RESILIENCE FOR A DREAM.
Interview with Dr. Chen Mao Davies.
Words by María D. Martínez.
Dr. Chen Mao Davies entered the Covent Garden coffee place where we were meeting at with a smile on her face. Ready to have a chat, not to be interviewed. So chat we did. About dreams, adaptation, hard work and resilience.
From winning an Oscar and a BAFTA to dedicate her efforts to build an app to help mums breastfeed, Chen’s discourse is built on readjusting your plans in order to add some value. Personal value.
This interview is about how life, in its own way, keeps showing us the right path to follow. Even if that means a change, a challenge and jumping off some cliffs.
Retrato Dra. Chen Mao Davies. Fotografía Dragoș Popescu.
M.D: You arrived to the UK from China 19 years ago. What was the dream you were pursuing?
C.M: I came here for education, to do my master’s degree in Computer Science. I had already done a first degree in Mechanical Engineering but I always had a dream: to work in movies.
While growing up in the 1980s in China we rarely had foreign films. We would get a couple every year and everyone would go to the cinema to watch them. I remember watching The Lion King, probably two or three times, and it blew my mind away. I couldn’t believe how you can create something so breathtaking just by hand painting, by animation. You can tell a story that touches people’s hearts and which everyone will relate to. That’s when I knew I wanted to work on something like that. And after the milestone of Toy Story in the computer graphics industry, I thought: “Ok, I really want to work in movies, but how can I do it? What do I need to do to be there?!” (laughs).
M.D: Then the journey begins. Any struggles?
C. M: You know, I could read English, I could write English, but I couldn’t speak it properly, at all. And apart from that, the first place I went in the UK was Dundee in Scotland, proper Scottish accent. So if it was already hard to understand English in general, just imagine. I struggled to understand my lectures, I didn’t know what the teachers were talking about, I struggled with the assignments. The fact that I could not communicate properly made people think I was stupid. But I felt as smart as everyone else. I worked really, really hard. I recorded every single lecture and I would go home and listen to them and review them. So working harder than anyone I ended up getting distinction. It’s always about resilience.
M.D: And you decided to stay in the UK after that.
C.M: When I finished my masters, I had two choices: to go back to China or to find a job and get a company to sponsor me. I didn’t even consider any of those options. I didn’t want to go back to China but I didn’t feel I knew enough about computer science to find a job. The only other option was to stick with education, do a PhD and get a scholarship. I kept liking this country more and more and didn’t want to leave.
M.D: Did you have to get that scholarship to be able to stay in the UK?
C.M: I wanted to. There was a Chinese supervisor at Brunel University whose research topic was about Computer Graphics and Animation. Exactly what I wanted. However, he didn’t have any funding for the project. I remember asking my mum to lend me some money to start with. I would work in a hotel, at McDonalds, wherever, but I needed that first semester’s money. And there was an interesting twist here. Suddenly the project had gotten some funding and it became of interest for more people. So here was the chance of getting a scholarship, however I would be competing against a lot of other people and I thought I couldn’t stand a chance.
M.D: Did you ever think about going back to China?
C.M: I pretty much almost gave up at that moment and really thought about packing up and going back. But a friend I met at university told me: “Chen, you have to show him you have it in you”. I had to show I had the talent and the determination to do it. At this moment I felt I was on a cliff. I was using both my hands and feet to cling to the cliff because if I didn’t try my best I would fall. And I didn’t want to fall, I wanted to get into that project. I worked on my proposal the whole night, feeling exhausted but so happy at the same time.
M.D: Which is the feeling you get when you’re working towards something you want, right?
C.M: Exactly. There’s this feeling when you know you’re almost going to lose what you want, it’s weirdly beautiful, its within your reach but it’s leaving you at the same time. It feels sad and special, makes you fight for what you want.
M.D: Don’t get me emotional… (both laugh). So did you get the scholarship then?
C.M: So, I finished my proposal, and you’re not going to believe this. Something very dramatic happened. The post people went on strike! The supervisor got my proposal but he didn’t get most of the other ones. From the handful he got, mine was the best. And I got the scholarship! He told me eventually that he got like a 100 more applications after the strike finished, but that mine showed my spirit, my passion, and how desperately I wanted this.
M.D: In the end, you ended up working for a big corporation creating visual effects. Did you feel you were really reaching the “top of the cliff” here?
