The Door is Wide Open for Opportunity

UPDATED: June 10, 2013
PUBLISHED: June 10, 2013

A former competitive basketball player, Weili Dai (pronounced WAY-lee dye) says having a goal to shoot for is what she loves most about her business.

The only woman to have co-founded a global semiconductor company, she’s helped steer Marvell Technology Group to become one of the most successful brands in the industry, but during her upbringing in Shanghai, that was not the objective envisioned for her. Dai was one of just a few girls chosen by the Chinese government to train for a professional basketball career. From age 8 to 14, she spent half her day in the classroom and half training to be an athlete.

“I love that you have this goal, to get to the basket,” Dai says. “Not only do you have to think fast, you have to move fast. You have to coordinate and collaborate with your team. But at the end of the day, it’s about having something to aim for.” Her career isn’t so dissimilar now, though she proudly identifies more with being a geek than a tomboy.

Still, Dai commands the room like a point guard when she enters. Dressed in Armani, she appears to have just stepped off a fashion runway. “Geeks are not necessarily that nerdy,” she says of her style. Her dark corkscrew locks cascade past her shoulders and she has a quiet intensity as she speaks. Her words come out deliberately, and when she gets excited about an idea, the power in her voice could light up a small city.

Just across from her beautifully decorated conference room, employees are playing a pickup game on the rooftop hoops court Dai designed in 2003, when Marvell purchased its 900,000-square-foot headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., a campus formerly owned by the electronics manufacturer 3Com.

Dai has always aimed high in arenas not traditionally associated with women but revels in showing her feminine side.

She talks of her love of decorating her home and the Marvell complex, cooking for friends and family, nurturing her husband and co-founder, Indonesian-born Sehat Sutardja, as well as their grown sons—Christopher and Nicholas are electrical engineering grad students at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently doctoral candidates. But she’s also the woman who guides a corporation of more than 7,000 employees, with an estimated $3.4 billion in annual revenue and offices all over the world, from Singapore to Silicon Valley.

It’s an amazing rise for someone who came to San Francisco with her parents in 1979, at age 17, with almost no background in English. “The good news was that I was into science,” she says, “which I call the universal language.” Dai put a lot of effort into assimilating, with help from a little English-to-Chinese dictionary she used to translate her homework. Her dedication to academics resulted in acceptance to UC Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

While at Berkeley, she met and married Sutardja, an engineering student. Sitting around their kitchen table, they discussed how they would form their future company—named upon its founding in 1995 as a play on the word marvelous—and the goals they would accomplish. All three founders—Dai, Sutardja and his brother, Pantas Sutardja—were individually named to Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans within the first decade of the fast-rising company’s existence.

“When working for other companies, it’s just going from stage to stage,” Dai says. “My husband was always saying ‘I have an idea, something that would improve this.’ We knew someday down the road we wanted to innovate, create and empower the world. In caring for and supporting my husband, it was a natural evolution for us to work as a team and succeed together.”

The two still share a car on the way to work, although both retreat to separate areas of the office. She’s the face of Marvell, the outgoing personality who landed the company’s first multimillion-dollar account by going to the Yellow Pages and making a cold call. Dai, however, doesn’t seek the spotlight. The key to the company’s success, she says, is its foundation, built on a strong team of employees.

“We no longer gather around the kitchen table like we did when we first started, but the tradition of caring for our team is still there, just on a global basis,” Dai says. “Success is a team effort. It’s not me. It’s not my husband. We lead and fund, but credit goes to the whole ecosystem, the customers, the employees, the leaders.”

The term Dai likes to use is “fair and care.”

“You can’t let anyone down. You have to be fair to everyone and take care of your team,” Dai says. “I believe that passion and integrity are the foundation for all success.” Maybe this is her feminine side showing again.

Dai says she never thinks about gender when she enters a room to complete a deal, or to work with members of her company. But she does acknowledge a fundamental difference in the styles of men and women.

“Women are natural caretakers; we always want to know if you had lunch, if you need something to drink,” Dai says. “We want to see to your needs, which works well in business, in client relations. Why not leverage the power of women to accomplish more?” Dai does admit there are times when her gender proves to be a stumbling block for some people. “There have been challenging times when people say something, and I remember my mom telling me to have a big heart and take a deep breath. I just say that everyone needs to work together to solve a problem. At the end of the day, we all need to be a little sensitive.”

In the United States, women make up 47 percent of the total labor force but occupy just 25 percent of the science, technology, engineering and math sector, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. On average, fewer than one in 20 highest-compensated executive positions in semiconductor companies are held by women, according to Amanda Kimball, a UC Davis researcher studying the shortage in her state.

At California’s largest companies, Kimball found, there has been upward improvement over time in the percentage of women executives, yet the percentage of female directors in the semiconductor sector has declined even since last year.

