Thai Lee ’80 founded a business because she didn’t think she’d succeed at anything else. Now she heads the largest woman-owned company in the United States
QUICK QUIZ QUESTION: who is Amherst’s most successful entrepreneur ever, and what does he do?
The answer may surprise you. First, it is not a he, but a she: Thai Lee ’80, co-founder, primary owner and CEO of Software House International, an IT software-and-services provider that is currently the largest woman-owned company in the United States. Under Lee’s guidance, SHI, which provides tech support for large corporations, has stayed ahead of the curve in a notoriously innovative industry, boasting steady expansion and annual sales that last year approached $7 billion. The company’s success has won Lee 14th place on Forbes magazine’s list of the nation's 50 Richest Self-Made Women, with a personal net worth notching in at $1.1 billion.
A lot is surprising, even paradoxical, about the woman whom a May 2015 Forbes profile called “The Modest Tycoon.” Who is Thai Lee? A brilliant entrepreneur who picked up a Harvard MBA “as my backup plan,” yet
insists she’s no smarter than anyone else. An immigrant who became a corporate CEO because, by her own account, she was too shy and insecure to do anything else. A paragon of serious determination whose conversation bursts with self-deprecating laughter. A driven über-achiever who embraces the “Tiger Mom” parenting philosophy, yet is loathe to discipline her children. And a tech-industry titan who possesses more wealth than 15,000 median American households combined, yet couldn’t care less about spending it, because she dislikes “buying stuff.”
Whatever else she may be, Lee is surely one of the most unusual admissions ever at Amherst. Her father, Daniel Kie-Hong Lee ’50, was the College’s first Korean graduate, and his life story—he died in 2012—is a fascinating tale of survival and serendipity. That story is of paramount significance to his daughter. “Actually, the reason I agreed to do this article,” Thai Lee said, two minutes into our interview this past fall, “is to talk about my father.” Lee believes her father’s story can provide guidance to students today. “I think that’s very much needed,” she said. “And it’s really an amazing story.”
Though he would become a prominent architect of South Korea’s economic boom, Kie-Hong Lee came from nothing. Born in 1922 in a village in the remote Korean countryside, he was part of a large family whose father died young. Korea at that time was part of imperial Japan, and Lee, a bright pupil, won a scholarship to a high school in Hiroshima, and from there went on to Hiroshima Imperial Normal College (now University), a school for Japanese nobility and elites. His education was interrupted by World War II, when he was pressed into labor at an ammunition factory; he was sent back to Korea shortly before Hiroshima was destroyed by the American atom bomb. “He was very lucky not to have been there,” his daughter told me.
In Korea, Lee, who by then spoke five languages, was picked up by the U.S. Army as a translator. “He did such an exceptional job for the Americans,” Thai Lee told me, “that two years later he was summoned into the office of a general, who asked him, ‘What can we do for you?’” Lee’s answer was immediate: he wanted to study in the U.S. Eventually an Army letter of recommendation landed on the desk of Amherst President Charles Cole. Cole was duly impressed. “And so my father went to Amherst on a full scholarship,” his daughter recounted. “He had never been to the United States before.”
At Amherst, Kie-Hong Lee made two connections that proved fateful. One was with Professor Willard Thorp, the renowned liberal economist and a drafter of the Marshall Plan, whose course in the postwar economic development of Japan helped shape Lee’s professional future: a master’s degree in economics at Columbia, and a rise to directorship of South Korea’s Economic Planning Board. The other connection was personal. As an undergraduate Lee became fast friends with Willard Weeks ’51, a native New Yorker who eventually settled in the Amherst area as a physician. Weeks and Lee stayed in touch, and decades later, Lee—eager for his two teenaged daughters to receive an American education—sent them to live with the Weeks family. Thus, in the fall of 1974, Thai Lee found herself thrust into the role of a small-town American high school student.
The experience was daunting. “I wasn’t an American teenager,” she recalls. “I wasn’t athletic; I didn’t participate in student government or extracurricular activities. And as a student I knew I had to catch up.” Ignorant of pop culture, shaky in her English, she bore down hard in school. Graduating from Amherst Regional High in 1976, she enrolled at the College, following in the footsteps of both her father and her sister, Margaret Lee ’78.
