Part I: From Taiwan to America
Can you tell us about your story and how you came to the United States?
I was born in Keelung and grew up in a family of farmers. My parents were usually busy working and didn’t pay much attention to me. I liked sports and grew up playing baseball, basketball, and volleyball. Sportsmanship has informed my personality as a student and later as a manager at work.
I majored in Materials Science and Engineering at National Cheng Kung University. I was not a particularly hardworking student. I would play rugby in the morning and went to the disco at night. I was very happy even though I often had to do makeup exams. In my junior year, I met my wife. She came from an influential family in Tainan. Her dad hoped that she could pursue an advanced degree abroad. He had the same hopes for me. If I did not agree to do so, he would not give me his blessing to marry his daughter. So this became my life goal. In my senior year, I worked extremely hard to review all of the material from the classes that I took in my first three years of college, served my compulsory enlistment in the army, and then got admitted to the Master’s program at National Taiwan University.
After I finished my Master’s degree, I applied for several Ph.D programs in the United States. However, I was only admitted to the University of Utah in 1987 because my grades were mediocre. This was the first time that I visited the United States. I still remember the day that I first arrived. It was August 23, 1987. Like many international students, I struggled with the language and food of this country. I remember a particularly funny event. One day, many children with weird costumes knocked on my door and asked for candy. I did not understand what they were saying nor what they wanted. It was not until later that I learned what Halloween was. Whenever young people ask me if they should leave Taiwan and live abroad, I would share my story with them. I always tell them this: “it’s going to be difficult, but this experience is invaluable.”
What happened after you started working?
It only took me three years to finish my doctoral program at the University of Utah. After I graduated, I arrived in Silicon Valley to look for work. My first job was a huge disappointment. I was so proud of my Ph.D degree. I even showed up to work in a button-up shirt. To my surprise, my manager actually asked me to change out of my shirt in the restroom. So it was a disappointing job, but an enlightening experience. It taught me many things about working in the tech industry. No one cared about my Ph.D degree. No one cared about the research that I had done. I realized that I had to let go of all of those past achievements and embrace new challenges with an open heart.
I finally arrived at Seagate after working for several companies. I was ambitious, diligent, and aggressive at Seagate. I told my boss that I wanted to be a manager. In three years, I became a manager and my salary increased from $50,000 to $100,000. In five years, I became a director. I was very successful. Seagate valued my talents and even sent me to study at Harvard and Stanford. I was promoted to Vice President in 2006. However, in retrospect, I realized that I had been doing everything for myself. I wanted fancy cars and big houses. I felt good about myself after I became a VP. I published books and gave speeches. I travelled to Beijing University and Singapore. I shared my experience with the public in radio. I felt very, very good about myself.
But when I reached my 40s, I began to have questions about the meaning of what I was doing. Once, I went to Taiwan to give a talk, and an incident caused my attitude to change.
Part II. Connecting.TW
So what changed?
In 2013, I gave a talk in Taiwan. Someone in the audience raised his hand and asked me this question: “you were born and raised in Taiwan. You received your education in Taiwan. Is there anything you can do for Taiwan?” I started to think hard about this question on the train after the talk. I studied in public universities in Taiwan. The government gave me a scholarship during my Master’s program. But I gave the prime of my life to America. I started to realize that everything that I had done so far is for me and my career only. I had never thought about anything else. Now that I was established in my career, what is my next step? What can I do for Taiwan?
We know that later you found Connecting.TW in 2014. Can you take us back to this moment, tell us what happened, and how your experience prompted you to found this organization?
My motivation for founding Connecting.TW can be traced back to the broader economic context of Taiwan in 1987. Back then, Taiwan was experiencing the second wave of what we now call the “economic miracle”. It was a rich, prosperous country. My generation benefited tremendously from the economic miracle. Classmates of mine became CEOs and managers. But this is not necessarily because we were better or smarter. This happened because we were lucky. We were lucky that Taiwan’s economy was booming.
But Taiwan’s economic growth plateaued and has been deteriorating since 2000. Why?
