Qualcomm technology is at the heart of the modern digital world, but it wouldn’t be possible without the work of a lot of very creative and dedicated people. Innovators @ Qualcomm, or IQ for short, is our Q+A series highlighting the makers, thinkers, and doers helping Qualcomm build the future.
Today, we go in-depth with Senior Vice President of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and President of Qualcomm Cyber Security Solutions (QCSS) Kim Koro.
Koro joined Qualcomm in 1989 as legal counsel. In her 28 years, she’s taken on a number of key roles and responsibilities, from overseeing international programs and business development of the company’s OmniTRACS business to VP of operations and division counsel for CommSystems to VP and GM of government systems and digital cinema.
We talked with Koro about her experiences helping to shape Qualcomm’s business from its earliest days, how she sees the company’s role in supporting national security, and how a diverse staff helps companies do better work.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
OnQ: Back in 1989 you were working at a large, established law firm. What appealed to you about joining Qualcomm?
Kim Koro: At the time, there wasn’t a roadmap for women in the legal profession who were trying to strike a balance between motherhood and a desire to stay on the partnership track. I had my first baby and had to make a decision: stay on the partnership track or opt out by making a schedule with fewer billable hours. I chose to opt out, but the irony was that my hours didn’t change.
Late one night, a colleague, (future Qualcomm President) Steve Altman, was leaving work and stopped by my office to ask why I was always working so late. He told me he was leaving the firm to go join Qualcomm as general counsel. He encouraged me to look into the company. That was the beginning.
OnQ: Tell us about your first job here.
Koro: I started in 1989 as a lawyer focused on OmniTRACS. Qualcomm really was just a start-up back then. There wasn’t much in the way of formal structure or processes. It was all new and incumbent upon everyone to do what was needed, so there were plenty of opportunities to broaden one’s experience — there still are.
OnQ: What made you transition to more of a business/leadership role?
Koro: In 1992, I was approached by executive management about taking on program management for the OmniTRACS international programs. I remember asking Harvey White, who was president of Qualcomm at the time, “Why me? I’m not an engineer, and program management means development, right?” He told me it was more of a business management role and said, “We think you can do this.” That was quite validating and inspiring.
So, I was faced with a choice: keep focusing solely on legal matters, which I was completely comfortable with, or shift towards a business operations role, which I had no experience in. I decided to tackle something new.
OnQ: What did your transition away from legal teach you?
Koro: I learned how much I like a challenge; I like blank slates because I am a problem solver. While I had a background as a lawyer, I discovered that what I really like is strategic leadership and business management.
OnQ: What came next?
Koro: After growing into a role with additional responsibility in the OmniTRACS division — from director of contracts and international programs to vice president of business development and programs — I realized I was ready for more challenge. In 1995, I was moved into another division of Qualcomm called CommSystems as VP of operations and division counsel. CommSystems included several burgeoning businesses, including Globalstar as well as a small government systems focus, and our business exploration into digital cinema.
As Globalstar grew, the company reorganized CommSystems into a separate division focused solely on Globalstar. In 1997, I moved into a new division, responsible for building the government and digital cinema businesses, and I was eventually named VP and general manager. This was an exciting time when several government projects seeded commercial efforts for Qualcomm. Both QChat and our compression work were initially government projects that were then leveraged into the commercial sector. Additionally, our digital cinema business was Qualcomm’s first foray into developing trusted relationships with the entertainment industry.I ran both until 2003, when we made the decision to sell our digital cinema business to our joint venture partner, Technicolor. Our division then focused solely on government relationships and became QGOV, now renamed to QCSS.
OnQ: When were you promoted to SVP and president?
Koro: That’s one of my fondest memories in my career. It was 2000, and I was briefing the board of directors. As I started my presentation, several board members smiled at me and said “congratulations.” I paused, confused, and said “thank you, but I’m not sure why you’re congratulating me.” (Former Qualcomm co-founder, Chairman and CEO) Irwin Jacobs looked over at my boss, (former Qualcomm President) Rich Sulpizio questioningly, and Rich said, “I haven’t told her yet!” So I got to find out in front of the board of directors that I had been named division president.
OnQ: How would you describe Qualcomm’s relationship with government?
Koro: We help the government stay on top of the commercial curve. It’s not only important to provide them with the connectivity and security that meet — or surpass — their standards, but they need to understand where our industry is growing and how they can leverage all these innovations. It’s a unique relationship. We aren’t a government contractor as much as we’re a strategic partner.
OnQ: Can you give me an example of how this has worked?
Koro: Let’s go back to 2005 and Hurricane Katrina. We had been working with the DoD and DHS/FEMA on how deployable cellular communications could help them in overseas situations or crises at home. At that time, the wireless industry didn’t have effective deployable cellular infrastructure, so we built some units to prototype what could be possible. Then Hurricane Katrina hit and all communications went down. Our R&D prototypes were the only things available to help.
FEMA leadership called us to see if we could help. So we put engineers on Irwin Jacobs' plane and flew out to the Gulf. Our team took the equipment out into some of the worst hit areas. I can’t begin to describe how thankful the first responders were. It was a huge moment for Qualcomm, for my division, and for me. That is our metric for success: how well we can leverage our commercial technology to work in mission-critical situations.
