Philanthropist, executive Paul Chou strives to forge China-U.S. cultural, business ties

A version of this story appeared in WRAL Tech Wire on February 3, 2014.


Editor’s note: As the $2.3 billion dollar deal between Lenovo and IBM and the recent sale of Smithfield Foods to a China-based company clearly indicate, business bonds between the U.S. and China are increasingly important to North Carolina’s economy. One of the groups striving to improve the business atmosphere is the N.C. Chinese Business Association. It will be hosting a Chinese New Year Dinner on Feb. 4 at the RTP Foundation, and the program will include a panel discussion involving three senior executives who will discuss their perspectives on the past, present, and future of NC-China relations. Leading the panel will be Grace Ueng, a Triangle entrepreneur. In an exclusive interview for WRALTechWire, Ueng talks with philanthropist and business executive Paul Chou.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Born in Taiwan, Paul Chou now lives in both Raleigh and Beijing. After a successful career as CEO of several global businesses, Paul founded Junior Achievement China and L2 Foundation to develop leadership and legacy of Asian Americans. Recently named as Top 10 People of the Year in China, Paul is one of the most noted philanthropists in China.

You have been doing great things here right in our backyard as well as in China. What drew you to come to the U.S. and where did you first live?

I immigrated to the U.S. to join my family in Philadelphia. We lived in a Philadelphia suburb because of a good Chinese community in Chinatown and the University of Pennsylvania. Many noted Chinese physicists and leaders, such as the mentor to President Jiang Zemin, taught at UPenn and many in my immediate family graduated from and are affiliated with the university. My two older sisters worked and then retired from the cancer treatment research at the university hospital.

Since the early 1950’s, it was a very good community for Chinese, the center of culture similar to New York City. Many Chinese scholars at that time congregated at Columbia and UPenn.

My father helped a few Chinese students in Taiwan to move to the U.S. in the 50’s and 60’s – he did a lot of good things in our Philadelphia community – and served as an inspiration to me as his father to him.

What drove your decision to study electrical engineering and computer science in your U.S. graduate studies?

Basically for two reasons. My Chinese was all messed up because my family only expected me to speak Chinese. So I flunked my Chinese class in written tests! And I loved Physics. I thought people who studied engineering were smart people who could get a steady job with a good salary. At that time in my life and short tenure in the U.S., I didn’t appreciate the study of literature and history, and I simply thought engineering was the most practical course of study.

When I was a student at MIT in the 1980s, the “brightest and brainiest” of our classmates ended up at Bell Labs. Share how you decided to join and the impact Bell Labs had on your future entrepreneurial tech ventures.

The top 3% of students in targeted universities such as mine had the opportunity to interview at Bell Labs. My family was very familiar with Bell Labs and I had cousins who worked there. Bell Labs came to my school to interview and monitor students who studied electrical engineering. They decided to track my development. They offered me an opportunity to work for them before I graduated.

I decided that I wanted to feel like I was a part of America and wanted to know American industry instead of going into a straight PhD and eventually teach at a university. I felt that I needed to understand America so I agreed to join Bell Labs. They offered me full pay along with 2 days off per week to pursue PhD studies, which they fully funded.

Soon thereafter, Bell Labs gave me the opportunity to lead their efforts in Korea. So I put aside my PhD studies to shift to the adventure of forging the Korean market.

I learned all the right things to do from Bell Labs. I have tons of fond memories. My roommate rose to the level of Chairman and CEO of Siemens Telecom. Another colleague became vice chairman of Global Siemens Telecom in Germany. I am thankful for the tremendous amount of knowledge I gained during my tenure at Bell Labs.

How did you move from Bell Labs to being Chairman and CEO of your own company? And is that how you ended up moving to North Carolina?

In the 1990s, AT&T spun off Bell Labs into a new company named Lucent Technologies. Prior to that point, I thought to myself “Should I go out on my own? Or should I become a preacher and enroll in seminary?”

