Smart, talented, creative, driven, and experienced are all adjectives that best describe Jennifer Zhao. She heads up the Advanced Optical Sensors division of the global sensor leader ams AG. Optical sensors that detect color temperatures, proximity, digital ambient light, flicker, blood oxygen levels and more are essential in everything from mobile devices and video solutions to machine vision and healthcare devices.
Ms. Zhao’s focus most recently has been on the novel coronavirus pandemic. She and the global team she leads in Europe, North America and Asia are reimagining ams spectral sensing technologies for uses in devices that provide rapid testing and rapid results for COVID-19. Her team is working with companies around the world on solutions that will help detect the presence of both COVID-19 antigens and antibodies.
Recently, for example, Ms. Zhao’s team announced they are working with Germany-based Senova, a manufacturer of in vitro diagnostic medical devices, to combine Senova technology with ams spectral sensors. The ams and Senova partnership combines the read-out technology of ams with the lateral flow-test capabilities of Senova. The two companies are creating a disposable electronic lateral flow test for immunity against the Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) virus based on antibody detection. The device, using lateral flow technology coupled with a spectral sensor, enables a read-out that is accurate, cost effective, quantitative, and provides an objective result which requires no user interpretation. In contrast to the established PCR method, the test kit can be applied in doctor’s offices and other point-of-care situations at low cost.
For this and the contributions she has made to the sensors and semiconductor industry during her career, we selected Jennifer Zhao as the Woman in Sensors and Electronics of the Year.
FierceElectronics sat down with Zhao to talk about her career, what factors have helped her be successful in her career, and the impact of the pandemic on leading a global team.
FierceElectronics (FE): You have had an impressive career, with experience at several major semiconductor companies and now as head of the Advanced Optical Sensors division at ams AG. What inspired you to pursue a career in tech?
Jennifer Zhao: I have to thank my parents who inspired me to take the path in technology. Both of my parents had an engineering background and often talked about technologies at home. Ever since I was a little girl, I had the conviction that technology makes people’s lives better. There is no coincidence that I now work for a company whose motto is “Sensing is life”!
FE: When it comes to women, particularly with engineering backgrounds, sticking with tech, the stats are pretty grim. What do you think were the factors that helped you succeed and thrive in your career?
Zhao: I was very fortunate to have great managers who had faith in me and also inspiring mentors who encouraged my growth along the way. I also believe there is a first in everything and do not get demotivated by the glass ceilings. I get inspiration from many extraordinary female role models in the world who triumphed over multiple obstacles. I’m also thankful for the women network I have in technology industry where we support, brainstorm and cheer each other up. This is the reason I was passionate about the Women In Network initiative we started at ams a year ago. We want to establish a platform where women can get support from mentoring, detailed training and networking event to accelerate their careers in the technology industry.
FE: You are now responsible for both development and delivery of leading optical solutions for a global customer base. Those seem like very different responsibilities – how do you achieve a balance between the two?
Zhao: This is why I love my job as a general manager! It’s diverse and has end to end responsibilities – from product definition to product development to customer engagement. They’re different yet tied together nicely. Without a deep understanding of the market and customers, we won’t be able to define the right product and have the right innovation. Having had experience in sales and marketing really helped me connecting internal focus with external knowledge.
FE: You lead a global team. How has pandemic travel restrictions challenged you, and what have you found is a working strategy when you can’t meet with teams and customers face-to-face?
Zhao: It has indeed been challenging not able to see the teams face to face during the pandemic. We use a lot of video calls so at least we can still see the teams virtually. We also keep close customer engagement by all possible ways of communication if we can’t meet them face to face. With my teams, I’m also having regular town halls, one on ones and virtual coffee talks to keep active communications with the team. As a matter of fact, I just had a virtual happy hour with my management team today where we all sang “Happy” song together and made a video! It’s all about caring for each other and keeping the team spirit high!
FE: What advice do you have for women in particular who may be just starting out in their careers in tech who hope to achieve what you have?
Zhao: Follow your heart, do something that you love and feel passionate about! There are different paths you can take in technology industry depending on your interests and aspiration. You can choose to take on the technical ladder and become an expert in a specific area, or you can choose to get on the management career path. Either one is great, the most important thing is that you know what you want and understand what it takes to succeed. Once you have your mind set, don’t look back and have confidence in yourself. Build your support system and always be grateful to people who have helped and supported you along the way. And never limit yourself with possibilities!