Sheer determination drove Jessica Gomez to bootstrap an electronics manufacturer that is on the cutting edge of internet-of-things technology.
There was nothing typical about Jessica Gomez’s path to becoming a tech CEO. Female, Hispanic, community college educated, she does not have the privileged background of many C-level executives who run high-tech manufacturing companies.
Yet Gomez has built from scratch, in partnership with husband Patrick Kayatta, a state-of-the-art microchip-manufacturing facility in Southern Oregon.
Medford-based Rogue Valley Microdevices makes silicon wafers and sensors that go into an array of electronics, including cell-phones, wearable medical diagnostic equipment, autonomous vehicles and devices that are part of the internet of things.
Her childhood was not an easy one. Gomez moved with her parents and three siblings to the small town of Wimer in Southern Oregon from New York when she was 12. Her parents divorced after her father’s cabinetry business collapsed. The family struggled economically, and Gomez fell behind academically.
As a teenager, she moved back to New York to live with her grandmother and finish high school. She went to community college and took a part-time job at semiconductor manufacturer Standard Microsystems, where she developed a passion for technology.
In 2000 she moved to Los Angeles to work for a telecom startup where supportive managers taught her about entrepreneurship. That company eventually closed as a result of the dotcom bubble and 2003 recession. Finding herself out of work, Gomez started to consider launching her own business after she took possession of a clean room that was part of the manufacturing facility she worked at in Southern California.
Acting on a desire to reconnect with her family in Southern Oregon, Gomez persuaded city officials and a local bank to help her launch a micro-electro-mechanical systems, or MEMS, foundry in Medford. With the help of a loan from Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development (SOREDI), Gomez launched the company in 2004 and at the tender age of 25.
It has been a bumpy ride for Gomez since the launch. The company almost went out of business following the 2008 recession. But her penchant for hard work and risk-taking has paid off. The firm has since grown into one of only a few specialist MEMS manufacturing facilities in the U.S.
With $4 million in annual revenue and 28 employees, the company is outgrowing its Medford headquarters.
In 2018 Gomez ran as a Republican candidate for the state Senate, an experience she says was invaluable in helping her to better understand how public policy impacts the community and individuals.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up on Long Island, [New York]. My parents were young. I am the oldest of four. They had a house in a Hispanic, lower-income area. We had challenges as a family, financial stress. My parents didn’t really fit into the East Coast culture and even into the Hispanic culture in a lot of ways; it can be a male-dominated family structure. My mom was not interested in having that kind of family of her own.
My parents had their ups and downs. It was OK until we moved here in the early ’90s. It was around the time of the spotted owl controversy. They were changing policies around forest management. A lot of people lost their jobs. There was a huge recession here. That industry never really came back.
When my parents moved here, they didn’t understand locally what was going on. Trying to run a business and start a life here were really hard on them.
How did your childhood shape the leader you are today?
Since I was the oldest, it was my responsibility to care for my siblings. I was babysitting from when I was 9 or 10 years old. When you have responsibility at a young age, you learn to manage things. Managing three kids and making food and keeping the house clean, there are a lot of lessons packed into that.
That really impacted how I communicate with people and how I handle stress. Later on, when I had the experience of starting a company, it changed how I work and how I deal with the daily stress that comes from being in a leadership position.
Your first job was working in New York for Standard Microsystems. What was the most important experience of working there?
That environment allowed me to network. Besides learning the processing part of making chips, I met so many incredible people there. That opened my eyes to what manufacturing was really like. The company transitioned from a manufacturing facility primarily doing semiconductor chips to more of a MEMS manufacturing facility, which is what we do here now.
Did you think about running your own business at that time?
Not after watching my dad go through the process of running a company and seeing the stress he was under. He would work all night. I would bring him tea and do what I could to help as a kid.
I actually said, “I am never going to do this.” It was not something I thought about until much later, after the question was raised, “How are we going to make a living in Southern Oregon given our skills?”
You moved out to California and were working there for a while. Why did you choose Medford to set up a company?
We liked California. But we didn’t have family there, and if we were going to start our own company, it was really expensive. At the time, there was the Enron scandal; the power bill for the building where we were working was $50,000 a month.
We started to make trips up here to see if it was affordable and to see if it could work. We would leave Friday night from Monrovia in the Los Angeles area. We would start driving around 4 P.M. through traffic and make it here around 3 A.M. We convinced the city to meet with us on Saturday mornings.
We did that for eight months before we made the transition.
We signed a lease on the building before we had financing. We were supposed to have a three-way deal with Business Oregon, SOREDI and Premier West Bank. Premier West was the only bank that would talk to me, because I had no idea what I was doing.
When we moved up, the state pulled out. SOREDI stepped up and funded the rest of the loan.
What was the hardest part of starting a manufacturing business?
There were three main challenges: On the technical side was keeping equipment running and delivering product; two was the financial side; three was the sheer amount of work required to have a facility run like this by two people.
I had no idea about working on machines or building machines. I had to start from the beginning. You learn about using a particular tool or pump because you have to.
When we started, we were working, at a minimum, 12- to 15-hour days. There was a time we would take turns sleeping here. I had a tiny office. I would put down layers of bubble wrap behind my desk, lie with my timer, and wake up every three hours to hit a couple of buttons and change out some water in a machine.
That was what it was like if we wanted to be successful.
At what point did you realize you were going to be a success?
We felt like we were going to probably make it right before the 2008 recession hit. We had 10 to 12 people here. Things were slowly starting to get a little bit easier. There were only one or two nights a week that we were working until 1 A.M. That was a big improvement.
