Women In Supply Chain Series: Karen Chao

Allison Champion
5 min read
March 14, 2024

Meet Karen Chao

In this Q&A, we gain insights from Karen Chao, a veteran product leader with more than two decades of experience in the tech and supply chain space.

Karen is the chief product officer at Flowspace, where she leads product development, user experience, data, and innovation.  

Karen shares insights from throughout her career journey, offers advice for women working in the supply chain, and talks about advancements in technology and AI that will disrupt the industry.

Can you share a quick overview of your career path? How did you get into the supply chain industry?

I started my career at Cisco Systems. I hadn’t planned on working in supply chain, but Cisco was a hot company at the time, and I got a role in the manufacturing division where I worked in a central planning function. I then transitioned into product management at software companies and didn’t find myself back in supply chain until over a decade later, when I took a product management role at a technology company in the last-mile delivery space. And now at Flowspace, we build software to help brands manage their supply chain and fulfillment.

What is the biggest shift you’ve seen in the supply chain from the beginning of your career to now?

Just as consumer expectations have increased in terms of experiences and even shipping speeds, I see that brands and their supply chain leaders continue to have rising expectations on how technology supports and shapes their day-to-day and ensuring they are able to meet their organizational goals and end-customer commitments.

What are the biggest challenges facing brands in supply chain today, and how can they overcome those challenges?

There are more and more technology needs to effectively run a brand and the supply chain. The supply chain leader needs to be increasingly more technology savvy and really understand the implications of technology in how to be successful.

Gartner’s 2023 Women in Supply Chain Report found that women make up 41% of the supply chain workforce, up from 39% in 2022. However, frontline representation continues to lag, with women filling just 31% of these roles and only 26% of C-suite roles (CSCO, SVP, EVP, CPO) filled by women. Why do you think there are so few women and female leaders in supply chain? 

Women are generally underrepresented in most leadership roles, so this number isn’t shocking to me. I think there is responsibility from many people in an organization to find talented women in their ranks that need mentorship and sponsorship to rise to the top. Often women may not see themselves in a leadership role due to lack of representation or belief in one’s own ability. Leaders in the organization need to be fostering talented women to grow.

What do you most enjoy about building products for the supply chain industry?

I think there is still so much opportunity in this industry to leverage technology to do more with less. When I think of other industries such as finance and advertising, there is so much automation, data enablement, and visibility. I think the supply chain has a ways to go and I am passionate about driving that innovation.

The recent advancements in AI are a real opportunity for the industry to transform how work is done day to day. I see a lot of folks in the industry struggle with accessing the data needed to make critical business decisions and so a lot of our focus at Flowspace is giving brands the power to leverage AI to understand their business more to drive decision making.

What was the best piece of career advice you were given?

Early in my career, a manager shared with me very direct feedback from someone in the organization. They weren’t sure I was the right person for a particular project, and their opinion was based on the impression I’d made in a single meeting.

Upon reflection, what I learned from that feedback was that because I was rather quiet, people assumed I was not competent. If I was a quiet male, would I have been instantly wrote off as not competent? I doubt it.

But it was a lesson to me that as a woman, I need to assert my thoughts and leadership as I may not get that benefit of the doubt.

What role has mentorship played in your career? Do you have a memorable mentor that positively impacted your career?

I haven’t had specific mentors, but I have had a few good managers. Those managers helped me believe in myself, and without them I would not be where I am today. Something I struggled with early on was speaking up in meetings. One manager would always encourage me to speak more and ensure I had space to speak by purposely being quiet. I often felt nervous and awkward, but with more and more practice, it helped me build confidence that what I had to say was meaningful and impactful.

What is something about your career journey that you’re most proud of? What impact has that had on the career decisions you made since that point?

I’ve never been afraid to take on a new challenge or learn a completely new industry. I think confidence in one’s ability to figure it out has truly helped me get to where I am. A lot of my early days at Flowspace was around really understanding the industry and the specific needs of the brands we serve. Only through deep understanding of our customers, have I been able to build great products that have delivered meaningful outcomes for these brands.

What is your most ambitious  professional goal?

My goal is to transform the way brands manage their supply chain through advanced technology such as AI. Even established brands will have very small supply chain teams that are stretched thin and thus have to be reactive vs being proactive with how they operate. Technology is the way to make that transition. I see the opportunity to give easy access to data to make informed decision making that impacts the bottom line as well as streamlining human driven workflows to produce more consistency and reduce labor costs. Thereby freeing up the supply chain leader to focus more on strategic decision making.

Written By:

flowspace author Allison Champion

Allison Champion

Allison Champion leads marketing communication at Flowspace, where she works to develop content that addresses the unique challenges facing modern brands in omnichannel eCommerce. She has more than a decade of experience in content development and marketing.

Table of Contents