Kai-Fu has earned the respect of young Chinese developers and IT entrepreneurs for his independent stand on issues about censorship and politics. Although he has worked with the biggies of information technology and the gurus of innovation, Kai-Fu is yet to feel satisfied with his life. When he was 47 years old and highly valued in Google, a company known for its unbelievable compensation package, he left to start his own company. It wouldn’t seem to be such an incredulous idea if he wanted to try his hands at incubating IT companies in other countries except China. But then Kai-Fu chose to challenge the norm in China and became Innovation Works’ founding CEO.
China has an uncompromising stance when it comes to information access. Having billions of residents with more than 500 million internet users, its market is one of the world’s biggest. Yet, few have survived its stringent privacy bylaws and information restriction. Google has chosen the right person to lead their China venture. Kai-Fu Lee was educated in the United States but raised by pure Chinese parents. In a nutshell, he has both worlds’ influence and background. It wasn’t surprising that Google thrived in China in spite of the almost non-existent freedom of expression. They accordingly credited Kai-Fu for his work and intended to saturate Asia with him on the lead.
Kai-Fu, however, couldn’t be talked out of his decision to leave a very successful company to manage a venture that will capitalize on premature businesses. His sanity was questioned. Unless we go back to his childhood, we will never understand why he chose to leave when it seemed like he was on the peak of his successful career in Google.
Kai-Fu Lee is the youngest child of Tien-Min and Ya-Ching Lee, both Chinese nationals. Unlike his five siblings—the two eldest from his father’s first marriage—he was not born in China. Tien-Min had to leave for Taiwan in order to escape the ongoing civil war. His father was a former military man who attended Huangpu Military Academy, China’s West Point. Tien Min studied in Japan where he completed a degree in economics then went home to become a newspaper editor in Nanjing.
Unfortunately, World War II sparked bloody conflict between the Communist Party and the Nationalist government. By 1949, the Communists succeeded in taking over the government and the members of the Nationalist government took refuge in Taiwan. One of those who fled was Tien-Min who was then serving as head counselor of the Xian training center and was a legislator of the unseated government.
Ya-Ching was unwilling to raise their children without their father so she braved leaving China for Taiwan with her five kids in tow. In order to get there, they had to go via Hong Kong which was then a British colony. After surviving a grueling train ride and stopping over Hong Kong which lasted for several months, Ya-Ching finally reached her husband and the family was reunited. Had Ya-Ching failed, Kai-Fu Lee and his older sister would not have been born. A daughter was added to the family of seven in 1953 but when Ya-Ching got pregnant in her early 40s, they were flabbergasted.
Many tried to dissuade Ya-Ching from continuing with the pregnancy, telling her of the high likelihood of the baby being born with Down syndrome. She wouldn’t have any of their unsolicited advice and decided to carry the child in her womb, trusting nothing but her maternal instinct that her baby will be born healthy. Ya-Ching’s hunch was proven right when Kai-Fu saw the first light of day on 3 December 1961, perfectly healthy.
A Kid Like No Other
Kai-Fu Lee was his mother’s apple of the eyes. She was overprotective of him. As a child, Kai-Fu was restless. He was always running and moving around. It was impossible to keep him still. He began showing his rebellious streak when he asked his mother to allow him to take exams for first grade students in Ji-Ren Elementary School. At five years old, Kai-Fu found his kindergarten subjects so easy that he was utterly bored in class. He had not only passed the test, he topped it.
But Grade I was not that interesting either. He soon felt bored again and became a difficult student. He would often get in trouble because he talked to his classmates while the teacher was doing a lecture. When Kai-Fu was 11 years old, his brother who was staying in the United States to study, convinced their mother to allow their youngest to migrate to the land of the free where the educational system was much more sophisticated and advanced. Ya-Ching knew how smart their little boy was and wanted to develop his full potential. She allowed Kai-Fu to go and she lived with them in Oak Ridge for six months to help Kai-Fu adjust with school and the new environment.
Life as a Chinese Immigrant
Kai-Fu attended St. Mary Junior High School. Although he excelled in Math, he found it very difficult to cope because he couldn’t understand the medium of instruction. His English communication skills kept him from doing well in class. Then he got sick of being a mediocre student and decided to ameliorate his English vocabulary by reading books. He was also tutored by the school principal, Sister Mary David.
