Ira Renfrew CN'01
Harvard Business School
Inspiring the Next Generation One Robot at a Time
Working as a product leader at iRobot allows Ira Renfrew CN'01 to live out the "inner seven-year-old-LEGO fanatic" side of himself. But for the grown-up side, it also provides the opportunity to empower people to do more in their lives through robots.
Prior to working at iRobot, Renfrew worked in a mix of consulting and startup roles around the world, including a year as a business development manager for Driptech, a venture-funded, agro-tech start-up in rural China and India co-founded by fellow alumnus Peter Frykman ES'00. Through these roles, he developed a skill set in growth strategies and consumer-centric design, – the roots of which were laid during his time at SYA China.
The Road to Becoming Trilingual
Renfrew originally studied high school Spanish at Phillips Academy, getting his language requirement out of the way. He was always intrigued by the Chinese language, particularly the characters, and as senior year approached, he realized a semester with SYA would be his last chance to act on this interest.
Once in China, he found the diversity of the country and the people a surprise. Renfrew remembers an excursion trip in Datong, "I saw a Uighur [a Chinese ethnic minority group with Central Asian roots] man selling dried fruits and nuts from a pushcart. I asked then-Resident Director Jeff Bissell about the 'European man that I had seen selling nuts,'' and he explained about Western China and some of the ethnic groups living there. I had never considered that there were Chinese nationals who didn't look, or talk, like the majority Han ethnic group."
More broadly, Renfrew says, "SYA opened my mind to other cultures and ways of being. Through the curriculum and the host family experience, the experience really shook up my frame of reference." Renfrew remembers how SYA's English course focused on narratives about expatriates and cross-cultural experiences, helping him to observe his experience in China from a third-person point of view. The Religion and Philosophy course, meanwhile, opened his eyes to different approaches to "ordering a life, a family, and a society."
Becoming Curious About Others and Understanding Different Cultures
Renfrew is keenly aware that his time in Beijing with SYA was a pivotal moment for him. "Living with a host family and interacting closely with Chinese culture was a terrific experience in learning how to practice empathy," he says. "It took me far enough out of my comfort zone that it opened my eyes to seeing the world through other eyes and ways of thinking. The ability to approach people, situations and cultures with empathy is a skill that I use daily."
Renfrew is blunt when he states, "SYA changed the course of my life." He has found himself bound to China "in a way that keeps unfolding." Renfrew notes that "the familiarity and comfort that SYA gave me with China has allowed me to return to the country as it has developed over the last 15 years," and says that "in multiple professional roles, I have been called on to spend time in China, hiring staff, opening offices, and reformulating go-to-market strategies."
Of work accomplishments, Renfrew notes, "one of my recent achievements was helping iRobot to completely redesign the way that it sells product in China and to implement that new design. China is a massive growth opportunity for iRobot, and after upgrading our understanding of the market, consumers and competition, we've put in place a go-to-market strategy that will capitalize on that opportunity. The work was an exciting chance for me to return to China and to help share my appreciation for Chinese culture and consumers with my iRobot colleagues, as well as a chance to create significant impact on iRobot and China."