Lisa Su: immigrant, female, PhD, and — yes — CEO of AMD

Lisa Su was the second woman since 1991 to receive the Noyce Award for outstanding contributions to the chip industry. (SIA)

AMD CEO Lisa Su, 51, accepted the chip industry’s highest honor last week from the Semiconductor Industry Association for “outstanding contributions to the industry.”

Even so, her story may only be beginning.

Since becoming CEO in October 2014, AMD stock has soared 20-fold, reaching a $100 billion market capitalization. The company has steadily moved to making chips for servers and data centers beyond its earlier focus on PCs and gaming.  Its Zen architecture, launched n 2017, is now in its second generation and competes with market leader Intel.

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In a breathtaking move, Su recently announced AMD will buy programmable chipmaker Xilinx for $35 billion.

Investors and many customers already love what Su has done for AMD, but her legacy is showing up in other longer-lasting ways that carry far beyond chips and technology.

As only the second woman to win the annual SIA’s Robert N. Noyce Award since it began in 1991, she takes on the mantle for minority and female representation in industry, affecting corporate hiring and technology training policy beyond AMD.  (SIA has a 4-minute video of prior Noyce Award winners, a list of nearly all white men. Charlene Barshefsky was the first woman to win the award in 1997 for her contributions to open markets as U.S. Trade Representative from 1997 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton.)

Born in Taiwan in November, 1969, Su immigrated with her family to the U.S. at age 3. Her status as an immigrant and woman who graduated from Bronx High School and then went on to get degrees in electrical engineering from MIT, including a Ph.D., puts her in category of leaders that aligns with advisors recently appointed by President-elect Joe Biden.

“There are incredible opportunities in engineering and the semiconductor field,” she said in fireside chat remarks on receiving the Noyce Award.  “Our job is to provide those opportunities.  I’ve been very fortunate to have great mentors…when I was a kid.  At the end of the day, it is about opportunities and getting more experiences. You can truly make a difference if you put your mind to it.”

Later, she added that getting young students and their parents interested in STEM education is “about exposure…We build things on a little computer microchip that ends up powering the most powerful supercomputers in the world used in medical research and to simulate climate change and for design and automation. It’s about really showing people what the industry is capable of.”

In that chat with IBM Executive Vice President John Kelly, a 2009 recipient of the Noyce Award, Su recalled being mentored by former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner and Kelly to gain insights into the broad responsibilities of a top executive.  “I grew up at IBM and it shaped me as a leader,” Su said. “Five years out of grad school, I didn’t have any idea what it meant to be a CEO. It was fun to teach Lou about technology. He understood how important technology was. He showed me how important it is to connect the dots.  As cool as technology is, how does it affect customers? At the end of the day, we want to build technology that matters.”

The Noyce Award presentation included several video testimonials from people who have worked with Su through the years, describing her as a rare combination of technological expertise with management skills, including mentoring of others in the field.  One of her advisors at MIT, Electrical Engineering Prof. Dimitri Antoniadis recalled Su’s “drive for perfection” as a student, but also her leadership and mentorship.

“I fell in love with semiconductors as a freshman at MIT,” Su said. “My first job was doing grunt work in a semiconductor lab.  It’s always amazing to me what semiconductors can do for our lives and society. Even more so now in 2020, what is resoundingly clear is that technology is more important in our lives.”

Su on social inequality

The Noyce Award presentation did not dwell on important events of 2020, including the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic or social unrest over the killing of George Floyd.  However, in early June, Su offered up one of the most emotional responses of any corporate executive about the longstanding racial divide in the U.S.

Asked by CTA CEO Gary Shapiro in an online chat what Su thought of the Floyd killing and riots that followed, she opened up:

 “It’s shocking. It’s extraordinary disturbing. Anger, frustration, sadness as to where we are,” she said at the time.

“This has to be addressed,” she went on, according to a Venture Beat report of the conversation:

 “Social inequality has to be addressed. The racial divide has to be addressed. If you talk to most people, everybody feels that way. The key for us as a nation is how to effect change. It’s an opportunity to effect change.

“What we have to do is within our sphere of influence. Help employees, friends, families to process this and make sense of where we are. And it really is an opportunity for us to think about what will enable us to have systemic reform. The world has changed quite a bit. It’s an opportunity for us as leaders.

“I don’t know about other countries, but we have an issue. And it does boil down to the fact that it’s tough to be black in America because of our system. And there’s no denying. It’s just tragic. And I don’t think there are answers but I think we can agree on the problem. And that’s where I think we are, and it’s good to see people like yourself and other corporate leaders stand up and say this is important.

“I’m really big on making sure we’re not just talking about a topic, but we’re actually doing something about a topic. And so my conversation with some of my team is about what do we do so that we’re adding to it and not [just talking]. I think we all feel that responsibility.”

Following that talk with Shapiro, AMD made donations to the NAACP and HBCU Foundation and Su tweeted: “Recent events are a painful reminder of the work still ahead to end racism and social injustice. Together, we can and must make something good come from this unacceptable situation. AMD will do our part to help employees and communities effect systemic and lasting change starting with contributions to the NAACP and the HBCUFoundation.”

Fierce Electronics is following up on that long-term response from AMD, as well as other chipmakers, but it appears that many tech companies are considering ways to improve Black minority hiring and promotion.  In 2018, the last year that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission reported on the topic, 3.5% of engineers and other professionals in private computer and electronics manufacturing were Black workers, while executives in that sector included just 1.7% Black men and women.

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