Chief Executive Officer at Rogue Valley Microdevices
In this edition of the WLI Entrepreneurial Blog, we had the pleasure of talking to Jessica Gomez, founder & CEO of Rogue Valley Microdevices, a full-service MEMS device foundry that supports customers from early R&D through pilot production. Not only is Ms. Gomez an inspiring leader in the semiconductor industry, she is also running for Governor of Oregon in 2022 in hopes of becoming the state’s first female Republican governor.
Q: Tell us about your background and why you joined the industry.
I am originally from New York but also spent some of my childhood in Southern Oregon, where I now live with my family. My first job in the semiconductor industry was working as a lab operator while attending community college in the mid 1990’s. I had planned to go to college full time and work part time, but academically it was much more difficult than I anticipated. I was struggling to find the right balance between work and school. My solution was to attend college part-time while I pursued a full-time job.
A family friend who did mask layout for Standard Microsystems Corporation got me an interview at the company. I remember meeting with someone from HR during the interview process. She brought a clean room suit with her, and holding it up, explained that this was the garment I would be wearing all day at work and that my job would be working in a department called “vacuum”. I had no idea what that was; I thought maybe I was going to be vacuuming something. I remember saying, “I’ll wear whatever you want me to, I just need a job.” The company’s production was set up more like an assembly line, and I learned how to operate all different types of equipment. I worked in etch, deposition, and a little in litho. I met incredible people who took the time to explain the theory behind Semiconductor and MEMS processing. I had a lot of free time waiting for machines to finish processing and waiting for wafers to inspect, so I used that time to learn about microelectronics.
Q: “Rogue Valley” – where did that name come from?
Rogue Valley is what they call the region where we live in Southern Oregon. We included it in the name of our company because we wanted the people of this community to feel connected to us, to our success, and our company. We wanted to be part of the community so we chose that name for its regional identity.
Q: Tell us about your vision for Rogue Valley Microdevices and what led you to start the company.
In 2000, I joined Integrated Micromachines, an optical MEMS start-up in Southern California. The CEO was inspirational and very supportive of entrepreneurship. He expected his employees to approach our jobs in a very entrepreneurial way. It was eye opening — they were fully transparent about their finances and what the goals were, so I learned a tremendous amount. This company had a great culture that provided lots of room to grow and advance. It had an exciting Silicon Valley startup feel. I also got married during this time to one of my coworkers. But start-ups can be risky, and eventually the investors decided to close the company and re-direct the remaining assets.
After the company closed, my husband and I began to reevaluate what we wanted to do next. Should we stay in the startup arena or look for more stability? That is when we began kicking around the idea of starting our own company. During this time, we got a call from the facilities manager we used to work with from Integrated Micromachines. He said the building had been bought and was being turned into a data center. The cleanroom needed to be disassembled and removed quickly. We were able to secure a portion of the cleanroom and put it into storage, which sealed the deal. We decided to start our own fab.
Our long-term goal was to have a full service, fully functional MEMS foundry, but since we were on a limited budget, we started out slow. We used our knowledge from previous startups to create our business plan. We assembled the clean room ourselves in an empty 2,400 square-foot bay with a roll up door that we had rented. When there are only two people, you have to be resourceful. We began offering fabrication services to universities, such as CalTech, as well as people that we knew. We started out offering thermal oxidation and LPCVD Nitride. It turns out that LPCVD Nitride is not an easy process, but as a service company, it helped put us on the map.
Today, we have a full-service foundry with extensive capabilities that include sophisticated device work, which has been very exciting to develop and grow! We get to collaborate in developing all the different types of technology on the MEMS and nano technology side.
Q: What excites you about entrepreneurship? What are the most exciting or interesting aspects of your job?
In my role, I get to have an impact on the technology that people use for things like their health care. As a manufacturer you have a more vital, global impact than you realize. We get to take on projects, nurture them, and help our customers develop their products that go out into the world. Ultimately, people use them to improve their quality of life, which is incredibly special and exciting to be a part of. We need to be creative about how we solve problems, which is fun and allows me to continuously grow my technical and business expertise as an entrepreneur.
Q: What were/are the challenges of being a female entrepreneur?
