There are very few women in the technology industry who have reached Weili Dai's level of success, but she expects that to change soon.
Dai, president and co-founder of chipmaker Marvell Technology Group, immigrated to the US from China in 1979 when she was 17. After earning a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, she worked at several research facilities, including Bell Labs in New Jersey. In 1995, she and her husband, Sehat Sutardja, founded Marvell, where he is now chairman and CEO.
Over the past 20 years, their Santa Clara, California-based company has expanded into a global organization that has more than 7,000 employees and ships over 1 billion chips a year for smartphones, televisions and networking equipment. Its growth has made Dai one of America's richest self-made women, with a net worth of roughly $720 million, according to Forbes. On a trip to New York this summer for the Forbes Women's Summit, Dai visited CNET's offices to discuss why she's optimistic that women in her industry will garner more leadership positions going forward, even though most major tech firms today remain dominated by men.
Q: What will it take to improve parity for women in tech? Obviously it would be a positive step if more women reached the point in their careers that you have.
Dai: I think it needs to start very young. Education is the key step. And then also having the environment with empowerment...and, of course, mentoring is good also. So now I'm helping a couple of female CEO founders. For their companies, I share my experience with them. One of the companies is called Lark [maker of a personal-coach app that's run by CEO and co-founder Julia Hu], and the other one is Depict [a hub for digital art founded by CEO Kimberly Gordon].
What are some of the things you hear from the people you mentor on the challenges for women executives?
Dai: So I think I am actually fortunate that I work with them, because to me it's also a learning experience. They're both very determined and they founded their own company. And of course, as any startup, it is very handy and, I think, very important to have encouragement and a support system. And that's what I do, I encourage them, I support them and, you know, whenever they run into challenges, I tell them it's long-term entrepreneur, right? As long as they have their passion, their determination, they will do well.
Do you think that there is a lack of female role models in tech?
Dai: Well, I would say I wish there were more women participating in the tech world. But I'm hopeful. And I'm also seeing more and more women participating and more women leaders in the tech world. So the reason we haven't seen many of those is -- I look at the history of the technology world and science field, it's just less women in those fields. The great news in terms of women -- not just in technology -- is that it's all already proven for women that they can lead in all industries. So it's no longer questioning whether they could lead or not lead. I think [we need] to build a better ecosystem [with] more encouragement -- and women support each other and more women share experience about how they could do it.
What are your expectations going forward for women in tech?
Dai: Today I think that it's more hopeful than ever. I believe there will be more and more women participating in the field, because I believe now technology is becoming more fashionable and cool and fun and very much close to our lifestyle. And I believe women will be able to contribute their natural talent, their appreciation of everyday fashion.
How can the industry get more women involved in tech?
Dai: For females, if they are exposed to a very easy way to express their natural talent and to develop software -- for example, like apps -- and then that gets them going from a very young age. I think that would be a great contribution, because there's different natural talents for men and women. I always believe that complementary skills work together and that one plus one is greater than eleven. I think that both men and women have great talents -- and that's thinking positive; not just saying, oh, why's the opportunity only for men, and why's it not for women? I think that's already long gone; today everybody has great opportunity. We just need to focus in on how to manage and leverage the best of both sides.
Do you think there's greater recognition today that there needs to be more women involved in tech, compared with when you started Marvell in 1995?
Dai: Yeah, I think today is definitely better than then. I already am helping a couple of women CEOs, but down the road you'll see more and more of those. Because technology is our lifestyle. All we need is more women that have opportunity -- and they ought to believe in themselves and think about what's important in their daily life, and then convert some of these use-cases into very advanced apps.
What do you hope happens going forward?
Dai: I believe that in today's world woman really could do anything. And then technology is fun. The technology world is beautiful. And in order for us to drive the world, to drive the industry -- for beautiful technology we need females and males collaborating together to push forward this smart life, this smart lifestyle.
Solving for XX
Say "women in tech" and the phrase automatically conveys the sense of too few women, making less money and wielding less say and sway in shaping the industry. While that's true, gender disparity isn't a numbers story. Instead, it's about what women and men, companies and universities are doing today to solve outdated group think.
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