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Alumnae Junior Achievement Award: Emily Ma ’99

The Alumnae Junior Achievement Award is presented to a young alum, under 40 years of age, in recognition of her accomplishments in making a difference in the lives of others. The Alumnae Association is pleased to award Emily Ma ’99 the 2019 Junior Achievement Award for her outstanding accomplishments in science, technology and engineering.  

After graduating from Crofton House in 1999, Emily attended Stanford University where she received Bachelor and Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Emily started her career as a mechanical engineer and roboticist at IDEO, a global design and innovation consultancy. Emily then returned to Stanford to pursue her MBA to bridge the language of design and business. In the past decade, Emily has taught at the business school, engineering school and “d.school” at Stanford. Currently Emily is a lead at X, formerly Google [x], a stealth group focused on developing high-impact technologies that have the potential to massively improve hundreds of millions of lives. She currently heads a portfolio of investigations aimed at drastically reducing waste in the global food system. In her time at [x], she has helped develop multiple early stage programs which have involved revolutionary technologies including self-driving cars, smart eyewear, internet balloons and energy kites.

Collaboration, Curiosity and Learning from Failure

In April, Emily Ma ’99 returned to speak with students about some of the lessons she took away from Crofton House that have proved important along her path – including the value of being curious, the power of collaboration and recognizing the upside of failure. 

Emily’s path has included earning three degrees from Stanford University – a Bachelor and Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA – and a successful career combining her interest in engineering, design and creativity. Starting out as mechanical engineer and roboticist, Emily is now a lead at X, formerly Google [x], focused on developing high-impact technologies that have the potential to improve hundreds of millions of lives. “It was this interesting confluence of my background in design, user research, and engineering that brought me to this place. A big part it is figuring out how to work with different industry partners and how to work with users to come up with things that will drastically change how we live in positive ways.” 

Emily came to Crofton House from York House in Grade 7, motivated by the comradery she felt with two Crofton House students as they ran together at track and field events. “We were never competitive; we cheered each other on. I wanted to come to Crofton because I knew that this place cultivated a particular character in people, even at the age of twelve or thirteen I could tell.” 

Emily spoke of many experiences at Crofton House that were transformational, including working backstage on theatre productions. “That taught me that I could pull together this combination of organization, planning and leadership with creativity. For The Wizard of Oz, we had to create a field of poppies and I remember saying at rehearsal ‘I need everyone to come in for twenty minutes and all of us are going to make origami flowers, and by the end of it, we will have a thousand poppies.’ Everyone came to the art room and made two, or three, or 10 flowers and within a half hour we had enough poppies to cover the whole entire stage. For me, that was a formative moment where I realized the power of the collective, where I started to learn what leadership was all about, what prototyping was and what it meant to rally at a particular time.”

Emily also pointed to experiences and teachers at Crofton House that helped her understand the value of failure and how it “might actually be an opportunity to move on something completely different that's even better”. She emphasized to students that when something doesn’t work, it is important to ask ‘what part of it was a success? And what can I do with that?’. While Crofton House helped her start to think that way, it is mindset that is rewarded at her current organization. “We are measured on how quickly we recognize when something is not working. Our CEO has designed a culture that supports the notion that failure is a great thing and that we must let certain things finish so that we can move on to better things.”

Speaking to students about what has helped her get where she is, Emily emphasized the importance of learning how to learn, being curious and asking questions. “I want to say that we (at Goggle) have something called Googliness; you're naturally curious, you want to work together in teams, and you want to influence the world”. Again, she says these attributes were valued at Crofton House. “I learned how to learn and how to ask questions here. You need to figure out how to learn because you never stop. Things keep changing and the world that you will live in twenty years will be very different. So it's not so much about learning key concepts, but instead figuring out how to learn; what allows you to be your best in learning.” 

When asked what advice she would give to this year’s graduates, Emily reflected on the importance pursuing an interest without overthinking it. “If there is one or two things that are just a little more interesting to you than others, dive in. Sometimes we get paralyzed by choice, especially as we go to college. You could do all of these things - electrical engineering or Greek studies. Just choose one thing. You're not going to be stuck with it for the rest of your life, because it will start leading you down a path. The best way to start is to just start, without all the information. By starting you will figure out the next step.”