The great thing about being a female entrepreneur, especially in our industry, is that people remember you. You stick out like a sore thumb. At events it is you, the conference support-staff, and 500 male engineers. That can be intimidating, but it can also be a wonderful advantage. My experience has been that the tech community is open and interested in supporting me.
However, I have noticed that when it comes to purchasing equipment and negotiating deals, you get underestimated. Over time, people learn to respect your thoroughness. I have a lot of really wonderful friends in the industry who are willing to work with me and provide that extra support.
Q: What advice do you have for young women who would like to become entrepreneurs?
Go for it, but be prepared that it’s not going to be easy. It will probably be painful at first and you may not see the benefits for 6, 7, 8 years, but it will be worth it. We went through a rough startup period. My husband and I were working 16-hour days and holidays. In 2009 when I was pregnant with my first daughter, I worked throughout my entire pregnancy. I actually went into labor in the middle of a conference call. However, when she was born, I had the flexibility to bring her to work. You have to put in the work up front, but in the end, it is really wonderful to have the kind of career that brings exciting accomplishments and also flexibility for your family.
At our company, we provide that flexibility – moms and dads can bring their babies to work if they need to. I think that as a culture in the U.S., we tend to separate work and family a little too much, which is not natural. I was always brought up to keep your work and home life separate and now I feel like we are getting to a point with connectivity through cellphones, computers, and laptops that is allowing us to go back to the convergence of home and work. And it’s okay; it is actually healthier that way. It is nice to see our employee’s kids and watch them grow up. I think it is important for your kids to see you in your work environment and set that example as a parent.
Q: What do you think we can do to make the semiconductor industry more attractive and retain women?
I believe having at-work child care would be really impactful. For many women, especially during the pandemic, it has been extremely challenging to be a mom and have a demanding job. Technology moves fast and you have to be in it. If you’re a Process Engineer, a Layout Engineer, or an Embedded Systems Engineer, it’s a demanding field and it requires you to make accommodations. A lot of women self-select out because it is hard to juggle everything and stay competitive. I believe there is more that we can do as employers to support women in these positions. People talk about work-life balance – I think we need to talk about work-life integration.
The other thing I would say for young women is having an encouraging partner, who can also step up and be helpful. It takes two people to make life work and if you have a solid partner, you are tackling it together. My husband and I did that during the process of starting our company, and we are still doing it now. My husband is making dinner and picking the kids up from school, while I’m working and vice versa. As a team, we figure it out. It is definitely a shift, and I think in different cultures people handle it in different ways. For the kind of job I have, it’s important to have this partnership, and the reward is that you get to work on really some amazing things… creations your kids can look back in history and say, “My mom got to work on that technology”. How cool is that?!
Q: How do you encourage men to become allies in gender equality?
I believe men can be natural allies. I don’t know that there is anything we need to do to encourage that other than creating space for it. For some young women it is hard – you get into a room of people that you might think are smarter than you or seem better educated than you, they know each other, and it can be really tough to put yourself out there. But ultimately, that is how you build relationships. I encourage men to go out on a limb and put a little effort into connecting with women in the industry because they may not be as persistent in getting to know you as your male colleagues. In the beginning of your career, there is this period when you are just trying to figure out who you are in your career, where you do your best work and what your value is. It can be scary, but working through that is part of what you have to do as a young person.
Q: How do you imagine the world will change in the next 10-30 years? Where do you think you’ll be then?
I see a lot of change on the healthcare side of the equation. especially with the tools that we have to collect data about our health. I think we are still in the early stages of understanding Biotechnology. There is a lot of work going on now with chip technology merging with biotech to create interesting solutions in healthcare. I see a path where, as an individual, you are going to have access to all of your data, which is going to enable you take a greater role in managing your own health. The ability to see things happening earlier with your body and be able to get real, measurable information, will be life changing. I think in the future we will be able to see continuous data and be able to use that to monitor and improve our own health.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself that when things break, money runs out, stuff goes wrong, it’s okay – you’re going to survive. The next day always comes and you will work through it. The first 5 years of my startup experience were very difficult. I’m not going to lie – there were days I crawled up under my desk crying so my employees wouldn’t see me. But I did survive and with experience, I learned how to manage that stress – it’s a process. I wish I had the tools earlier on to really understand that, but that is part of the process of growing up and being more confident in your career and life in general.
