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How I Made It: Weili Dai

The co-founder of Marvell Technology sees parallels among sports, entrepreneurship and women's roles in engineering and corporate leadership.

March 08, 2013|By Chris O'Brien, Los Angeles Times
  • Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell Technology, sees parallels among sports, entrepreneurship and women’s roles in software and corporate leadership.
Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell Technology, sees parallels among sports,… (Marvel )

The gig: Weili Dai, 51, is co-founder of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Marvell Technology Group LTD, among the world's five largest "fabless" semiconductor companies. Fabless means the company designs chips that other people build. A software engineer by background, Dai started the company in 1995 with her husband, Sehat Sutardja, a chip designer. Today, Sutardja serves as chairman and CEO, while Dai is vice president and general manager of communications and consumer business.

In practice, however, Dai serves as the official public face of the company while helping chart strategy for Marvell, which designs chips that power digital storage products, mobile devices and, increasingly, smart TVs.

Pushing women in engineering: A native of Shanghai who moved with her family to the U.S. as a girl, Dai has also become a leading advocate of increasing the number of women in engineering jobs and corporate leadership positions. Dai was one of 11 women honored last week by the California Assembly with its "Breaking the Glass Ceiling" award, which recognizes female pioneers in science, civil rights and government.

"It was such an honor to be part of this group of 11 amazing women," Dai said. "I guess they picked me because they were looking for a geek. Just joking."

Success was no slam dunk: From a very young age, Dai has been passionate about sports. Over the years, she's played badminton, run sprints and competed in the long jump. But at heart, she's a basketball player who still loves the game, even if she no longer plays as often.

Sitting in a second-story conference room at Marvell's headquarters that looks over San Francisco Bay, Dai pointed proudly to a basketball court outside that she had designed and had a giant "M" painted on center court.

"My hobby is sports," Dai said. "I love basketball. I like the teamwork. But I also like that there is a result. You shoot the ball and you make a basket. It feels like you accomplished something."

During a technology roundtable with President Obama last year, Dai joined other Silicon Valley leaders to discuss ways to make the country more entrepreneurial. During the conversation, the famously hoop-obsessed president brought up basketball.

Dai took the opportunity to challenge him to a pickup game. She's still waiting for a response.

Geek, and proud of it: Dai graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in computer science and became interested in technology very early. During her undergraduate years, she did an internship at the famed Bell Labs in New Jersey, which clinched things for her. She got her first job in 1984 at Xerox's PARC lab in Palo Alto.

What's in the name? Dai likes to talk about having a "great purpose" when it comes to making technology. She doesn't want to sell things but wants to create products that regular people can afford and that change lives. When Dai and her husband were just starting the company, they wanted a name that reflected their aspirations. After kicking around words like "wonderful," they embraced "marvelous." They shortened that to "marvel." But because there were other chip companies with names ending in "-el," (ahem, Intel) they added a second 'l." Thus, "Marvell."

Sound principles to success: Dai said that her view on success starts with sound principles to guide one, in personal life and work.

"For each individual, passion is so important," Dai said. "They must love what they do.

"The other piece is that the world needs to be fair. Everybody needs to have a good sense of pride as they think about how they impact people, the world, their industry. They have to take a deep breath and ask, 'Is this something that makes me proud? Am I making a positive impact?' Why do I say this? Because you have to think long term. It's about doing business in a beautiful way."

Women are the future of tech: Dai doesn't like to dwell on the lack of progress women have made over the last three decades in the technology industry and in the corporate suite.

"I'm a positive person," she said. "I'm now more hopeful. I believe that there will be more women engineers."

The reason, Dai says, is that technology is becoming more deeply embedded in every part of our lives, particularly in the home, where women have a better perspective on how such products could be improved. "It's not just about developing 'nerdy' technology," Dai said. "It's about relating it to the social aspects of our lives."

"And guess what? A woman's natural talent is design, and the look and feel, and making these things fit into our lifestyles."

chris.obrien@latimes.com

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