May 18, 2021

Asia’s more equal opportunities

Published in View from the Edge – A monthly column by Lee Han Shih, Founder of the Potato Group, featured in the CompassList newsletter. The Sailor’s Log offers analysis, insights and coverage of noteworthy trends from up-and-coming startup ecosystems. It goes out the first and third Wednesday of every month. Get the CompassList newsletter here.

Asia venerates the aged; the west glorifies the young. Nowhere is this more evident than among the startups.

In the US, more and more money for startups is concentrating towards a small, demographically clearly defined group. 

The poster boys (and only boys) of this group, youthful, widely successful founders and co-founders are Steve Jobs (co-founded Apple at 21), Bill Gates (Microsoft, 20), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook, 20), Evan Spiegel (Snap, 20), Michael Dell (Dell Technologies, 19), Jeff Bezos (Amazon, 20) and Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google, 25 and 26). 

Encouraged by their stories of tech boys becoming billionaires, venture capitalists and “startup gurus” such as Paul Graham of Y Combinator have poured huge sums into young, male founders in the hope of replicating the success of Apple and Facebook.

These people, the VCs and middle-aged mentors, mostly found in and around Silicon Valley, are the gatekeepers of innovation. Without their money and network, it would be extremely difficult for any startup to make it big in the US.

Would these people give money to, say, a 43-year-old man who wants to build a phone company or a 56-year-old man who has the outlandish idea of a semiconductor foundry? These two guys would be laughed out of the doors, assuming they could get in in the first place.

Yet there was money, huge sums, given to the 43- and 56-year-olds. The year was 1987. The place was, first, China; then Taiwan. And the two men have grown from that humble beginning to become also billionaire tech founders as famous as Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg and the rest. They have also become something much more – they are now symbols of the cutting-edge in their land of origin and both pawns and players in the highest stake international political arena. 

The then-43-year-old was Ren Zhengfei, ex-army and founder of Huawei Technologies, arguably the world’s most advanced 5G telco. Huawei is at the center of a dispute involving China, the US and Canada over the 2018 detention at Vancouver airport of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, daughter and eldest child of Ren. It came after a provisional US extradition request for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud to circumvent US sanctions against Iran. The case, wildly seen as partly due to Huawei’s lead in key 5G areas, is still ongoing. (Meng took her surname from her mother, who is divorced from Ren). 

The other man, turning 90 this year, is Morris Chang. His Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company has become the only source of advanced chips needed globally for cars, phones and numerous other industries. Both Ren and Chang were (and still are) supported by their respective governments, who see the need for locally-made phones and chips and are willing to spend billions to make that happen. 

The stories of Ren and Chang used to be commonplace in the US, but not anymore. The youth cult in Silicon Valley has funneled the money for startups to males aged between 20 and 35, while in the east, neither gender nor age is an obstacle to innovation. This does not bode well for the west in the long run. 

About the author

Lee Han Shih is Founder of the Potato Productions group. He sees things from the edge and tries to stay ahead of the curve. He has been a teacher, a civil servant and a journalist. Now he’s trying to prove startups can do good and still make money.