"I think the key is early in the career: Women often don’t exude confidence like a young man might, it doesn’t mean woman can’t do it."
Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen is the CEO and Founder of Pixel Qi Corporation, a high tech startup with dual headquarters in Taipei and Silicon Valley whose mission is to create a viable fab-less or fab-light model of innovation in the display industry. Previously she co-founded One Laptop per Child and served as its Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and the chief architect of the $100 laptop. In the past she has also served on the faculty of the MIT and was the CTO of Intel's Display Division. Jepsen has also enjoyed considerable recognition as a high tech artist, and co-created the first computed holographic video system in the world in 1989.
On finding her path to being a CTO: “I started with an Art and Math focus in K-12 – I loved them both equally and above all else. I made my first hologram freshman year in college and it that was “it” for me. I wanted to know everything about how the “magic” of holography worked. Since there was no holography department, I went into lots of departments (physics, computer science, photography, chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, art, and so forth) to understand more deeply about holography – I did a number of degrees at a number of schools in a number of countries, or as a professor or a visiting fellow, etc. It gave me a vast variety of lots of perspectives (academic, cultural, or just from some of the extra-ordinary people I met along the way) which is the heart of the approach that I use to solve all kinds of problems.
After I finished my PhD and got over my brain tumor I co-founded my first company to make microdisplays – called MicroDisplay Corp. Later, I also worked for some big companies (Philips Electronics) and was the CTO of the display division at Intel. I took a faculty position at MIT, but at the same time I joined with Nicholas Negroponte to start One Laptop per Child and architected the innovative $100 laptop and brought into high volume mass production, and then founded a spin off called Pixel Qi to commercialize the screen and low-power management architecture I invented at OLPC. I’m the CEO of Pixel Qi these days and spend most of my days in Asia.”
On the biggest misconception about women and tech: “I think the key is early in the career: Women often don’t exude confidence like a young man might, it doesn’t mean woman can’t do it. In fact often they do without exuding confidence. But then it’s key to watch who actually does what and apportion credit fairly (it’s unfortunately rare in my estimation for credit to the junior people to be assigned fairly and it’s important for their development to do this – it takes time and care to do it well).”
On the biggest tech challenge for companies over the next 10 years: “The big challenge for successful companies is to continue innovating, to work on an idea so big that some of the inevitable drudge work one ends up doing to get there is worth it because the transformation can be so large. I think that many problems ultimately boil down to poor communication and I’m really excited about the possibilities of better mind/machine interface to improve this – but it does depend on getting (and funding) more people to work on this in a way to achieve measurable results quickly (and working the legal and ethical issues). Other key areas to focus on: the big world changing areas like energy, clean water, education, waging peace.”
On advice for budding women techies: “Don’t focus on being a woman, focus on being a person and do the most that you can with your life. This is it. It’s not a dress rehearsal. It will be over all too soon - use your life as well as you are able!”