Marvell’s Weili Dai: articulating Entrepreneurship at IEDM
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Marvell’s Weili Dai: articulating Entrepreneurship at IEDM

For the first time ever, organizers of the International Electron Devices Meeting honored a member of their community by providing a platform for conversation about translating innovation into business success. The premier event on December 12th in San Francisco featured an hour-long, on-stage, lunch-time interview with Marvell Technology Group VP and GM of Communications and Consumer Business Weili Dai.

Ms. Dai co-founded Marvell in 1995 with her husband, Sehat Sutardja, and his brother, Pantas Sutardja. Together they have built an organization which now stands as the fifth largest fabless semiconductor company in the world, one with 7000 employees and an international clientele. If you wanted to know more about Marvell, the information’s out there in spades. If you wanted to know more about the personal story behind Marvell, however, you should have been at the IEDM Entrepreneurs Lunch on December 12th. Ms. Dai gave a compelling interview that day, providing as succinct a summary of what it takes to start and build a company as one could ever hope to hear.

The highlight was a description of how, with babe in arms, she was in the audience at the Greek Theater on the Berkeley campus watching her husband receive his PhD in EECS several decades ago. Now today, that child is himself a PhD candidate in the same school where his father earned a PhD and his mother a BS in Computer Science. Sehat Sutardja and Weili Dai have a younger son, as well, who is currently an undergraduate at Cal, also in the School of Engineering.

Keeping it even more in the family, this past May, Weili Dai delivered the U.C. Berkeley School of Engineering Commencement Address in the Greek Theater – astonishingly, the first woman ever to give that speech in the history of the school.

It was clear at IEDM that Weili Dai had a remarkable story to tell, one that was totally relevant to a venue such as the Entrepreneurs Lunch, and not just because of the facts. But because of the resounding message that Weili Dai brought to her narrative: A message of energy, positive thinking, a disciplined lifestyle, and most importantly, a willingness to change course when business and/or economic conditions require it.

Ms. Dai’s message also included an admonition that a successful enterprise must be willing to let employees try out new idea within the company. Along those lines, Dai insisted she would much rather hire an out-of-the-box thinker who might not have a conventional CV, because with that individual an organization gets someone who looks at solutions to problems – both technical and business – from an unconventional point of view, often coming up with answers that elude most, but are just the right fix for many a dilemma.

Towards the end of the hour, when questions were taken from the floor, I asked Ms. Dai if there were two or three things she and her family’s company might have done differently. She noted that better planning at various stages would have helped prepare for the inevitable surprises of doing business.

She also said that, although initially she believed simply doing your best for the customer would guarantee success, she eventually learned that pursuing excellence wasn’t all that was needed. In fact, companies such as Marvell also needed to keep an eye on the competitive landscape and realize that pragmatic thinking is often as important as idealistic thinking, and more important than she had originally believed.

Hers was a complex and nuanced answer, and precipitated additional thoughtful give-and-take with her audience and a fine conclusion to a remarkable hour. Kudos to IEDM for hosting the conversation on December 12th, and more importantly, for inaugurating an event that promises to add to the complexity of the annual confab going forward.

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