Spotlight Story

Michelle Leyden Li: Two Decades of Ingenuity at Chip Giants
by Joanna Corman

Michelle Leyden Li MBA 95 can thank a happy coincidence for landing at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. A former opera singer who married an opera singer, Leyden Li enrolled at the UC Davis School of Law because she wanted to gain the skills to better manage her husband’s career.

Soon after arriving on campus, she discovered the joint MBA program. She received her law degree and passed the bar, and then fell in love with business and marketing. After earning her MBA in 1995, she did a short stint in public relations for classical music in New York.

A chance phone call with a fellow GSM alumna working at Intel led to Leyden Li applying for an opportunity there, even though she lacked a tech background. It was the beginning of a meteoric rise in the marketing ranks in the ultracompetitive global chip industry.

I was tasked with developing the marketing plan and brand positioning for what became Centrino Mobile Technology—one of the most successful brands in Intel’s history. … Mobile computing was born. That was a real turning point in the industry.

“That opened a whole new chapter of my life,” Leyden Li said. “I realized when I started working at Intel that I loved technology. It sent my career on a very different direction than I would have thought at the time. I haven’t looked back.”

For much of the past two decades, Leyden Li has held executive positions in product marketing and product management in the semiconductor industry.

During her career, she’s been on the forefront of game-changing computing breakthroughs, including Intel’s Centrino Mobile Technology and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors. After 11 years at Intel, Leyden Li moved to Qualcomm as senior director of product marketing for Snapdragon, the company’s high-performance and power-efficient processors for smart phones, tablets, TVs and set-tops.

In September, Leyden Li took on a sales role, becoming vice president of major accounts and strategic alliances at Globalfoundries Inc., a Silicon Valley-based semiconductor fabrication firm with 18,000 employees in Asia, Europe and the United States, and more than 250 customers worldwide. Based in San Diego, she is responsible for many of the company’s major accounts.

She loves the ingenuity involved in dreaming up innovative ideas. ““It still amazes me 20 years later,” she says. “There’s always something new. There are brilliant people around you all the time to learn from. It’s very humbling. That to me is exciting because every day I get up thinking, ‘I’m going to learn something new today.’ Isn’t that fun?”

Global Product Launch: In an interview with RCR Wireless News at the 2014 international Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Michelle Leyden Li, then of Qualcomm, introduces the company’s four new Snapdragon processors. These game-changing processors power 4K video for tablets; multiprocessing for high-volume smart phones; smart TVs, set-tops and digital media adaptors; and automotive infotainment systems.

“It still amazes me 20 years later. There’s always something new. There are brilliant people around you all the time to learn from. It’s very humbling. That to me is exciting because every day I get up thinking, ‘I’m going to learn something new today.’ Isn’t that fun?”

We asked her about her career in high-tech marketing, women in tech, and personal challenges:

Is there a marketing campaign you’ve created that you’re most proud of?

I took a product-line management job at Intel and the role was to help promote a new mobile chip. In those days mobile meant laptop. It was a very different direction for Intel. CPUs were getting faster and faster.

When we started to look at mobile, we said mobile is completely different. People want to be wireless. They want good battery life. They want to be able to take their laptop anywhere, which means it needs to be lighter. We’ve got to figure out how to design this product so when you’re not using it, it goes to sleep, using less energy so the battery lasts longer. And people want to be connected to the Internet, so it has to be Wi-Fi enabled.

I was tasked with developing the marketing plan and brand positioning for what became Centrino Mobile Technology—one of the most successful brands in Intel’s history. Thin, light, power-efficient and connected turned out to be a revolutionary idea at the time because it represented freedom: the idea that you didn’t have to be tethered to your desk and to a cord to use your computer. Mobile computing was born. That was a real turning point in the industry when that happened.

How do you see yourself as a role model for other women in your industry?

I have probably a little different take on the women in tech thing. The tech industry needs more diversity, that’s true, but I don’t think it’s just a women vs. men thing. I think diversity of ideas goes much broader than that. I read an article recently about how we should be encouraging more women in the technology industry and that will make us diverse suddenly but I’m not sure I agree with that. I think what makes us diverse is not just gender but diversity of perspectives, which means including people from different socio-economic backgrounds, different ethnicities, different ages, different levels of experience and so on. Let’s figure out how to be truly inclusive and the diversity resulting from this inclusiveness is what will drive innovation.

What are you passionate about in your work?

The most exciting things in my career have been starting something from nothing and being able to build something, whether it’s a team, a marketing campaign, a strategy, and being able to execute it and see it to completion.

It still amazes me 20 years later. There’s always something new. There are brilliant people around you all the time to learn from. It’s very humbling. That to me is exciting because every day I get up thinking, ‘I’m going to learn something new today.’ Isn’t that fun?

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced personally?

The biggest challenge for me personally is being a very successful woman. My husband now is a stay-at-home dad; he’s been since my daughter was born. [They have an older son.]

Society hasn’t quite accepted that yet. I think it’s getting better but especially early on when he first was staying home with my daughter and I was working, school would still call me and say, ‘Can you bake cookies for the bake sale?’ And I’d say, ‘First of all, I work 65 hours a week and secondly, my husband’s cookies are a lot better than mine, so you really should call him.’ He’s much better as a stay-at-home parent than I ever would be. I hope society does catch up to the fact that anybody can do any of that, and everybody should have the flexibility and the choice.

What was your most rewarding experience at the Graduate School of Management?

The diversity of student population and the diversity of thought within the classes. I had been out in the working world before going back to get my graduate degrees. There were folks who were similar as me and others had come directly from undergrad, from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, different perspectives. That was very valuable.

Driving High-Tech Sales: Alumna Michelle Leyden Li, then senior director of marketing at Qualcomm, breaks down the specifications and capabilities of the Snapdragon 200, 400, 600 and 800, the company’s high-performance and power-efficient processors for smart phones, tablets, TVs and set-tops.