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Life at a Photonics Startup: Lessons Learned on Company Culture and Community

company culture

By Dr. Maddy Woodson
Freedom Photonics (A Luminar Company)

This month, Daniel kindly invited me to write a guest article for his monthly column. In this article I present my thoughts on company culture – what it is, how it is shaped, and why it matters. Since graduating with my PhD, I have had the pleasure of working at Freedom Photonics for the past six years. Therefore, it is important to note that these views are skewed somewhat by my limited range of experiences, but I hope there is value in the depth of this experience.

Defining Company Culture

Company culture is an elusive, complex social phenomenon that’s difficult to pin down. It is rarely formally defined, but rather it is a sum of unspoken patterns and behaviors among the personnel in an organization.

Company culture is the social “guts” of a company. Culture sets standards for how employees interact with one another both professionally and socially, but it also describes how they respond to external challenges and opportunities. In part, culture describes the expectations for employees. What is the standard for stress? What is a typical work-life balance? What defines “success” – effort, or results? In other ways, culture is defined by the common goals of the organization. Does the company value innovation? Does it spearhead inclusive policies? Is the core mission of the organization technical, social, or some combination of the two? The answers to these and many other questions define the culture of an organization.

All these individual aspects of company culture sum to something larger than its parts – a set of shared beliefs that shape how it feels to work at the organization. To borrow an aging millennial phrase, it’s a vibe.

Managing and Shaping Culture

Tending to company culture is a long game. Because of its implicit (and pervasive) nature, culture tends to change slowly, but it can indeed change. Culture is often modeled and managed by company leaders, but any individual at an organization are themselves contributing to and capable of shifting the culture.

Arguably, one can define various generalized styles of company culture. Perhaps there is something useful in taking the time to understand what sorts of words describe the company culture at your organization. (Is the company agile? Does it respond well to change? Does it need to?) Reflecting on the particular style of company culture at your organization may have merit but defining these generalized types of cultures is not the focus of this article. The Harvard Business Review has written an interesting version of this type of “style guide” [1], but I think these styles are defined somewhat arbitrarily and are more a useful tool for conversation than anything else. Company culture must align well with both its goals and employees, and naturally this will make it a bit different at any given organization. 

However, I think there is serious merit in considering whether your company culture is well-aligned with the mission of the company, and further, whether it is fostering a positive working environment for its employees. Recent years have seen an increased focus on “toxic“ work environments. Generally, I would define a toxic company culture as one which ignores the human aspect of the organization, placing a disproportionate focus on productivity over respect for its employees (and often driving down productivity as a result). 

Flagrantly toxic (and illegal) behaviors such as sexual harassment and discrimination cannot be tolerated. Unethical conduct, cutthroat competition, and abusive leadership can make an organization an uncomfortable and draining place to work. However, there are other, perhaps subtler forms of disrespect which employees, particularly younger generations of employees, will not tolerate. Unfair compensation, poor benefits, and unreasonable expectations can shape an air of frustration around work as well. Ultimately, a toxic work environment can lead to (and indeed, is the key predictor of) attrition [2].

An engaging company culture can be cultivated by respect amongst employees, by clear communication, by a sense of empowerment from both colleagues and managers. An understanding of and alignment to core values strengthens not only the sense of purpose for the organization but also for the individuals who work within it.

A Culture of Community

People have different philosophies on company culture. To some, work is simply work, and they find it best to keep 9am-5pm fully separate from 5pm-9am. For these individuals, perhaps there is little reason to consider the social aspect of their work.

While that is a fully valid perspective, I, personally, think there is significant value in finding community within your organization, particularly in such close quarters as a startup company. If I spend 40 hours (or more) a week at work, I’m spending about a quarter of my time with my colleagues (over a third of my time if you only count waking hours!). 

My philosophy, then, is why not make that time as enjoyable as possible? For me, that has meant building camaraderie with, trust in, and respect for my colleagues. These relationships have fostered a supportive and collaborative environment, which I strongly believe enables creativity and innovation. 

Promoting Community: Culture Repair on the Other Side of the Pandemic

Over the course of the COVID lockdown, many opted to work remotely. While there is great value in the flexibility of working from home, I think it’s fair to say that company culture took a hit at many offices when all employees worked fully remote. Perhaps you feel differently, but I never found any “Zoom social” particularly engaging. It felt very unnatural to have a large group conversation without the ability to break out into small groups. (Indeed, psychologists have found a conversational “sweet spot” in groups of about four people [3]).

As many have returned to the office, at least part time, over the past year, I offer the following suggestions on repairing and cultivating community within a company. 

Water Cooler Chat

Spending casual time with others develops our relationships, and even a few minutes of chatting can add up to a sense of connection in the office. Chance meetings in the hallway or near the coffee pot provide an opportunity for both casual social chats and impromptu technical discussions. These casual chats were robbed from offices during full remote work, but they really can be quite valuable. Something about these chance meetings can connect us with people or ideas which we weren’t necessarily seeking out, but lead to interesting conversations and ideas. So consider having lunch in your break room, rather than at your desk, or taking a quick break to stretch your legs. You might be surprised at how “productive” it might be. 

