Mary Lou Jepsen, Inventor, Entrepreneur
If anyone can make a Vulcan mind meld come true, it’s tech inventor Mary Lou Jepsen. With every new invention, she’s moving humanity closer to unlocking the mind for both health and communications purposes.
Mary Lou Jepsen
If anyone can make a Vulcan mind meld come true, it’s tech inventor Mary Lou Jepsen.
Rural Prodigy: Jepsen grew up on a working farm in Connecticut, where her early academic success wasn’t entirely understood or appreciated. “As a child I really loved two subjects the best and they were math and art. I think I was doing calculus by eighth grade independently. It wasn’t really celebrated in my family.”
Defying the Doubters: Jepsen got hooked on holography at Brown University and went on to MIT on a mission to create the first moving holograms. “The first public talk I gave, a guy stood up and just reamed into my presentation and said it would never work.” It did. In 1989, her team unveiled the world’s first holographic video system.
Turning Point: While pursuing her Ph.D., Jepsen was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that forced her to drop out. “I couldn’t even subtract,” she recalls. After the tumor was removed, Jepson renewed her pursuits in tech but with a new purpose: ”To solve the big problems in the world.”
Laptops for All: In 2004, Jepsen launched a low-cost, low-power laptop that could bring technology to children in the most underdeveloped areas of the world. The doubters this time were pretty big names. “Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Craig Barrett, all said it wouldn’t work.” But the UN backed the One Laptop Per Child program. Today more than two million children are learning with these devices in their classrooms.
Persistence Beats Resistance: Jepsen cried the first time someone challenged her work, but now facing opposition is just part of her process. “It’s okay to get the criticism. I hear that for every project and product I’ve done, and literally within two to three years, I ship the very thing they said was impossible.”
MARY LOU JEPSEN: There are many women that I've helped. It's interesting because they feel like how I've helped them is somewhat personal. There's been many awful things, from sexual harassment, to gender discrimination, to just them thinking, with what happened to them, they couldn't go on.
And it's really hard if this is happening to you in the middle of the company, and there's nobody at the executive level that's a woman that you can go to, or on the board to go to, if this is happening. I think it's super important to solve the problems.
MARY LOU JEPSEN: I think women having each other's backs is extremely important. People talk about mentors. And I didn't really have any women mentors, because there weren't any women in the universities I was in. There weren't any women before me. But I thought that, instead of mentors, you have the people you come up with. And they're the ones that you share with and can help and debug the systems when they become problematic, which happened a lot.
MARY LOU JENSEN: The Media Lab, almost everybody I met, it was the first time I think I really felt home in what I was interested in. Everybody had a deep technical background in computer science or math or engineering, plus was a musician or an artist or a filmmaker. It felt like the bulk of people were like that. I literally left every other day. I went home every other day. I just loved being there. I slept under my desk. Everybody slept under my desk. I have a sign in sheet via Who's Who of technology And You had to sign in because I had a little sleeping bag with a little pillow. It washed. It was clean, and all of that, but, yeah, because everybody just wanted to be there all the time. All the great computers were there, all of the multimedia stuff. I did a lot of stuff with lasers and optics and holography, and we just didn't want to leave ever. It was great.
MARY LOU JEPSEN: I was really affected by the Gloria Steinems and Title IX and all the people that were angry about the idea that I could swim too. Why? What's the problem? What is so offensive about me and women and girls and the whole thing? So I had a little bit of cannon fodder to use with my family based on being aware, at least peripherally, as much as a five-, six-, seven-year-old is, of what was going on in the large women's movement and the protests at the time.
MARY LOU JEPSEN: As a woman in any field, you're underestimated, but you're remembered. So if you've got your face out there and you do good work, people will remember you. It's one of the only advantages you have. So I would say use it. Present your work early and often and take the criticism. Really learn from it, and take it pretty much to heart and try to do better each time.
MARY LOU JEPSEN: How do we wear level for the biases that are put in? And how do you train people to realize you're-- you're racially or gender biasing with the words that you're choosing, of "helpful" versus "leader," rather than recognizing what the real contribution is. And in school it feels more fair, like you get an A in, like, the test. And there's, like-- especially in science and math, like, there really are equations. And there really are numbers that come out of that equation. And they really are right or wrong or more right or more wrong. But that's not what industry is like. And so you have to swim through it and figure out where are your advantages are.
MARY LOU JENSEN: We have to flip betting on the college dropout that wears flip-flops, who has one year of formal education. They're cool, like bet on them, but also bet on people that actually understand the three and four syllable words in the field, and has a track record shipping, and are super creative and kind of crazy too. Like, that's cool. But there's this idea that those are the most successful startups. The young 20 something, primarily white guy that dropped out of Harvard or Stanford, but statistically, the best startups are started by people from 45 to 57 right now.