Maggie Qiu, CEO & Co-Founder of SemiDrive
In this edition of the WLI Entrepreneurial Blog, we had the pleasure of talking to Maggie Qiu, Co-Founder and CEO of SemiDrive, a high-tech enterprise that focuses on high-reliability and high-performance automotive SoCs. Her passion, energy and wit made for a fun and inspiring interview!
Q: Tell us about your background and why you joined the industry.
When I was young, my uncle, who studied electrical engineering, was always tinkering with radios and he actually built a TV for my grandparents! At that time, not many homes had televisions, so I was very impressed and wanted to learn from him.
I was intrigued by electronics and electrical engineering, and realized the first step towards this as my career was to become a STEM student. I followed in my uncle’s footsteps, earning my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1996 from SouthEast University. I then moved to the United States to attend University of Wisconsin – Madison for my Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. I credit my uncle for my interest in STEM; he is my role model.
After I received my master’s degree, I moved to Silicon Valley in 1998. I started out in chip design at NeoMagic, a mid-sized graphics company that had just gone public. After that, I joined a start-up fiberoptical chip design company called Catamaran Communications, which was later acquired by Infineon. After the acquisition, I spent three more years at Infineon and then moved to another start-up called ServerEngine. In 2008, I came back to China to lead a design team at Pixelworks, managing the SoC design team in Shanghai. After almost four years at Pixelworks, I joined Freescale for the opportunity to play a larger role for their China design center, which was responsible for their applications processors in automotive, industrial and many more end markets.
After the excitement of start-ups and building divisions for companies, I finally decided to start my own company. I co-founded SemiDrive in 2018.
Q: Tell us about your vision for SemiDrive and what led you to start a company.
I have a very focused vision. SemiDrive is a chip company focused on SoCs, the application processors for automotive and other areas, and lately we have seen a big change in the automotive industry, which has led to incredible growth for us.
In two short years, SemiDrive has quickly grown to 150 employees, with headquarters in Nanjing, China. We have design centers in Shanghai and Beijing and recently added an office in Shenzhen.
Until recently, there hasn’t been much change in the automotive industry since the car was first built as a mechanical machine. However, with society’s changing point of view – that the car is not just for commuting, but for fun – it’s now revolutionizing the industry and translating into an electrical architecture change for the cars. Things like autonomous driving, better radio, an overall better multimedia experience, human-machine interfaces, and even AI applications in the car, like voice and face recognition, are now all part of the automotive driving experience. These changes require an electrical architecture change to the car contributing to the boom of the automotive industry. It’s similar to what we saw with PCs and mobile devices. It’s a fundamental shift and transformation for the car market as these changes require bigger computing power and more intelligent chip design.
That is where SemiDrive comes in.
Maggie during SemiDrive product announcement press meeting.
For context, my background is in chip design for the automotive industry, which inspired my partner and I to create SemiDrive and bring new applications and innovative technologies to autonomous driving. When we started, there was a question as to whether this would be a viable business or just a short trend. I’m happy to say that the car companies using this innovative technology are gaining traction, so it is exciting to see that our projects were accurate – that it’s a viable market. Additionally, it’s great to see investments and fresh talent coming into the automotive industry. The whole [automotive] industry is changing! Companies are now hiring not only mechanical and electrical engineers, but they are also hiring software engineers.
People are no longer just driving to get places; they are driving for FUN! The software component of electrical cars makes it so it is easy to upgrade to new features. It’s like a big toy!
Q: What excites you about being an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurship is something that I have never done before so there are new challenges (i.e. surprises) every day; each day we are pushing our limits. That is the fun part though, you never know what to expect tomorrow. Entrepreneurs solve difficult problems, but that also brings great excitement and a fulfilling return.
As SemiDrive grows, there are new challenges, but the company continues to get better and better each day and it is rewarding to see the return on our hard work. This really gives me a sense of doing very meaningful work and solving significant problems.
Q: What were/are the challenges of being a female entrepreneur?
First of all, there are a lot of challenges for ALL entrepreneurs. For women, there are more challenges to balance family and work. The assumption is that women are supposed to spend more time with their family by raising the children. I have personally found that maintaining a balance is also possible.
I have a 17-year old son and when he was younger, I naturally spent more time with him. I used to work very hard, but these days I work even HARDER. I go home every day between 9 – 10 p.m. and I spend a lot of time in my office on the weekends, so I see less of my son these days. However, I do believe that putting less focus on him has encouraged him to take more responsibility assuming care of things by himself, which has really made him grow substantially in the past two years. The other positive is that he sees me as a role model. He sees his mom doing a difficult thing right now and that she doesn’t settle, she’s willing to change, and she’s willing to take on more challenges. It sets a really good example for him.
