Electric Brilliance: A Chat with iLuminate Founder Miral Kotb

Miral Kotb may be living the dream but she knows something about nightmares too. Long before she founded her dance team (and company) iLuminate, before she appeared on the wildly popular TV show “America’s Got Talent” and got to work with the Black Eyed Peas, she had to beat back cancer. We caught up with Kotb on the eve of iLuminate’s appearance at a Lenovo event in North Carolina to talk tech, dance and dreams.

 

Our Lenovo campaign, “For Those Who Do,” is very much about inspiration and innovation. How does technology inspire you to do what you do?

Technology inspires me to discover new ideas and encourages me to incorporate art into innovation.

 

How would you describe iLuminate to someone who had never seen it before? Take us back and tell us about the moment when you first dreamed up the concept.

iLuminate is about creating a world of illusions through the fusion of art and technology. The concept emerged while I was developing applications. I had a vision of dancers wearing costumes that illuminated wirelessly to compliment the music and choreography.  I pursued my idea with help from some of the best hardware and software engineers in the business. Developing iLuminate was the perfect way for me to bring my focus back to dance and to shine the light on the performing artists. It allowed me to combine both of my passions, dance and technology.

 

Did you know right away that your idea—the computerized, light-up body suits—was workable? What were your biggest obstacles in taking it from the concept stages to reality?

When there is a will, there is a way! Though we had many hindrances along the way, I never stopped trying to make it work. Because my expertise is on the software side, I experienced some of my biggest challenges from the hardware side. Yet it was very exciting for me to learn about embedded software design and to watch my ideas come to life.

 

Take us behind the scenes and tell us: what was it like going through the whirlwind of being on a huge TV show like “America’s Got Talent?”

It was exhilarating and totally surreal!  Everything was happening so fast that it didn’t leave us much time to think, just react to all of the excitement happening around us!

Is it true you used to be a software engineer? Tell us about your past life (!) and geek out for a second in explaining how your laptop makes the magic happen during iLuminate performances.

It’s true! I wrote my first piece of software in BASIC when I was 9 years old and have been hooked ever since! I worked at Bloomberg L.P. as a senior financial software engineer upon graduating with a Computer Science degree from Columbia University. Most of the magic on my laptop happens in rehearsal, as that’s when I program the lights.  By the time we perform on the stage, my computer just helps execute what I already created. But of course, if something goes wrong, back to the laptop to troubleshoot it!

 

Science and technology is an area long dominated by men—do you take special pride in being a female scientist and do you have any advice for young girls looking to pursue a career in science and tech?

For me, it’s not about gender because I feel women and men are equally capable of crossing career boundaries. For young women looking to pursue a career in science and technology, I’d say don’t think of yourself as a woman working in the computer industry, rather just think of yourself as a scientist.

 

Is it true that Black Eyed Peas, Chris Brown and Death Cab for Cutie have all used your technology? If so, can you get them all onstage to do a routine together?

I have personally worked with each of these artists when they have used my technology.  What I found the most exciting is the artistic license they gave me to allow the lights to bring out their performance! Sounds like a fun idea to have them all perform on stage together – and while were at it, let’s bring in Lady Gaga and Ellen DeGeneres too!

Dreams sometimes come at a price—is it true you ran up incredible debts to finance your dream of bringing iLuminate to life?

I risked it all and put everything on the line much to my family’s stress. Sometimes that’s the only way to make your dreams come true. When you have a passion, you don’t have a choice anymore and you just have to go for it. It’s a driving force that you can’t stop until you reach the finish line.  But nobody tells you that, each time you reach one finish line, you’re already thinking about your next goal.

 

Lenovo is a global brand—from what we’ve read, it seems iLuminate is increasingly global as well! How do your travels and your own increasing global awareness impact what you do with iLuminate?

We live in a world where the Internet (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) helps create a global sensation. Once we started travelling, I came to understand that iLuminate has fans all over the world, and it really motivates me to keep bringing our performances to different countries such as Egypt and South Africa that don’t have the same opportunities that we do in America. It’s an incredible opportunity to open people’s minds and creativity to new experiences.

 

We were amazed to learn that you are a cancer survivor and that you came close to losing your hip and your right leg as a result. Did that seem brutally poetic given your past as a dancer? How does that experience inform every day of your life now?

Dancing is still very much a part of my daily life!  I wasn’t going to let cancer completely stop me from dancing, it just changed the way I could dance and I’m grateful for my abilities.

 

Gavin O’Hara is Global Publisher for Lenovo Social Media.