It did not take long before Kai-Fu finally learned speaking like a native. He eventually exceeded his native classmates’ writing skills. He was chosen as a finalist in an essay writing contest where he wrote apathy as one of the biggest problems of the American society. When the time to defend their answers came, one of the judges asked him to comment on Ralph Nader’s point of view. He was dumbfounded. Kei-Fu didn’t know who Ralph Nader was. That taught him a very important lesson—cultural knowledge is just as important as one’s communicative ability.
He kept on excelling in Mathematics even when he started studying at Oak Ridge High School. Ms. Benita Albert, his Math teacher who also happened to be teaching college students, invited him to sit in her advanced Math class. Because of that, he was able to nurture his mathematical skills. In the following summer, he was selected to participate in the advanced math program at University of Chicago and made friends with Phillip Yoo and Ram. That experience exposed him to American peers and bolstered his confidence. When he got back to Oak Ridge, he tried his hands at business.
Kai-Fu’s First Attempts at Business
Such as when he was still a child, Kai-Fu was restless. He always wanted to make the most of his time and thought of starting a business venture. Together with some of his school friends, they began a newsletter which was a parody of their school paper, The Oak Leaf. They called their publication “The Loose Leaf” and distributed their first issue free of charge. The Loose Leaf became the talk of the campus and the Principal soon heard of it. The editorial team was called into his office and was told to stop their newsletter right away because they needed to seek the school’s permission first before they could begin publishing reading materials.
Kai-Fu did not give up his business plans altogether. He joined a non-profit organization called Junior Achievement, which teaches high school students how to do business by adults who have entrepreneurial know-how. His first venture in the organization was to sell napkin rings. Although they were selling some, Kai-Fu was not convinced. To him, products that are not needed by the consumers would be hard to push. Napkin rings did not interest him in the first place and he doubts if they interest the general consumers too. The following year, he ran for president in another venture and was able to get his team sell talking shirts that advocate longer lunch break. The T-shirts with a picture of a dachshund and the word “break’ became an instant hit, thanks to their ingenious marketing strategy: offering it to wholesalers. Their financial report—which was written by him—showed that each of them would get 64.90 dollars, making them the team that had the most profit. Junior Achievement named them Company of the Year. He graduated from Oak Ridge High School and was dubbed the “Most Likely to Succeed” in their yearbook.
Rejected by Harvard
The time for college applications soon came and he knew that he wanted to go to Harvard. His SAT scores weren’t that bad—Mathematics was perfect and English was 550. It’s just that 550 is way below Harvard’s required SAT score. Kai-Fu tried to persuade them to take him in by sending a letter to no avail. He sent 11 more applications and was accepted right away except in Stanford, Yale and Princeton where he was on the waiting list.
Columbia University became his first choice because of its long history. Later on he surmised that fate must have brought him there because while taking up law, he realized that his calling is in computer programming. He worked part-time while in college to augment his matriculation.
In Columbia University he was introduced to Rick Rashid of Carnegie Mellon. He became Kai-Fu’s mentor and would later on influence his Ph.D. dissertation in the same university. Kai-Fu became obsessed with playing bridge and he managed to become a Life Master before his junior year ended. Much of his work ethics were products of his experience working with people who have high standards. Columbia University’s Dean of Law School, for instance, asked him to develop a program which he promised to finish by August. Complacency kept him from finishing the task on schedule and the Dean gave the project to someone else. That taught him to be true to his word. His father also trained him not to make decisions that would disappoint himself.
He graduated summa cum laude.
Girls were not Kai-Fu’s priority and he never had a girlfriend. This forced his sisters arrange blind dates for him when he went back to Taipei in 1982 for a summer vacation. He was introduced to a family friend’s daughter, Shen-Ling, a soft-spoken girl who takes care of her old grandmother and frail mother. Kai-Fu was taken by her resilience and the two instantly hit it off.
