How Limor Fried plans to make the world a better place through engineering

Limor Fried

Limor Fried

By Leah Polakoff

Limor “Ladyada” Fried is hard-wired for success. In 2005, shortly after earning her master of engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Fried started Adafruit Industries, an electronics hobbyist company selling DIY open-source electronic hardware kits.

She was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Entrepreneur in 2012 (of 15 finalists, she was the only female) and was the first female engineer featured on the cover of Wired. In 2014, Inc. 5000 ranked Adafruit number 11 in the top 20 USA manufacturing companies and number one in New York City.

Q: You started your own business the same year you finished your degree at MIT. Did you always have a vision to create your own company? Or was it a spur-of-the-moment decision?

Fried: Early on, I realized I wanted to work for myself and start a company. I don’t like waking up early, so that really helped make that decision easy. I was very motivated to create a company, to support a cause and foster a workplace that maximized the potential in myself and others who share the vision of making the world a better place through engineering.

Q: What are the challenges of being a woman in the engineering industry?

Fried: Lately the biggest challenge is getting asked this question over and over! Look, every day it’s terrible in some way, [but] progress is being made — slowly. But what’s the point of talking about that all the time? I’d rather focus on the changes I want to see in the world. I’m obsessed with designing and engineering great products and creating a cool community that has diversity as part of its DNA. We are what we celebrate. I’m trying to be a good example that it’s possible to be a woman in the engineering industry and we put the spotlight on amazing women as much as possible. What’s more valuable? Complaining about jerky dudes in tech or becoming the best company in the world, with good values?

Q: What motivates you to start your day? And what keeps you going when the going gets tough?

Fried: Every week for the last six years, Adafruit has done a live video show called “Ask an Engineer.” I answer engineering questions live, show new products, demonstrate electronics, and more. I often have my friend Amanda on the show — she’s also an engineer. A parent emailed me and said his 11-year-old daughter asked, “Do boys do engineering too?” She will never know a world where there [aren’t] women doing engineering. No matter how tough my day gets, we know what Adafruit is doing is important, it’s a cause and a business. If you can look at things this way, nothing is “tough.” Well, besides getting up early.

Q: You go by “Ladyada,” in memory of Lady Ada Lovelace, a mathematician from the 1800s. How have her accomplishments pushed you toward your dreams?

Fried: She was … a flawed person like all of us, had a gambling habit, lots of scandal and died at 36. Ada was the “Enchantress of Numbers.” I’m not really sure if there’s anything specific about her accomplishments that pushed me toward my dreams. She existed, she had imagination, she could see the unseen worlds around us, [and that] “computers” could be used for more than math. I think electronics are more than circuit boards; they are art. The layout and placement of parts can be beautiful.

Q: When you’re not building robots and testing new products, what do you do to relax and stay sane?

Fried: I’m on level 765 on Candy Crush (I’ve never paid for a level). I take long baths, play video games in bed and read comic books. For fun, I’ll read data sheets on my tablet, ride a bike, walk around New York City and get ideas. I pet my cat Mosfet a lot.

Q: You’re only 35 years old, with plenty of time to grow your business model. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Fried: Adafruit has a 10-year lease where we are now. … So I’m likely going to be doing what I am doing now, just better, bigger and with more great people who join this adventure called Adafruit. I’d like to hire that 11-year-old girl who watched “Ask an Engineer” 10 years from now because she decided to become an engineer, or maybe she’ll start a competing company and put me out of business because she does a better job. Either one is totally OK.

About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email tina@smartceo.com.