When Taiwan experienced its first and second economic miracles in the 1980s, our market was America. Companies in Taiwan had been following the steps of America to improve and innovate. However, since 2000, Taiwan started to “go west” for the market in China. In the beginning, it was easy to succeed at any business in China. As a result, companies in Taiwan stopped improving and innovating. Meanwhile, Chinese companies worked to catch up with our technology.
This is why we hope to “connect” Taiwan with America again. We wanted Taiwan to be a key player in the big leagues rather than get stuck on the sidelines.
In 2014, many officials of the Executive Yuan came to Silicon Valley for training. They invited me to give talks in a one-day workshop. It was successful. So I asked my friends if they would like to do more workshops in the future. Many were glad to help. This was the starting point of Connecting.TW.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. We thought about giving up. Our website was hacked. We had to pay for everything out of our own pockets. And we still had full-time jobs. But just when we were about to give up, something happened. In 2015, my friend Dr. Sifu Lee was diagnosed with leukemia.
Sifu’s doctor told him that he only had three months to live and the prognosis was not optimistic. But even so, Sifu insisted that we must continue Connecting.TW. Because of his leukemia, I realized that life is short. Sifu told me that when you only have a few months left to live, you realize that what you truly want to do is not your job, but the things that you actually care about. I was encouraged by his determination. We knew that we all wanted to make it work.
What is Connecting.TW? And what does it do?
Connecting.TW is an organization that connects Taiwan with Silicon Valley. We believe that innovation is key to the success of companies and individuals. And innovation is the DNA of Silicon Valley. We want to share the spirit of innovation with companies and students in Taiwan.
Connecting.TW invites speakers in Silicon Valley to share their professional experiences with university students in Taiwan through remote classes every month. Our partners include Chinese Culture University, Shih Chien University, and Dayeh University. We have also been offering workshops on topics such as the business model and strategy of American enterprises to small and medium-sized firms in Taiwan.
Here is an example of one of the cases that we discussed in the workshops. Kodak and Fujifilm used to be the biggest producers of photographic film. Today, Kodak is defunct, but Fuji has survived. Why? Fuji’s core capability lies in surface chemistry. They applied their core competencies to other products, such as face masks, and successfully reformed their business model.
What’s so special about Silicon Valley and its culture that makes you want to connect Taiwan with this place?
Silicon Valley is located in a great area with good weather and schools. But the best thing about Silicon Valley is its celebration of diversity. It has attracted the most talented people from all over the world. When I was a manager, I had to keep a diversity index to ensure that the company hires a certain percentage of minorities and women. I realized that innovation happens when people from different cultures and backgrounds come together to represent the real needs of society and to find the best solutions to our problems. I also think that Christianity has contributed greatly to the value system in America. Christianity is anti-class. It believes that everyone should be treated equally regardless of his or her background.
What do you think about the future of Taiwan?
I am optimistic about the future of Taiwan. We are such a small country, but we have created many economic miracles in the past. The question is, what should we do next?
The young generation in Taiwan has an inferiority complex. Too much negative news has led them to believe that they were born in the wrong era. But Taiwan still has the potential to rise to prominence again. Our parents and society in general have taught us many great values. So what went wrong? It has been easy for people of my generation to climb the ladder of success. We just went with the flow. Today, the younger generation of Taiwanese has struggled to make progress. This has a lot to do with the economy.
Many people now have the ambition to do things like software and self-driving cars. However, I think that finding the right perspective and direction matters the most. I think we should focus on our core competencies and join the big leagues. The key is to compete and cooperate with American enterprises.
So what are Taiwan’s core competencies? And can we go?
I think Taiwan’s core competency is manufacturing. Take Foxconn as an example. They manufacture smartphone and robots. Another example is Ding Tai Fung. There are so many delicious foods in Taiwan, but Ding Tai Fung is the one who introduced SOP (Standard Operation Procedure), which is the spirit of manufacturing, into their business. Anything in materials science has potential. 3D printing is also promising.
Another field with potential is medicine. In recent years, personalized medicine and personalized treatment have been popular. It takes an individual’s DNA to create personalized treatment rather than using the same medicine for everyone. This involves materials science, manufacturing, and medicine. Taiwan has an advantage in all of these areas.
