Bright Machines’ CMO On The Future Of Manufacturing, Career Pivots And Leading A High-Growth Startup In A Male-Dominated Industry 

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.

Caroline Pan is the chief marketing officer of Bright Machines, an innovative technology company that leverages advanced software, robotics and computer vision to transform the way things are made. She has over 25 years of experience in high-tech and industrial manufacturing as an engineer, brand strategist and global executive. 

Prior to joining Bright Machines, Pan ran global marketing at Honeywell, and held leadership roles at Hewlett Packard, Intel and Ford Motor Co. In this Q&A, we asked her about the transition from the corporate world to startup life, her work with Bright Machines, and what it’s like to be a female executive in a male-dominated industry. 


Interestingly enough, my early childhood passion was actually in art–drawing, painting, crafting, building. I could engage in these activities for hours on end, much to the chagrin of my math-centric, Taiwanese immigrant parents. These days, we’d lump this into what’s now called “STEAM”–but back then, my family did not quite view art as a viable career path. 

So, I ended up doing a bit of a balancing act; studying hard to excel in math and science, while supplementing with a few art classes as a creative outlet. I applied to colleges half thinking I would pursue architecture, until I discovered mechanical engineering in my freshman year at MIT. I loved the ability to design innovative and elegant products, but also get my hands dirty in the machine shop. I even experimented with 3D printing back in the 90s, long before it became commercially available. After graduating, I joined Ford as a design engineer and from there started my foray in what would become a 25+ year career in the manufacturing and technology space.


Q: Why did you choose to take on a marketing role at a manufacturing startup? 

When Amar Hanspal, the CEO of Bright Machines, approached me about this role, it felt as though all the puzzle pieces finally fell into place. I had spent nearly my entire career working in large manufacturing companies–starting with my early automotive experience at Ford, but then later moving into the tech (Intel, HP) and industrial (Honeywell) sectors. I grappled with the challenges associated with designing and manufacturing products for global reach and scale.I walked the assembly lines and saw firsthand the types of issues that constrained production. In many cases, these companies had implemented automation to improve efficiency, but in a cruel twist of fate, ended up severely limiting their flexibility and agility when demands changed. 

When I learned about Bright Machines’ unique approach to transforming manufacturing I was hooked. Here was a team of multidisciplinary engineers–from CAD to controls, automation to AI, 3D vision to 3D simulation–that had come together to completely revolutionize how products can be made. It was a story begging to be amplified and shared with a much broader audience. As a marketer, it was an incredible opportunity to join at this stage of the company and shape the brand into something just as iconic as the legendary companies I worked for before.


Q: What issues did you see in the manufacturing industry before you joined your company? 

Over the years, I have had the unique privilege of being right at the center of the storm when the manufacturing companies where I worked were faced with pivotal decisions. Questions like: Should we close and convert an automotive assembly plant that makes large sedans to respond to the overwhelming demand for SUVs? Should we bring our leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing process over to China to secure greater market access? Should we outsource more design and development to ODMs (original design manufacturers), rather than do it ourselves in-house? Should we pursue more distributed production–across multiple countries and regions–so we can be more responsive to local market conditions?

These issues are just as relevant today as they were two decades ago. They are big, thorny questions because the nature of global manufacturing has historically been complex and extremely capital intensive. But things really came to a head starting in 2020, when a new, even more perplexing question cropped up: Should we reshore low-cost manufacturing back to the U.S. in the wake of COVID? And more importantly, how?

Manufacturing companies are facing a world that is no longer predictable, with supply chains that are unexpectedly fragile, and legacy factory networks that are nowhere near as agile as they need to be to address sudden shifts in customer preference or demand. That’s why I am so excited about Bright Machines and our intelligent automation solution. We are solving these challenges right now for customers who have received the wakeup call and know they need a better path forward to remain competitive and withstand whatever the future may bring.


Q: What problems are you trying to solve with your company? 

At Bright Machines, we are working with global manufacturers across a range of fast-growing industries, including network infrastructure and data centers, automotive, consumer goods, industrial equipment and medical devices–just to name a few. 

There are a few key problem areas that our company is focused on solving for our customers:

1)  Reshoring. Leveraging software-driven automation to enable manufacturers to relocate production from low-cost to higher-cost labor markets.

2)  Supply Chain Resiliency. Creating a distributed, multilocation factory network to avoid single points of failure and rebalance capacity in response to market changes.

3)  Labor Shortages. Using technology to address the growing number of unfilled manufacturing jobs and facilitate continuous operation of critical industries, even during crisis situations such as a pandemic. 

4)  Innovation. Shrinking the design-to-production cycle and improving feedback loops so that more rapid innovation can occur.

5)  Workforce Reskilling. Designing and delivering simple, easy-to-use technology that is intuitive to understand and operate. 

6)  Sustainability. Enabling smaller footprints, more energy-efficient, automation-based factories located closer to the end consumer, reducing pollution and minimizing excess production and waste.


Q: How did you network, find communities and make the connections you needed to succeed? 

