Carol Espy-Wilson, the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering at MIT, is both an academic and an entrepreneur. A professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland and a member of its Institute for Systems Research, she does research that integrates engineering, linguistics, and speech science. She’s also founder and CEO of Omni-Speech, a company that improves voice clarity on cell phones and other communication devices in noisy environments.
Espy-Wilson grew up in Atlanta, earned her undergraduate degree at Stanford, and interned at Bell Labs in New Jersey in the summers. After MIT, she taught at Boston University and then, in 2001, made the move to UMD College Park, where she has earned numerous honors. UMD’s Venture Accelerator program urged her into entrepreneurship in 2009. “I was not thinking about starting a company,” she says, “but it’s been such an amazing journey.”
OmniSpeech targets emerging markets that rely on inexpensive phones with poor sound filtering. “We use the unique characteristics of speech to extract it from the noisy signal, even if the noise is dynamic—like music, or people talking in the background,” Espy-Wilson explains. But cell phones are just the first step. “I’m really excited about the potential to improve all kinds of communication devices, including wearables, push-to-talk radios, and hearing aids,” she says.
MIT’s Speech Communication Group shaped Espy-Wilson’s approach. “It was such a unique group—engineers, linguists, phoneticians, and psycholinguists. We even had a dentist who conducted research into speech motor control,” she says. “I attribute the speech enhancement algorithm we developed at OmniSpeech to that holistic background.”
Espy-Wilson’s husband, John Silvanus Wilson, worked in development at MIT for 16 years, and the two were housemasters at MacGregor House. He is now the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. “We have a commuting marriage,” Espy-Wilson says. “We both want each other to realize our dreams, so that makes it a lot easier to do this.” They have 26-year-old twin daughters and a 20-year-old son.
A Radcliffe fellowship brought Espy-Wilson back to Cambridge for an academic year in 2008, when she also served as a Residential Scholar at Simmons Hall at MIT. And this past April, she delivered the keynote address at the Black Alumni of MIT graduation celebration: “I talked to them about finding their passion and purpose, trusting that, as the Bible says, ‘If God be for us, who can be against us,’ so that they will be courageous and take risks—and the need for them to lift as high as they climb.”
This actually originally appeared in the November/December issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.