Innovation Agents: Marvell Technology Group's Weili Dai, Semiconductor Pioneer

The first thing Marvell Technology Group's cofounder Weili Dai says about herself —rather proudly— is that she’s a geek. If there’s such a thing as geekdom, Dai would be queen. As the only female cofounder of a global semiconductor company, Dai built an empire out of those little silicon chips. From humble beginnings as a shop of three (including her husband and his brother) in 1995, Dai now presides over an organization that employs 6,000 worldwide and has annual revenues in excess of $3.3 billion.

Just before she jetted off on another business trip, Dai sat down with Fast Company to dish about the secret weapon she has as a woman in tech, where she gets inspiration and motivation, and how she manages a work/life balance.

Leveraging Nature

Though Dai admits that running a multi-billion dollar company while raising two sons is a lot of work, she’s a powerhouse who’s been compared to the Energizer bunny. "Twenty-four hours in a day is not enough, so you must be efficient," she says. Dai says she offered her "geek take" on this when she was invited by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women and the Economy Summit (WES).

"Women have their own natural talents which are fundamentally different than men’s, so I use my common sense to leverage those. For example, for thousands of years women have been the glue of the family. The way I look at it, Marvell is my big family and then I have my two sons. The fundamental value systems are the same, just on a different scale." 

Move Over, Martha Stewart 

Moving with confidence in a traditionally male industry, Dai remains unabashedly feminine. She speaks with gusto of her love for cooking ("I’ll make you my Shanghai stir-fry!") and decorating (she had a hand in selecting the decor for Marvell’s offices, including the massive fish tank in the lobby). 

Dai’s nevertheless dismayed by the fact that capable female executives are still seen as "strong women" while their male counterparts get accolades for being "great leaders." She’s optimistic that perceptions will continue to change with time. Meanwhile, she’s going to stick to her long held beliefs. "Women are caretakers and I care about accomplishing results and gluing the team together. This is a good value system because we need to focus on the best in everyone." 

The Secret Sauce: Relationships

Marvell is one of the world’s leading producers of "fabless" semiconductors (for the uninitiated, that refers to outsourcing fabrication of the chips to focus on r&d for the end market). It was a business model unheard of in the 1980s, but one that was gaining traction among entrepreneurial engineers like Dai when she and her husband Sehat Sutardja started Marvell in 1995.

"When we met, I often heard him talk about great ideas to contribute to high tech industries. Tech comes naturally to me, but I felt it was also important to make an impact on everyday lives." 

Now working together as a complementary team, Dai says her contribution is to be the "face" of the organization and to support and take care of Marvell’s customers and partners. "Looking at all these gadgets, aside from the chip, user experience is a critical piece for customers. My experience with the software side gives me the ability to see the market and create great relationships with customers and trust with partners. 

Dai notes that Marvell’s client roster currently includes Cisco, Apple, Samsung, and Toshiba, among others. Over the past ten years, Western Digital shipped more than one billion hard disk drives with Marvell chips, and Intel recently honored Marvell with its "Preferred Quality Supplier" award.

Wearing Different Hats

Since cofounding Marvell, Dai has served in several significant positions including chief operating officer, executive vice president, and general manager of the Communications Business Group. She has also been a director of Marvell Technology Group Ltd. and corporate secretary of the board. When asked about transitioning from each position, Dai says, "It is all about my purpose as a passionate team player. I work with the team [in each division] to accomplish results."

She recalls what she learned as a child from her mother for handling situations when things don’t go as planned. "Do we have challenges? Of course! But it’s about giving and forgiving. We are all human, we make mistakes or things get miscommunicated. My mom always taught us to have a big heart and take a deep breath," she says adding that meditation helps, too.

Balancing Work And Home

Dai met her husband when they were both students at UC Berkeley. After she received her undergraduate degree in engineering, she encouraged Sutardja to continue his studies and was happy to support him as he earned his PhD. Not long after, they put their partnership to work at Marvell. Of maintaining a work-free zone, Dai laughs and confesses, "Whenever we are home we try not to talk about work, but those hours are pretty short."

She admits it takes a lot of hard work and a good understanding, especially when the two see things differently. Resolutions, she says, are not complicated. "At the end of the day we want what is best for the customer and the company. It’s all focused on success."

She feels the same about raising her two sons, both in Berkeley studying engineering. "They work hard and we play a role as their support system to encourage and appreciate, love and care, so then they have the confidence to make their own success."  

Though both sons are following in their parents’ footsteps, Dai is quick to note she didn’t do the "Tiger Mom" thing. "They decided what to do on their own. We didn’t tell them." That doesn’t suppress the obvious pride in her voice when she talks about the younger son’s upcoming graduation. But mom is going to steal a bit of his thunder, as the first woman to speak at the College of Engineering graduation.

What’s Next

Dai says that if there’s one thing exciting about technology is that the bar is constantly being raised. That’s why she’s got no plans to slow down any time soon. "This is just a beginning for me," Dai says. She’s got plans to take connectivity and real time content not just to mobile devices but to big screens, too. "Big screens can be smart and offer a two-way experience," she says. Embracing these two critical masses with cloud server capability, "is like the air we breathe."

[Image: Flickr user Windell Oskay]

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