Maureen Fan dares to dream in her work and in life. The virtual reality (VR) studio chief says the magic of animation reinforces her optimistic outlook.
“When I watch animation it makes me believe anything is possible. That is the mission: I love animation more than anything in this world,” the 36-year-old CEO of Baobab Studios explained to us a few days before she would be heading to Park City, Utah for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where Baobab’s latest VR project, the ten minute film “Asteroids” premiered. The story of buddies “Mac” and ”Cheez,” a sequel to Invasion!, Baobab’s award-winning first film, was directed by the studio’s chief creative officer, Eric Darnell, the screenwriter and director for all four of the blockbuster Madagascar movies. Actress Elizabeth Banks voices the part of Cheez. Fans says while the technology is cool, it’s the story that shines.
“Our company is all about the technology servicing the art. The story is the most important thing,” underscored Fan, who told us she first fell in love with storytelling when as a young adult, she discovered gaming and anime movies, like the feminist themed Princess Mononoke.
Fan has a compelling story of her own thanks to a knack for upending the status quo with her drive, creativity and passion for defying labels. Early advice she received from Lorie Loeb, the Dartmouth computer scientist who taught digital animation at Stanford as a visiting professor when Fan was a student, gave her the confidence to take risks.
“She taught me it doesn’t matter what it is that you ‘do.’ Just do it and do it well and learn through that experience. The people that you meet doing that thing will come back and end up helping you,” Fan said, marveling at how all of her experiences and professional relationships came together with the launch of Baobab.
As an undergrad at Stanford, she designed her own major of computer science, psychology and art. As a production intern at Pixar, she was pegged as perfect for accounting but convinced her bosses to let her hang around in the production office with the animators – even if it meant fetching coffee. When she wanted a promotion at gaming giant Zynga, the Harvard MBA made her case to her manager armed with research on women and leadership from one of her former professors. She changed his mind and went on to oversee FarmVille 2, one of Zynga’s most successful games.
“I realized that educating men (about unconscious bias) is just as important as educating women,” she told us, recalling how the manager said he only held off on promoting her because he didn’t want to “throw her in with the sharks.” It was an important moment to Fan who realized that while her reports thought she was fierce, she wasn’t projecting that toughness upwards to management. The lesson led her to ask for more and more responsibility at Zynga including overseeing FarmVille 2 and it ultimately, helped her when the time came to raise startup capital for Baobab.
“Hollywood and VR are very male. Games and tech are very much male-dominated. Having been at Zynga and Harvard Business School, I learned and established my voice and (over time), my voice became louder,” she said.
An obsession with animation, inspired by Finding Nemo, led her on a decade long quest to find a way to combine all of her talents and interests. After college, she started out on a practical path as a UI designer for Ebay but continued to study film, 3-D modeling, and digital effects on the side. The new frontier of VR seemed like the perfect opportunity for this polymath to use both sides of her brain.
“There is a desire in society to label you are a creative or a business person. Don’t allow people to every put you in a bucket. Create what you want,” she advised when we asked what she had learned from straddling both the imaginative world of Hollywood and the data driven startup culture.
In fact, Fan underlined that it is her multidisciplinary mind and resume that has made her better at running her own company. ”Leadership is all about people. And the more experiences you have and disciplines you understand personally, whether it’s designers or artists, it gives you a general understanding of that topic and an understanding of the people who do those things,” she says, “People want to follow me because I care or empathize with their function.”
Ironically, the first time Fan experienced virtual reality, she was less than dazzled. She was distracted by the fuzzy pixels of the images. She didn’t feel swept away. But when some of her colleagues at Zynga “hacked” a game they were working on into a VR headset, Fan was hooked.
“There was a suspension of disbelief. It transported you to a different would and made you feel you can touch it. I was blown away creatively. VR brings out your sense of wonder,” she told us. In that instance, the entrepreneur says she knew VR could be the future of animation and as a brand new industry, she felt it was the perfect time to make her mark. VR is in its infancy, giving rise to a new guard of creators and executives. Fan is one of a handful of women braving the trail. She launched Baobab, based in Redwood City, CA in July of 2015. Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and artists alike is simple: