Christine Lee is the vice president and general manager of global business development at Immersv, a mobile VR and 360 video advertising platform in the Bay Area. She’s an expert in mobile entertainment and monetization, as well as contract negotiations, multi-media sales, and managing relationships. Prior to joining Immersv, Ms. Lee served as the general manager of Chartboost; a media solutions lead in gaming at Google; and an account executive at Microsoft. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and an advanced business degree from the Università Bocconi, the first Italian university to grant degrees in economics. Notably, in addition to her multifaceted business acumen, she teaches flying trapeze and aerial conditioning at the Circus Center in San Francisco every Sunday.
Ms. Lee graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] You’ve held leadership positions at Microsoft, Google, and Chartboost, among other companies. You’re an expert on gaming monetization and distribution, specifically in mobile. How did you initially get into gaming and later VR?
[Christine Lee] There were two major forces in my life that led me here. One was from our alma mater. At Berkeley, I was involved in student government and helped out with career fairs. One time, we had Microsoft on site and the company’s main representative was one of the “founders of search”—one of the earliest people who built out the search engine at Microsoft. We stayed in touch and every couple of months, I’d send him an update on things I was studying or the progress of my senior thesis. Finally, I was about to graduate and I messaged him saying, “Hey, I’m graduating. I’d love to find a job.” That was the first thing: I was lucky in crossing paths with somebody who was pretty influential in an industry I was excited about.
The second thing was having worked at Microsoft in account management and sales, I had the opportunity to work across verticals—everything from retail to CPC, and then to gaming and entertainment. The interesting thing about gaming is that it is one of the most forward-thinking industries in terms of how to monetize; how to market; and how to track ROI or in-app purchases. In other words, how to optimize that funnel. I was really drawn to that because every advertiser or company that I worked with actually looked at the numbers, and they were spending on advertising based on exactly what they could make back, versus other verticals where it was a little bit more vague. Even though I enjoyed working on other verticals and other brands, I was definitely drawn most to gaming and entertainment because of this kind of metrics-centered approach.
I moved to a company called AdMob, which was an early mobile advertising network that was then acquired by Google. I came in as one of the gaming and entertainment experts there. I got experience on PC desktops, and then it was a very smooth transition into early days of mobile and ROI-focused games and entertainment.
[OnlineEducation.com] Was Immersv your introduction to working in VR, or at least with VR advertising platforms?
[Christine Lee] Yes. Immersv is a VR 360 ad platform and we are pretty focused on mobile 360 as well, which means not just in headset, but also on mobile devices.
The transition from Chartboost to Immersv happened because I’d been in mobile ads for awhile; I’d been very excited about the next frontier—the next medium that people were going to use for communication, consumption, or entertainment. I knew there was something brewing with VR, AR, and 360, and I wasn’t sure exactly in which order mass adoption would come across. I could tell there was a ton of potential, and that’s why I wanted to go to a VR-specific company.
I’d known the CEO of Immersv from having worked at Chartboost because he was the CEO of TapJoy—a very similar company to Chartboost—and we were supposed to be on a panel together. We stayed in touch after that, and then I ended up joining the team after hearing his vision about the company.
[OnlineEducation.com] What kind of companies advertise on VR? What are you seeing right now?
[Christine Lee] It’s a mix. A majority are VR and AR companies with content creators and developers who have VR projects they want to get eyeballed. The next bucket is brand marketers that already have 360 video marketing assets. Companies like Supercell, which has a really cool 360 video that’s a Clash of Clans experience, but it’s as if you are there in the field. Other companies like Warner Brothers or Lionsgate have 360 experiences with movies like The Blair Witch Project and The Conjuring. Some companies have already created 360 experiences, but not necessarily the VR 360 video; usually there are budgets attached to get that distribution.
[OnlineEducation.com] It seems that every year, VR is on the cusp of reaching a wider audience. When do you think the technology will become more ubiquitous? And which companies are making the best hardware?
[Christine Lee] I would say we’re still super early. The projections in 2016 were really high, which wasn’t the healthiest for the industry. It was too much. All the reports were saying it was going to be one hundred million devices, et cetera, but we already knew that it was still too early for that. Even right now, if you look at the distribution, it’s probably somewhere between 15 to 25 million devices globally, which is still early.
I think it’s still going to be awhile until we get mass adoption; it’s going to take some consolidation of platforms and devices. Right now, there are plenty of headsets. There’s the Vive, the Oculus, and the Sony PlayStation. They’re all kind of going head-to-head today, and there’s no clear winner. Sony probably has the largest number, but that number is a million versus ten million.
With the premium headsets, it’s still super early; with the mobile VR headsets, there’s a little more distribution with things like the Google Cardboard, which has probably ten to twenty million devices globally. There’s also the Gear VR, which has five million devices. Mobile VR is currently more present—more ubiquitous—but we’ve still got awhile.
