Mo Zhou (BSEE '03, MSEE '05), founder of Daycare Discover, resides with her husband and son in Chicago  

EE Alumna Mo Zhou Helps Working Parents With Daycare Discover

This month, we introduce you to alumna Mo Zhou (BSEE ‘03, MSEE ‘05), who lives in Chicago with her husband and 3 year old son. UIAAAN President Ning Zulauf interviewed her this winter, after learning about her from ChicagoInno. Mo’s career path began in engineering and consulting but added an  entrepreneurial flavor, as her own struggles as a working mom searching for daycares led her to start a business to serve other working parents: Daycare Discover.

You graduated from the University of Illinois with BS and MS degrees in Electrical Engineering, and then you got your MBA degree from Yale. What was your primary career goal during your time as a student, and how did you transition from an engineering career path to working as a management consultant?
When I went to the U. of I., I wanted to get a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and focused on optics research. I participated in undergraduate research with Professor Paul Scott Carney in my sophomore year, so I had been doing undergraduate research, graduate research and my Master’s with him in optical imaging. That was what I wanted to do; it was a lot of fun, and it was a very exciting field, and I think I always wanted to see what else was there. When I went into electrical engineering, I really loved the quantitative aspect of it, and I wanted to see how that could be applied to everything else.

After graduation, I didn’t really get onto an engineering career path, not like any traditional electrical engineering position. I worked for a software company called MathWorks, working on financial products, applying my signal process knowledge to econometrics and pricing algorithms. It requires applying the quantitative methods that you have learned in engineering. When, to get my MBA, I wanted to transition to finance, I started my first-year summer internship with IBM in their financial leadership rotation program, and I worked in their global financing group. During that summer, I networked with many different departments. At that time [early 2011], IBM was working on their supercomputer Watson and getting ready for the big challenge of Watson taking on two human champions on Jeopardy, so I got a chance to talk to some of the researchers on the Watson team. At that time, they were starting a special group in Global Business Services, IBM’s consulting arm. Applying quantitative methods to business strategy was a great fit for my skill set, so I decided to join IBM full time as a management consultant in the new Advanced Analytics group after getting my MBA.

When you were an undergrad, you kind of knew what you wanted to do when you were only a sophomore -- that is really impressive! So what made you really change after you finished your master’s degree?
Just like you said, nobody really knows what do they want to do, and it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do and what my interest was, so when I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I continued to do research with Professor Carney, finished my Master’s, and went into the world to figure out what I wanted to do.

And also, I asked for advice from my advisor. Professor Carney was not just a professor who advised me on academics and research, but he is also a life mentor. With all his advice, I decided to wrap up my Master’s and to go see what was “out there.”

Right, so you basically thought of what you would like to do the rest of your life at a relatively early age, and then said, “You know what? I am going to change a little bit, and I am going to explore.”
I think I took the nontraditional path. A lot of college students would explore in school and figure out what they want to do. Instead of that, I really focused on one path and decided to dig deep into that, and then decided that I wanted to have more freedom figuring out what I really wanted to do.

What was the initial motivation for you to start your own business? And how did you find the demands of being a working parent, especially for daycare services?
The initial motivation was that I had the challenge myself when I was a consultant and I wanted to find a daycare for my firstborn. It was a very difficult, frustrating and time- consuming process. And when you work 60-80 hours a week as a consultant, it is really hard for you to add the equivalent of a part-time job, doing research on daycares. The only chance you have to get the information from daycares is to call them during work hours, and the only time you can visit them to really get a sense of what they are like is also during work hours.

Then, as a consultant, you can’t pop out during lunch hours to do a quick visit: you actually have to take a whole day off. So that kind of inspired me to think about what other ways we could reach out to daycares, that there must be a better way to do this, a better solution. I was not the only one that was experiencing this; any parents who are working and who are looking for daycares have the same challenge, so I really wanted to help solve this problem.

You said you had to take a whole day off. Did you schedule all the daycare visits on that one day then?
The problem is that not all daycares allow you to schedule tours on the same day [that you call]. For some daycares, they only do tours at, say, 10 am on Fridays. So, you cannot just go when you want to, and you don’t really know what to expect until you set your foot in there, to see whether the daycare will be suitable for you.

I think it is not completely the daycares’ fault. They should make [the research/visit process] more accommodating to the parents. But, at the same time, the tours -- having parents coming into the daycares -- also disrupt their days. There are a lot of operations goes on, and they need to take care of infants. It is definitely a disruptive process for them, and it is like a lose-lose situation for both parties in the current setup.
What course at Illinois has most helped or contributed to your personal development?
I don’t remember any particular course at U of I. What I do remember are the professors I had discussions with, and Professor Carney, who became my lifelong mentor.
You were very focused when you were an undergraduate and also in graduate school at U. of I. Did you participate in any clubs or student organizations at all? Did you have time to do that?
Yes, I did. Because of my interests, I participated in limited places: one was Eta Kappa Nu [HKN, the honor society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers], and I also started an optical engineering student organization. I participated in cases with OSBI Consulting [now Illinois Business Consulting], that is a student consulting organization [for current University of Illinois MBA and other graduate students]. They consult for local businesses. In OSBI,when I worked as consultant, I was at the very beginning of questioning what is out there. It gave me new opportunities to work on other things instead of being in the lab.

Did any of your engineering background help you stand out when you searched for a job or started your own business?