In any job, it is helpful to seek out your “tribe”–like-minded individuals with whom you can celebrate, commiserate, or just blow off steam with on those tough, stressful days. For me, many of these work friendships have spanned decades and transcended job and company changes. In essence, you end up creating your own version of an “alumni network” that you can tap into for advice and support.

I’ve also enjoyed, when time has allowed, volunteering my time with various community organizations, whether it’s my child’s school, an industry association, or the local Chamber of Commerce. You meet people from all walks of life and can expand your network well beyond the confines of your company.  

I’ve been fortunate to have many fantastic mentors throughout my career, some of whom I worked for directly, and some of whom I met socially or through other connections. They have helped guide me during times of uncertainty and transition, and I am ever grateful for their support. 

In turn, I try to do my part in “passing it on”–whether coaching other employees, advising young entrepreneurs, or supporting friends and others in my network who are navigating their own career journeys. I’m a firm believer in what goes around, comes around, so I strive to be generous with my time and do what I can in facilitating connections for others.


Q: What is your advice for other CMOs looking to build and scale a marketing organization in a high-growth company? 

First, get ready to roll up your sleeves and dig in. At most tech startups, the marketing organization is not going to be a big one–at least not to start. Ideally, you will have experienced all of the various facets of marketing–brand, PR, marcom, digital, GTM, product–so you can make quick decisions or even fill in yourself as needed. Things will move fast, so you’ll need to adapt and adjust just as quickly.

Prioritize the areas that are going to move the needle for the company. Be picky about the resources you add and to which functions, when you need every single hire to count. Bring on strong agency partners that will live and breathe your business like you do.

As a CMO who has also been in operational roles, I feel it is critically important to understand the financials of the business and the strategic priorities. Then I can apply my marketing toolkit to support or accelerate progress where we need it. At a high-growth company, everything must be looked at holistically. Even though my purview is marketing, I always ask myself questions like: Will this help our company grow and scale? and Does this make sense financially for the business?


Q: Any advice for others looking to make a similar jump from corporate to startup? 

I believe in well-rounded careers, and always encourage anyone I speak with to embrace the opportunity to learn something new or try out a different path at some point along their professional journey. 

For me, the opportunity to join Bright Machines came at the right time and stage of my life. I had worked for some of the largest, the most prominent brands in the world, and had broken through the glass (not to mention, bamboo) ceiling to penetrate the upper echelons of those companies. 

But even though I had worked in corporate for nearly my entire career, I had always contemplated the idea of joining a startup. I had incubated several “internal startups” within these larger companies. I led corporate ventures for one of the divisions at Honeywell. I advised and even invested in a few early-stage startups. But it was not until Bright Machines that I felt that I found the right fit–from a company, role, and culture perspective. 

My advice is to keep your eyes open and trust the process. Do good work, maintain strong connections, and be ready to leap when the time comes. And when the opportunities do present themselves, do your diligence to make sure it is a place that will value your contributions and enable you to flourish. Culture is important at all companies, but especially at a startup where everyone is moving fast, and resources are stretched. Just as significant as the company mission are their values and how they treat their employees–so make sure to choose wisely!


Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success? 

Grit and a strong work ethic come to mind, as do an openness to change and ability to adapt. By the way, I don’t believe that any of these qualities are innate, they are a result of my upbringing and the environment in which I was raised. 

For me, gaining broad experience early on by working in different roles and across different functions and geographies helped me establish a strong foundation for executive leadership. I believe it has given me a greater understanding and level of empathy for the various types of challenges that companies can encounter.


Q: What challenge are you most proud of overcoming in your career? 

One of the most interesting–and transformational–challenges I encountered over my career was the transition to working in China. It was a leap of faith moment when I made the decision to accept a two-year international assignment based in Shanghai, a city I had only visited once before moving there from San Francisco in 2005. Ultimately, it ended up turning into a 13-year stint abroad–first with Intel, then Hewlett-Packard and finally Honeywell. In some ways, I was a fish out of water in those early days. Born and raised in the U.S., I had a shallow understanding of the local culture and business practices. My Chinese was broken at best and I was a single woman navigating through a sea of opaqueness and complexity while tackling some of my very first senior leadership roles. 

It was through that grit I mentioned earlier–plus a good dose of courage and willingness to learn–that I came through the other side of that experience. I became deeply immersed in the nuances of U.S.-China trade, the implications for global manufacturing companies operating in China, the impact of shifting supply chains, and how to “localize” in a world where scale and reach mattered. 

I continue to look back fondly on this experience and am glad that I turned a daunting offer into an opportunity for both personal and professional growth. 


Q: What do you find most rewarding about your experience so far? 

It’s been nothing short of a thrill-ride adventure since I joined Bright Machines in March. What is more rewarding than disrupting a stagnant, centuries-old industry, while working alongside a rock star leadership team and harnessing the imaginations of the best and brightest talent around the world? Just over six months in, and I am still so energized about being a part of building this company and putting the Bright Machines brand on the map. Watch this space, as we have more surprises yet to come! 

  • Originally published October 14, 2021