From Vietnam to the record books: A hard path drives civic commitment

Duy-Loan Le discusses her journey to becoming the first Asian-American and only woman elected senior fellow at TI

blue world
Credit: Ken Teegardin

Duy-Loan Le started her career at Texas Instruments (TI) as a memory design engineer at the age of 19. Over time, she advanced through IT to lead TI's multibillion-dollar memory product line with joint venture partners in five countries on three continents. One TI digital signal processor (DSP) product she managed was recognized in the 2004 Guinness World Records, and two under her management generated more than $2 billion of revenue. She was elected senior fellow in 2002, the first Asian-American and only woman in TI's 85-year history.

Thank you for your time today. You have quite a mosaic of career experiences. What would you say have been the guiding principles steering your career? Have they been more outwardly defined by achieving key milestones, or inwardly defined, focused around personal development?

Definitely inwardly defined. The things I have pursued have really been about what makes me happy in my heart. And I have the somewhat foolish-looking steps to prove it. Some steps I took wouldn’t appear to make sense on the surface -- for example not taking some promotion, not maximizing the number of people in my organization, or turning down a position with much higher salary. The principle criterion was what made me inwardly happy.

That said, my principles are a three-legged stool -- 1) family/friends, 2) career/profession and 3) civic leadership. I cannot really be content unless all three are in action, mutually feeding and protecting each other. All my significant decisions anchor to this center. The sides of this triangle are not always the same length -- activity will be more intense in one or another -- but they all stay connected. This is the source of the harmony that I pursue.

The time and effort you invest in your civic and philanthropic engagement is off the charts compared to most professionals. What keeps you so focused on this side of your triangle?

It started as early as college, but really ramped up in the late '90s, and for the last 16 or 17 years has been a steady percentage of my time. I am pleased to be engaged across a wide spectrum of activities and organizations, from universities to pure nonprofits, to the keynotes I give, to my own nonprofit philanthropic organization. 

And though the form of the message changes with any specific venue, the core issues of my engagement are always education and economic development. Even if you pursue a topic that is your passion, you will be limited in your understanding if you do not engage the wider world and take action on this passion.

Have your civic leadership activities been a counterbalance to your deep science and technology job? Some way of giving back?

Certainly it gives me satisfaction to give back. Arriving in this country from Vietnam at age 12 with basically the clothes on my back has given me a profound sense of responsibility to help others seize the limitless opportunities that surround them for success and fulfillment.

But there is something beyond that for me. I think the civic outreach and involvement keeps me grounded in the everyday issues of people, rather than just staying in the lab. It is easy to lose the larger perspective when you pursue deep technology applications of science. My civic work keeps my work world connected to the wider world. Balance requires openness to both.

What do you hope will stick with the young people that you so often address?

Certainly the topic has to be broader than when I am addressing professionals on the topic of tech leadership, or program management, or tech career advancement. For young people I want them to absorb and think about three distinct things:

  1. Work ethic -- not taking things for granted, not copping an attitude of entitlement, not posturing and taking the shortcut.
  2. Listening to your heart and treating people right -- this doesn't mean don't be demanding or don't set high standards. It means don't succumb to the temptation to be so ambitious that your actions steamroll others, minimize their contribution or discount their perspective.
  3. Common sense generally trumps intelligence -- intelligence may get you out of trouble once you recognize it, but common sense will more often keep you from getting into trouble in the first place.

Looking at career and leadership from the other end, so to speak, what advice that you have been given has stuck with you most vividly?

Specifically two bits of advice. The first, given to me when I was 19 or so, was to be firm but kind. As I digested that over the years, I realize that some experiences were me working on the firm side and others constituted work on the kind side. I am pleased to say that they have long since settled into a harmonious whole that is just my attitude toward leadership.

The second piece of advice that has stuck with me I received when I was 45 or 46. It was to be careful about what you say because people will often jump through hoops to try to achieve it. It was a warning not to be passive-aggressive, or to try and sneak in extra demands without making them formal, but it has proven good advice for anyone who is curious and who surrounds themselves with like-minded people. It’s easy to run the whole organization off on a tangent that’s interesting, but perhaps not productive.

Thank you for your time and insights. I know our readers will find them valuable.

You are very welcome.

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