Interview with KR Liu: Director of Advocacy and Accessibility at Doppler Labs

KR Liu leads advocacy and accessibility at Doppler Labs, the company behind Here Active Listening—two wireless buds and a smartphone app that let you control how you hear the world. Diagnosed with severe hearing loss at the age of three, KR has made it her life's work to champion new products that enhance the way we hear the world. 

Over the last two decades, KR has launched some of the most groundbreaking hardware lifestyle tech brands on the market: from iPhone cases and portable charger at Speck, to wireless headphones at Sol Republic and smartwatches at Pebble Technologies, and now, augmented audio devices. She has been awarded a U.S. Congressional award; Silicon Valley's Top 40 Under 40 and Women of Influence; and 2015 Women on the Move by Women's Business Journal for her advocacy in hearing health and technology. Beyond her work at Doppler Labs, KR is also actively involved in industry organizations that are working toward tech innovation in hearing accessibility. KR is on the board of directors for the Hearing Loss Association of America and the board of directors for the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) audio division. Also, she is a brand ambassador for the World Wide Hearing Foundation (an arm of the World Health Organization).

BT (Grace Guan): Since beginning working at Doppler Labs, what are the day-to-day operations like for you?

KR Liu: It changes every day. My role has shifted a lot. I started at the company with a background in sales and marketing since I’ve been in consumer electronics for 20 years. My background has been in helping companies launch products and strategy and executing that. Today, my role has changed since I’m focused on helping my company enter a market that doesn't quite exist yet due to regulatory reasons. So, I spend a lot of my day-to-day operations working on policy/regulatory affairs and industry relationships when it comes to anything associated to hearing aids and hearing loss. I spend a lot of my time on Capitol Hill; I was there last week and I will be there again soon. My day-to-day hours are spent advocating for and making changes in hearing loss rights since today it’s not very accessible--not very affordable, and most people can’t access that type of technology. It’s also not accessible for stigma reasons: people who have hearing loss don’t want to wear hearing aids because of how they look socially.

 BT: What have some highlights and challenges been working at Doppler?

KR: For the majority of my life, 30 years, I have been a hearing loss advocate, so it has been a highlight to be a part of historical legislation that is going to change millions of lives. Since I pushed for this effort to come to fruition with Senator Warren and Senator Grassley, their Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017* has been the biggest highlight of my career and at Doppler. I wouldn’t necessarily say that there are challenges. But when you come to a company whose initial idea was a live music curing product and you’ve took their vision to a different direction that can help other people. The hard part is to get people to understand what it’s like to have hearing loss, why it’s so important, and how it’s so game changing for Doppler to take a look at it and pursue it. Education and getting the right players in place is super important, especially with limited resources as a startup. So I’d say the challenges are not having a lot of resources and getting my hands dirty a lot very personally and in a very new way, as a consumer myself. And getting people to see why the new vision was important was a challenge, but it was great that the company is passionate about this vision and getting to help other people: it comes full circle.
BT: How do you think disruptive technology will affect business in the future, both in your realm of hearing and outside of it?

KR: I think technology is always disruptive. Text messaging was actually created for the hard-of-hearing and deaf community to communicate since they couldn’t hear and talk on the phone. But now, I can’t think of anyone who can’t live without text messaging. I think people will seek out more of how do we solve some of the world’s biggest problems using technology, and how do we change the way something we do now impacts the future. Companies focus on this now, especially looking at things that are done one way and seeing how they can be more efficient. 

BT: That’s very interesting. Can you give an example outside of the hearing industry?

KR: Yes--fitness trackers are essentially wearing a bracelet to count steps. They were created to make people more aware and conscious of their daily activity. Something so simple made people engaged in being healthy and active, since tying that to a database with your friends makes it a social, competitive platform. The counting steps idea has been around for a long time: you used to buy things that would clip to your shorts. Now it’s been repackaged and reintroduced using cloud-based ideas to make it more visible and more social. Another example is the smartwatch. I’ve worked for the company that created the smartwatch. Smartwatches allow you to turn and look at your wrist and have the instant notification of who contacted you, say, when your phone is inaccessible. Smartwatches take something from your pocket to your wrist to make it more effective, more efficient, and more socially and aesthetically pleasing. That’s another example of a disruptive technology that I’ve been a part of.

BT: Shifting gears now, what was your intended career path? 

KR: I kind of never had one! I was in high school playing basketball, and I lived and breathed it and wanted to go play 4-year basketball. When I was a senior in high school, the first dot com boom started happening, and I had an injury. I couldn’t play my last season, and I was reevaluating what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t want to play basketball anymore and I didn’t want to go to a 4-year school. I didn’t know what I wanted to for a living, but I wanted to go into the working world. 

 I was in a bookstore when I was 17 looking at computer programming books, and coding was starting to be popular in the tech industry then. A guy came up next to me and asked me whether I knew how to code. He said, “well I work for a videoconferencing hardware company and we’re looking for interns to do tech support.” I’d always been tech savvy, as there was always technology in my house. I had email before it became popular and the latest technology gadgets, so I got the job in tech support at 17. I eventually moved to sales and marketing, was successful there, and did that for a span for 18-19 years at tech companies since I’ve always been interested in technology, especially companies that were trying to create new markets: from online postage to iPhone cases before there were iPhones to portable power so people could charge their headphones, wireless headphone before devices became truly wireless. These companies would launch and be successful and would create new markets.

This all happened by chance, and it was so weird. I learned pretty quickly. I never had any intention in high school of where I wanted to go. I just knew I didn’t want to play sports anymore, and I knew I didn’t want to go to school--I wanted to get working experience in the field.

BT: How has your worldview changed since when you were younger, and how have your experiences at your prior workplaces influenced that?

KR: I’m a much different person now then I was then. I’m a lot more open because when you work in small companies, everyone has wonderful ideas, and the challenge is focusing on a few ideas and being on the same page and executing those ideas. 

Two things I can say to my younger self that I was bad is: one, when I was younger I would come up with an idea and I would want to execute that idea since I thought it was a great idea. Now I know that if I listen to other people’s ideas, you can collaborate with others to create one awesome idea. My perspective and views have changed from doing it one way when I was very stubborn and not willing to listen--my way or the highway--whereas I need to be open since I may not have all the answers and someone may have some and together it could be great. In the end, it’s not about me being successful, it’s about the company, since that could create more innovation and jobs and ideas. I also need a team around me to be considered successful. That’s how my views have changed, especially the people you surround yourself and being open.

Two, I’ve also become very patient because things will change rapidly and you kind of have to go with the flow and ride the rollercoaster and get through it, since there will be times when there’s frustration and anger and all the emotions. So be patient with yourself and others since you may want to run at 120 miles per hour but others may not be able to yet, so you have to find a middle ground to move forward together.

BT: A lot of students at Princeton are interested in making a big impact on the world just as you are. Do you have any advice for them?

KR: Definitely. Make impact in something that you’re passionate about. If you don’t have an emotional connection to it or passion for it, it’s going to be very hard to be successful. It’s great to be successful financially, but that’s only short term fulfilling. I get phone calls and letters from people every day about how they make their lives, their kids’ lives, their grandparents’ lives better because of what I’m doing. That’s something that motivates me every day rather than a paycheck. So it has to be genuinely important to you why you’re making an impact. That is what will drive you when things get really hard: remembering why it matters to you.

See another one of KR’s past interviews from when she worked as Head of Global Sales at Pebble Technologies, featured in the Huffington Post, here.

*S.670 - The Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 has currently been introduced into the 115th Congress and is in the process of passing the Senate.

InterviewsGrace Guan