At Amherst, Thai Lee’s insecurity only deepened. “I felt very insufficiently prepared for college life. I was scared.” Above all, her imperfect English made her feel exposed. In high school she had compensated by focusing on math and science courses, and at Amherst she doubled down on the bet, choosing courses by an unusual criterion: she would not take anything that required writing papers or speaking in class. And so no English classes. No history. No political science.
Today Lee looks back at these choices with rueful humor. “I’m not exactly a Renaissance person,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t know of any other student that avoided all humanities courses as totally as I did. I was such a coward!” But at the time, her predicament was anything but amusing. Half a world away from home, uncertain and underprepared, she felt lost. She was so far behind. She had to catch up. She needed a plan.
IN MAY 2014, the day before she was awarded an honorary doctorate at Amherst’s commencement, Thai Lee gave a remarkable talk to an audience of graduating seniors and parents. In it she recalled how, as a painfully insecure Amherst student—and recent immigrant—she had sought to anchor herself in a vision of future accomplishment. Taking stock of her own strengths and weaknesses, she reached what might seem an unlikely realization for an undergraduate: “I concluded I could only be successful running my own company.” To that end, she planned out her career. The first step was to “assume I’ll live to be a hundred”—the audience chuckled—and then to fashion “a goal template” for each decade of her life.
“We had one employee, and one customer: IBM,” she says. She nevertheless renamed the company Software house international, then began seeking new ways to expand.
The goals included personal ones—marry, have a child—but the big goal was to run her own company, and she described spending her 20s preparing for it, reading business journals, devouring self-improvement books. “I also went to Harvard Business School, so in case I failed in entrepreneurship, I’d have something to fall back on.” After stints at Procter & Gamble and American Express, she was ready. By then she had married, and she and her husband, Leo Koguan, scraped together the funds to buy a tiny New Jersey software reseller, Software House, that purchased discounted Lotus software and purveyed it to clients. “We had one employee,” Lee recalled, “and one customer: IBM.” She nevertheless renamed the company Software House International, then began seeking new clients and new ways to expand. A quarter-century later, SHI—by now truly an international company—has 3,200 employees and 20,000 client companies.
Lee’s Amherst audience chortled at the idea of a Harvard MBA as a fallback plan. They clucked when she counseled students to marry early, as she had, since “if you’re single it’s very distracting, having to worry about dating.” And they all but gasped when she described how she breaks down each decade’s template into yearly goals—“and at the end of each quarter, I grade myself.” The reaction betrayed a touch of awe at the prospect of a college student formulating such a detailed life plan—and then executing it, point by point. Here was a woman who viewed early marriage as a way to focus more effectively on one’s business.
I found myself mulling over this single-mindedness as I drove to meet Lee at SHI’s headquarters, a brick and glass building in a corporate park in northern New Jersey. It was two days before Thanksgiving, and employees in blue jeans were trickling in at 9:10 a.m. Lee’s office is modest in size and anything but showy, fitted out with generic office furniture, some family photos and her computer, to which she intermittently swiveled during our conversation, helpfully fact-checking this or that point.
In conversation Lee comes off as both warmly ingratiating and precise. I brought up her talk at Amherst and her remark about knowing that she wanted to run her own company. Where had such clarity of purpose come from in someone so young?
“I think sometimes it’s good to not have a choice,” she said, selecting her words carefully. I asked what she meant. Had her parents pushed her to become a businesswoman?
Not at all, she said. “Actually, my father’s advice was to become a medical technician. Not even a doctor.” While liberal for a Korean man of his generation, Kie-Hong Lee hadn’t encouraged his daughters to be ambitious. Choosing a career path had been a process of elimination, Lee told me. “I knew I wanted to be successful. But when I looked around, I couldn’t imagine myself being successful in most of the areas that I could think about.”
Thai Lee (third from left) in 2008 with mother Young-Ja Kim; father Kie-Hong Lee ’50, Amherst’s first Korean graduate; and sister Celeste Lee P’14. They are in the garden of her sister Margaret Lee ’78.