Q: What led you to run for Governor?
After going through a very difficult time during the 2008 recession and almost losing the company, we pretty much restarted and rebuilt. Through that experience, I became involved in entrepreneurship in the community and thinking about what I could do to help others. I started a nonprofit called Sustainable Valley Technology Group. The idea was that we would have this accelerator, incubator type support structure for entrepreneurs. It was wonderful and we helped a lot of really amazing companies. I go to the grocery store today and still see some of their products. It’s really cool!
That is when I began collaborating with our state government and learned about how state budgets are put together. Through the process of advocating for funding for the Sustainable Valley Technology Group, I had the chance to meet the economic development policy advisor for the governor. I had the opportunity to sit on several boards and commissions. You begin to see where opportunities are, and what our government can do better from a policy perspective. I realized that I had achieved many of my goals in my life and I’m a big believer that if you’ve been able to be successful, then it becomes your responsibility to pay it forward and help the next person be successful.
I ultimately decided to run for governor because I see so many Oregonians really struggling – we’ve had a rough time. Oregon needs a CEO and a leader who delivers a return on investment for Oregonians and focuses on building opportunity through empowerment, not control. Many of our leaders in Oregon have spent a lifetime in the legislature and have become conditioned to win elections, not to solve problems. When that happens, they lose touch with what an everyday person deals with: things like paying taxes, running a business, working a regular job, buying a home, and trying to find childcare. I think it is time that we have someone who really understands those things so that we can recalibrate and focus on what matters for Oregonians.
Q: How does your tech entrepreneur background make you a good candidate for Governor?
The really cool thing about business people like myself running for office is that I am not focused on building a career in politics, which gives me more autonomy to focus on what’s right for my state and what is best for the U.S. We have some great governors out there and together we have a real opportunity to put U.S. manufacturing back on the map, and we need it!
It all boils down to what kind of state do we want to be a part of, and what can we do to nurture entrepreneurship and innovation. We have states who do it well and we have states that have struggled. There are better ways we can spend our resources that help to cultivate lot of regenerative energy through entrepreneurship and technology development. I see a real need for that in Oregon.
Our public university system can be a wonderful vehicle for fostering cross collaboration between industries, government, and our workforce system. Oregon has a strong advanced manufacturing sector that when properly supported can help grow our regional economies and broaden our tax base. There are so many multifaceted opportunities that the tech sector brings to a state. It is important from an economic development perspective to continue the innovation life cycle starting with emerging technology and product development. A need for diversification has really come to light during the pandemic and to re-examine our relationship with the global supply chain.
This is all about reducing risk — a natural disaster, pandemic, or geopolitical tensions can be very disruptive to the entire supply chain. Diversifying our global supply chain brings more stability to our industry and may help avoid chip shortages in the future. Leaders need to begin looking at regulatory compliance a little differently, streamline permitting processes, and align, state and federal incentives. This will give us an opportunity to support industry growth throughout many different regions.
Q: The most important question of all…outside of your laptop and phone, what’s the most important thing you have with you?
I have a hard time shutting my brain off at night. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and want to do research about something or have a question that I decide to Google. What has been working lately is audio books. I put my earbuds in, lay down, and inevitably I fall right to sleep. So, I guess it’s kind of technology related.
Thank you, Jessica, for taking the time to talk to us and offer great advice to women engineers and entrepreneurs. We enjoyed our lively conversation and are so inspired by your journey in the semiconductor industry from lab operator to starting your own fab to running for Governor. To learn more about GSA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative and get involved, please visit Design The Solution.
Jessica Gomez entered the semiconductor manufacturing field in 1998 at Standard Microsystems Corporation of Hauppauge, New York where she acquired valuable knowledge in both semiconductor processing and production management. Jessica has held positions at Integrated Micromachines and Xponent Photonics prior to founding Rogue Valley Microdevices in 2003. As Founder and CEO, Jessica has established the company as a MEMS Foundry and world-class supplier of Silicon Wafer services and thin film services.