“Knowledge is power.”This is a sentence you are likely to hear quickly and often in any serious conversation you might have with Haihui Huang, a 2001 graduate of NC State’s Masters program in Electrical and Computer Engineering and owner of iPearl, Inc., a Research Triangle firm that dominates significant parts of the online market for accessories for Apple laptops and other computing devices.
But he just as often adds that it is the power to be creative that drives people to innovate. His own career is a perfect demonstration of creativity in action.
The common knowledge among his classmates in Fudan University in Shanghai, China, was that NC State offered an excellent engineering education that was extremely promising and affordable. Huang took advantage of that opportunity, sweetened by a teaching assistant position for which he is still grateful. Soon he was in the United States and headed for either a Ph.D. or a conventional programming job at a computer software company writing, as he says with a quiet, mischievous laugh, “somebody else’s code.” But NC State’s foresighted and adventurous engineering program also gave him an uncommon knowledge of e-commerce just when the field was taking off, and his own fascination and deep knowledge of Apple products sent him down a more creative road.
That’s when the pearl comes into the story. Huang bought one of the first iPods—he has since then owned up to ten at once—and understood early on that it was a revolutionary piece of technology. Apple products, in fact, soon became both a hobby and a little bit of an obsession (by now, Mr. Huang had collected over 20 Apple products including iPods, iPads, iPhones, and MacBooks). But his first iPod holding his MP3 collection scratched easily (as did his first Mac laptop, a white iBook G4), and his looked the same as everybody else’s. A trip to the local electronics store confirmed what he suspected: almost nobody was making affordable covers for these increasingly popular products. And if he could find the accessories he needed and wanted, they were dull as dirt and far too expensive.
He had a thorough knowledge of materials science from his undergraduate years in Mechanical Engineering, and a family member in China who knew the manufacturing business. Soon he was using his e-commerce expertise to market the tough, inexpensive, and beautifully colored covers for iPods, laptops, and other devices that have made iPearl, Inc. a global powerhouse. One can’t look in any direction in the NCSU Libraries without seeing one of his products. And they are, like the company name implies, “pearls”—accessories that “make pleasure, are beautiful, which leads to more pleasure, and make it easy to personalize your own look.” That insight about the power of pearls has paid off. Last year, iPearl’s revenues were up 400%; a search at Amazon.com reveals that eight of the top-selling twenty covers for Apple MacBooks carry the mCover® brand, a registered trademark owned by his company; and iPearl mCover® products are now the leading sellers of laptop accessories on Amazon USA and Europe.
As the company began taking off, one of Mr. Huang’s first gestures—remembering the hours he spent in the D. H. Hill Library during his master’s work—was to donate a large number of Wolfpack-red covers to the technology lending service at the Libraries, a boon to a program that loans computers many thousand times a year under conditions that all but guarantee that they will receive hard use.
“I always feel like I’m indebted to NC State, because it offered me the opportunity to study in the United States,” Mr. Huang explained about his gift and his continuing involvement with the NCSU Libraries. “I have the obligation to give back and help students to achieve more, to make sure that they have the most up-to-date technologies.” That desire to give back next led Mr. Huang to volunteer for the NCSU Libraries Technology Advisory Board, where he could help immerse students in the tools that will make them “more prepared for the future . . . with more power to create new ideas and products.” Knowledge is power.
Most recently, Mr. Huang and his wife, Ms. Jie Zheng (Statistics, ‘08) have extended their legacy of giving back by sponsoring the naming rights to the iPearl Immersion Theater, one of the most shining jewels of the Hunt Library. A highly visible spot located just inside the Library Grand Hall, the iPearl Immersion Theater features some of the most powerful technology in a technology-filled building. With a twenty-one-foot-wide curved, ultra-high resolution display wall and a state-of-the-art sound system, the theater will engage viewers in some of the most powerful educational experiences that can be found at NC State. The theater will feature an ever-expanding range of media content, including imagery and video generated by faculty and students through teaching and research. Knowledge is power—and creativity.
“I feel very excited—and a little jealous—that only ten years after I was at NC State students will have such a powerful and enjoyable place to study and to learn,” Mr. Huang concludes about his gift. He has helped bring another pearl into the world.