[OnlineEducation.com] I’ve been really interested in the benevolent applications of virtual reality: its use in healthcare, for example. What do you think are some of the most exciting developments for VR and AR?
[Christine Lee] One of the best parts of working at Immersv is I get to work with a lot of these VR companies. There are companies, as you mentioned, that are focused on health. Some work on pain relief or helping out the elderly and others to transcend a physical space or go on a vacation for the first time.
One of the ones that I’m most familiar with is a company called kindVR. They’re doing a lot of interesting things with healthcare, and others are working in education, training, or field trips. In Japan, they have virtual reality high school or college graduations, so there’s a lot happening globally that’s pretty interesting.
There’s a company here in the Bay Area called Variable Labs, which is run by Barry Pousman. It helps people conquer the fear of public speaking. They have another application where as a woman, you can actually negotiate your salary with a manager in a virtual environment. Of course anybody could benefit from this, but it was more female empowerment-focused, given the current gaps between men and women’s incomes. Companies are developing a more philanthropic focus; a lot more interesting applications are to come.
[OnlineEducation.com] I want to talk about the demographics of the industry, both in your past work experience and where you currently are. Working in games, mobile, VR, do you find yourself to be typically one of the only women in the room or are the demographics pretty equitable?
[Christine Lee] I’m not the only woman in the room, but it is definitely not 50/50. I would say it just depends on the context: if I’m meeting with a marketing team, it might be 75/25; if I’m working directly with the game development team—the developers and engineers—it’s usually closer to 90/10; if I’m working with the accounting team to get payments set up, it’s maybe 50/50; so it depends on who I’m working with.
Another thing to note is that it often depends on the type of company and the games that they’re developing. For example, Zynga or SGN Games—companies focused on a more casual gaming demo—are usually a lot more balanced. There are definitely companies that I’ve worked with that are running extremely hardcore games with a heavy male demo or a target that is very male-heavy, but I think that’s natural, right? I think a company’s teams usually reflect the target demographic.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s an interesting point. So you don’t think that there’s an underrepresentation of women or minorities in the industry?
[Christine Lee] There definitely is an underrepresentation of women and minorities in the industry, but again, I think it just depends on the team and the company. In general, yes, there is a very present problem, and yes, I’m definitely a minority as a woman and an Asian-American. I feel like there are very few people in the industry that I directly identify with, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s been a barrier. I feel like the industry is pretty open-minded, welcoming, and excited for different opinions—diverse opinions. To date, I really haven’t had any career roadblocks in my day-to-day. I feel very lucky there, and I hope that it’s the same for any woman that is coming into the industry.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think that women in minorities face any unique challenges in trying to get into these industries?
[Christine Lee] I actually don’t. I think if a person is truly passionate about an industry or a role, then they have an equal opportunity. I do think that the wage gap is a very real, tangible problem. I’ve seen that in previous jobs where I have actually looked at payroll across a company and taken the average of females versus males; I was in shock.
As far as job opportunities are concerned if you took two kids out of college—one that’s a white male and one that’s an Indian female—and they were both applying for the same engineering job, I actually think the woman might have more of an opportunity than the male, as crazy as that sounds. Especially in the Bay Area, there’s definitely an interest in keeping teams and perspectives diverse. I don’t think it’s a challenge to get into the industry, as long as the person knows what they want and has the right background for it.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s fair, although some women do feel discouraged by recent controversies in technology and games. In any case, you’re so accomplished and you’re helping to shape the industry. What advice would you give to women who are interested in breaking into VR/AR and aspiring to be in leadership positions like you are?
[Christine Lee] This might not sound good on the record, but just work hard; be yourself; and treat yourself as if you are a male or a female. As silly as this sounds, there have been panels or conferences that have reached out to me and said, “Hey, can you be on a panel? Would you choose Women in Gaming or Gaming Monetization and Mechanics’” I choose Monetization and Mechanics because that’s what I’m focused on; that’s my job. I’m equal to every single person that’s on the panel; I don’t want to just sit and talk about being a woman in gaming. I’d rather talk about what we do. Our value is our action; our value is what we contribute, so for any woman who is seeing these articles and hearing how terrible some of these completely incorrect opinions have been, well…just challenge it. Be yourself and actively break the social mold or change the paradigm. There will be people along the way to help, men and women. Find good mentors who can help with that, but just be ready to treat yourself just like anybody else. Don’t come in with a self-handicap like, “Oh, I’m going in as the only female engineer at this company.” Don’t make that a negative; make that a positive. I really think it is up to the person; there’s a lot that we can do on our own just to change that paradigm directly.