he hired to come in and say, help me make this transformation. . And so this company was all about, you know, fundamentally firefighters. Right? So think of all the movies, you've seen the firefighters with a face mask, respirator, the tank, right, and the accouchement that goes with that. And so I knew a lot of things as you said, I was in the automotive industry, I was in computer industry, I was in consumer products, but I'd never really had firefighters as a customer experience. So the first thing I did when I got there was went to Texas a&m and got trained as an interior firefighter, I actually am certified in that. Really so this executive thing everyone's trained in I mean, holy cow. So I learned that what I learned was everything you ever saw in the movies about fighting a fire and I was just not true. Surprisingly, shockingly not correct. But I went back to my infrared had gone to the infrared school at Wright Patterson was in the Air Force and thinking about what we could do, I said, we're gonna make the firefighter the teacher, we're gonna make them safer and more effective, because we're gonna give them predator vision inside their helmets. So we created in just literally about 17 months, we went from napkin to a certified device, which is incredible in that industry, to put a thermal imaging system for firefighters. So now you've got a heads-up display, thermal imaging, every firefighter now can see what's happening in the dark and work more safely and effectively. Now, as soon as you've got that display in front of somebody, the first thing you think of is now how do I put information on that how do I connect to it so now you miss any go to this idea of I could have a connected first responder think about the incident commander people in there so it's like I need to be able to push information to that that first responder and do things with it. That leads you to connectivity started asking questions, but how would one do that that put me into the orbit of some of the companies that that work in this space? I met the then chairman of real where who then said I've got something I want to show you and when I saw the original prototypes of the HMT one I said this is that vision implemented for the connected frontline worker and so the transition was immediate like this is now this is an all the excitement you've had , of seeing what you could do that the imagination you can drive and create now it's like This is gonna work. And so I was excited about it, I was asked to come on as the chairman of the advisory board to help the founding CEO and the board, think about developing this product and developing a company that could compete and support these, you know, global companies. And by the way, today, 41 of the top Forbes 100 companies are our customers. So I mean, we hit me , so it's for a little company here
Blake St. Onge 10:21
in Washington, you might have a, you know, fortune 2000. And us, you know, looking at what we did earlier, so,
Andrew Chrostowski 10:27
so, the list , love it. So we think about that, and began to work through it, I became an investor because I thought the future of the company, and then as we got through our, our series, a round, it was clear that we're gonna be doubling every quarter, right? And for a hardware company, that the expression in venture capitalist hardware is hard, right? And it is because you've got supply chain issues, you've got actual get things where you need to go rather than just build some more code and, you know, hit send 5000 times, right. So I said, Look, I'll step in as the Chief Operating Officer, I'll kind of put the front-end SOP process together, I'll put in the sales, drive, we'll kind of control that. And that allowed the rest of the management team to focus on raising money being effective, converts out there really being effective spokespeople for the technology. And then I stepped back out after the series, you know, Series B, and back into my advisory role. Come, you know, February of 2020, it's really a transition time for the company. And the board asked me to come back on the board as a board member this time, which I accepted it. And then, because I do have a background in board governance, so I'm on a National Association of Corporate Directors certified director. So board governance is something I'm trained in , they asked me to come on to do that. They then made me Chairman, and shortly after asked me to step in as CEO, so I kind of got, you know, a short time, right, in a short time. So now it's hot March of 2020, we had literally one meeting in this building. In fact, in the conference room, that's just over about 50 feet from us. , with my team instead, now, mostly people I knew, because I had been involved with the company from almost the beginning, but never really had in this leadership role of this as my team. Now imagine, you get one meeting, and the next day, the governor says you got to shut down. So all the change management, all of the leadership development, all the team building now has to be done remotely, without the ability to kind of do everything I learned as an officer, everything I learned as an executive, as a frontline leader, you now have to do remotely to kind of bring the team through. And by the way, in a very challenging global pandemic, where lots of things are changing right in here, by the way that we tripled our sales over the previous year. So all of that done is really interesting story a little bit long answer to a short while, I mean, that
