By Peter High. Published in Forbes
Kai-Fu Lee is a true citizen of the world. Born in Taiwan, he emigrated to and was educated in the United States (including earning a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon). He worked for four legendary technology companies: Apple, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, and Google. At multiple of these companies, he worked in China, including leading Google’s efforts into China.
His time leading Google China was notable as it was a rare exception of an American company succeeding for a time, growing market share from nine to 24 percent between 2005 and 2009. He believes that if Google had remained steadfast in their pursuit of the Chinese market, the company would have been able to have its own piece in the overall Chinese puzzle. He left the company to found his venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures in September of 2009, and a few months later, Google closed shop in mainland China.
Lee has written a new book AI Superpowers. China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, in which he describes China’s entrepreneurial rise, the parallel tracks that the US and China are on, and the difficulties companies from one country have in penetrating the other, the opportunity and the issues that artificial intelligence will lead to, and much more. Sinovation Ventures is a $2 billion fund, and a full third of that investment is in artificial intelligence. In this interview, he discusses themes from his book, his perspectives earned from having been a leader both in the US and in China, his investment philosophy, and especially artificial intelligence.
(To listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview, please visit this link. This is the 28th interview in the IT Influencers series. To listen to past interviews with the likes of former Mexican President Vicente Fox, Sal Khan, Sebastian Thrun, Steve Case, Craig Newmark, Stewart Butterfield, and Meg Whitman, please visit this link.)
Peter High: In many ways, you personify what I and many others believe to be one of the key ingredients of America’s entrepreneurial spirit: the immigrant’s experience, which is fundamentally entrepreneurial. As a native of Taiwan, you were an immigrant to this country. You went to undergraduate and graduate school in the United States, and you worked for a number of iconic technology companies, such as Apple, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, and Google. There was a time when people believed China lacked an entrepreneurial spirit to fully compete with the United States and Silicon Valley. That seems to have changed in recent years. As somebody who has spent time in both countries, could you talk about what has led to this dramatic growth of China’s entrepreneurial class?
Kai-Fu Lee: I believe a combination of factors has driven up the entrepreneurial spirit in China over the past twenty years. These factors are as follows:
There is a rapidly growing market with many business opportunities arising.
The government has jumpstarted programs, such as the mass entrepreneurism and innovation plan, that are designed to reverse the traditional conservative mentality.
Chinese entrepreneurs now have role models to look up to, such as Jack Ma, who was not a super genius with a Ph.D. from MIT, but instead, he was the boy next door who went to an ordinary school and could not get a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Jack went on to build the largest e-commerce empire in China based on inspiration.