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April 7, 2010

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Lessons in family, business success

WHEN Weili Dai arrives at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai for San Francisco Week in June, it won't be just as a delegate or a sponsor, although she's both. For Dai, co-founder of Santa Clara-based semi-conductor giant Marvell Technology Group Ltd, it will be a much-anticipated homecoming.

"Being part of the World Expo will be emotional and exciting for me," says Dai, who was born in Shanghai but now lives near San Francisco. Dai's company, which is the fifth largest semiconductor company in the world, is the lead sponsor of San Francisco Week at the Expo, a strategy to support the two cities that she calls home.

Dai and her family left Shanghai in 1979 for California. Then a senior at the high school affiliated with Fudan University, she transferred to Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco.

After graduation she went on to the University of California at Berkeley where she earned a degree in computer science. Along the way she met her husband, Sehat Sutardja, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.

The couple married in 1985 and in 1995, along with Sutardja's brother, Pantas, they founded a semi-conductor company with a handful of employees. While still in start-up mode, Dai remembers switching from creating cutting-edge technology at day to cooking Shanghai-style feasts for the staff at night. Dai's secret to a great dinner?

She went to the marina herself to pick out whichever fish looked freshest and was swimming fastest. Her two sons, both engineering students at Berkeley, still come home for their mother's Shanghai dumplings.

Fifteen years later, Marvell, situated more than 67.6 kilometers from San Francisco in Silicon Valley, has more than 5,000 employees and last year had revenues of US$2.8 billion. Enter the soaring lobby at its Silicon Valley headquarters and be stunned by two 10,600-liter fish tanks filled with 40 species of fish and 75 species of coral.

The sleek buildings surround an award-winning garden as well as a regulation basketball court. A perfectionist who is passionate about her company, Dai had a hand in every detail.

Speaking in a conference room at the Marvell campus, Dai is surrounded by the trappings of someone planted firmly in the billionaires' club right down to the red BlackBerry that Research in Motion (the maker of the BlackBerry) gave her to match the Ferrari.

Yet she still clearly adheres to the work ethic that earned her the one-of-a-kind BlackBerry. Dai works six days a week, often 10 hours a day.

Just back from a business trip to Las Vegas, Dai will soon be leaving for Taiwan. Actually, she'll only spend a few hours in Taiwan before heading to Hong Kong.

Is she ever unplugged? "Fortunately not," she says, laughing. She likes being connected and can actually only remember turning off her cell phone when she was snorkeling in the Caribbean and her husband pointed out that it wouldn't work underwater.

Dai's social life is mostly Marvell-related. Vacations are few and usually at times when her customers are also on holiday and won't need her. You won't find Dai in the society pages or at the Paris couture shows. Asked to describe herself, she chooses an old-fashioned word: caretaker.

"I'm a caretaker. I'm a caretaker for family, friends and the community and I'm proud of that," she says.

Quick to pull photos of her boys out of her tote bag, she happily shares parenting tips. A proponent of a well-rounded childhood, her goal was to give her children freedom to follow their interests.

At the same time, she hopes that through her example she's taught that while they may have opportunities, it takes hard work, dedication and focus to make a difference.

A noted philanthropist, Dai also shows her children the importance of giving back. Dai, her husband and her brother-in-law donated more than US$20 million to the University of California at Berkeley to build a state-of-the-art headquarters for the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.

While Dai is clearly someone who believes in technology and is immersed in it, she also understands the importance of the human touch.

Contact Lisa Spivey at 415-333-6800 or for more detail about San Francisco Week and environmental initiatives in Shanghai and World Expo on June 17-25.


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