He asked for Shen-Ling’s hand for marriage in 1983, he was only 21 years old and about to take his doctorate studies. Shen-Ling provided the balance he needed. She is his quiet companion, always ready to comfort and urge him on.
Creating Bill and Sphinx
In 1986, he developed an Othello program with Sanjoy Mahajan called Bill. It was the first program to beat a human champion. They also won the world championships. After that, he chose continuous speech recognition system as his Ph.D. thesis at Carnegie Mellon. Kai-Fu became known as the pioneer in creating an independent speech program that can recognize any voice. His creation, which he called Sphinx, provided the blueprint for the succeeding speech recognition programs we are using today.
Automatic Speech Recognition: The Development of the Sphinx Recognition System, his dissertation, was published as a Kluwer monograph. He created a record when he graduated from Carnegie Mellon after four and a half years.
From Teaching to Apple
From 1988, he taught at Carnegie Mellon as an Assistant Professor. That went on until 1990. He enjoyed teaching but he disliked attending functions just to raise funds for his research. Apple’s offer came at the right time. He was contemplating on changing gears and he received a call from Apple telling him that two executives want him on the team.
As a 28-year-old he was very eager to finally join a real computer programming and manufacturing company. No longer limited to research, Kai-Fu had to learn the ropes of product development. For six years, Kai-Fu worked at Apple as a principal research scientist. He is most proud of what his team was able to create while he was there, namely QuickTime, QuickTime VR, QuickDraw 3D, QuickTime Conference, Apple Bandai Pippin, PlainTalk, Casper, GalaTea for Mac Computers.
From Apple to Silicon Graphics to Microsoft
From Apple, Kai-Fu worked for Silicon Graphics as Web Products division Vice President in 1996. Then the following year, he served as Silicon Graphics’ Cosmo Software's president.
Unlike in Apple, he spent a short time in Silicon Graphics. In 1998, he was hired by Microsoft and was sent to China to oversee Microsoft Research (MSR). It became known as one of the world’s best computer science research laboratories.
The Controversial Move to Google
After seven years of being with Microsoft, Kai-Fu felt it was time to leave. Google offered him something irresistible. With a signing bonus amounting to over two million dollars with compensation exceeding 10 million dollars, Kai-Fu felt needed.
Microsoft sued both Google and Kai-Fu on the grounds of his non-compete agreement that should have kept him from working with a competitor for a year. Both parties reached an amicable settlement which remains undisclosed up to today.
Google China thrived under Kai-Fu’s leadership. It was not that surprising considering that Kai-Fu knows Chinese customs and was able to meander through its narrow internet policies. From 29.8% of revenues in the last quarter of 2007, the search revenues went up to 32.8% in 2008 based on a study done by iResearch. Also with 700 employees compared to Baidu’s 7000, Google China was doing pretty well, although it struggled to conquer Baidu market, the largest search engine in China.
When Google seemed to be confident that they are going to make it big in China, Kai-Fu started contemplating about the future. At 46 years old, he felt that something is still missing in his life. Where is the adventurous Kai-Fu of his childhood, the one who dreamt of changing the world? His contract was awaiting renewal and he couldn’t ask for anything more. Google, indeed, is the best company to work for as they do not skimp on compensation.
He flew to the United States in 2009 not to sign the contract but to personally hand in his resignation. He told his immediate boss, Alan Eustace, that he wanted to pursue another endeavor—an IT incubator in China.
Will Innovation Works Work?
Someone who rejects a handsome offer can only be called foolish, but for Kai-Fu it’s not just a matter of earning millions. Deciding to leave Google for his dream of putting up a venture was not an easy thing to do. He doesn’t know where fate would take him but he knows he should make a start.
So, in 2010, he announced his new “assignment” as Innovation Works’ founding CEO. He then invited Chinese entrepreneurs and developers to submit their business plans and resumes as Innovation Works can provide them funding and training to help them start-up their business.
The following day, his inbox was inundated with emails—7000 of them. From that moment on, he knew that he has made the right decision. Chinese start-up companies are just waiting to be discovered. What he dreams to accomplish in China is provide a mecca for developers and entrepreneurs with groundbreaking ideas and who possess what it takes to succeed.
