One Laptop Per Child and Pixel Qi Founder on Women Entrepreneurs and Leverage

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By Mary Lou Jepsen (Founder & CEO, Pixel Qi) I fell in love with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) which I co-founded and served as Chief Technology Officer for years. I realized that if we could pull off the OLPC project, or even a small fraction of it – we could change everything. I personally also realized that I could have incredibly more impact trying to do this than being a professor at MIT and so I gave that up.

I spent time in Asia to realize the design and convince large manufacturers of the world to make my product — the $100 laptop -- to make a profound impact on children in any country, especially the developing world. There the reality is so stark in some of the worst countries where, for example, about one-third of the paid teachers do not show up, and approximately another one-third of the paid teachers are illiterate. In such cases as these the solution isn’t better teacher training. The solution is more radical: leverage the kids. . Kids are smart, they are motivated, and can learn a lot. OLPC gave them access to information and communication to fill in the large gaps in their education.

Every child in Uruguay has one of our laptops, the OLPC “XO” machines, about half the children in Peru, and there are large deployments in Afghanistan, and more than 30 other countries.

We ended up touching a nerve in the industry, competing with the likes of Intel and Microsoft. There is something about the sincerest form of flattery being imitation, and it is from this kind of imitation of the “$100 laptop” that the netbook emerged in late 2007 and became the fastest growing IT product category ever recorded (faster than the more recent rise of tablets even). But of course, the price point of the netbook was double of what we were able to achieve on the OLPC laptop, but most importantly, the power consumption was 10-20 times higher. Consider that in third world countries, access to electricity is difficult and without a low power device human and solar power become prohibitively expensive. Do you want your batteries to last longer or not so long? I asked that question to thousands of people and I have only heard one answer — guess which one. This technology is proven.

I wanted to bring this technology across many products to give all people more access, while also helping people across the digital divide and making greener electronics. By making more of something you can also make it less expensive. And so I founded Pixel Qi.

Leverage As A Woman Entrepreneur

I started Pixel Qi with dual headquarters in Silicon Valley and Taipei. While I intended to spend a third to a half of my time in Asia, I didn’t intend to move to Asia. But, when the bottom fell out in the financial crises I did move here (Taipei) to make Pixel Qi happen. 90% of the world’s devices are designed in Taipei, not Cupertino. To fit in to the local culture, you have to become involved in a lot of discussions and lots of dinners too, it requires a constant presence. I think women have an advantage in that historically they have been accepted as much less threatening in foreign cultures than men. From my experience as a woman in technology throughout my entire career: they remember you and they underestimate you. You can leverage that in all kinds of ways if you think about your strategy. They are going to tell you all the reasons whatever you are doing won’t work — and some of the reasons might be spot-on so I write them down and think about these reasons. It can save years of effort. The criticism is actually help - so my advice is to take all that feedback at face value, say “Great, I will address all these issues, and if I can answer all of these, can I come back and have a conversation?” They usually say yes. You get your foot in the door and will knock their socks off if you truly answer all of their issues, and I found that you gain their respect by doing that.

While we’re not familiar with powerful women from Asia, maybe the US has a gender problem that is worse than Asia’s. Cher Wang is the richest person in Taiwan and started HTC and VIA and runs them both. She’s one of the 5 most powerful people in Taiwan. 19% of CEOs in Taiwan are women — that’s probably higher than the US.

When I started Pixel Qi in 2008 and the economic crisis happened, it was clear I had to move to Asia. The only way to make that work was my husband finding that his night job (helping me with Pixel Qi) was better than his day job. My husband is employee #2 and co-founder of Pixel Qi and doesn’t get enough credit for all he does. There’s another thing for women — find a good partner in life that enjoys being there, complements you and can collaborate with you. I hired my husband.

Learning From Awful Experiences

You know, as a woman growing up in tech, I often did have males who perhaps were threatened by having women around, or thought I was irrelevant, and so did not treat me as a peer in general. One of my best friends from when I was student at MIT was Megan Smith who is a VP at Google these days. I remember when we were in grad school, she asked “What would you do if you had to sit in a room with someone really awful and work them all the time?” — imagine a notorious world leader, instead of just a difficult lab partner.

Her point was that perhaps it was useful from a management perspective to learn how to work effectively with even the most difficult people. By doing this you become a better manager! Sometimes it can be very hard. Megan had a huge influence on me in grad school, pushing me to go farther. Find great friends (like Megan) who can open up different views of the world and you can help each other past them.

Testosterone and Confidence

When I was getting my Ph.D, I had a brain tumor removed and now I take many pills every day. They’re neurotransmitters and hormones, because I don’t make any myself. In the process of adjusting to the regimen of powerful medicines, I had to engineer a new me, and chose to go for a better me that could be functional after the many painful years of being very sick and nearly dying many times.

In the post-operational fine-tuning of neurotransmitters and hormones, I found that very small changes made a huge impact on my perception and personality. On a lark, I asked what it would be like to take testosterone and I tried it. Once I got on the stuff, I was angry all the time. I thought about sex constantly. The key thing was that I thought I was the smartest person in the whole darn world. And super confident, which is a lot like a teenage boy! I think the hyper-confidence comes from a place of insecurity, while women underestimate themselves and try to be humble. I got off the testosterone, I couldn’t handle it.

I didn’t know that guys were insecure too. I got along much better with guys after that. It was quite an eye opener for me and I almost wish everyone could have had that experience. There are science fiction books about it, but I had to go experience it to believe it. It does boil down to confidence and what merits the confidence level for different people in different levels of neurotransmitters (their brains bathed in different amounts of it).

On a side note, I saw the woman that discovered that and had won the Nobel prize for it in 1977 died last week -- Rosalyn Yalow was the woman who discovered all of this. So there you go!

What's New: Pixel Qi

We just announced Pixel Qi's new products at Computex as well as new screen sizes. One of the advantages of our technology is that it plugs into existing motherboards and compatible with existing touch technologies, although we have some trade secrets and tweaks to make them really shine. We have a big room full of all of them at this tradeshow.

You can buy Pixel Qi products from a dozen different products shipping with our screens, from netbooks to tablets, from sports analysis machines to little cash registers.

If you are a DIYer, you can buy our screens raw from MAKE and plug them into other netbooks as an upgrade. Or you can buy a fully-done laptop from Genesi and SunBook.

About the guest blogger: Mary Lou Jepsen founded Pixel Qi in 2008 to bring OLPC's display and power management innovations to the commercial market. Previously, she co-founded MicroDisplay and served as its CTO for 8 years; served in executive management at Intel; and on the faculty at both MIT and RMIT. Mary Lou earned a Ph.D. in Optics, a BSEE and a B.A. in Art (req.) all from Brown University as well as a M.S. in Holography from the MIT Media Lab. Follow her startup on Twitter at @pixelqi.