Marvell founder aiming high: Weili Dai talks to Women at the Top

Weili Dai is the co-founder of Marvell Technologies, a semi-conductor company that has grown from a three-person start-up in 1995 into one of the world’s largest chipmakers, with 6,000 employees internationally. As the vice-president of a company with a market capitalisation of $9bn, Weili is often cited as the only female entrepreneur to have created a multibillion-dollar technology company from scratch.

Born in Shanghai, Weili Dai moved with her family to San Francisco in 1978, completing high school there before studying computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. Between the ages of 9 and 14 she played semi-professional basketball in China, and the sport remains her passion. She spoke to Women at the Top:

Could you have founded Marvell as successfully in China as you did in Silicon Valley?

“In Silicon Valley, you’ve got talent from all over the world coming to the great universities, such as Berkeley, Stanford. The research environment [is very rich] – Xerox, HP, Idealab – and you’ve also got great high tech companies around it. In Menlo Park you’ve got the venture capital community. This is what has made it possible for entrepreneurs to found companies, specifically in high tech industries.”

“Today, the story is a little different. A country like China is getting more established, with its own bright people and more universities, so there is [a more] open field.”

Which came first: computer science or wanting to found a company?

“My two favourite subjects have always been maths and physics – and of course basketball. The idea of starting a company came later. When I graduated from Berkeley I got a job with Bell Labs [then AT&T Bell Laboratories] in New Jersey [and] I discovered my passion as I was working as a graphics editor. That’s when I said ‘this is what I want to do’.”

Why aren’t there more women founding great technology companies?

“Technology is a nerdy business. I look at myself as a ‘nerd’ but I have other interests as well. Overall there is a problem with women’s participation in science and technology and it needs to change. If we make science more interesting and more related to the things that women are interested in we will encourage more women into these fields.”

What keeps you motivated?

“I love what I do – it is my passion, my commitment. Every time we introduce a new gadget I get so excited. I work 24/7. Every time zone is good for me.”

How did Marvell get involved with the one-laptop-per-child (OLPC) project?

“Nicholas Negroponte [founder of the OLPC Association] has done a great job in reaching out to some 40 countries. Several years ago he approached us, and of course, within half an hour, I said, ‘absolutely’. We are working with him to provide technology for his new tablet program – as an education tool for under $100. We share Nicholas’s passion.”

This week you are at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit conference in San Francisco. What is your reason for attending?

“Because I am from the Asia-Pacific region, and because women, by nature, are caretakers. We are the glue for the family. [I hope] we can leverage the great strengths of women, and that we can be the glue of the world for business, government, community, everything.”

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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