High Tech's Huddled Masses: Making A Mark In Silicon Valley

In 1979, Solectron Corp., a circuit-board assembler based in Silicon Valley, was about to go under. Enter Winston H. Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant. Tapping into savings accumulated during an eight-year stint as an IBM manager, he bought half the company for $100,000 and engineered a quick turnaround. Sales have grown on average by more than 50% a year for the past 14 years, to $181 million, and the company is now a symbol of American competitiveness in a field dominated by East Asian companies. Last year, Solectron won a coveted prize in American business: the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Immigrants play a big role in Silicon Valley--from assembling chips and computers to developing the next generation of high-tech products. Asians, for example, make up about a third of the Valley's engineering work force. And the design of Intel Corp.'s latest microprocessor, which will run a new generation of personal computers, was managed by an East Indian native and a Taiwan-born vice-president.

Some of the valley's best-known entrepreneurs were born in other countries. Chief Executive Officer Andrew S. Grove escaped from Hungary in 1956 and built Intel into the largest U.S. chipmaker. In 1983, Frenchman Philippe Kahn founded Borland International Inc., one of the world's biggest software companies. Now, a new generation of immigrants is working its way up the high-tech hierarchy. Says Taiwan-born David N. K. Wang, vice-president of Applied Materials Inc.: "Silicon Valley is one of the most international business centers in the world."

IDIOM WATCH. Still, it's not all that easy for immigrants to get into management. A 1990 study by Pacific Studies Center, a public interest information center in Mountain View, Calif., showed that despite the large Asian presence in the Valley's high-tech work force, they account for less than 10% of management.

Some new arrivals have language problems, of course. And it takes time to move them up the management ladder. But China-born David K. Lam, founder of Lam Research Corp., a large manufacturer of chipmaking equipment, believes that many white executives think Asians can't be good managers. "Underlying prejudice is still there," he says.

Several Valley companies are trying, however, to open up their managerial ranks. In many companies, managers routinely take courses on "managing diversity." Some companies offer immigrants classes on American idioms and business culture. In the highly competitive electronics business, more and more companies are finding that it pays to tap the cultural backgrounds, financial contacts, and entrepreneurial drive of the new immigrants.

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