Anna Lee

Meet the engineer behind the Lioness Smart Vibrator


Photos: Henry Wu

Growing up, I always had a love-hate relationship with my heritage. I had Korean immigrant parents who worked day and night to give us a better life while still trying to instill as much culture and native language in us as possible… but I was busy reading Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines and wondering how I could get a sharp, high-bridged nose and luxurious blonde hair. It was the classic childhood, so many Asian Americans experience; hiding my mom’s kimchi and cheese kimbap that I brought for lunch and ogling at my best friend’s pizza Lunchables instead. My mom always said, “you may be American, but when people see your face, they’ll always see you as Korean first.” And of course, as I got older, I realized she was right. (Aren’t moms always…)

There’s so much beauty and goodness in our heritage that is distinct from American culture. The most obvious one being love shared through delicious, time-intensive home-cooked meals! Also, respecting the importance of family and taking care of our elders nets me a community to always fall back on as well as the wisdom of age. Growing up and watching my parents persevere in a foreign country with not a penny to spare has taught me to grind and work hard to succeed in this world against all odds too. These are values I keep close to my heart, and that keeps me upright.

There are the tough parts in our heritage too. We have to talk about the bad to truly value the good. The biggest struggle for me is the lack of acknowledgment around mental health and the stigma around sexuality.

When I was a child, I was sexually abused, and like so many in our culture, I did what was normal and stayed silent, suppressing the horror, shame, and guilt I felt. I went on like this for over 10 years while the pain seeped into every area of my life. I went into what I now understand as a deep depression, but back then, because I didn’t know anything about mental health, I thought I was just broken. For a long time, I felt like I didn’t want to live in this world anymore, but my family always assumed it was a “phase.” I felt alone, telling myself this was my cross to carry, and I could never share who I really was even with my own mother.

So, of course, I never thought I’d end up being an entrepreneur, especially in the sexual wellness industry building vibrators. Life is funny that way. (Also, with years of therapy!) Growing up watching immigrant parents grinding night and day to create a better life in America gave me the reality and discipline of hard work. My difficult experiences growing up made me realize that the lack of understanding and shame people have around their bodies isn’t an isolated experience and that I could help change that. Building this company became a healing ground for me to not only share my story about my own battles with mental health and sexuality to the world, but to my mom as well. I was finally able to have that honest and difficult conversation with her and end it with, “I’m truly happy now.”

I realize that the beautiful thing about heritage is its complexity. It’s not black or white, nor set in its ways. We get to take the beauty and flaws from our heritage and grow it into an even better version to pass on to our future.

I genuinely look forward to the day I teach my future kids the essence of mixing soy sauce, egg, and rice – the best snack in the universe, all while being able to ask them how they’re feeling that day.

Anna is a technical co-founder of Lioness, a sexual wellness company that built the first and only smart vibrator that lets you see your orgasms to learn how to make them better and better. Anna was previously a mechanical engineer at Amazon, launching the Amazon Dash Button’s original concept and the Kindle Voyage Page Press Technology. She has spoken at top universities like UC Berkeley and Chalmers University, SXSW, and CYFY India, and most recently named 2020’s Forbes 30 Under 30 as well as Paper Magazine’s Asian Women Creators You Need to Know. She is a big advocate in Lioness’s mission to expand understanding and research in sexual health and destigmatize female sexuality. Anna also holds a B.S in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley and currently resides in the Bay Area.