Innovation Works will fund them and train them in order to make sure that they can execute and market their business in the most profitable and responsible way. Asked what he thinks his legacy is, he answered:
"I feel the legacy that I will leave is more about the people who are influenced positively than the value founders created." (Source: China Daily)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Committee of 100
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
- Innovation Works
Awards and Achievements
- 1983: Graduated summa cum laude from the Columbia University
- 1986: Developed Bill, a Bayesian learning-based system for playing the board game Othello with Sanjoy Mahajan
- 1988: Completed his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University
- 1988: Developed the world's first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system as his Ph.D. thesis at Carnegie Mellon
- 1988: Automatic Speech Recognition: The Development of the Sphinx Recognition System, his dissertation was published as a Kluwer monograph
- 1989-1990: Worked as Research Computer Scientist at Carnegie Mellon University
- 1990: Taught at Carnegie Mellon University as an Assistant Professor
- 1990: Joined Apple as a principal research scientist
- 1990-1996: Headed R&D of Apple credited for the development of QuickTime, QuickTime VR, QuickDraw 3D, QuickTime Conference, Apple Bandai Pippin, PlainTalk, Casper, GalaTea
- 1996: Worked at Silicon Graphics as Web Products division Vice President
- 1998: Worked at Microsoft China and joined the Microsoft Research division
- 2000-2005: Served as vice president of interactive services division at Microsoft
- 2002: Inducted into the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
- 2005: Offered by Google an unprecedented compensation package
- 2005-2009: Served as founding President of Google China
- 2009: Founded Innovation Works
- 2009: Co-founded LightInTheBox Holding Co., Ltd
- 2009: Served as the Chairman of Advisory Board at WI Harper Group
- 2011: Published Making a World of Difference
- 2012: Named China’s Most Influential Micro-blogger by Sina Weibo
- 2013: Named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME
- 2013: Served as an Independent Director of LightInTheBox Holding Co., Ltd.
- Created a website (www.5xue.com) to help young Chinese people achieve in their studies and careers
- Has written two books on speech recognition and more than 60 papers in computer science
- Has over 40 million followers in Sina Weibo
- Has given hundreds of lectures to about 500,000 students
- Be Your Personal Best sold over one million copies and is still on many best-seller lists
- Selected along with two other students of Oak Ridge High School to attend an advanced math program at the University of Chicago when he was in sophomore
- Second venture with Junior became most profitable venture in the history of our Oak Ridge High School's cooperation
- Junior Achievement named their T-shirt venture “Company of the Year”
- Won the championship of the state math contest
- Elected vice president of the student committee
- Chosen to be the “Most likely to Succeed” person in the yearbook
- Wrote a program for a diamond factory’s president that would send the number of each diamond’s weight indicated on an electronic scale directly to a computer
- Perfected a mid-term exam of a computer science considered to be very difficult
- 2010: Received Honorary Doctorate Degree from the City University of Hong Kong
Time (The 2013 TIME 100)
Wikipedia (Kai-Fu Lee)
CNReviews (Google China’s Kaifu Lee Resigns)
Bloomberg Businessweek (Google China Head Kai-Fu Lee Leaves to Start New Venture)
Reuters (Dr. Kai-Fu Lee Leaves Google, Starts Innovation Works)
Technology Review (Beijing’s Great Leap Forward)
Crunch Base (Kai-Fu Lee)
Innovation Works (Investing in the Region's Vitality)
Forbes (After Censorship, Ex-Google China Chief Lee Kai-fu Talks About China's Social Media Revolution)
The Altucher Confidential (How Kai Fu Lee Talked Me Out of Making a Million Dollars)
Healthy Women (Kai-Fu Lee: Why Larry Page Is Tailor-made for the CEO of Google)
Los Angeles Times (Chinese tech superstar Kai-Fu Lee draws adoring mobs)
The Street (One Man's Role in the Great Search War)
Bloomberg Businessweek [Google Inc-Cl A (GOOG:NASDAQ GS)]
China Daily [Exclusive interview: Kai-Fu Lee's Innovation Works (Q&A)]
BBC (Q&A: Where will China's innovators come from)
UNSV.com (Making A World of Difference)