C.M: Well, straight after my PhD I actually didn’t get into the film industry directly. It was really hard. So instead I got some more experience working for a software company that creates 3D models for sustainability design, which we actually used to create Heathrow Terminal 5 in London. Still I thought my goal was to work in the movies, so I decided to attend a student festival (pretending I was a student) in which I knew the biggest companies like Disney or Dreamworks will be, just to know which skills they were asking for. After that I joined another company developing a software that was used by architects, product designers and fashion designers to build models of real objects. That was closer to what they needed in film at the moment: photo realistic rendering. Then I knew an old colleague which was working as a runner in a film company. You know, making coffees, delivering mail. He told me they were recruiting people but I didn’t get in that time.
M.D: Oh, so you actually felt like “falling off that cliff” then?
C.M: I kind of did, but thanks to that same friend, I decided to contact them again on my own. I figured out the email I needed to write to. You know: first name + second name @ company.com (both laugh) and it worked! I joined the team to work on the film “Gravity” straight away.
M.D: Well, if you work hard and pursue your passion, eventually you end up there.
C.M: A lot of times you don´t live the life you want to live. You live a life that is constructed by, I don’t know, where you come from, your family, opportunities. Maybe the thought that you are not good enough, or that it is too hard, or maybe you’re just doing things that pay well but it’s not something you want to do. I think what I learned from my experience is to not compromise, if you want something you go for it. If you don’t think it’s for you, try different things until you find your true self.
M.D: When did you find your true self?
C.M: When I knew I had the entrepreneur spirit. I had worked in the film industry, won the Oscar and the BAFTA with my team, but I felt like a little screw in a really big machine. It is great to entertain people, but what about the things that are closer to you?
M.D: Was that the point when you felt you wanted to do something that may look “smaller” but that would become more rewarding?
C.M: I had a very bad experience with breast feeding with my first child and I couldn’t find the support I needed. It was frustrating to go into all these chat forums and see that all women were struggling with the same things but we couldn’t find proper answers and help.
So I thought, with my CGI experience I can really do something to change this women’s life. We can make 3D avatars of mums and babies and visualize the process. We use technology for everything, and we are not using it to help women with the most natural process in life? That’s how my company Latch Aid was born.
M.D: And from there, to winner of the Woman in Innovation Award.
C.M: Well, yes. When I quitted my job it was really hard, but I thought I wanted to give it all to this company. Going back to that cliff we were talking about before, I felt I was there at the top, but I needed to jump. And when you jump there’s only two choices: either you fall or you fly. So I told myself I would fly. I won’t stop flipping my wings until I fly somewhere else. And it did happen. That same month I won the Woman in Innovation Award.
A new chapter is open. Now my mission is to help women, no matter if they come from little council states, or a wealthy family in Chelsea. Women in Africa, in China, we all want to give our children the best. And I want to help them achieve their goal. I want to be there to support them.
M.D: That in a way takes me to my next question. There’s a part in the app call “Sentiment Analysis”, which I found fascinating. What is it? How does it work?
C.M: One of the main problems is the anxiety the process of not breastfeeding correctly can create in a mum, and how they struggle with the feeling. So we thought, why not create Artificial Intelligence to be there for them 24/7.
We train the AI system everyday with all sorts of questions, but chatbots don’t have emotions, they don’t understand them. What we did is to create this sentiment AI where we analyse the form of speech and conversation language of a mum. So when a mum says: “I feel horrible, I feel like a bad mum”, a normal chatbot doesn’t detect anything, but our AI is trained to understand this type of sentences and expressions to discern her emotional state. We understand they don’t only need physical but emotional help, so that is when the personalities of the AI came to play. There’s an empathetic personality for reassurance, a fixer personality to give answers, and a standard personality for an in between. The user controls the personality they need at that moment.
M.D: So what is next?
C.M: Well, to just keep going and get the NHS to adopt the app. We are running app pilots with the NHS and Virgin Care to use the app so we can measure the KPIs and see what we need to improve. Ideally, we would like to get it prescribed by healthcare professionals and to prescribe it for free in poorer communities. We hope this app will change people’s lives. We are doing it slowly but surely.
M.D: And to finish here, what would you say to someone that feels like it’s time to “jump off the cliff”?
C.M: Well, you know there’s this analogy with Chinese bamboo. The plant can grow under the ground for up to 4 years. When it starts growing you can’t really see anything, but on the 5th year of growing out, it shoots to the sky and nothing can stop it. Jumping is scary, but if you’ve been working for that change, eventually you’ll also be shot to the sky.