This post is written by guest blogger Maha Achour. Achour is the founder and CEO of Metawave. She has a PhD in theoretical physics from MIT. Achour is a global thought leader on the millimeter wave and the future of autonomous driving and wireless communications. To hear more from Achour please join us for her presentation at Cisco’s December 4th Women Rock IT event: Meet 2 Female Entrepreneurs Discovering New Ways to Solve Problems with Technology, register here.
I’m a woman who immigrated to the United States in 1984 from North Africa where women had little access to opportunities, especially in STEM areas. Initially, my parents were against me travelling abroad to pursue my graduate studies in theoretical particle physics – my first passion after quarks’ successful discovery. I came to California to pursue my master’s degree at UCLA.
I have to admit that it was a scary trip because I have never been away from my family. It wasn’t easy being on my own, trying to learn a new language, and adapting to a different academic system.
I went from UCLA to MIT for my Ph.D. degree, and then in 1996, I started working in the industry building the first HDTV system for broadcast networks. My patent filings show the progression of my industry experience. Over time, my passion transitioned from elementary particles to bringing HDTV to consumers’ fingertips through wireless broadband access. My passion to continue learning physics and deciphering how the human brain, when equipped with paper, pencil, and an eraser, could predict such elementary particles (quarks) far before they were even seen, gave me great drive throughout my initial years in the U.S.
Family commitment is very important to me. I’ve been a professional all my life, and so has my husband, a senior VP at Qualcomm. We have always prioritized our family and managed to schedule trips and business meetings around the needs of our son and daughter. Now that they are grown, we feel blessed that we were able to balance our careers and family.
I started my career working on HDTV systems – effectively multiplexing video, audio, and data streams while pushing signals through satellite. Afterwards, I focused on pushing huge amounts of data through wireless networks, from free space optics to millimeter wave point-to-point systems, even before standards were built.
I had worked extensively with digital wireless solutions and believed that it was a brute-force way of solving these problems. They were, and still are, trying to solve most things digitally. But being a physicist, I knew that analog innovation was needed, which is not as easy as scaling Moor’s Law. And the solution could not be solved by adding multiple, large, dumb antennas to advance signals – we needed true innovation.
That’s what we’re doing at Metawave. Our innovation is a hybrid analog + digital smart system. But the question is: how do we build it? It doesn’t yet exist in textbooks or college curricula. Having the opportunity to lead Metawave and solve a fundamental problem facing two major industries — wireless and automotive — is remarkable.
I strongly believe in education because I know how talented young people are, even from birth. It’s the journey that shapes them. I give talks around the world, and try to help students, both men and women, realize their potential and find their passion, connecting the dots. I share my experiences to help them discover their own journeys and accomplishments.
Physics is an unlimited topic, and we are still trying to understand the universe and its origin. From cold fusion, to nuclear energy, to solar energy, to all kinds of science, kids and young adults get excited about the world around them. Education, and excitement about learning should be available to everyone – no one knows where the next Einstein will emerge.
Now, as I lead a company and travel the world trying to solve big problems in both automotive and wireless industries, it is critical for me to place a high priority on my teams and accommodate their family needs. If people are happy at work, they deliver their best. It’s simple to me, and this is the culture I am trying to build and maintain.
Success is all about continuously adapting to internal and external factors with perseverance and flexibility. We scientists have come a long way in being able to take our inventions and innovations out of academia and government to create successful commercial companies that change the world. I aspire to emulate James Maxwell, who died before his elegant questions were blessed by the physics community, and whose discovery of electromagnetic waves has enabled many of the amazing innovations we are commercializing today.