Ep 31: Jing Zhou: Innovator with Passion for Fashion Tech

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview Fashion Tech trailblazer Jing Zhou, a poster child for entrepreneurship.  Jing was born in The People’s Republic of China, and immigrated to the United States when she was in her early 20’s. “Technology, alone, cannot change the world,” according to Jing. “It is the application of technology that will do that.” Jing runs her own company: elemoon (www.elemoon.com). They invented the first consumer-ready flexible computer. It adds substantial technology and style to the existing wearables and the Internet of Things. The first application is a computer-powered jewelry line. 

Jing’s early experiences have distinctly shaped the innovation in which she is involved today.  Having been born in the early ‘80’s in socialist China, Jing said: “The society was quite limiting in terms of what you could do, and what you could buy. But I would argue that, as a girl, it was the best place to be because the society really focused on gender equality.”  

As a first and second grader, Jing remembers reading many stories about Chinese female pioneers (the first female Chinese physicist, the first female Chinese astronaut, the first female Chinese explorer to reach the South Pole etc.), and then having the unique privilege to meet many of them through her father, a journalist who ran a popular magazine in China and featured many accomplished women. 

“That shaped what I believe,” Jing stated. “As a woman, as a girl, you have the total freedom to pursue what you are passionate about, and be the best at it.”  

Jing finds it a shame that many others have not had the unique perspective that her Chinese background, and meeting the extraordinary women interviewed by her father, afforded her. “I think the power of female role models and story-telling, and letting girls see what has already been done, is extremely important.  You get this ‘inner fire’ to be one of them.”

Jing’s university educational focus was originally journalism and business, when she came to Chicago, Illinois at age 22.   “I was born into this media family but I was told that I could not get a job at a mainstream U.S. media outlet. Yet, I like challenges,” she said. “So I became the first Chinese graduate student at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism. Then my first job was at Businessweek magazine, where I wrote a lot about tech, entrepreneurs, startups; and then later on, about larger tech companies and finance.” She was inspired by the inventors and startup founders she met. “They, all, have a really fun, engaging, polished story, and they never tell you how hard it is to run a startup.  So I had this rosy picture!”

In 2010, Jing got the opportunity to start her own business in China. She moved from New York City to Shanghai to found and run one of the country’s first mobile advertising companies. She built that company, and then sold it for $16 million.

Jing had to sell her first company which was a learning experience for her, and did afford some financial freedom for her second business. Running that company provided Jing the realization that “there is a huge gap between technology products and what the consumer wants, especially women and teens, who spend the most money on digital consumer products.”

Founding elemoon in 2013, Jing said: “I wanted my next company to focus on women and teens, and really bridge the gap between technology and the mass market.”  Looking at the digital wearables market, she said “I was surprised that there was still a lot of ‘groupthinking’ around what different brands are doing. Our team did a tour of an Apple shop in New York City, and there is just this whole wall of what I call ‘rubber bands’ and fitness trackers.  The products seem very limiting.  They only focus on the early adopters and the fitness enthusiasts. But we understand what’s possible with the technology, and the market can be so much bigger. We had the idea to make things that are in fashion, and more appealing.”

As a result elemoon’s products (based on principles of IoT – the “Internet of Things”) are created to be “humane” and “convey emotions.”   The first is an elemoon bracelet, a premium product that combines fine jewelry with wearable technology.  It is an elegant band that allows a user to customize its properties, sync it with a smart phone, create a variety of patterns, and change/modify its look and feel daily, or at will.  “I really believe that the future of fashion is highly personalized,” said Jing.  The bracelet has highly practical features, too.  “If you rub it or tap it, your phone will ring,” said Jing – helping people locate their smart phone!  In order to keep the wearer connected to their loved ones, elemoon has also introduced a feature so if an important person calls or texts a bracelet wearer, the bracelet will display a secret pattern so that only the wearer knows who is calling.

Jing’s process to get the elemoon bracelet manufactured was arduous. “These days, high technology is often made in China,” Jing said. Naively she thought that, as a Chinese native speaker, she would be able to easily manage the supply chain process, but she soon realized that Chinese factories were highly specialized.  “Jewelry factories would only make jewelry.  iPhones, iPads, computers are made at focused factories.  We had to identify 17 top manufacturers across southern China, who could make all the components that go into this one hybrid product. Everything had to be custom-made.”  

For two years, after moving back temporarily to China, Jing worked consistently “hovering” at as many of the 17 factories as she could (each more than 100 miles from each other) to deal with what she terms “necessary micro-management.”  In order to correctly get her product developed and manufactured, the elemoon team created a unique computer, and unique testing machine.  “If you don’t show up, and go to the factory floor, nothing will get done,” she said. “It was usual that I would be the only woman on the factory floor.  And the men didn’t know how to talk to me.”  She found that the fastest way to get things done was to work through factory owners’ wives, and she shared that “Girl Power” experience.  The elemoon team experienced inordinate delays, and challenges managing the wide range of factories and components, but through perseverance long hours, hard work, and determination, Jing overcame all the obstacles.

Jing is now catapulting elemoon, and its next generation of products, by working at the New York Fashion Tech Lab, a New York City-funded accelerator program, in Manhattan.  elemoon is one of 8 future companies that are “at the intersection of technology and fashion,” Jing said.  “A lot of the major retailers like Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Kate Spade are the sponsors of the program. The program opens up the fashion network for us.”

Check out the New York Fashion Tech Lab Program: www.nyftlab.com

“I always see the beauty and poetry in technology,” Jing declared. “I cannot show people what is in my mind unless I make products for them. I am at this really interesting time where I can produce things that are both exciting for me, and the market.”  She mentioned two major fashion icons: Diana von Furstenberg and Rebecca Minkoff as being current inspirations for her.  “There are fashion industry veterans trying to do something new, and stay curious and playful.  And it’s just a beautiful thing.”

Jing recommends her favorite book: DELIVERING HAPPINESS: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, which discusses how to achieve sustainable happiness through pursuing your higher purpose in life.  “I have found my higher purpose,” Jing said.  “It is changing women, and how they view technology, which can empower women, especially young girls.”  To strengthen that, elemoon is partnering with the United Nations to launch a teen’s line of products, including a kit where teenagers can assemble their own line of computers and wearable tech accessories.

“We are at the starting point of what we are trying to do to inspire women to change their view about technology, and especially empower young women with technology,” Jing simply said.

Jing’s advice for aspiring women tech leaders is:

  • Don’t assume you have to be an engineer. “People who don’t have a tech background can add huge value. The trend is going to be extremely interdisciplinary.”

  • Solve problems.

  • Tap your common sense and intuition.

Jing Zhou can be reached at jing@elemoon.com.

******* Audible FREE Book and 30 Day Trial *******

As mentioned in the episode, Diva Tech Talk is partnering with Audible.com to offer you a free book and a 30 day free trial of their audio book services. You can listen to the book Jing mentioned or any other just by visiting: www.audibletrial.com/DT2

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