Finding Balance: A Conversation with Duy-Loan Le on Family, Work and Community

January 11, 2018
What does it take to succeed as a woman in technology? Duy-Loan Le, the first woman to be nominated and elected to the rank of Texas Instruments Senior Fellow, tells us about her journey and her philosophy on balancing family, work and community.

I had the honor of meeting Duy-Loan Le nearly two years ago at a conference in New York City. It was during “networking” time that we both retreated to a faraway corner to check our emails. We did strike up a conversation for which I am forever grateful. After a few more meetings, it became clear that Le’s story is one that needs to be shared again and again.

You have talked about the triangle of life, which represents your view of family, work and community as three connected sides of a triangle. Tell us more about this and its origination.

I always knew that I wanted several things in my life: my personal life, my professional life and to support my community. One night at around 4 a.m., I was reflecting and thinking about how those three aspects of my life are always connected. Being an engineer, I started thinking about geometry, and I realized it was like a triangle, which happens to be the most stable geometric shape. Then I thought about how I live my three lives in parallel, which brings more stability to my life. That’s how it came about.

The triangle is a unique shape because there are many different types – isosceles, equilateral, right triangle, just to name a few. One of the differences among those shapes is the size of each side. Sometimes all three sides are equal; sometimes one is longer than the other. In my life, there were times when the philanthropic side was longer, and others where the professional side or personal side was the longest. However, the personal side must always be the foundation – because at the end of life, what do you regret? How many more patents you could have filed? How many more boards you could have served on? How much more money you could have made? You do not regret those things. You regret the loved ones who you have not spent time with or those you could have reached out to help.

Did you communicate your values with your children from early on? How did you involve them in the things that you deemed important? 

My sons have always been involved with me in philanthropy. As a matter of fact, my oldest son did his first community service at 4 years old. He worked at a community center for five hours, and his job was to take the folded clothes for people in need and put them in the proper place. He was the only kid there; everybody else had gray hair.

My children have been raised in a model where they see a busy life professionally because I travel 70% of the time. They know how important they are to me, so they know how important personal life is to me, and they see my philanthropic work. They’ve been raised in and influenced by this model.

I brought up my boys to be both Vietnamese and American. It’s important to me that they appreciate both cultures and understand that they have a moral obligation to give back to both countries.

You left Vietnam at a very young age. When you arrived in the United States, you did not have command of the English language and were rendered “speechless.” How did you overcome that challenge, and what did it teach you going forward?

When we left Vietnam, I was 12 years old, and we left everything behind, including my father and older brother. It was me, my mom, younger siblings and my older sisters who escaped. Life was difficult from a financial perspective. We didn’t have a place to live, and we didn’t have jobs. We had $80 that my father had given us. The beautiful thing about life, though, is how you look at it. Do you look at it as hardship and losses? Or do you look at it as challenges and barriers to rise above?

There was one thing I didn’t lose that is precious as a human being: my freedom. In that sense, I was lucky compared to many other people. With that perspective, I made my father a promise that, no matter what, I would study. I would fulfill his wish and honor the family.

I taught myself how to read, write and speak English. I did my homework by translating each word from the dictionary. I did it on my own because we were the first Vietnamese refugee family to arrive in Houston, so there was no structure to help. A year later, though, the infrastructure was built, and I started attending English as a second language school, which helped.

You graduated top of your class in ninth grade. You then decided to move away from the family to study engineering at the University of Texas at Austin at age 16. What motivated you to do this? Obviously you were young, but it was also going against the cultural grain.

By that time, my father had arrived from Vietnam. You can imagine what a shock it was for him to see that the 12-year-old girl he adored had grown into an independent, mature 16-year-old. When I informed the family that I wanted to attend University of Texas at Austin because it is the best engineering school that I could afford to pay for, it was chaotic because an unmarried girl in the Asian culture and at that age should not leave home – or more like, could not!

I paid a dear price for that decision. I graduated valedictorian of my high school, but my father was upset with my decision. For him, it was unthinkable and insulting to the culture. Three years later, I was 19 and graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, or B.S.E.E., and he was still upset. He didn’t attend either graduation. I paid the price, but it was the right decision. When I graduated with my MBA from the University of Houston, I said, “Dad, I’m not going for a doctorate degree. This is your last chance to see me graduate.” Finally, he attended my graduation. It wasn’t just my father. Many family members could not accept the fact that I had left home at such a young age.

At Texas Instruments (TI), you were the first and only woman to be nominated and elected to the rank of TI Senior Fellow. What is the biggest barrier to having more women enter the field of technology?

In the technical field, companies in the United States all have a similar fabric. There are two sides to these companies: the business side and the technology side. At TI, advancement on the technology side is by election, and to have a shot at getting elected someone has to be willing to stick out their neck and put their name behind yours to nominate you. It takes someone who believes in you and has the courage and kindness to back you.

Think about who is going to vote. There had never been a female Senior Fellow, meaning the voter population was all men, consisting of senior vice presidents who run various business divisions and senior fellows! To be elected, it has to be almost a unanimous vote. How does a woman pass the test of both sides? She has to have business smarts as well as understand and respect the technology, which makes it difficult.

What leadership quality played the biggest role in your journey?

If I had to single out one quality, it has to be leading by example. What does that mean? If I expect people around me, whether it’s children or co-workers, to commit, I have to be the first one to commit. If I want them to care, I have to be the first one to care. If I want others to give up vacation to work on an important project because we have a deadline, I have to be willing to do that first. That’s what I mean by lead by example.

You lived in Japan and were training a team of engineers to facilitate a communication between that team and the Texas team. What did that experience teach you about the importance of communication?

To add context, I want to go back in time. Japan is an Asian country. I made my first trip there in 1985 when I was 22 years old, naive and three years into the job. I was sent over to train and help the Japanese engineers understand the product that I designed. My arrival was a total shock to them. They never expected a woman – let alone one who was so young. I was faced with a cultural gap, an age gap, a gender gap, a language gap – a lot of gaps.

The experience taught me the true meaning of the word communication. Communication is not about just the spoken words. I learned that you communicate with your eyes, body language, voice, behavior, actions, pointing, music, sharing, broken English and broken Japanese. I also learned that in order to teach, I have to know what’s important to the student.

How long did it take you to get them on your side, so to speak?

For the first three weeks, we talked about everything. We talked about the cost of gasoline and why women walk three steps behind men. The thing that shocked them the most and brought up the most questions was not that I was so young and there to train them. It was the fact that I left my husband in America for four months and that he let me to do that. Once they allowed me to answer their questions, they realized that what I had was a result of hard work. I had overcome a lot to get where I was. They gave me tremendous respect. Likewise, I learned about their challenges and gained much admiration for their work ethics and dignity.

You co-founded the Sunflower Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit focused on education and learning conditions in Vietnam, and the Mona Foundation, a nonprofit focused on educating girls as a way to reduce global poverty. Why is the education of children important to you?

I believe the gift of education is a gift of opportunity and a gift in perpetuity. When a person is educated, generations of people benefit. That’s an incredible rate of return. Secondly, I believe that you can advance a nation, community or country through politics, military, technology and education. Look back at history. You can always classify things that advance or destroy (society and humanity) in those four categories. Military and politics I cannot deal with, but education and technology I can. I’m trying to create synergy because there are only 24 hours in a day. I’m focused on what I can do professionally that I can extend to my philanthropic and personal life to amplify the impact. The third thing is that I’m only where I am because I’ve been truly fortunate to have been educated in America. It’s only fair that I give back the same opportunity to other children, whether they are in the United States or another country.

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