When David Lam finished a doctorate in chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was about to pursue an academic position, his adviser gave him four words of advice: “Get a real job.”
Lam, born in China and raised in Vietnam, did leave academia. He first became a scientist for major manufacturers, then founded his own business with an improved plasma machine for fabricating computer chips.
Lam Research weathered early financial issues, then piled up sales and became the first company launched by an Asian American to be listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. After Lam moved on, the company he started grew to Fortune 500 size. (Fortune magazine ranks top U.S. corporations based on revenues, profits and other indices.)
Lam, 73, now chairman of Multibeam Corporation, helped other startups get off the ground and became a “mentor capitalist” who advises others on how to turn ideas into actual businesses.
He gained an eye for business as a boy watching his father fail at two businesses in Vietnam before finding success as the exclusive distributor of Pilot fountain pens across Southeast Asia.
“I picked up entrepreneurship just talking to him and little things I learned around the house,” says Lam, who grew up near Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — and attended schools in Hong Kong.
Both parents encouraged him to pursue education as far as possible. “I remember my father said, ‘I won’t leave you much when I leave the world, but what you learn in your head will stay with you.’”
Lam struggled with Shakespeare in college while still learning English, but found an ingenious way to pass the mandatory literature class. He guessed correctly beforehand at most of the essay questions that would be asked on the final exam, wrote out thoughtful responses and memorized them.
The memorization gave him time to respond, which he wouldn’t have had if he’d been struggling to find the words on the spot. “The professor gave me a 60, just passing, and half of that was a sympathy grade,” he recalls.
Straight A’s in science and math propelled Lam to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the doctorate.
Passed over for a junior manager’s job at Hewlett-Packard Company, Lam took accounting and business classes at night at a community college to learn the rudiments of running a company.
Silicon Valley was just taking off, rewarding entrepreneurs like Lam.
In Silicon Valley, he says, “people actually accept failure and may invest in you again. That exists in American society and not necessarily elsewhere, giving the immigrant a better chance to make it.” But, he adds, “I always knew I had to try a little harder.”