2016 summer during Maggie’s travel to Northwest of China
One of my colleagues made a big impact on me early in my career…one day I asked him when I should have kids? This is always the question for female engineers because I thought if I had kids, I could not work as hard as I used to. My colleague told me that “there is never a good time”. So, the lesson is to do the right thing for you, and you will handle it and do it well. This advice gave me a lot of courage to find that balance in my life.
Q: What advice do you have for young women who would like to become entrepreneurs?
I would say that getting family support is especially important and you don’t have to choose between having a family and having a career. Some women might think you have to give up family or kids to be an entrepreneur, but I do believe you can do both well. Women have endurance to handle a lot of difficult things at once. Women are super and can find a way. My advice is to not underestimate yourself! More female engineers will produce new female engineers because there will be more family role models for young girls.
Q: What do you think we can do to make the semiconductor industry more attractive and retain women?
I do actually think that the semiconductor industry is very attractive for women. First, there are not too many women in this area, so they are rare. I compare this to the Panda in the Chinese culture, which symbolizes friendship, peace and the ability to find a balanced path in life. Much like the symbolism of the Panda, I believe women create a good working environment.
The high-tech industry also has very flexible working hours, which makes it a good industry to balance family and work.
We are in an industry where experience really counts and the older you get; you don’t have to be threatened by the newcomers with new skills. I see this in other industries where experience people are pushed out and replaced, but this does not happen in semiconductors. Skilled employees have more advantages than those who have not been in the industry as long.
The most important thing is that you get to be a part of this exciting industry because high-tech is really changing everything about the way we live and it’s so exciting to be part of this and contribute to it!
Q: How do you encourage men to become allies in gender equality?
SemiDrive Team: Jason Zhang, co-founder and Chairmen of Semidrive, Maggie and Matt Sun, chief architect of Semidrive.
In many places, women are complimentary to men so they are allies to one another.
In my case, my partner at SemiDrive is a man and we work very well together. Women are, by nature, very good at communication and in this industry, there are a lot of engineers focused on the technical aspects of the job, but they might not be as social. Women can be a really good bridge to collaborate with many different groups and people.
Women are also normally good team players, are empathetic and are able to help reach a compromise in many cases. Lastly, women are usually very good at execution. This might go hand in hand with their maternal instincts, but they can naturally act quickly. It is especially beneficial when women become leaders. That means they have all of the technical skills, as well as the helpful traits I’ve mentioned to make them “super strong”.
Q: How do you imagine the world will change in the next 10-30 years? Where do you think you’ll be then?
The world is changing so fast! Especially in 2020 with the global pandemic, we will probably see many things change after this year. We are seeing that it is going to be more of a high-tech world…things like robot taxis, autonomous driving…plus, people will probably live much longer 10-30 years from now.
In terms of where I will be, I’ve always wanted to do some volunteer work but have not had a chance. Maybe I will still be running SemiDrive and also find time to volunteer. I always want to do something for society.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
NEVER underestimate yourself! When I first became an engineer, I experienced self-doubt. I also experienced doubt when I first became a team leader. I worried, can I do this and more importantly, can I do it well? I try to do my BEST every time, but self-doubt can sneak in.
Now, I see that I’m handling these challenges and still surviving. Being an entrepreneur is more difficult than leading a small team or being a part of a big company. There are new challenges every day, but all of your hard work will pay off. Don’t give up – keep going and eventually your hard work will be worth it!
Q: The most important question of all…outside of your laptop and phone, what’s the most important thing you have with you?
Probably my notebook. I carry it every day to all of my meetings because I still like to take notes in my notebook. Then if I have time, I’ll transfer them into my OneNote. I have two lists: one is for mid- to longer-term projects and the other are things I need to complete every day. It is therapeutic to check things off the list and see how much was accomplished during the day. I also feel if I physically write things down, I remember them better. It is also a good way to relieve pressure when you see that things are checked off!
Thank you, Maggie, for taking the time to talk to us and offer great advice to women engineers and entrepreneurs. We enjoyed our lively conversation and especially your advice on balancing career and family, which is so encouraging. In addition to SemiDrive, you can find Maggie participating on our GSA Women’s Leadership Council. To learn more about GSA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative and get involved, please visit https://www.gsaglobal.org/womens-leadership/.
Maggie co-founded SemiDrive Technology Ltd. in 2018 and served as CEO since then. SemiDrive Technology Ltd. is a fabless semiconductor company, focusing on high-performance automotive SoC and MCU used in ADAS, e-Cockpit and other automotive applications.
Before founding SemiDrive, Maggie served as General Manager of Freescale Qiangxin, as well as R&D Director for i.MX product line at Freescale. Prior to that, Maggie served as R&D Director at Pixelworks (NASDAQ: PXLW). From 1997 to 2008, Maggie worked in various start-ups in silicon valley, providing SoC across different fields including consumer electronics, graphics, networking and communication.
Maggie earned M.S. in EE from University of Wisconsin-Madison and B.S. from Southeast University.