Two Cultures, One Heart

Published on May 11, 2017

Bauer Alumna and Former Texas Instruments Senior Fellow to Become Asian Hall of Fame’s First Engineer

Duy-Loan Le (MBA ’89) is the first engineer inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame.

It’s been more than 40 years since Duy-Loan Le (MBA ‘89) left Saigon.

It was April 22, 1975, to be exact. Just as South Vietnam was falling to the communist North, Le, her mother and all but one of her eight siblings were able to flee their war-shattered homeland.

Since arriving in Houston as a 12-year-old who spoke no English, Le has achieved many accomplishments, awards and historical “firsts.”

At 16, she was valedictorian of her high-school class. At 19, she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and was immediately hired by Texas Instruments (TI).

During her legendary, 33-year career at the technology giant, she became the first woman, the first Asian and one of the youngest employees ever elected to the prestigious rank of Senior Fellow, which placed her in the top 0.01 percent at TI. Along the way, she earned an MBA from Bauer College so that she could understand the world of business as well as technology.

But after all the years and all the achievements (including 24 patents), Le has never lost touch with her heritage. That’s why she’s so proud of her latest “first.”

On May 13, the Bauer alumna will become the first engineer inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame, joining a roster that includes Olympic athletes, former White House cabinet members, and Hollywood celebrities.

Though Le retired from TI in 2015, she maintains an intense schedule, serving on several corporate boards, university boards (including Bauer College’s), volunteering with non-profits (including the two she co-founded, Mona Foundation and her beloved Sunflower Mission, which serves the Vietnamese community), and giving keynote addresses.

We recently caught up with Le for an hour-long interview and found her to be a funny, self-deprecating and inspirational conversationalist. Here are some highlights.

 

How did you get into engineering?

I did not want to become an engineer. I hated engineering!

 

What did you want to do?

I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be somebody who could heal the sick with knowledge and kindness. But my father had this crazy dream: “You are going to be an engineer.” I have no idea why my father had that crazy, insane idea. Getting into an engineering school in Vietnam for a girl is impossible! So when I left, I was determined to fulfill that dream in America.

 

How did you come to work for TI?

This was 35 years ago. Even today, let alone back then, a female engineer graduating magna cum laude in electrical engineering at such a young age, 19, is very rare. Companies always want to hire female engineers — if they can find one, let alone one with those attributes. So I received many offers. But TI was the only company that not only sent the offer in the mail, but also sent a senior engineer to my home to hand-deliver the letter. And I was struck by that kindness and what proved to be a company with a very caring nature.

 

What did you do there?

I was a design engineer. I designed computer memory. It’s called DRAM (dynamic random-access memory). When you buy a computer, they will ask you how much memory you want. That’s the DRAM.

Over time, I rose up to become a section manager, then design manager for one project, and design manager for multiple projects. Ultimately, I became the program manager for some of the most important projects in our memory division.

In 1998, TI sold its memory division to Micron. So I transferred to a different division (digital signal processing, or DSP) and started my career all over, because Memory and DSP divisions are very different! I was elected a TI fellow in 1999 and senior fellow in 2002.

 

Why did you want to get your MBA at UH?

I knew from the day I got to TI that I wanted to get a master’s degree. I also knew I did not want to get a PhD. That was very clear in my head.  … I chose the MBA because I wanted to be a rounded person, meaning I didn’t just want to be the best engineer technically. I wanted to be the best engineer leader. So I needed to understand the business side of things, because innovation is useless unless you can commercialize it. … I also wanted to learn about investment and taxation. I want to make money, but I also want to understand about our taxation system so I can keep my money. So my MBA focus was actually taxation.

 

How does it feel to be named to the Asian Hall of Fame?

To be honest, I was very surprised when they contacted me, because usually they induct celebrities, athletes, journalists. … When I looked at the kind of people they induct, I said, “Wow! These are really accomplished people. What the hell am I doing here?”

 

That’s funny. But still, you must be very proud?

People ask: “Duy-Loan, what are some of the proudest moments in your life?” And immediately many moments come to mind from my education and career. …  But if you ask me, “Truly, what is the one moment that captures your heart, that you’ll never forget?”

That would be when my oldest son spoke at my late father’s 90th birthday. He spoke in beautiful Vietnamese. I watched my father’s emotion. He was speechless!

Why was that moment so important? Because I have been able to carry my family’s name with pride and dignity, raising my two sons as responsible Americans, but also as Vietnamese who are proud of their heritage. Honoring the country where I was born is extremely important to me. Carrying your family’s name with dignity is something I must earn. I cannot buy it. No matter how rich I am. To reflect my heritage and the contribution I have made as an Asian-American to this country called America, a country I owe so much to, is something I have tried to do my entire life, so that I can be worthy of calling myself an American citizen. I must have earned it. I must have worked my butt off! I cannot buy it.

By Wendell Brock