OnQ: What are you working on right now?
Koro: We’re working to leverage Qualcomm security suites with enhancements to showcase how commercial technology can tackle even the toughest DoD security requirements. One example is our work with the DoD on creating continuous multi-factor authentication (CMFA) on smartphones, so they can use commercial devices to authenticate users to their information technology systems.
Right now, the DoD uses an identity card with a smartchip to provide single-factor authentication. With our CMFA code running on top of Qualcomm Snapdragon hardware, we hope to utilize multiple factors — facial recognition, gait detection, how you type, your voice, etc. — to create a secure authentication between a user and her smartphone.
This is just one of many examples.
OnQ: Does it feel like almost 30 years have passed?
Koro: In some ways, yes. I mean, just look around at the size of our campus. We were in half a building when I started. Other times, I wonder where the time has gone? It has really flown by! I’ve never regretted a moment. This place is home. It’s family.
OnQ: It sounds like you’re just as excited to work here now as you were when you first arrived — maybe more so.
Koro: If I am, it’s because of two things. First, we work with government partners who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us, and I have the privilege to lead the teams that harness technology to help them. How could I not be enthused about that?
The second reason is my division. It’s a really special team. They’re so committed to our company and our country.
OnQ: CEO Steve Mollenkopf has said, “At Qualcomm, we believe the diversity of our employees makes us a stronger, more effective company." How do you think a diverse workforce impacts a company’s culture? Its products?
Koro: Diversity is so important. The diversity of thought that comes from a team of dedicated professionals with varied life experiences has proven to be invaluable. When I began focusing on leadership, I learned I had to listen to different perspectives. It’s incredible how that can bring everyone to a deeper level of thinking and interaction. If we just adhere to our unconscious bias of leaning towards what we’re comfortable or familiar with, then all we get is more of the same.
OnQ: Have you ever felt a diversity barrier?
Koro: Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to have mentorship from my management who saw my potential and what they felt I was capable of doing versus being solely focused on my experience. The opportunities they gave me allowed me to lean forward and grow. When we give a person opportunities based on both their performance AND their potential, we can position employees of any gender, race, or belief for success. That is why I believe I achieved my success.
I want to also say as a female executive, I would have liked to see more women in leadership roles both during my career at Qualcomm and in our industry as a whole, and I am pleased with the more recent focus I’ve seen building in this arena.
OnQ: Do you participate in any of the employee networks here at Qualcomm?
Koro: I participate on the executive steering committee for the Women’s Leadership Program at Qualcomm for female VPs. I’m also the executive sponsor for Q-Emerge, which focuses on representing the interests of millennials and how they can positively contribute to Qualcomm culture and excellence.
Finally, last year, I was selected by the World Economic Forum to serve on its Global Future Council for Cybersecurity. It has been very exciting to have worldwide interaction and impact in thought leadership on the future of cybersecurity.
OnQ: What would you want prospective employees to know about the company?
Koro: Rather than sell them on the company, I’d say “pay attention to what you want and think about if this company’s going to give that to you.” If you want to work in a company that has nothing but options, this is the place to be. If you’re interested in growing and exploring and figuring out your potential, come here. This is a company that’s always evolving and growing worldwide and provides a wonderful platform for meaningful impact.
OnQ: Who has helped inspire you in your career? Did you have mentors?
Koro: I’d say Rich Sulpizio, whom I mentioned earlier, Dee Coffman (one of our founders and CFO at the time), and Paul Jacobs.
Rich, because he helped me break through that ceiling to become SVP/president. Dee, because she was the only woman executive at the time and was a role model. Paul because he really challenged me to up my game and grow to another level. And then there’s Irwin. What a privilege it was to work with him. Each of these individuals provided strong, positive support and leadership. They called me on my stuff. They gave me feedback, believed in me, and provided me with opportunities that stretched me beyond my experience. That’s mentorship to me.
And of course, I have to say above all, there was my mom.
OnQ: If you could give advice to your 16-year-old self, what would it be?
Koro: Balance is so important. We should never feel that we don’t have the time to grab a cup of coffee in the morning or take time off for that vacation with our loved ones. Time moves too quickly, and we become one-dimensional if all we do is work.
Fun FAQs About: Kim Koro
OnQ: What’s your favorite thing about working at Qualcomm?
Koro: My team and my partners. The talent in this company is amazing, and the work my team accomplishes daily is inspiring. I also take joy in the fact that my daughter is what brought me to Qualcomm, and now she too works here.
OnQ: What one word best describes you?
Koro: The first word that came to mind is “intense.”
OnQ: What book is on your nightstand?
Koro: I read my fantasy novels on my iPad. My Bible and my daily readings are on my nightstand.
OnQ: Favorite place?
Koro: Serenity Ranch in Colorado.
OnQ: What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
Koro: My family, including my two cats and six horses.
OnQ: If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now you’d be a … ?
Koro: I’d be a contestant on “So You Think You Can Dance” because I love to dance. I love music. But I’m never going to be able to do the splits, so that would be a stretch (pun intended).
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