Lisa Burton O’Toole: 2021 Distinguished Young Alumni Award

2/17/22 DukEngineer Magazine

Lisa Burton O'Toole provides investment and resources for early-stage, women-led startups across media, data, health care and technology

Lisa Burton O'Toole headshot with HearstLab logo
Lisa Burton O’Toole: 2021 Distinguished Young Alumni Award

Lisa Burton O’Toole’s (E’07) path to investing in women-led startups began at Duke as a mechanical engineering undergraduate researcher. While at Duke, she studied acoustics as a Pratt Fellow and then, while earning her Master’s and PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she specialized in data-driven modeling and machine learning to predict the motion of swimming animals.

From these research experiences, Burton learned three key lessons common to both successful research and founders. First, you must be able to build strong teams and a network of peers and mentors to get the best results. You also must be able to communicate complex ideas quickly and effectively. Last but not least, you must know your “north star”—your number one goal that drives prioritization and every decision you make. Burton went on to lead data science teams for a series of startups before founding her own company that leveraged data to help brands understand their customers online.

In 2016, Burton raised a round of venture capital funding that was led by HearstLab, a group that funds early-stage, women-led tech startups. HearstLab’s mission is to help close the funding gap by gender in venture capital, where today 88% of funding goes to startups without a single female founder.

HearstLab was a game changer to Burton’s own startup and she saw the opportunity to have significant impact by joining the HearstLab team to invest in and support female founders. HearstLab is nested within the parent company Hearst Communications, a leading global, diversified information, services and media company with more than 360 businesses.

Since its inception, HearstLab has invested tens of millions of dollars in more than 40 women-led companies that have collectively more than doubled their valuation since 2021. Burton now co-leads HearstLab, which leverages its parent company to help the startups grow by having women leaders across the company, known as “HearstLab Scouts,” donate time to help the startups, including everything from an introduction to a potential client to help with a founder’s pricing model or PR strategy. This model works both ways, Burton says, because the Scouts get exposure to founders, new technologies and different business models, which helps them approach their day job from new angles.

“I also felt that it was really important to make sure that these women leaders are visible, especially to younger versions of themselves,” Burton said.

To make sure they’re as visible as possible, Burton connects the Scouts and founders to outside organizations for mentoring and speaking opportunities. These engagements range all the way from young women learning how to code, with a group called GirlsWhoCode, to high school students in the Bronx, with a group called BridgeUp. It’s Burton’s goal, she says, to elevate the stellar women in HearstLab to inspire and encourage the next generation to become thoughtful leaders themselves.

When not working her day job, Burton also supports women in business and STEM through several organizations including All Raise and NYU Summer Launchpad. She is also a member of the advisory board for Duke’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, the NYU Innovation Fund, and Strategio, a startup that aims to empower and invest in diverse talent in technology.

She comes back to campus any chance she gets, and has given talks at the Duke Women’s Weekend and with the Business Oriented Women group. She also engages with the Duke I&E group and meets with student founders, judges pitch competitions, and looks forward to the Melissa and Doug entrepreneurship presentations each year. In recognition of all of this work in engineering and entrepreneurship, Burton has received a number of awards including the ASME Kate Gleason Award for distinguished female leaders and the MIT Luis de Florez Award for Outstanding Ingenuity and Creativity.

Given how much time and effort Burton invests into young leaders across the country, it’s no surprise that her favorite memories from Duke are all about the people. Some of her best friends to this day are people that she met first-year in GA.

“I remember how my classmates dreamed really big, and they made those things happen,” Burton said. “It reminds me a lot of having conversations with founders now. Those experiences were really influential to me.”