Blake St. Onge 12:40
just it's just getting back to just thinking about you are, as a leader, so well trained, and I've been through all of your education, right? Through, warden, SC and OHS are all of that. And then one day, it throws seemingly a good portion of all that, but you just you know, all that sort of leadership and executive management and dealing and all the things that you sort of you used to have had of how to lead and just sort of I wouldn't say throw it out the window into a certain point. You said, No, hands are up. Now what? So all the traditional training and things are, what did you do in March? Certainly 20. I mean, how what did that look like? And how did you guys come together and say, Okay, what do we do next? ,
Andrew Chrostowski 13:25
great. It's a great question. And it goes back to something I learned early in my career in the automotive industry, when I would, you know, when sorry to solve problems had been out there on the floor for a long time. And what I would do is I learned as an officer, you go to frontline, you go to the people who are doing the work, right. And so you'd ask questions. And what I discovered by doing that, I learned an expression that that someone said, you know, for a carpet dweller, you're not too bad a guy. And I asked this worker and I don't understand what do you mean a carpet dweller? And she pointed to the ground says, I work on concrete. Everybody over there. The engineers, the executives, they live on carpet. Oh, interesting. And so you know, as we talked about problems, I realized it's the same thing that you do in the military, you go to the frontline understand what's happening. And so that daily touch that going to gamba as we call it in Japan, right it's like understanding what's happening at the frontline was something that I was passionate about so when we couldn't do it here what we did we began immediately a daily standup so I meet with my staff every day eight o'clock we all get together on every day every day on a Microsoft Teams call and we understand how can we help each other what are the challenges today? What do we need to do? And it gives that connectivity that that and we do things like we would do throwback Thursdays little bit have a little bit of fun with and learn about each other? , we take our work here real we're very seriously we try not to take ourselves too seriously. So we do that daily build that up and then I started with weekly all hands the whole global team, because how many people how many people are at realer bout 120 right now? Going up probably 130 By the time you know this, but we're growing. So yes, it's happening but back then roughly 100 people in the organization. So we would do a weekly Call because nature abhors a vacuum, right? So people show up without fear uncertainty, you know, and you've got a global pandemic happening and new CEO, lots of business challenges, right? So we just started having a weekly call, and then is that you know, and people begin to understand open questions about that lack of transparency, then it was like, okay, every two weeks is okay. . And then it's like, hey, guys, you know, would you monthly, we kind of now got that monthly cadence. And then we'd add on to that. We do it to CEO small group meetings. So we bring together 12 or so people not with their supervisors, right? And then we'd have a one-on-one conversation, or many to one conversation me about what's happening the business. So you know, the long answer to your question, it's about connectivity. It's about helping to bridge that gap. It's hard to do. I don't think anybody in the world has figured this whole hybrid thing out, right. And so we're all learning. But I had a couple advantages. One, I've had some really great leadership experiences, everything from doing earthquake recovery from the Great Northridge earthquake on my first day on the job to creating the leadership program for Goodrich. So , really. So when I was at Goodrich, I remember being in we were in LA x with my boss, and you're talking he was a military pilot, helicopter pilot, I my Airforce background, we were bemoaning the lack of people understanding the difference between management and leadership, right? You lead people you manage things and processes, right? And we were saying how do we how do we help that without having the background we have? So we created a Leadership Academy, a full immersive experience for Goodrich executives, that actually was we started with our business and then it grew and was adopted by corporate to everybody director above was going through this weeklong immersive program on leadership. So we built the curriculum, we built the experiences. And so you take all that learning about that leadership as an as an experience in military, your front experience with working with people and creating value. And now you say how do I do that in this hybrid environment? Because it's all about people and culture at the end of the day. I mean, especially now in my role as CEO. My job is not to make things happen. This is I'm the coach, I'm here to help other people have the tools resources, right to do what they need to do. , . My basic job is don't run out of money, you know, have a good strategy. , no, no, . Manage the board. .
