Women CEOs are a rarity: there are none leading Fortune 500 semiconductor companies. Latina or Hispanic women CEOs are even more scarce. Jessica Gomez, of Rogue Valley Microdevices, a MEMS foundry based in Southern Oregon, is an outlier on many levels. While most CEOs in the electronics industry hold at least a four-year college degree, Gomez holds a two-year degree. Beyond the obstacles posed by education, gender and race, Gomez overcame some turbulent years in high school — including a few months of homelessness — during her life’s journey. With the statistical odds not in her favor, how did Gomez make her way into the electronics industry, how did she cofound a MEMS foundry, and what advice does she offer to Millennials and Generation Z-ers in the electronics industry?
When Gomez was 12, her family became untethered shortly after moving to a rural part of Southern Oregon. In the years following her parents’ tumultuous divorce, Jessica found herself couch-surfing with friends and even living out of her car.
Jessica’s saving grace came at age 15 when she moved to New York to live with her maternal grandmother Lillian Neal. Neal gave Gomez the push to go back and finish high school, but Jessica recounts “I had to work extremely hard to catch up — but I was able to make it work, and I graduated from high school.” Neal turned out to be Jessica’s rock. “Out of all the people in my entire life, my grandmother was the most influential.”
Serendipity and a Leap
After graduating high school, Gomez needed to work to help put herself through school and earn her associates degree. Through a chance encounter with a friend Jessica landed a job doing photomask layout at Standard Microsystems.
Standard Microsystems was Jessica’s first exposure to the industry and she faced challenges along her path. Gomez recalls, “It wasn’t easy at first, though. I worked in vacuum, put on a clean room suit, and had an accident transferring a batch of 4-inch wafers into a metal cassette. I literally dumped them on a counter, which was about a five-thousand-dollar mistake.” Despite some of the initial challenges, Gomez continued to thrive and develop herself in her role as she soaked up everything the opportunities the industry had to offer.
Jessica’s next step on her journey arose as an opportunity at Integrated Micromachines in Southern California. For four years, she learned the fab’s equipment and manufacturing execution software. She also did foundry sales. Eventually, as is the case with many startups, Integrated Micromachines began to struggle financially and it closed in 2003.
Serendipity came from adversity when Gomez learned that the thousands of dollars of networking and cleanroom equipment – left in the old company’s space — would end up in the dumpster if not removed. That’s when Gomez along with her husband, took a major leap of faith, putting in a $0 bid on the used equipment and winning it. “We packed up the cleanroom and put it in storage in California,” says Gomez.
With Jessica at the helm as CEO, the entrepreneurial couple decided to start their MEMS foundry up the coast. “After months of searching for a building, we found our current location in Medford, Oregon,” says Gomez. “This was an intensely stressful period as we worked to meet regulatory and system requirements, and secure permits for the gases and chemicals required for MEMS-type processes. We made it through, and by the end of 2004, we were ready to go.”
Words to Millennials and Gen Z
Starting a company, any company, is not for the faint of heart. When asked what it took to start Rogue Valley Microdevices, Gomez said that “we were totally unprepared for the amount of work it would take to do this. I was only 25. Neither of us had experienced building a facility. We were $40,000 in debt on credit cards when we started and couldn’t even afford toner cartridge for ink. We literally had zero cushion.
As for words of advice, Gomez has some. “Whether you are about to enter this industry or have been in it for years and want to progress, my advice is to get a mentor,” she says. “I have been very fortunate. My grandmother was a mentor to me, offering love and life lessons. A mentor needn’t be a family member, of course. For most people, a mentor who understands the professional challenges you face and who can give you good pragmatic advice based on their own experiences is what you will need. A mentor can also help you to navigate career choices and changes.”
Gomez is a mentor in SEMI Foundation’s Mentoring Program. To sign up as a mentor or a mentee, visit: https://www.semifoundation.org/semi-mentoring-program/