She meant that literally, she insisted; one by one, we went down a list of career options a math-and-science Amherst grad might consider, and Lee explained why she had crossed each one off. I asked: How about becoming a scientist? Nope. (“I loved the theoretical part, but I could never find anything in the microscope.”) A research economist? (“That requires the ability to read and write.”) A professor? (“You have to be engaging.”) A doctor? (“The smells, the blood, the physical body—I find it all very troubling.”) A therapist? (“It would be too depressing.”) A top executive in a Fortune 500 company? (“You have to be political and you need social skills.”)
Eventually there was nothing left. Basically, Lee was saying, she became the founder of a multi-billion-dollar company because she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“I couldn’t imagine being successful at anything else,” she corrected me. “That is the truth.”
It struck me as an unusual mixture of pessimism and hopefulness. I asked Lee what she made of the exhortation to young people, offered in so many college commencement addresses, to find the thing that you’re passionate about, and do that.
“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “I think you should find things that you can be successful in and do well at. Passion is fleeting. That’s true in romance, right? It’s true in life, too. When you find success, you’re going to love it.”
LEE IS EXTRAORDINARILY SUCCESSFUL at what she does. Under her direction, SHI has become one of the most respected and profitable IT vendors in the world. The company routinely boasts 15 to 20 percent annual growth; has employees in New Jersey, Texas, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Hong Kong; and continues to expand. This February it opened a giant new configuration center—the facility where products are assembled and shipped—with more than 300,000 square feet of space. Its client list ranges from small companies to behemoths such as Verizon and Boeing—in fact, most of the top 50 companies on the Fortune 500 list.
Those who have watched Lee over the years, industry observers and SHI employees alike, call her an exceptionally nimble CEO, skilled at anticipating changes in the industry and adapting quickly. “Thai never takes anything for granted,” one longtime employee told me. “If she doesn’t like a certain direction we’re going in, she can decide in a day to shift directions. ‘We’re not going to do that,’ she’ll say. ‘We’re changing course.’”
These course changes have helped SHI expand and diversify. “We help customers procure, buy, deploy and manage technology,” Lee said, giving me an overview. It’s a long way from hawking Lotus 1-2-3, and necessarily so. Where companies once relied on IT vendors like SHI for all their software needs, today they can simply download directly from a publisher, or run cloud-based applications, notes David M. Ewalt, the writer who profiled Lee for Forbes. Such changes, Ewalt told me, have forced IT companies to develop new lines of business. “Basically, companies like SHI are moving from simply equipping their client’s IT department to running their IT operations.”
Ask Lee what’s looming on the IT horizon, and she rattles off a state-of-the-industry report, detailing the rising and falling fortunes of a dozen companies. “We’re in a tumultuous state of change right now,” she told me. “The traditional IT companies are all struggling to grow. Traditional IT is shrinking, and new ITs are emerging, like Amazon and Google, that are cloud-based.” SHI’s role is shifting accordingly. The company has pushed into infrastructure asset management; data migration and storage; network security; and a host of other services. You get the sense that Lee succeeds by a kind of hypervigilance, keeping an alert eye on all developments—and all competitors—in an industry continuously transformed by technological innovation. I asked her: If her company failed to adapt, could she imagine that in 10 years it might not exist?
She answered instantly. “Absolutely. You could make that five years.”
A second pillar of SHI’s success has been its insistent focus on keeping customers happy. The Forbes profile lauded SHI’s “over-the-top customer service.” Though Lee was reluctant to put me in touch with clients (“I really dislike asking our customers anything”), her company boasts a 99 percent retention rate—an almost incredible figure in an industry in which customers typically change vendors whenever they find a better deal elsewhere. Lee points out that with more than 100,000 companies providing IT products and services in the United States alone, it’s a highly competitive industry. “The kind of support structure we have built is heavily personal. We bring a lot of value to our customers.”
Instead of pursuing a passion, Lee says, “find things that you can be successful in and do well at. passion is fleeting. when you find success, you’re going to love it.”
