Have Tech Business, Will Travel
Max Huang loves China Airlines. Not for the cuisine. Not for the legroom. What he likes best is that there is a regular flight from Taiwan to San Francisco that leaves at midnight, and another reliable red-eye from San Francisco to Taiwan. That means as often as once a month, "I can leave at night, arrive at 6 a.m., and go to work. I don't have to waste a day," he says happily.
Such practical matters mean a great deal to executives such as Huang, a member of the 200,000-mile-a-year club populated by Taiwanese and Chinese Americans who have come to be known as "astronauts." They make the 13-hour hop between Silicon Valley and Taiwan with the nonchalance of a New Yorker grabbing a Washington shuttle. What drives them to crisscross the Pacific in the wee hours? The growing conviction that they must work in both Asia and Silicon Valley to stay on the cutting edge.
Executives such as Huang are reinventing the whole notion of what immigrants are contributing to Silicon Valley's whirlwind business style. Most astronauts are chip- and networking-company entrepreneurs who tap into Silicon Valley's research and design resources while taking advantage of Asia's low-cost manufacturing and plentiful venture capital. But Huang, 39, exemplifies the broadening of this group to include those in other kinds of high-tech businesses: He runs an Internet startup based in Santa Clara, Calif., but with a Taiwan outpost.
His four-year-old Infowave Communications Corp. is an example of the new binational business model. It profits by offering job-placement services here and in Asia for Chinese-speaking techies, as well as news and financial information in Chinese via its Chinese Cyber City Web site. The site attracts some 850,000 visitors per month, and Huang recently started producing a Web 'zine called Silicon Valley Journal written in Chinese. It offers high-tech news to ravenous readers in the U.S. and Asia--everything from reports on whether a new graphics chip can handle Chinese characters to daily net-worth updates on famous Taiwanese entrepreneurs, such as Yahoo! Inc.'s Jerry Yang.CULTURAL TWISTS. These days, the immigrants are doing much more than simply prospering in Silicon Valley: Increasingly, the "immigrant contribution" is about forging connections in a global economy. Forget the insular Chinatowns of old, says AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose 1994 book, Regional Advantage, about the success of Silicon Valley, helped drive the world's current fixation with the area's every tick. "These executives are simultaneously integrating into the mainstream economy and building distinctive economic links [to Asia]," she says.
Integrating is an understatement: Saxenian's research shows that while Chinese or Indian executives ran about 13% of the high-tech businesses launched in the Valley from 1980 to 1985, they are running 27% of the more than 4,000 companies created from 1991 to 1996. They also lay claim to a long list of high-tech standouts, from electronics manufacturer Solectron to Internet software developer BroadVision to portal Yahoo!.
And they have introduced a slew of cultural twists, from new religious communities to the occasional cup of fragrant jasmine tea offered during meetings in lieu of nerve-jolting java. Such associations as Monte Jade Science & Technology Assn. (named for Taiwan's highest peak), InDUS Entrepreneurs, and the Asian American Manufacturers Assn. are thriving groups that represent more than 1,500 individuals.
Many of the so-called astronauts are Taiwanese who have studied and worked in the U.S., then gone back to Taiwan to use local venture investments to start a company. More than any Asian country, Taiwan has created both private- and public-sector incentives to stimulate entrepreneurialism, from tax breaks to a roaring venture-capital industry that's now almost 100 companies strong, with $1 billion invested. Of the 245 high-tech outfits in Taiwan's Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park, some 40% were started by expatriate Taiwanese, notes George Koo, a Silicon Valley consultant to U.S. companies trying to do business in Asia. "There are lots of opportunities in Silicon Valley, but Taiwanese expatriates are finding there are even more in Taiwan," he says.DREAMS AND DRIVE. But plenty of Taiwanese expatriates either have made the trudge up Sand Hill Road to obtain U.S. venture-capital backing or have raised money overseas to start companies in the U.S. So the Silicon Valley-based companies that expand into Taiwan also are launching pads for astronauts. Take, for example, six-year-old microprocessor developer Rise Technology Co. of Santa Clara. Founder and Chief Executive Officer David T. Lin was born in Taiwan and came to the U.S. 20 years ago. He picked up engineering degreEs from the University of Southern California and Stanford University (not to mention U.S. citizenship), and he worked stints at NEC Corp. and at aerospace and instrument maker Ametek.
In 1993, Lin decided to start his own company, realizing that a key to its success would be close ties to contract manufacturers in Taiwan. "Silicon Valley has the innovation, and the dream, and drive," he says, but manufacturing muscle lags. In Asia, "speed and execution is their nature." The upshot is that he and his team have opened an officein Taiwan, and they spend 30% to 40% of their time there--with plans to increase that. The payoffs from this binational commute are huge, Lin says. For example, it's ironic, but Rise's introductions to major U.S. PC companies have come in Taiwan--not the U.S. They have been brokered by his Taiwanese contractors, who hope to spark additional business that they can get a piece of."A-PLUS-PLUS." Silicon Valley's bicultural human capital is an obvious target for overseas recruiting, too. Luci Li, a partner in the recruiting firm of Wang & Li Asia Resources, based in Oakland, Calif., says Chinese expatriates and Chinese-speaking Americans with an American education plus work experience in Silicon Valley are "A-plus-plus" candidates in the minds of high-tech recruiters from Asia. She says many expat Chinese and Chinese Americans hit a glass ceiling in U.S. companies. They feel that their technical contributions are hugely valued but their language differences or other cultural issues hold them back.
By taking jobs in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or even mainland China with multinationals or startups, they have better opportunities. Wang & Li founder Larry Wang has even written about the return-to-China syndrome in a book called The New Gold Mountain--a twist on the fact that for more than a century, Chinese have streamed into the San Francisco area (which they called Gold Mountain) in search of opportunity.
To be sure, the Asian flu has dampened recruiting somewhat, but Taiwan's entrepreneurial juggernaut is still going strong. Saxenian jokes that in the midst of her research for a new book, she realized that instead of traveling to Asia, she probably could have buttonholed all the executives she wanted to interview in the Red Carpet Club at San Francisco International Airport. So, should you find yourself on one of those red-eyes between the U.S. and China, don't be surprised if you overhear somebody bark into a phone: "Hsinchu, we have a problem," and launch into an impenetrable technical tirade. It's probably a Taiwanese astronaut just taking care of business.BY JOAN O'C. HAMILTONReturn to top