Women of Vision

Mary Lou Jepsen Draws Her Own Map to Success

In a world where screens dominate nearly every aspect of our waking life, it’s impossible to ignore the contributions of Mary Lou Jepsen, known among her friends as the “light lady” for her work with display technologies and computer imaging.

It’s difficult to capture the breadth of her accomplishments succinctly, but Mary Lou is a shining star in the world of display technologies. Today, she heads up Oculus VR, a virtual reality outfit acquired in 2014 by Facebook — where she also serves as executive director of engineering.

Mary Lou is also the brain behind the $100 laptop, produced through the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program she launched with Nicholas Negroponte.

OLPC’s goal of providing impoverished children around the world with efficient, low-cost laptops is just one example of the moonshot ideas Mary Lou continually strives toward. Not only does she work on the cutting edge of display technologies and virtual reality, Mary Lou is a brain cancer survivor who has spoken publicly about her experience finding the proper dosage of medication to keep her hormone levels and neurotransmitters in check.

“There have been several close calls,” Mary Lou said during her 2014 TED talk. “But luckily, I’m an experimentalist at heart, so I decided I would experiment to try to find more optimal dosages because there really isn’t a clear road map on this that’s detailed.”

Forging Her Own Path

Another journey for which there is no clear road map is the path Mary Lou has taken to become a successful senior woman technologist at one of the industry’s most innovative companies.

“The barriers that senior women face in technology are different from those faced by junior women where being perceived as ‘one of the guys’ goes a long way,” she said. “At the senior level, women are so rare, and men, particularly young men, find it hard to take technical expert counsel from a middle-aged woman. It doesn’t match their pattern of what an expert is.”

To dispel that notion, Mary Lou has adjusted what she discusses in her public talks, shifting from the more abstract challenges women face to core technical challenges.

“We see so many talks in technology where nothing technical is ever uttered,” she explained. “Every time I do a keynote, I focus on a different message. Lately I’ve been talking about the work itself…the actual technical hurdles.”