To get a more concrete sense of that value, I made the short drive to SHI’s configuration center, a vast hangar where orders were being filled for Verizon, Bank of America and others. Mike Scott, senior configuration manager, took me through huge halls of outgoing shipments stacked on pallets, and work areas where teams of employees huddled around projects. Some of the jobs SHI takes on are small chores: assembling stands for monitors for GrubHub, putting 70,000 scannable labels on desktop computers for State Farm. Others are complex, like the towering data storage-array racks that were being put together for JPMorgan Chase—each one, Scott explained, containing 16 servers with a total of 900 terabytes of storage, enough to hold 300 million photographs.
We were joined by senior warehouse manager Felipa Cousens. Both she and Scott have been with SHI from the start, as have 20 of the 85 warehouse employees. Such longevity is a hallmark of SHI and reflects strong loyalty to Lee. “She is the greatest to work for,” Cousens said. “She knows our warehouse people by name. She really cares.” Scott and Cousens see Lee as anything but remote or imposing. “For years when we were getting a shipment out, she’d come over and grab a tape gun and join in,” Cousens said. Scott added, “If you want to talk to her about something, you just walk right in. And she knows everything that’s going on.”
The last comment is something you hear again and again. “Thai always knows what’s happening,” another employee told me. “She steers the ship.” However large it becomes, SHI retains the intimate, impromptu spirit of a startup, and Lee’s hands-on, accessible way of running it seems to answer a basic business dilemma: How do you grow big enough to service some of the world’s largest companies, yet stay small enough to be nimble and personal? SHI’s answer is to have a boss who knows the company inside-out, who is involved at all levels, who perceives when to risk a major change of direction—and who never rests. When I interviewed her, Lee was contemplating a move to Texas, in order to commute between SHI’s New Jersey headquarters and its rapidly expanding small and medium business division in Austin.
Vigilance has its price. Lee, who divorced in 2002, has two teenaged children—her son, Victor, has been accepted into Amherst’s class of 2020—and told me she strives to “establish a barrier” between work and family life. But a barrier can work two ways. “Because I’m trying not to work at home, I come into the office seven days a week.”
Seven days a week?
“It’s not a good thing,” she laughed. “I’m trying to break that habit—that’s one of my 2016 New Year’s resolutions.”
I didn’t have much luck uncovering Lee’s life away from SHI. She told me she likes to read; then, when I asked what, she mentioned the books of Clayton Christensen, the business guru. Does she exercise? “I’m going to become more disciplined about that. I have no excuse for not working out. I have all the right equipment at home.”
Not as much as she should, she said, wincing. “I’m taking vacation this Friday, after Thanksgiving.” Her sisters and their families were coming to visit and watch the Macy’s parade. Lee planned to take Saturday and Sunday off as well. “That’s very unusual for me.”
How often did she take a weekend off?
“Oh, maybe three or four times a year.” It seemed like she might be exaggerating—upward.
Lee’s is a notably Spartan life and routine: living in the same suburban home for 20 years, showing up at her office every day by 7 or 7:30, and taking few vacations. Where was the splurge? Plenty of Americans, I reminded her, spend significant time imagining what they would do if they won one of those billion-dollar Powerball lotteries. Quit their job. Buy five houses. Embark on world travel. I asked her: What is it like, being a billionaire?
“I think it is sort of meaningless,” she said. “Shopping, acquiring things—to me, that’s a burden.”
But didn’t she ever indulge in something lavish just for the heck of it? A diamond necklace, maybe, or a Lambor-ghini?
She frowned. “I would think that’s wasteful. One, I think it’s not a good value. Two, it would seem wrong.”
Wrong how? I asked.
“Well, it would seem wrong to our employees. And why would I want to waste money like that? It just doesn’t seem like a good use of that resource.”
The Forbes profile—“The Modest Tycoon”—had elicited the same reticence. “Thai has none of the ego I’d expect to see in someone who built a $6 billion company,” David Ewalt told me. In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the scope and, in a strange way, the force of Lee’s modesty. This is a CEO who books her own travel arrangements and parks her car in the regular employee lot. No sooner had I mentioned the Forbes profile than she told me she regretted doing it. Partly she’s wary about sounding triumphant in such a changeable industry; today’s emperor, she noted, might have no clothes tomorrow. But mostly she considers it inappropriate that “one person in a business takes credit for hundreds and thousands of other people’s work.” Informed she was being included on the Forbes list of women billionaires,
Lee tried to get herself off of it, on the grounds that “a dollar amount could never accurately convey the respect and admiration I have for the employees of SHI.”