This was a key subject that my family talked about. My wife, Alice, encouraged me to charge my own path and do my own thing. At the same time, I got a call from a group of former Bell Labs leaders who took over ITT Telecom in Raleigh. They asked if I would go and join them. We decided to move to Raleigh – it appeared to be a good place to raise our young family.

So I left Bell Labs and joined ITT Telecom. They needed someone to bring their technology from Europe to America, and I was attracted to the challenge and difficulty of the opportunity. I also felt the need to leave Bell Labs. While it was scary to leave to go out on my own, the place, while safe, but against my spirit for entrepreneurship, which I hoped to release for my potential of a life unknown to me at the time.

This was the first big step I took to find my own journey. I felt so free the moment I walked out of the front door at Bell Lbas. It served as the foundation of my starting several companies, all of which I based in Raleigh. This fed from my family tradition of strong self-motivation. To live a life that is meant to be lived; to seek purpose and meaning. From then, I never stopped – I’m a serial entrepreneur and help other people to do the same. Just this morning, I helped 2 Chinese companies in China that work with several companies in NC.

How did you decide to start Junior Achievement China?

I spent 10 years from 1983 to 1993 to prepare myself on how to give back to my homeland. I worked with a young man on my staff to assist me on how to figure out the best way to help China. Our conclusion was the need for economic education and entrepreneurship as well as keeping character as the #1 priority in doing business.

We uncovered that Junior Achievement (JA) wanted to take the JA program worldwide. In 1993, I was invited to be a founding member of JA International. I met with the JA team at their corporate headquarters in Colorado Springs – and was very inspired with the JA history and program. Our earlier identified gap areas helped us decide quickly to start JA China in 1993. I was part of founding JA international and remain on their board. My wife Alice helped tremendously. I would not have been able to establish and grow JA China without her.

So for the last 20 years – I’ve been giving back to China. Our best export is not manufacturing, but the Junior Achievement program.

When and why did you start your foundation? What impact are you most proud? What is your long-term vision?

I came from a family that lost everything from the Japanese invasion and civil war. What we didn’t lose as a family was self-respect; we know who we are. Within us, there is always a desire to develop the full potential in each of our lives. It is our family tradition to give expectations of self.

My father became a Christian when he studied in a German Catholic university in Beijing. He built community churches wherever he lived. My parents gave me a very, very good example. There were always people coming to ask them for help, and they readily responded. I have a strong desire to give back to society; specifically, I want to give back to the community in RTP. This is based on my Judeo-Christian values.

My grandfather, father, and mother were all very philanthropic. Here in the U.S., many people are the same way. I believe that the Chinese can learn from the American model of philanthropy. The most generous people on earth are Americans – we want to give and help. We create wealth so we can help our neighbors and give back to society. I believe it is part of our humanity – everyone has such a desire. It is programmed in us. It comes very naturally for me to share the money that I have made. I don’t want to give this money to my children – they have to make their own money.

One examples is that I helped start Trinity Academy in Raleigh, to honor my wife Alice, by providing seed capital. It is my true joy to give it away – it is part of my life, part of me. I hope more Asian Americans will participate in philanthropy to influence and change lives. I hope that Asian Americans will learn what makes America great and will participate in that.

How do you divide your time between NC and China, and other parts of the world?

I spend about 60% of my time in China and 40% of my time in NC. I travel often with my family – we are a global family – we think globally. I was asked to be the first overseas GM at Bell Labs – to go to Korea in 1979 – to do a major reconstruction program. At Bell Labs, I taught people about Japan, Asia, and other parts of world. Because of my background and understanding – being Asian provides a big opportunity to contribute here in the U.S.

What is the impression of NC in China? What is the dynamic between U.S. and China for the Chinese who come here?

People in China generally have no idea of NC! They know the U.S., America as a whole. They know NYC shopping and LA and Silicon Valley – Steve Jobs and Apple. They know the major cities.

