Hi-tech entrepreneur uses daughter as inspiration

Serial hi-tech entrepreneur Yang Dan tellsElaine Yau that having a young daughter is a help, not a hindrance, to her new start-up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 9:20am

A restless, curious spirit has led Yang Dan to register 20 patents and launch several hi-tech start-ups. But it is her concerns as a mother rather than her expertise in fibre-optics and network transmission that have inspired and driven the newest of the tech entrepreneur's ventures.

Observing her young daughter's fascination for smartphones and tablet computers, Yang began thinking about how quickly young children picked up new technology and how she could channel this interest into real learning.

Three-year-old Hera, the younger of her two daughters, has been "addicted" since she was 12 months old, she says.

"We could do everything with her as long as she was on an iPad. But I became concerned about her immersion. One of my nephews was extremely smart when he was little. But by the time he became a teenager, he would spend all his time on video games. I didn't want her to grow up to be like him," she says.

Trying to stop her playing on smart devices would be futile, but she figured "if there are appropriate learning systems, tablets can be great learning tools as everything is touchable and responsive and the touchscreen is intuitive".

The result is Rullingnet, a company developing educational devices for young children, with an award-winning tablet that has just been released in Hong Kong.

Mainland-born Yang has built a career out of venturing into alien territory. After earning her masters and doctorate in Paris, she taught optics and photonics in a college there. But in 1993, Yang and her husband, Lu Zibin, gave up their comfortable life in France and emigrated to Canada in search of greener pastures.

"My husband and I made a good living in France, me as an associate professor and he as an engineer," Yang says. "But, as foreigners, there's little chance for entrepreneurship there. We went to Canada without knowing what [business opportunities] there would be. But we thought the market environment there would give us a better chance. We were young, just over 20 then and wanted to explore more.

"In Canada, I could have gone to a university or become a researcher. But I decided to do things differently and joined the industry. I started at a Montreal [fibre optics] company and learned from the senior people there."

After two years, however, she grew impatient with the routine and was raring to take on new challenges.

"I went to see the boss and told him [how things could be done differently]. He didn't want to hear from me, thinking I was just a young immigrant woman. In his eyes, I wasn't somebody he could believe in."

Although her husband objected, she left the company to start her own business. She launched AFC Technologies, a company specialising in broadband instruments, in 1996 when her elder daughter was only one year old.

"[My husband] was very opposed to the idea of me quitting a stable job and doing all those crazy things. We had just bought a house and enjoyed a very good living. He asked, 'What else do you want and what else do we lack?' But I told him if I didn't do it, I would regret it for the rest of my life."

She mortgaged their house for US$30,000, which provided some seed money. However, it took a lot of effort to raise sufficient start-up capital as she faced plenty of doubters among venture capitalists and banks.

"Nobody listened to me; I was just a 20-something mum at the time," she recalls. Most banks had little understanding of the business; when she told a loan officer she was working with fibre-optic networks, he suggested she do something with computers instead. She eventually secured a US$100,000 loan and was soon in business.

Yang's faith in her venture was vindicated three years later when she sold it for a tidy US$40 million profit.

"I had a few inventions at AFC, including one called the optical amplifier. In fibre-optic networks, [this] can boost the signals and makes transmission way more efficient. That attracted attention from major networking companies like Northern Telecom, which became my largest customer."

Rullingnet, Yang's fourth start-up, was launched in 2010 with US$10 million of her own funds, and it soon came up with a touchscreen tablet for children between 18 months and five years old. They named it Vinci, after Leonardo da Vinci. Designed for toddlers' rough use, the tablet, which incorporates educational games and apps, has won a 2012 Seal of Approval from the National Parenting Centre, an American advocacy organisation.

"Coming from a technology background, I had to get help from educators and developmental scientists to develop a learning system for children," she says.

Yang's affinity for technology may be in her DNA. Both her parents had engineering backgrounds, and she displayed an interest in how things worked even as a young girl.

"My dad was an aircraft engineer. He was proud of his work and used to talk to me about how planes flew. I understood how an engine worked before I started elementary school. My mum worked at a factory making transistors. We didn't have hot water at home in those days and went to the public bath at my mum's factory to get a hot shower. She took me to her lab."

The Cultural Revolution dealt a severe blow to that happy childhood. Because her paternal grandparents ran a boating business, they were branded rightists and singled out for public humiliation and hard labour.

Since her mother came from a "red" family and had joined the Communist Youth League when she was young, they hoped her political credentials would soften the political fallout, she says. But it was not to be.

"[My father] was sent to prison for two years when I was about four. My grandparents and my two uncles were sent to the countryside. During those two years, another uncle, my mother's brother, looked after me."

A doting uncle, he would take her to the bookstore every week and they always came home with something for her. "By the time [my father] was released, I had 112 books."

But she, too, could not escape reprisals; whenever she went out, other children would attack her as the child of anti-revolutionaries.

"They beat me up. I couldn't go out and stayed at home all day to read books on history and Russian revolutionaries like Lenin. After [my father] came out of prison, he spoiled me even more. We did everything together."

Both parents indulged her curiosity even though it sometimes created problems, Yang says.

"Once I took apart my mum's clock, which was a wedding gift, to take a look at the little screws and everything. I couldn't put it back together. Instead of beating me, they worked with me to try to reassemble it." They never managed to put the clock back together again.

"Later, after my father started working at a joint venture with Suzuki, making Japanese motorcycles, I took a motorcycle [outside] while he was sleeping one day. I was curious about machines then and tried to figure things out. The neighbours came round and my dad got angry. But he didn't spank me like Chinese parents did. Instead, he took me around on the motorcycle and showed me the controls," she recalls.

"He supported my curiosity. I was good at maths, language, literature and writing at senior high. School officials tried to persuade me to take up humanities at university as they thought that it was hard for girls to excel in science. But I wanted to try anyway and my parents supported me."

After earning a physics degree at Nanjing University in 1982, she won a state scholarship to pursue post-graduate studies in Paris, where she met her husband.

For all the advances women have made in business, Yang says entrepreneurs like her still face obstacles getting recognition, especially in conservative cultures.

"If I were a man, I could probably attract millions more in funding and expand my business further. The valuation you get depends on people's perceptions."

Children and family are often viewed as impediments for career women, but juggling motherhood and a high-flying job isn't a problem for Yang. Now based in Ottawa, she makes it a point to leave her office before 4pm every day to pick up Hera from kindergarten.

"I won't do any work after 3.30pm. It's our bonding time. We play and cook dinner together and I prepare her for bed and start work again after midnight."

Instead of being a hindrance to her work, she says, Hera often provides inspiration for new apps and devices. "Observing what interests her, I get lots of ideas on how to develop games for Vinci. My interactions with developmental scientists also give me more knowledge about how to best raise a child.

"My first daughter Cissy, who will start university this September, didn't have that luck as I just followed whatever the parenting books said. Now I understand that every child is unique and I try to involve Hera in everything I do."