You have to be the best at what you do. Your core competency has to be the best in the world if you want to compete with others. How can you achieve that? You need to innovate. You need to research and develop. Taiwan used to be the best at manufacturing in the past, but now China has surpassed us. We need to continue to develop our core competency. How? We should be open to discussion. We should challenge ourselves, come up with new ideas, and approach problems with different solutions.
Didn’t the manufacturing industry cause the race to the bottom? Will Taiwan repeat the same mistakes? Should Taiwan really focus on manufacturing when software is driving growth in the rest of the world?
I don’t think the manufacturing industry caused the problems of low salary and brain drain in Taiwan. Like I said, these problems only began when Taiwan decided to “go west” to the market in China and stopped innovating. Apple is a company that does both hardware and software. Microsoft used to be a software company, but they are now doing both. Google is building its own data centers. Self-driving cars also require both hardware and software capabilities. Nowadays, people think only software can make money, but the software industry actually does not bring the most profit to America. I think that the business model of Facebook will disappear soon. Why? Because you have to increase your productivity if you want to improve. Why do people invent robots? Because robots can increase productivity. Although software can contribute to productivity, you cannot do without hardware.
If we look at the problems in terms of social justice and distribution of wealth, the manufacturing industry actually plays a key role because it can afford to offer mid-range salaries. The biggest problem in Silicon Valley is that everyone gets high-paying jobs. Most people cannot afford to buy houses. No one can live here as a gardener. More and more people are moving away from the Bay Area because the real estate prices have skyrocketed. Jobs with mid-range salaries are crucial to the development and social structure of an area. This is why Donald Trump wanted manufacturing to come back to America. To give you an example, the mayor of Fremont has been inviting manufacturing companies like Seagate and Tesla to set up shop there. Fremont actually did not welcome Google.
In short, Taiwan should define its core competencies and develop sound business strategies accordingly. Taiwan should connect with America and become part of the supply chains of America’s leading tech companies.
Taiwan has been successful at manufacturing hardware. Do you think the low profit margins of the hardware manufacturing industry have caused labor conditions in Taiwan to fall behind those of the West?
The point is not whether or not Taiwan should develop hardware or software, but whether or not Taiwan continues to innovate. Taiwan used to have a huge advantage in hardware manufacturing. Quanta Computers is a good example. They used to earn high margins making laptops, but this advantage is gone. In the end, it all comes down to the problem of competition. You have to be the best or the second best in whatever you do. If you become the third best, then you won’t make money. Focus on your strengths when you compete with others. Focus on your most exceptional capabilities. It doesn’t matter what you do. But you have to be the best at it. Be the best and profit will follow. Be unique.
What are the aspects that Taiwan has ignored when approaching the US market?
The first is business model. You have to understand the attitudes and mindsets of Americans if you want to do business with Americans. For example, Taiwanese like to emphasize their interpersonal relationships with partners or customers and say “we have invested so much in this…” However, Americans make business decisions purely due to business concerns. Another example is management style. Taiwanese companies are very top-down, but American companies are bottom-up.
The second is how to sell your products. Take Coca Cola as an example, it is a company that sells soda. But it also sells a lifestyle and its branding. Essentially, it sells happiness. This type of business strategy is often absent in Taiwanese companies.
The last is the “soft skills” or the so-called AMP, which stands for attitude, mindset, and passion. It’s hard to measure these characteristics, but you can be trained to develop them. Americans spend a lot of time on these. Once your knowledge and capabilities have reached a certain level, what distinguishes you from others are your soft skills.
What is Connecting.TW’s next step?
Many Taiwanese have great technology, but don’t know how to sell it to the US market or don’t have the right connections here. What we want to do next is to found a “Taiwan Sogo Shosha” (Japanese general trading company). Our role is to act as business development consultants, and we want to offer our services to small and medium-sized tech firms in Taiwan. We hope that those we have trained will gain some experience, come back, and train even more people with us. We want to form a virtuous circle.
I believe that social media and applications are no longer hot anymore. So what is the next big thing? I think it’s going to be something that combines hardware with software. Taiwan has a great advantage in this aspect.
Although no one can predict the future--not even Silicon Valley--I am certain that it will happen again in Silicon Valley. So Taiwan’s best chance is to connect more with the companies here. I am positive that we can achieve something together.