I think for job searching, I believe my background did help, because electrical engineering is the hardest major there is. And I think it gives the candidate credibility as being capable for quantitative analytics, which is something that a lot of the businesses are looking for these days. For starting my own company, I think electrical engineering gives me the analytical mind that really helps me to structure the decisions for what Daycare Discover is really about, and that set us apart from the competitors.

So the engineering training and mindset helped you, and the analytical skills helped you. What would you suggest to Illinois alumni who recently joined the workforce or started a business, especially to the alumna group?
I think one [piece of] advice is that, [what you start out doing does] not [have to define] what you will do for the rest of your life, and I think you should network to explore opportunities and to find what you truly love to do. [Your future career] is more important than trying to get your next promotion. I think especially there are tons of [pitfalls] for females in the workforce, and, as for me, I never pay any attention to those biases. I think you just need to be you and find out what you would like to do. There may be bumps in the road, but it is not going to define who you are.
As a successful and experienced businesswoman, as well as a mother, what do you consider to be your current greatest challenge? How do you stay passionate about your job, and, at the same time, maintain a sensible work-life balance?
I would say balancing work and family life is probably the biggest challenge, and, of course, this challenge is very different from person to person. To some people, the work/life balance is concentrating on work from 9 am to 4 pm, and hoping to get home early enough to be able to enjoy family life and actually having time to work on a hobby.

For me, it is more about the combination of work and hobby. [My work is] discovering daycares, and it is also my hobby. I want to make sure that I take care of my son, spend a lot of time with him, and am flexible enough. If he is sick, then I can pick him up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The balance for me is more about flexibility. So, starting my own business, despite all the other challenges, gives me flexibility, which helps a lot to maintain the work/life balance that I definitely need.

Speaking of keeping passionate about my job, whatever you are working on, I think to find [your passion] is the first step. For me, the reason I loved starting Daycare Discover is that I wanted to work on an issue that I saw personally. Being able to connect parents to quality daycare solutions is an issue I really care about. And, because I care about this issue, it is easy for me to stay passionate about it. I think to find out what you care about is the first step, and then staying passionate will be much easier. Don’t worry if you haven’t found it yet, because it eventually will happen. If life changes, then your experience changes. You don’t need to stay passionate about what you are working on, just stay passionate about yourself.
In one sentence, how would you contrast your feelings immediately after your graduation versus where you are today?
I am more focused now. I think, immediately after I graduated, I felt like I could do anything. Because my goal was to go out into the business world, and [because of] where I am today, I still feel like I can do anything, but anything [I aim for] has a boundary now, from the family, from my own interests and from a lot of experience I had in the past ten years. For example, I don’t think I am going to travel the world in the next year. So, I think the view that “I can do anything” has changed. I do have more limitations compared with the time I graduated, but now I am more focused on what I like to do and pursue that direction.
Could you please tell us more about your company and the website?
Daycare Discover helps busy working parents in the state of Illinois to find a suitable daycare in a more efficient way. Two of the underlying difficulties that we saw in the daycare industry were connectivity and data transparency.

We improve connectivity through tools like maps, being able to map out all the daycare locations, so that we can help people search what the options are in their area. If you type in any Illinois address in our website’s search box, the map will show you all the daycares within a certain radius of that address. At present, all other [daycare search] solutions just do not provide the map visualization to help the parents identify all their options. This is what I mean by connectivity.

And for data transparency, currently the only way you can get accurate information is to call the daycare, and a lot of daycares will only say “just come in for a tour”, at which you will get information they don’t always tell you via the phone. So we are trying to provide that information to the parents without the barrier of their having to physically be there to get the information. They can use Daycare Discover data to do a comparison to pick out what they are really interested in.

The TourBuddy app guides parents in real time when they are touring the daycare to help  them gather information on important questions, by prompting them with sliding scales (e.g. how easy is the parking on a scale of 1-5) and multiple choice answers.
Do you work with the daycares and ask them to share the information?
The information actually comes through three different channels. One is through the TourBuddy, when parents actually go tour daycares. They use our TourBuddy app to guide them through daycare tours, so they ask questions and collect information, which will then be stored in our database about that daycare. The second channel is from daycares whom we encourage to sign up for their own accounts to update their information directly on our website, to better connect with parents. The third channel is through our concierge service, for working parents who are really busy and don’t have time to do their own research, so they pay us to do it all for them. When we tour and do the research on their behalf, we gain a lot of information to add to our database.

So the website Daycare Discover, how does that work?
First you have to create a login, and enter basic information about yourself and your child/ren in your profile. Then you can search from a map. We partner with DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services), who send us a updated list of all the daycares in Illinois on a quarterly basis, which creates our base map. For a parent doing daycare research, it works just like Google maps. Enter any address, and you will instantly see red and blue markers all around that address: blue markers for home-based daycares, and red markers for daycare centers. If you want to tour some of the daycares for which we already have completed and updated information, we are launching a new program: parents can purchase those reports without having to do all the research during work hours.

Final thoughts on the Daycare Discover team:

On our team, I have a technical co-founder who is also a U. of I. alum. His name is Joseph Bryan (BS’04 in Computer Science); he has done a lot of the “heavy lifting” backend programming. I am the one that does a lot of the concierge service, and we are planning to hire interns to do the concierge tours. For an intern, I would like someone who has a passion for early child education, but who wants to do something besides teach.

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