We started to train people and get more customers. And then all of a sudden, that came to almost a grinding halt. In one month, we went down 50% in revenue. A couple of things happened: Obviously the economy was not good.
The other thing was that one of our largest customers bought out another company that did similar work to what we did. We had another customer that brought internally the process capability to do what we were doing for them.
With all the debt service, rent and costs of running the business, it was overwhelming. We developed a new plan. We hired a sales-person. We laid off almost everyone, including ourselves. We had two employees. We started to install some equipment that would allow us to bring in additional business.
I would say from 2010 to 2011 was when we started to realize the company was going to continue to grow. But it was rocky for a while.
How challenging is it to hire skilled people in Southern Oregon?
It has always been a source of heartburn. We train everyone from ground zero. We don’t expect anyone to have experience in what we do. We are an island unto ourselves, especially here.
We bring people in, but what often happens is that they struggle with the attention to detail and with soft skills: communication, showing up on time, being able to meet basic expectations of any employer. We probably hire 10 and keep one.
How do you typically hire?
Typically we hire from Oregon Tech and Oregon state universities. We tend to have better success rates there. We love the MECOP internship program for engineers; it’s a partnership with Oregon Tech, Oregon State and Portland State. It adds a year of school to a bachelor’s in engineering. Students get to do two six-month internships.
The employers are involved in selecting students for the program. We had really good success there.
I am a big supporter of internships and apprenticeships — anything that allows someone to do the job and feel what it is like to work in that industry.
The argument against the apprenticeship model is that a lot of kids don’t know what they want to do. We don’t want to force them into a particular sector they are not happy with. My perspective is that it doesn’t matter. The point is that you learn a trade, you learn what it is like to work.
All of those skills are transferrable, whatever industry you end up in. I have a two-year degree from community college. We had a salesperson for a very long time. She was phenomenal. She had a degree in zoology.
What kind of company culture do you try to create?
Sometimes you get engineering folks who are a bit adversarial; they think they know best. Sometimes that can interfere with the group dynamics. We try to look for humbleness and an ability and willingness to learn. That has yielded the best results for the group.
We try to match the kind of work to what somebody is passionate about, especially when we find someone who is really good. They could be good at multiple things. Maybe they are good at their job but they don’t love it.
Rather than try to push them in a direction they wouldn’t normally go, we try to have a conversation about what it is they really enjoy and adjust the work they do.
Do you think diversity in tech is improving?
It is an issue. There is very low participation for Hispanic people and African American people. Business owners are changing that dynamic by adding diversity of culture. The ability to work in a global supply chain is important.
I do a lot of panels and discussions about how we can encourage, [in particular], women to stay in the engineering field. We found we have more women graduating as engineers, but they don’t stay. Studies point to how there is more gender equality on the numbers side, but as people get promoted into management positions, that doesn’t always happen for women in our industry. We are trying to figure out why it is happening.
Part of it is our industry is growing very fast. In semiconductor and MEMS, it is long hours and it is a rigorous workload. It doesn’t always match with having a family. We get a lot of attrition because of that.
There is also an issue with women feeling accepted. Sometimes they are not looked at as contributing the same amount of technical work. That is changing. But it is still a boys’ club in some ways.
Inside the MEMS fabrication lab. The machines are behind sealed compartments to keep out contaminants
How do you create an environment where women feel comfortable?
We were 50-50 women, but some women transitioned out. We now have slightly more men on our engineering team. I almost feel like with me being the CEO of the company, it is setting the tone. That alone can change how people feel about it and their comfort level. I don’t feel I treat anyone differently from anyone else.
What is the fastest-growing area of MEMS?
Autonomous vehicles are going to be a big driver. You hear a lot about the internet of things. If you think about the connectivity of devices, MEMS components are a big part of that. They are the environmental sensors that are producing all the data to tell us what is happening out in the world.
There is lots of opportunity for indoor navigation, smart cities and even addressing big challenges with things like climate change — how do we make devices that are more energy efficient? What are some of the things we can do to reduce heat load on sensors?
Are you in expansion mode?
We are being pushed hard by our customers to increase capacity. We have been working on it for about four years now, looking at how and when, and how we finance an expansion. We have plans to build a new building. It has been a slow process. We are working with customers now to develop partnerships in preparation.
Part of the challenge is that we could buy another company or facility that is operating, but there aren’t that many. If you want a more modern facility, building it will probably be the best option.
What potential is there to build a tech hub in Southern Oregon?
I would love to see that happen. I don’t know ultimately how successful that would be. In Wilsonville or Hillsboro, there are very well-planned spaces for manufacturing.
We don’t have that here. The manufacturers here are hidden in select corners or in the middle of nowhere. There isn’t really a light-manufacturing neighborhood that is designed into our cities.
A lot of that has to do with how we started. Southern Oregon was big into timber. Our manufacturing spaces are heavy industrial, which is not the same environment you want for chip manufacturing or other types of electronics manufacturing.
There are challenges with land use that make it more difficult to plan and keep the cost structure low enough to bring in manufacturing companies. We got a deal on land we purchased, but it was still very high. We could probably have bought twice the amount of property in the Portland area for the same dollar amount.
There are some things we can do locally. There has to be some planning for places where that type of manufacturing could be. We can probably do a better job of working with property owners here and helping to do some up-front site work. There are probably some incentives that could be offered.
I would rather wait and see what happens over the next few years before investing big dollars into setting up large spaces for manufacturing, because you want to make sure people come.
Right now, Oregon is competing with Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, where there are good tax incentives. There are a lot of resources in those states for businesses to set up manufacturing facilities.
Photos by Jason E. Kaplan
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