Grad’s search result: Silicon Valley

Jenny Zhao

Jenny Zhao, a 1988 UIC graduate in computer science, is among the Google elite as an engineering director. — Photos: Eric Millette


By Chris A. Smith — adapted from UIC Alumni magazine 

As an engineering director at a company founded by engineers, Jenny Zhao is among the Google elite. As the tech industry has expanded into China and vice versa, Zhao — a Beijing native who has spent most of her adult life in the U.S. — has proven exceptional at translating between the two cultures.

Zhao, a 1988 UIC graduate in computer science, stands out as a female boss in a notoriously male-dominated industry and an ace coder who has people skills — a rare combination in Silicon Valley.

“Jenny understands the backgrounds and values of both cultures, and that’s unusual. She’s really bicultural,” says Judy Curry, former associate vice chancellor and communications professor who sponsored Zhao when she came to UIC in 1984.

Both Zhao’s parents were engineers and during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, her father was beaten and imprisoned. Eventually he was released and in 1982, as the revolutionary fever started to break, he was among the first Chinese professionals and academics allowed to visit the U.S.

He studied electrical engineering and management economics at UIC and returned home convinced of the superiority of the U.S. education system. By then, Jenny Zhao had gotten into China’s most prestigious medical university. But her father decided she would attend UIC.

When she arrived, Chicago was a shock. “I was lonely, I was scared,” she recalls. “And I was just like, ‘What am I doing here?’”

Although her parents wanted her to become a doctor, Zhao was drawn to computers. At the time, personal computers were uncommon and underpowered, so she logged marathon sessions on the hulking mainframes in campus computer labs. For one assignment, she says, “I began to program, and I just never stopped. Before I knew it, it had been 72 hours!”

After graduating from UIC, Zhao studied computational geometry at Princeton University. She was on the road to a Ph.D. when she realized that she didn’t want to be an academic.

“I wanted to work on things that a lot of people would use,” she says.

Zhao landed a job in 3-D animation programs at Silicon Graphics Inc., where she met her future husband, Kurt Akeley (they have two children). Her next job, at a small graphics company, required both technical expertise and managerial savvy. In 2005, the couple moved to Beijing and in her new position, she learned to act as a bridge between East and West — skills that would come in handy when she joined Google in 2008.

These days, her calendar is a blur of meetings — eight or so a day. While she loves the work, it can be a struggle to keep pace.

Sometimes, Zhao says, she has to remind herself “to come back and have some balance.”

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