This self-effacing persona suits the profile of a company known for valuing both its customers and its employees highly. And it certainly suits Lee’s vision of corporate culture and how a CEO should behave. She rejects the model of a chief executive informed by such bellicose personalities as Donald Trump or former Lehman Brothers boss Dick Fuld. “Maybe in investment banking, it’s advantageous to be seen as imperial,” she said. “But in a service industry, where you are relying on thousands of your co-workers with a common goal, I think that would be the wrong personality. And it wouldn’t be me, either.”
I asked whether it had ever been disadvantageous to be a woman running a tech company. Quite the opposite, she said. “It’s actually good if your competitors do not fear you. It’s good to be under the radar.”
In the end, like everything about Lee, even her modesty serves her company and its goals. It is tactically disarming. And it is a kind of grindstone on which she sharpens her abilities: believing herself no smarter than the next person, she knows she has to be better—and ends up being better.
WHO REALLY KNOWS the secret to success? And who can confidently predict it in a young person with her whole adulthood in front of her? “Thai was a strong student, very serious and conscientious,” recalls Amherst Professor of Economics Frank Westhoff. “But I’d be dishonest if I said she was one of my best.”
Even Lee’s father had not foreseen glory in his daughter’s future. “He didn’t think I could be successful in business,” she recalled. “And he was probably right.” I made the obvious point that he had actually been wrong. But Lee demurred. The odds had been very long, she said. “In fact it was probable that a startup, no matter how prepared I was, and how dedicated to working, would not succeed.” She paused. “I had so little confidence in myself, I wouldn’t have been very surprised if I did fail.”
Lee was eager to draw her story and her father’s together into a message for students: If you focus, if you plan, “you can catch up in life, no matter where you are.”
I asked her: Does she still lack confidence?
“I’m not really extraordinary,” she answered. “I’ve been very lucky, and I’ve been well-prepared. I think low self-esteem was the source of motivation for me to work harder. It’s an accumulation of directed energy, focus and effort. And over decades that can be very powerful.”
Lee was eager to draw her own story and her father’s together into a message that might reassure students of today who feel disenfranchised or marginalized. “Here he was,” she said of Kie-Hong Lee, “never having been exposed to Western culture, not speaking proper English, having no financial means and no family. But he had a goal to use education to better himself.” She wanted students to feel empowered, she said. “You can catch up; that’s my message. If you focus, if you know what you want and you put together a long-term plan, you can catch up in life, no matter where you are.”
When and how does seeing a pattern in your life turn into creating that pattern? As a young person, feeling herself perilously behind, Lee laid out a roadmap for her life—her hundred-year plan—and stuck to it. In her career an immigrant’s will to succeed meets the ideology of American self-improvement. In certain ways Thai Lee’s accomplishments resemble those of Kie-Hong Lee. But the father’s life was one of forced relocations, uncertainty and chance. The daughter has faced the vagaries of fate from within a Mission Control of her own devising.
Single-mindedness brings both benefits and costs. At one point Lee and I were discussing the controversial “Tiger Mother” parenting philosophy—she approved of it, she said—and I asked what kind of mom she is with her two kids.
“Not the best one, for sure,” she quickly replied. “I haven’t really had a chance to spend as much time with them as I should have.” She couldn’t call herself a Tiger Mom; she was a disciplinarian in theory but not practice. “When you’re feeling guilty that you haven’t spent enough time with them, the last thing you want is to try to be tough on them.” She hadn’t been around very much, especially when her son was young.
But of late she had been trying to make up for that, she told me. “This year I started to drive my daughter to school. I never did that for my son. And I find it just really great. You have all kinds of conversations.”
Lee offered a look both puzzled and gratified. “I did not know that,” she said. “It’s sort of like one of the secrets of life that nobody told me was there.”
Rand Richards Cooper ’80 writes a twice-weekly column at Commonwealmagazine.org/blog.
Photographs by Beth Perkins.