Blake St. Onge 17:13
So with all the hybrid sort of world going on, I would imagine the real product is has been, I mean, I just looked at it from all the things that we've been doing the last two years, and sort of had an aha moment like, well, we need to start using something like that. So have you guys what's the sort of growth trajectory look like? In the last couple years? Has there been a significant amount of adoption across the globe? With the product? Absolutely.
Andrew Chrostowski 17:37
I mean, we have we have now 60,000 units deployed, we're by far the market leader in this space, over 5000 customers at various levels of engagement, as I said, 41 of the top 100. . Which is amazing. And probably, you know, more than almost 100 of the of the top, you know, global 2000 and top 100. There, so we really have done that. And as I mentioned, and we were taking the tour, , we launched this company. And we're the real and real where we really think that, you know, when we announced the navigator 500, which we were demonstrating with you earlier, , we launched that on December 8 of 2021. We shipped the same day, right? When we launched this company, we went live, we were certified in 50 countries, because we knew that we were going to be selling the global customers like Colgate Palmolive, and others who would be deploying this in their various global plants. You couldn't say, well, you can use the US, but you can't use it in Venezuela. You can't use it in China. How did
Blake St. Onge 18:31
you do that so quickly? Like Well, I mean, what it just in terms of comparison, how hard is that? Because I don't know, but I would imagine to be certified and that many countries are a pretty unbelievable feat.
Andrew Chrostowski 18:44
It's about planning, right? It's about having that as a concept. I often say it's like it's always easier to do something right the first time, then go back and redo it, right. So we knew that we were going to have this approach. So as you go forward, you understand the requirements, right? And you think about what's needed for that. And then you line up those resources. And you just knock them off as you go says you're developing it, you know, what's going to be compliant, and then it's a matter of filling in the in the blanks and doing that. And some of it just takes time. Once you've got that established, some countries take longer than others. And, you know, some of them came after launch for the ones that have longer time. But you know, 50 were done before we got to day one. .
Blake St. Onge 19:20
So what have you learned as a leader? You Andrew, I mean, all from your, I would say focus on maybe the last two years, but what you've gone through a real war, but like, I mean, really, in your whole leadership career? What have you learned about yourself and that thing, then that changes I would imagine, often I know this for me, it changed like you just there's always little learnings, but in the last 18 months, two years, what have you learned as a as a leader as a person?
Andrew Chrostowski 19:46
, I think when I look at the last 18 months, two years of what's happened here, specifically, and there's a lot of things that just validated learnings that I've had, but became really clear and what I'm so proud of this team at real where is it became obvious to me that imagination is far more a limiting factor for a company than capital, what this company has done with limited capital, with small team to change the future of work to really change way, literally 10s of 1000s of people how they do their job more safely more productive, we probably saved tons of more jobs during the pandemic, because people who wouldn't otherwise be able to keep their businesses running, right, you know, kept their job, because they could keep their companies running, and talk about having a green impact, you know, for a company our size, when you start having global customers like Exxon not having to fly people all around the world and take somebody like, you know, good year where they don't have to fit, you know, $10,000 per trip plus all the greenhouse gases, so is traveling, we have a huge impact on changing the way these footprints work for these global customers. So to me, it's this idea that imagination is the most important part of it. And that's always a piece of what is to be human. And that's this connection to humanity, and being a human centric technology company has just come home to me, as we worked at that, and we talked about the future, right? And the future, I like to say demographics is destiny, right. And that just means that if you look today, there's a shortage of workers, we read about it in the press all the time, right, skilled workers are at a premium. This is a demographic trend, it's not an accident, right, there are fewer skilled workers, and it's going to be true for decades to come. That means companies have to find a way to get the work done, you have two choices, you can automate people out of that system, right? Or you can make the people who come onboard more agile, faster, learners come up the learning curve more quickly, and therefore be able to feel better about themselves. So, you know, our mission at real ware is to engage those frontline workers make them more connected to their customer or connected to their peers, more connected to their business. . And then with this access to real time information in the cloud, closing that last six inches of the IoT world to their mind, this knowledge transfer platform, allowing them to meet them empowered to do better work, and that's fulfilling for human being thinks they're likely better. And that ultimately raises their level of elevates level performance, which is great for their enterprise. ,