Social Events

Social events develop our sense of empathy for our colleagues. When we attend a holiday party, or a group outing, we learn about our colleagues in a new context – who they are outside of work, what they care about, and what sort of common ground we have not just as coworkers, but as people.

Successful social events require balancing when and where the events occur. The location and timing of an event set different expectations and encourage different behavior.

Events at the office will likely encourage a more professional mindset than an event offsite, which may encourage more of a social mindset. Similarly, as one can imagine, events during work hours will feel different than those outside of work hours. 

Events at the office during the workday will likely keep employees in “work mode”. They are appropriate, for example, for an all-hands meeting to provide transparency on company goals and updates. Events outside the office but during the workday encourage social behavior, and people are incentivized to go because it’s not taking time from their social life. This type of event is great for a team-building day, a social coffee hour, etc.  

Events outside the office, outside the workday could be appropriate for a more social event like a holiday party, where you may want to encourage families or plus-ones to attend. Unless there is a compelling reason to host an event at the office (such as budgetary restrictions, health concerns, or an impromptu event), I would discourage an event here outside of the workday. Generally, people don’t want to spend extra time at the office! Moving the event to a more fun location will encourage more social behavior. Moving the event to a time during the workday, if the event is not social, is more respectful of the employees’ time. Asking employees to come in early or stay late is not an event people are likely to look forward to. 

Extracurricular Activities

While social events are often planned by company leadership, any individual within an organization can try to organize a subset of employees for a more casual extracurricular activity. Look for common interests within your organization. 

Consider availability. Employees with families will have different availability than single employees. Employees with children are different still. If appropriate, could you host a day where the families of employees are given a tour of the facility? “Bring your child to work day” is not unheard of, but I think there’s value in partners and spouses seeing what the work involves, particularly if you have a neat lab to show off!

Try a team sport. There’s a reason the stereotype of the company softball team exists – playing team sports is a fun way to build a teamwork among employees. Freedom Photonics, in my time there, has supported the quintessential softball team, as well as a soccer team, a running club, and even a few employees who meet up for ice hockey in sunny Santa Barbara. 

Look for inclusive activities. Perhaps not everyone is interested in an athletic pursuit. Try to ensure that activities which can include different subsets of employees. Your colleagues might enjoy meeting up for trivia or board games, providing an opportunity to engage with one another and socialize outside of work. 

Expand into the local community. One of the most successful annual events which Freedom has hosted is an outreach day for young women interested in STEM, during which the female engineers host grade-school girls for a facility tour and  a half day of activities. Your organization might consider something similar for students of all ages. Not only does this build ties within the company, but it strengthens ties to the upcoming generations of young engineers. 

Who Cares?

I hope you’ve found some food for thought within this article, but perhaps you’re wondering why culture within a company matters, or why community within a company matters. 

The cold hard truth is that company culture might not matter to everyone. At its raw capitalist roots, a business exists to make a profit. But as our society has evolved, a considerate (or at least, a non-toxic) company culture has become a key element of capturing and maintaining excellent talent.

Generally, people are more invested in their work if they like what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. I would argue that relationships breed trust, respect, and collaboration, and that these cultivate a supportive environment for innovation. 


[1] B. Groysberg, J. Lee, J. Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2018. 

[2] D. Sull, C. Sull, and B. Zweig, “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation.” MIT Sloan Management Review, Jan 2022.

[3] J. A. Krems, J. Wilkes, “Why are conversations limited to about four people? A theoretical exploration of the conversation size constraint,” Evolution and Human Behavior, vol. 40, iss. 2, pp. 140-147, 2019.

maddy woodson

I (Maddy Woodson) attended the University of Virginia for my doctorate, where I worked as a part of Professor Joe Campbell’s avalanche photodiode group, focusing on APDs grown using a novel quaternary III-V digital alloy materials system. Following graduate school, I moved across the country to work at Freedom Photonics, recently acquired by Luminar Semiconductor Inc. Here, I work as the Photodiode Technical Lead, and more importantly, as the soccer team captain for Freedom FC. I also spend time working with our sister company, Optogration Inc., also under the Luminar umbrella of companies.

About this Column

This is a regular column that explores business aspects of technology-oriented companies and in particular, the demanding business aspects of photonics startups. The column touches on a broad range of topics such as financing, business plan, product development, program management, hiring and retention, company culture, manufacturing, quality, sales methodology and risk management. That is to say, we include all the pains and successes of living the photonics startup life.

This column is written sometimes by Daniel Renner, the column editor, and sometimes by invited participants, so that we can share multiple points of view coming from the full spectrum of individuals that have something to say on this topic. At the same time, this is a conversation with you, the reader. We welcome questions, other opinions and suggestions for specific topics to be addressed in the future.

Please send us your views and opinions.

The expectation for this column is to provide useful business-related information for those who intend to start, join, improve the operation, fund, acquire or sell a photonic startup. A fascinating area that can provide enormous professional reward to those engaged in it.