Weili Dai: Basketball 'taught me to be a team player'

Founder of US technology firm Marvell Weili Dai says basketball taught her to be a team player

Starting a business is not an easy thing to do, and many new enterprises fail within a few years of being launched.

According to Weili Dai, co-founder of giant technology firm Marvell, one thing that can increase the chances of success for would-be entrepreneurs is the presence of a supportive network around them.

In Ms Dai's case, she values greatly the support of her family.

Growing up in an environment with a lot of love and care, and encouraged to feel that her opportunities were limitless, she says: "My parents always encouraged me and they always believed in me."

Another thing she says that has helped her in her business life is her love of sport - and in particular, basketball.

"It taught me how to be a team player," she says.

"It's very much result-driven. It's very rewarding because at the end you get [the ball] into the basket - you feel like you have [accomplished] a goal."

Ms Dai still plays the game, and can sometimes be seen shooting hoops on the court outside Marvell's headquarters in California.

'Very challenging'
Marvell headquarters Marvell has grown from humble beginnings to become a world leader in semiconductors

Weili Dai was born in China and grew up in Shanghai. When she was a teenager, she and her family moved to the USA, and settled in San Francisco.

She found the transition from one big city to another fairly straightforward, apart from one thing - she couldn't speak a word of English when she arrived in the US.

"I love to communicate with and talk to people and then, all of a sudden, it was very challenging," she says.

She took to carrying a pocket Chinese-English dictionary with her everywhere she went so she could seize every opportunity to improve her English.

Ms Dai was fortunate enough to win a place to study computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. There she met another student, Sehat Sutardja. The couple fell in love and got married.

Start Quote

You should ask yourself if what you are about to do is going to help long-term success, or is this a short cut for today? ”

End Quote Weili Dai

Weili Dai remembers that her husband, who was studying electrical engineering, was always coming up with new ideas and designs.

She recalls that she enjoyed hearing about his plans, and one day told him: "This sounds wonderful and some day, when you're ready, we will start a high tech company."

Ms Dai says that, at the time, she often thought about the way that her mother approached things.

"She was the glue of our family - her priority was taking care of my father and the three children," she says. She tried to follow her mother's example by providing support for her own family.

Hands on

In 1995, together with her husband and his brother, Weili Dai embarked in earnest on launching a technology company. Their first products were aimed at the computer data storage market.

It was tough going at first. Ms Dai says many potential customers were worried about dealing with a small start-up.

Start-up Stories

Marvell

  • Year founded: 1995
  • HQ: Santa Clara, California. US
  • Annual sales: $3.17bn (£1.98bn) in 2013
  • No of employees: 7,000+
  • Ownership: Listed on Nasdaq

"They required a lot of convincing", she remembers.

To save money, they used second-hand furniture and old computers brought in from home. Ms Dai would sometimes cook Shanghai stir-fries for the engineers.

Initial funding for the venture came from friends and family. Ms Dai says their cautious approach paid off, with the business becoming profitable after three years.

As time went on, the company began to move into new areas, designing semiconductors, the silicon chips that are found in many modern computers and electronic devices.

It proved to be a lucrative market. Marvell is now one of the world's biggest designers of silicon chips, with operations and research and development centres spread across the globe.

In common with some other chip-makers such as the UK's ARM, the company does not actually make chips itself, but allows high-tech manufacturers to produce its designs under licence.

The founders of the company have become wealthy, with Ms Dai featuring in Forbes magazine's list of richest Americans.

Corporate challenges

But it's not all been plain sailing, and the company has had its fair share of ups and downs.

In 2008, Weili Dai and Marvell were charged by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for reporting "false financial information to investors by improperly backdating stock option grants to employees".

The company and Ms Dai reached a settlement with the SEC without admitting or denying the allegations, and agreed to pay financial penalties of $10m (£6.2m) and $500,000, respectively.

Weili Dai "It's about long-term success," says Ms Dai of her company

Marvell has also been involved in a patent dispute over hard drive technology with Carnegie Mellon university.

If a recent court ruling is upheld, the company may be forced to pay more than $1bn in damages. Marvell says it intends to appeal against the ruling.

Challenges aside, Ms Dai remains optimistic about the future.

"We can't operate quarter by quarter, month by month or even year by year. It's about long-term success," she says.

She adds that focusing on the future is something that all entrepreneurs need to do.

Before you make a move, she says, "You should ask yourself if what you are about to do is going to help long-term success, or is this a short cut for today?

"And if it's for long-term success, it's something you're proud of - that's a good recipe to start with."

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