Weili Dai – Founder of Marvell

Weili Dai

Weili Dai, who built a $2.95 billion company, credits her egalitarian values for her success.

By Taylor Mallory

All may be fair in love, war and business, but that doesn’t mean playing dirty is the only way to win. Just ask Weili Dai, a software engineer from Berkeley, Calif., who started Marvell in 1995 with no MBA or business training and turned it into a $2.95 billion company with more than 5,000 employees worldwide. “I didn’t think I needed a business degree,” she says, “because I truly believed if fundamental values and principles were put in place, anything else would be possible – and it has been.”

The proof is in the cubicle. Everyone in her office (herself included) works in same-sized cubicles. “Regardless of responsibility, everyone should be treated with the same respect,” explains Dai, who didn’t take a salary until the company went public and the board insisted she do so. “We have a cubicle environment because it’s better for communication, so I should sit there too. I’m no better than anyone else.”

Here she talks about the value of values – and her other business success secrets.

PINK: Why are values so important?
Weili Dai: My values are “fair” and “care.” Everything we do must be a win-win – for my customers or my employees. Rather than focusing on you and me and he and she, we need to focus on teamwork. When I meet with a new client, I’m not thinking about how to get this person’s business or upsell them. I’m asking myself, “How do I add value to enhance this client’s product – to make them more successful?” Naturally, if my technology is part of their successful system, I’m successful. When it comes to my team, I am accessible and listen to what’s going on in the company.

PINK: How do you apply those values to the work your company is doing?
W.D.: The technology we develop is very new. I call it “bleeding edge.” We’re on the front lines, leading by our actions. Innovation is the greatest asset we have as a company, and we’re always asking how we can innovate in a way that makes the biggest impact on the world. We create technology for some of the biggest players out there: Cisco, Sony, Microsoft and RIM for the BlackBerry. Our shoulders are heavy with this responsibility, so it’s even more important that we’re doing things for the right reasons. Right now, the biggest projects we have in the works are based on human needs: powering devices that help people connect to improve their lives and careers; creating technology to help the medical industry serve people more effectively and save lives; and making the education system better by giving children devices that will let them more easily access their books and schoolwork. I get up in the morning thinking, “How can I add more value to the world?” People ask why I don’t retire, why I’m still working so hard after all these years. But I still love what I do, and the world still needs our help. That’s why people come to work at Marvel – to change the world. And they get hooked on that adrenaline and never want to leave.

PINK: What advice do you have for other business leaders?
W.D.: First, maintain your values and culture as you grow. I started this business based on the principles of ethics I learned from my parents. People are always saying how I haven’t changed, even though I’ve been so successful. But the values and philosophies I built this company on are what made me successful in the first place. Second, lead by example. If people see you down there in the trenches, or cubicle, with them, they’ll work harder and be so committed to your company. Third, focus on teamwork. And finally, keep it simple and smart. Anything you do, simplify it. Use common sense. People tend to make things more complicated than they have to be, and that just slows us down and hurts our companies.

PINK: How are you shoring up your business to deal with the recession?
W.D.: Our team, like all companies, is tightening the belts. But the world’s largest companies rely on us to stimulate growth, so even in a downturn, we have to continue to innovate – just in a more efficient way. For every project, we’re asking, “How do we do it cheaper?” One way is to build on the technologies we already have and look for new ways to leverage those.

PINK: When have you ignored traditional business wisdom because it didn’t jibe with your values?
W.D.: I did a partnership with Intel in 2000. People thought I was crazy because they’re our competition. I looked a few steps further and saw how we could both win – and also benefit the PC world. It required guts and trust, but I believed if we were fair and cared, it would work out. Laptop users needed increased bandwidth, so we combined our talent and achieved faster performance much sooner than either of us could have alone. It was a very successful partnership and is still going after nine years. We have more product lines together today.

PINK: To what do you attribute your professional success?
W.D.: I’m a big-picture person. I’m focusing on the fundamental things that need to be done to be successful. I try to squeeze everything into a 48-hour day. [She laughs.] It’s hard to keep track of all little things, so I quit trying. If we miss a few little things, that’s OK, as long as we don’t miss the big picture.

PINK: How do you relax?
W.D.: In the 49th hour, I’m a mom. My husband and co-founder is a passionate, techy genius. He and I met at Berkeley. We have two sons, ages 19 and 21, both studying electrical engineering at Berkeley. My passion outside of work is being with them. I can take on a challenge from my husband and kids any day in basketball. I love cooking and interior design.

PINK: How did you balance work with parenting young children?
W.D.: We sent them to all-day school where they had good academics and then offered sports. Then I’d bring them to the office sometimes so I could be with them while I worked. I tried to keep them busy all day, but I also wanted to lead them by example. People call them copycats of me. They’re very self-disciplined. We didn’t sit down with them and help them with their homework like a lot of parents. We encouraged them, trusted them and told them how smart they were. And they knew we were there if they needed help or had questions. That’s the environment I grew up in. My parents always encouraged me but taught me to be independent.

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