In the early 80s and 90s – people just want to come and study to get out of China. Their #1 choice is U.S., #2 is Europe, and #3 is Canada. Now that people in China have money, when they think of America – they think Luis Vuitton and Prada. They think very globally.

There is an old Chinese proverb – “In study or in books – there is money, power, and there is a beautiful girl you can marry.” Easiest path to success is education. All want to be educated. You study until you die – you learn everyday.

There is also a very detrimental effect on the whole population in China. It promotes elitism. In China, the belief is that studying is the only thing worthy of doing. There is worship of scholars, defiance of merchants, and contempt against the businessman – who holds the lowest social status in China.

So many want to come here to study because education is the shortest path to success. Being a PhD or MD gives you such a high social status in Chinese communities. People also just wanted to get out of China. Who can blame them? Just like Mexicans wanting to cross the border. So this desire plus the status of acquiring educational degrees propelled many to put their sole focus in life on coming to study in the U.S.

More recently, China in the last 30 years has become the #2 economy while the U.S. has lost traction. The lifestyle here still is stable, where one can become middle class if they are honest and work hard. The Chinese love money; faith in money is a national movement – it is easy to make money in China now. So a new trend is that many people do studies here and now want to return to China.

Also, culturally, many people cannot make it here in the U.S. They cannot make America their home, so they go back and provide a life for themselves in China. There exist good reasons for some Chinese who want to go back. We should encourage them to do their own thing – whatever is the best thing for them to do.

What advice do you have for NC business owners/corporate executives who want to do business with China?

You have to understand the Chinese culture. You have to understand the other party first before they are able to understand you. You have to have a game plan based on an understanding of China and your partners in China.

Please, don’t believe all the bad stories you hear about China. People, even the Chinese, love to blame China – corruption is the decision of the past, not the decision of today. People always talk about corruption – those are the old days. Do we want to be corrupted? No, we don’t. Tradition, however, dominates in China. People want to change that.

Why do Chinese students want to come to America? To experience different culture and civilization? Civilization can be learned. Culture is how we breathe, drink the water. Each individual transforms themselves. There is a process.

The American businessman has to learn how business is done in China. They can have the power to both engage and transform. To become part of the global community and family – to become partners – to become married in the business. You cannot look at the other side as inferior. Compromise is a losing strategy. Must look at synergy. I challenge you to “marry” your Chinese partner, produce a “little baby” – perhaps a joint venture. Ask “how, as a mom/dad, can we make this baby flourish? How are we going to make this work?” Talk about our little baby – what can we do to make it successful. Do not be adversarial, but make the situation work.

Many people don’t understand China but want to do business with China. Motivate Americans to understand China and in turn for Chinese to come and understand the U.S. We all have a long way to learn.

Editor’s note: Ms. Ueng’s interview with Dr. YanChing Zhang, who also will be part of the panel discussion, can be read online.

About Grace Ueng: In 2003, after serving on management teams for five successful technology ventures, Grace Ueng, founded Savvy Marketing Group, a boutique marketing strategy and management consulting firm. Ueng has served on adjunct faculty at both UNC Kenan-Flager and the international MBA program at Fudan in Shanghai, in joint venture with MIT Sloan School. She was recently named one of eight women of influence by Audrey, a national publication that covers the lives of Asian-American women.

About the NCCBA: Since 2004, the North Carolina Chinese Business Association (NCCBA) has served as: (1) dynamic networking platform to connect entrepreneurs and those in larger companies in doing business with China. NCCBA has also promoted Sino-U.S. friendship and collaboration. (2) a major catalyst in bridging China – NC business relationships, hosting Chinese business delegations to NC every year, to create and sustain successful and forward thinking North Carolina businesses. (3) provider of educational assistance sponsoring over 100 activities to educate and advise members in starting new businesses or progressing in corporate careers in NC. For more information, see