“The high-tech sector is a nut we can’t crack in regard to getting women into leadership roles,” Kimball says. “Not as many women are going into the field in the first place. Weili is unique.” Dai’s accomplishment is a step forward for all women who might want to pursue a career in science and technology. “When you see a woman in a leadership role, it opens up the possibilities,” Kimball says. “No one is preventing young women from going into these areas, but it isn’t seen as a possibility because it’s so rare.”

This exceptionalism has earned Dai the respect of her peers among both sexes. The Chinese immigrant was a billionaire by 45. Newsweek named her one of the “150 Women Who Shake the World,” and Forbes listed her as one of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” In March she was honored with a “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” award by the Legislative Woman’s Caucus of the California State Assembly and was named “Silicon Valley Entrepreneur of the Year” by the Chinese Institute of Engineers (CIE).

“Ms. Dai’s entrepreneurship, professionalism and strong business leadership has driven the growth and success of Marvell,” says John Y. Xie, CIE’s San Francisco-area chairman. “A first-generation Asian-American, her achievements are amplified by her ambition and initiative.”

Dai believes strongly in the American dream and the promise of success that has always been part of that dream for people coming here from other countries.

“I emigrated from Shanghai to San Francisco and worked very hard and passionately to become an entrepreneur.… From my personal experience, I believe immigration is a key factor in adding great value to the amazing talent pool in the Silicon Valley,” Dai says. “As a result, today the Bay Area is home to the world’s leading innovation hub, with the greatest technology companies, universities and advanced research laboratories all contained within a 50-mile radius.”

The area is teeming with innovative spirits like Dai, each an integral part of the exponential tech evolution.

Holding up her smartphone, she talks about how her company’s semiconductors—“the guts of the electronic product”—help power devices including the BlackBerry, iPod and Xbox 360. The company’s clients are a who’s who of high-profile name brands: Panasonic, Apple, Toshiba, HP and Samsung, among others. Google announced in January that it had chosen Marvell chips for its future Google TV products, and Marvell’s latest wireless chips have the ability to send 3G and 4G data to mobile devices anywhere in the world.

“[I think it’s] the New Era of Digital Lifestyle. We are building nerdy technology that impacts the world. The world is getting smarter through these devices,” Dai says. “It’s not just the nerdy guys.” Yet she still feels that having more women in tech would have a beneficial impact on the products. Men lean toward function; women generally want function and design. “When I look at a smart screen on the wall, I think about it as a beautiful furnishing, not a nerdy thing. I see it as part of the design of the wall, so it changes how I design the frame of the screen, the color and all the things that make it part of my interior design. I think females care more about the look and feel and don’t just want a functioning black box.”

When Marvell took over its current home, Dai quickly put her hand to decorating the multilevel glass-and-steel structure. Artwork, much of it gifts from corporate clients, has been integrated into the design. The lobby features a huge glass cabinet filled with Marvell’s awards as well as two saltwater coral reef aquariums with 3,000 gallons of water in each. It may be no coincidence that the tropical fish appear to be primarily blue and gold, the colors of the founders’ beloved Cal-Berkeley—where Dai became the first woman commencement speaker at the College of Engineering graduation ceremony in 2012, when her younger son crossed the stage.

The Marvell offices are the fruition of Dai’s remarkable attention to detail. There’s feng shui style in the lobby… the name of the street leading up to the complex was changed to Marvell Lane, and while she couldn’t change the first two digits of the address, she made it 5488 because “8 is a lucky number.” Dai is also passionate about green technology, which is integrated into Marvell buildings.

“This morning I was driving past the parking lot and looking at the solar panels that we designed to look like beautiful flying saucers and are positioned to protect the employees’ cars,” Dai says. “They are so high-tech and practical, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it.”

In addition to their environmental contributions, Marvell’s founders are major donors to UC Berkeley, which in 2009 opened Sutardja Dai Hall, home to the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. They also have a partnership with One Laptop Per Child, an organization that provides low-cost laptops to children in developing countries. Funding from Marvell in May 2010 revitalized the foundation.

Dai’s current pet project turns existing public school laboratory spaces into tech labs with the capability of writing new software and creating new hardware. The Digital Life Creative Labs initiative seeks to emulate the spirit of innovation seen in Bell Labs of the 1970s–’80s for a new era and age group.

The goal is to engage students to create new digital works on top of familiar platforms such as phones, tablets, smart TVs and home automation technologies. Example projects could include mobile games, interactive stories, robotics and home lighting controls.

Digital Life Creative Labs is a program Marvell is driving with key community partners in the Silicon Valley area. Marvell will be rolling out the initiative, starting with a pilot program at a local high school in Palo Alto this fall.

“I’m a practical person,” Dai says. “The labs exist, so why not create a place where the next generation can develop new technology? This could help get more females into science and technology. The door is wide open for them to express their talent.”