Undercover CEO: Jasmine Lawrence Not Your Normal Undergrad

Monday, June 6, 2011

Jasmine Lawrence has a secret.

For two years, the rising junior from Williamstown, N.J., has been attending classes, studying for tests and engaging herself in extracurricular activities, just like any other CS major. She works in a robotics lab. She likes to sing and make stained glass in the Craft Center. Her Thread choices are Devices and Intelligence.

But beneath Lawrence’s exterior of a typical undergraduate is a seasoned and successful chief executive—a woman who at 18 had already made more high-level business decisions than most people twice her age. It started when she was 11 and struggling, like most kids that age, with self-image problems. The relaxer she used in her hair had caused much of it to fall out, and Lawrence vowed not just to never use the product again, but to create her own hair care concoction.

A few years later, Eden Body Works’ line of hair products was on Wal-Mart shelves, and teenage founder and CEO Jasmine Lawrence was making appearances on Oprah and in Black Enterprise magazine, and being invited by Tavis Smiley to join his traveling motivational speaking team, which charged five-figure appearance fees. Eden Body Works’ total revenues were in the millions. Lawrence’s mother was working for her. With all this going on, Lawrence did what any teenager would do: suspend the company’s operations, leave her home in New Jersey and move 660 miles south to pursue one of the more intellectually demanding degrees at one of the world’s top technological universities.

Wait … what?

“It wasn’t my dream,” she says of her decision to walk away from her company (temporarily). “If I had stuck it out and just continued the business, I would’ve felt like I was living a lie. I wanted a challenge; I could’ve strolled through business school, but I decided, ‘I’m going to go to school and make robots.’”

Attention & saliency

That decision may have been a surprise, but Lawrence’s interest in robotics is not, given that her father is a computer engineer. Both he and her mother, who managed contracts, are former military, and Lawrence grew up dreaming about technology and watching Dad bring his work home.

“He was always bringing home computers,” says Lawrence, who at 11 years old—about the same time she began a home chemistry project that turned into Eden Body Works—decided that “everything had been made” in the world already, and if she wanted to make her impact on the future, it would be in computers and technology. Inspired by the 1999 Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man, she picked robotics and artificial intelligence.

During her sophomore year, Lawrence got her introduction to real robots in the lab of Assistant Professor Andrea Thomaz, creator of the social robot Simon. With his big childlike face and Technicolor-glowing ears, Simon is designed around interaction with humans. He is nonthreatening, and he constantly makes eye contact with his human conversation partner. Moreover, when he’s not directly engaged in conversation or a task, Simon doesn’t just sit there—he looks alive, scanning his environment in search of something interesting, like a bright color or a human face.

It’s this algorithm, called the “saliency attention mechanism,” that occupied Lawrence’s attention during 2010-11. She didn’t work on Simon himself but rather a software simulator, plus a smaller robot named Junior.

“I’m so excited to be learning the real stuff,” Lawrence says. “It’s given me a deeper understanding of cognitive science. I want to understand why and how people do things—and then replicate and improve upon it.”

“Jasmine is doing great on what is actually a pretty big task,” says Ph.D. student Maya Cakmak, who works in the Simon lab. “She’s very independent and resourceful. She’s got that ‘killer confidence’ and good people skills.”

‘So pretty and so many nerds’

Lawrence’s people skills came to the fore soon after she arrived on campus, when as a freshman she ran for president of a group of three residence halls. It was her first year at a school she’d had absolutely no intention of attending just a year earlier. But Lawrence learned about Tech from the National Society of Black Engineers and decided to pay a visit. After attending a Connect With Tech overnight visitation, she was hooked.

“The campus was so pretty and had so many nerds!” Lawrence says with a grin. “I loved it. My opportunities here for learning and developing knowledge have surpassed anywhere else I could have gone.”

Though Eden Body Works is still operating—Lawrence has hire a management team to run the business for her, though she still retains ultimate authority—she is ready to put her Georgia Tech education to use by “pushing robotics to the limit.” After graduation, she envisions graduate school and a Ph.D. in robotics. Emulating Andrea Thomaz, Lawrence wants to build a robot of her own.

“I feel like Georgia Tech is growing us to be who we want to be,” Lawrence says. “I want to be part of something bigger than just me.”