Blake St. Onge 22:07
I would say just in terms of listen to your journey, where you are now that that ingenuity and that curiosity that you had, as a child toward pushing the sphere. That's been it seems to be a Northstar throughout your entire career, and it might take different facets up or down or sideways. But it's always It seems it's always been that Northstar, where it's like, okay, let's, let's keep pushing a little bit. Let's figure out where we can. And the connectivity piece is a huge, huge part of that, and what you guys are doing just in me actually living it even for 10 minutes, you know, it was like that, that the connectivity has been critical in the last couple of years. And I think that's, I mean, what you guys are doing is incredible. For someone that's got so much experience like you, there's probably a lot of people out there when I ask a question like, you know, who would you want to have coffee or a cocktail within history past or present or whatever? Some there's, I'm sure there's probably people out there that would say you because of I mean, all the things that you have done in your career and the things that you I mean, you're a change maker, to be honest. So what about for you though? Who would that be for you?
Andrew Chrostowski 23:11
That's a really difficult question. Because we could go from you know, in that sphere, right, you get everything from philosophy, religion, history, right. So it's a huge right, I think I'll go with, with something a little bit more current. And we think about, you know, Virgin and what's happened with Virgin and their businesses, and you take somebody, I would love to sit down with Sir Richard Branson, on Necker Island, you kick back. And he, he does these meetings barefoot. Yes. Like barefoot in the sand. , talking about all of his life experiences where he's done everything from solo ballooning to being part of a space program, you know, winning the XPRIZE, with his support from that, all the things that he's done, really, in terms of building that business. And then, you know, he overcame personal limitations. He's a dyslexic. He had a tough time and conventional education. And so he's really found a way to connect with people and do it in a broad variety of industries. So I think I could it would be a lot of fun and be an education. , I
Blake St. Onge 24:11
think that's I would take that coffee, or cocktail for like, four weeks, I think
Andrew Chrostowski 24:16
it's probably going to have an umbrella and if you're on Necker Island, yes with Sir Branson, but
Blake St. Onge 24:20
, no kidding. That's a great answer. So for those that that may not know about you or may not know much about roller hopefully they know a lot more now, as we're as we're having a conversation, but where can they find we're gonna learn more about you? Where can they find you if you want people to find you? And then and more about real where, where can they where can they go? The first and most
Andrew Chrostowski 24:39
important part of your answer is rewired calm, because we, we have a number of use cases, a number of videos you can connect to we have a YouTube channel, it's really exciting. You can dig in and see people really using the device to create value. And so I'd recommend anyone who wants to know more about the future of work, you know, can go there and kind of get a glimpse into and stimulate their own imagination as to what is possible. in their industry and their business, for myself, I'm very active in LinkedIn. So you know, please follow me on LinkedIn. If we've met, you get a connection, happy to connect with you. But I post a lot about the future of work. . talk a lot about leadership. , talk about innovation and those platforms. And so including Twitter, so you can find me at Andrew Chrostowski on LinkedIn or at “AChrostowski” at Twitter, we can maybe include those links.
Blake St. Onge 25:26
We’ll definitely do that. Well, Andrew, thanks so much for the time. Thanks for the demo. Thanks for this, like sharing your journey, your leadership journey, your passion for what you're doing everywhere. It was just a pleasure to come up here. And I just appreciate you know the opportunity and you saying yes to join me and , looking forward to seeing what you got going on. Even more in the future.
Andrew Chrostowski 25:44
Blake. It's what a pleasure. Thank you so much