April 11th, 2021

Terrisa Duenas is never one back down from a challenge. She pursues and overcomes the world’s most daunting, complex technology challenges with poise. From leading aerospace innovation to demystifying “black magic” in the optoelectronics industry, Terrisa is a respected technologist, innovator, and executive. Today, Terrisa serves as Chief Technology Officer of Nanoventures. 

Below, we talk with Terrisa about her work pioneering new technologies at Nanoventures, how she stands in her power as a woman leader in technology, and her advice for rising women leaders.

Tell us about your executive journey.

I’ve always seen myself as somewhat of a leader. I was perceptive from a young age and rather analytical both with people and objects. I decided I wanted to be an engineer at 15 years old, a technologist ten years later, and a scientist five years after that. In 2014, my friend recruited me as the Chief Scientist of ITW Opto Diode. This role kickstarted my executive career and brought me to where I am today as CTO of a private investment group. My executive journey has allowed me to be scientific, analytical, and a leader all at the same time. Because of that, my journey has been fulfilling—yet always filled with challenges.

What does a typical day look like in your role as CTO of Nanoventures?

Our teams are always driving to increase the valuation of our portfolio companies. During our weekly sprint, we plan what work needs to happen to make progress on our quarterly targets. We currently have three focus areas: development of intellectual property (IP), bringing in non-dilutive resources, and co-creating business value with potential customers. I have also served as interim CEO for our startups at different times in their development to advance a significant milestone. 

My day-to-day work can mean working with any of our stakeholders all with very different personalities and focus. On any given day, I can be a strategist, hacker, team leader—or all of them at once.

How did you learn to lean into your power as a woman leader in technology?

I’ve always been in very male-dominated spaces, from engineering to tech to science to startups. I’ve found sparking genuine dialogue with men to be useful, because that’s when we can try to see eye-to-eye and work together towards a common goal. Possibly because of my gender or biracial upbringing or both, I’d like to believe this diversity enables me to analyze things at a systems level and on multiple levels in a way that many men may overlook—and that gives me power. 

You give back by mentoring in the Dreamers and Doers initiatives. What unique insights do you offer to your mentees?

In Dreamers and Doers, we mentor each other as a business case. What differentiates me from most mentors is that I can help people through extremely complex situations by seeing patterns in patterns that reveal underlying trends. People will often tell me about their unfixable problem, but I’m almost always able to help them see a way to the other side with one of my frameworks. 

As you look forward to your first corporate board seat, what is the unique value you’re bringing to the boardroom?

When I was at UCLA, I created a whole new research area in smart materials. After I got my PhD, I went into nanotechnology. Right now I’m advising multiple startups and managing Nanoventure’s startup, Nanoarmor, which provides additive manufacturing feedstock for hypersonic vehicle protection. The one constant throughout my career is my love for pioneering innovation. I am drawn to deep tech in new territories and am thrilled about “Industry 4.0.” 

As a board member, I will be able to advise the company on where they’re primed to innovate next. I’m a cross-industry scale-up executive and can simultaneously recognize and apply the right technological tools. For these reasons, I am uniquely positioned to deliver pioneering innovation insights to whatever board I serve on.

What legacy do you hope to leave through your leadership?

Before I leave this planet, my hope is that half of our leaders around the world are women. Some would say that’s a crazy vision, but it shouldn’t be. I’ve observed that high-performing women are long-term systems thinkers who are the most fit to lead our future world. 

Imagine that international leaders 30 years from now have gathered around a table to address the world’s most pressing challenges with innovation. I want to be the person they call on to help them solve their greatest problems. If I can do that, not only do I get to have reached my full potential, but I will have also given back and inspired others. 

What advice do you have for rising leaders?

This exercise is adapted from Tara Mohr’s Playing Big. Do this self-reflection exercise, and it could transform the way you look at life: What are you worried about today? Then spent time to imagine yourself 20 years into the future in every detail—where you’re sitting or walking, what you’re wearing. Outside is a spaceship that will travel through time to meet your future self 20 years from now. Get in and go the place your imagined and find your future self. Tell her about your concerns and ask her for her insight.

Then, return to your spaceship and make one more stop before going back home. Travel back in time to your much younger self. Find her and tell her how far you’ve come and listen to what she says. This exercise is a wonderful way to appreciate the path you’ve paved for yourself and envision the path that still lies ahead of you.



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