Dr. Charles Lee
(Author of “Cowboys and Dragons”)
Dr. Charles Lee grew up on mainland China and Taiwan; he has lived his adult life in America. His bicultural journey began when he traveled from East to West in 1963, from Taiwan to the University of Minnesota. On an academic scholarship, he earned Master’s degrees in civil and aeronautical engineering and a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. He observes that many of his Chinese friends also earned advanced degrees, but unlike most of them who only learned enough English to get by, he set out to know English. He also set out to become American, and eventually became a naturalized American citizen.
He began his business career at Sperry Univac and AT&T, where he did corporate strategy and business development work. In 1976 at AT&T, he experienced his first bicultural business negotiation, representing AT&T in discussions with the People’s Republic of China regarding joint research activities between Bell Labs and the Research Academy of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. At AT&T, he also learned about some Bell Labs communications technology we now call the Internet.
In 1977, he joined Exxon Enterprises, and two years later switched to XDC (Xerox Development Corporation) - venture capital offspring of their parent firms. He recounts as his fondest memory of this period meeting Stephen Jobs when he presented his fledgling business plan to XDC. Dr. Lee recommended and got approved $1 million in second round financing for a tiny company called Apple Computer. Mr. Jobs had dropped out of college to roam around Asia for some time, where he learned how badly the Asian peasants needed small, inexpensive tools. That set him to thinking about how Americans needed an inexpensive, personal computer. Mr. Jobs and Dr. Lee immediately understood one another.
In 1981, he founded his own venture capital firm, Abacus Ventures. Over the years, his team has developed Abacus (now Charles Lee Enterprises) into a leading venture capital firm specializing in information technology with an international scope. The team has helped launch such new technology firms as Pliant Systems (formerly BroadBand Technologies), TranSwitch, and OTI (now a part of MCI Worldcom). Some of the entrepreneurs they have helped have been Asians.
Surprisingly, when asked how he would like to be seen, Dr. Lee does not emphasize the venture capital success story. Instead, he speaks of his personal identity as a bicultural person - deeply Chinese and yet successfully American - and his mission for ameliorating Chinese-American relations. He recounts with pleasure how his American partners react to his relationships with Chinese businessmen: “’Charles, you’re a different person among the Chinese.’ They see me disappear into the world of dragons and ancient traditions and wonder if I will ever come out. When I am with Chinese people, I become very Chinese. The funny thing is that my Chinese friends say exactly the same thing: ‘Charles, you become a different person when you’re with Americans. You become like a cowboy in a Western. We cannot understand you then.’ So you see, over the years I have become both very Chinese and very American.”
“It has reached the point that both sides want me interpreting for them, even when we have qualified interpreters present. ‘Charles, tell them what I mean,’ they often say. Why? I think it is because the interpreters have become bilingual people, but I have become truly bicultural. I have an American businessman’s head and a heart deeply committed to China and to Chinese beliefs. Of course, I cannot make my friends, or the readers of my book, truly bicultural. I can help both Americans and Chinese to avoid the pitfalls of a distorted cultural vision.” There it is - the man and the mission.
As a part of the mission, Dr. Lee helped introduce venture capital operations to Taiwan in 1981 and helped establish China’s first venture capital firm in 1986. South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore have developed venture capital institutions partly as the result of his efforts. In the process, he has come to have personal relationships with many Asian leaders in government, industry, and higher education. To this day, he continues to receive invitations to address seminars and guest lectures at business schools on both sides of the Pacific, which he accepts if at all possible.
When asked how he has managed to succeed in these two very tough worlds, venture capital and Asian-American business relations, he replies that the basic answer is simple - team building - even though the work itself can be very hard. Dr. Lee even applies his team building philosophy in the writing of his book: ”Cowboys and Dragons.” In this team, it includes a ghost writer, an editor, a public relations expert, a literary agent and a publisher. Dr. Lee is dedicated to be an effective “bridge” between the East and the West.