In this special interview series, we are proud to highlight the incredible members of the ANTrepreneur Center External Committee (ACE) and discuss their entrepreneurial experiences, their reasons for joining the ACE, and their best advice for burgeoning student entrepreneurs.
This article featured ACE member Sunil Kaimal, a Technology leader with 30+ years industry experience. Until recently, he was the Vice President and General Manager of the Client Computing Group at Intel. In this role, Sunil worked and lived in China for 17 years and was responsible for building customer-centric organizations that deliver transformational business growth with Chinese ecosystem partners. He has extensive experience in management, product development, and market development across China, Asia Pacific, and the U.S.
He holds an MBA from the University of California, Davis as well as a Bachelor of Science in Electronics and Communication Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
To share his professional insight and offer guidance to the next generation of entrepreneurs, Sunil recently sat down with Ryan Foland, Director of the ANTrepreneur Center, for an illuminating interview.
Ryan: It’s great to see you, Sunil! Thank you for taking the time to meet with me and introduce yourself as an ACE member. Can you start by talking about your background and how you got involved with entrepreneurship?
Sunil: Happy to be here, Ryan. I started my career in a very small startup company, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got the opportunity to wear many hats over the five years I worked there, and iIt was a tremendous learning experience. Having experienced the joy of simultaneously working many aspects of the business, I opted to join new business ventures when I had the opportunity to work at Intel.
For most of my time at Intel, I was part of new businesses and startup operations. While there are some significant benefits of being part of a large company, building new businesses within a large corporation with a highly successful core business has a lot of challenges. One is always fighting two battles simultaneously—one against high expectations from the management and the other against limited resources. But I was very fortunate to be part of the team that launched a few highly successful new business ventures within Intel.
During my time at Intel, I had the opportunity to create new products that changed the market dynamics in a significant way. This is truly a dream of any entrepreneur. Formulating business strategy and developing new products and markets gives me a great sense of joy. While growth excites me, I am most passionate about creating an environment where every one of my team members recognizes the impact of what they do, understands what is needed from them, and genuinely believes in the opportunity they have to learn, grow, and help each other to realize their full potential.
Ryan: That’s awesome! As you reflect on your career, do you have a particularly memorable entrepreneurial experience that really stands out to you? And if so, what did you learn from it?
Sunil: When I think back over my career, the thing that stands out is people.
Back in 2012, my company had no presence in the Android smartphone and tablet market, and I was responsible for growing our smartphone and tablet presence in China. We were late to the game and our competitors were well-established. Typically, U.S. HQ develops core technology or solutions. However, in this case, nothing was coming from them and most people there did not understand the competitive landscape in China.
My team decided to build a solution locally instead of waiting for HQ to provide platform solutions. Within six months, we built a solution to support local customers. By this time, HQ decided to go after the market aggressively, and we were the only team that had proven to management that we knew what we were talking about. We got the mandate to go big, and I was able to ramp up my team of about 20 to about 200 to build local solutions to support Chinese customers. We built a very strong Android team by hiring talent from local competitors. We successfully ramped up the business, and by 2015, we were shipping 60% of our company’s tablet products from China. We fundamentally changed the business model for many customers and received industry-wide recognition for what we were able to achieve. Throughout the two years we worked together, I got to know many of my team members closely and understood the many personal sacrifices they made along the way—we became like a big extended family.
Everything was going well until early 2016, when HQ decided to exit the Android market. Rumors were everywhere, and there was no clarity on the future of the team. It was obvious that the team would be significantly downsized. Normally, we would have to wait to get clear direction, and all communications would typically be scripted. However, I decided not to wait for a formal communication and decided to take a risk and talk to the team, since I knew most of them would be impacted. I got everyone together, and I could feel the tension in the room. I was upfront about not having a new update, but informed them that it was likely that this would be the last time all 200 of us would be together. In 2016, multinational corporations were paying much more than the local companies. This meant that anyone losing a job would probably end up having to take a new position with lower pay.
I told them that I was there to celebrate what we had achieved over the last two years, and that it was truly an honor to lead the team. I was totally vulnerable and honest to the core. We spent the next two hours talking about it all and sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was the best couple of hours, and as we continued talking, the atmosphere became much calmer and more upbeat. By the end of the meeting, almost everyone volunteered to be on the severance list to make it easy for me to decide who I want to keep on the team. Long story short, we ended up keeping about 50 people, and many of the others found new opportunities with local companies. I got personal emails from almost everyone who left the group and, despite the resizing, the overall team morale continued to stay strong. Fortunately in 2018/19, we were able to hire back almost all of the original team members.
Looking back, I am so happy that I did what I did then. For me, it was a truly memorable experience, and I am so glad that I did not follow the rules. It reinforced the importance of being upfront and treating your people with dignity and respect. The trust I earned from the people who left and from the people who stayed helped tremendously in the next phase of our journey, and we went on to do even more amazing things.
Ryan: That’s a great lesson in leadership. What makes you want to bring your leadership experience to UCI and the ANTrepreneur Center?
Sunil: I recently moved to Irvine after spending almost 17 years in Beijing. While I was in China, I spent a lot of time coaching and mentoring students at Tsinghua and Peking University. Additionally, I was also one of the executive sponsors of an internal entrepreneurship program for employees called “Ideas to Reality.” Once I knew I was going to be in Irvine for the foreseeable future, I started exploring ways to get involved.
What I see at UCI is a holistic approach to supporting the entire undergraduate student community. By actively partnering with various schools and departments within campus, students can explore all areas of interest and access resources and support at multiple levels. What I find unique about the ANTrepreneur Center is that its programs are available to all students, regardless of where they are in their entrepreneurial journeys. There is something for everyone. The Center is much more than a UCI program; it is well-connected and supported by the broader entrepreneurial support infrastructure that is vibrant within the Orange County community. I saw a natural fit for what I was looking for in the Center’s vision, mission, and values.
Over the next several months, my priority is to spend more time as a resident mentor. This will give me an opportunity to learn what the students are looking for and will provide me with a deeper sense of their challenges. I will leverage my industry knowledge and network to support students and the Center. I hope to partner with the other ACE committee members to focus our collective efforts on achieving the Center’s vision and mission.
Ryan: Speaking of industry expertise, what advice would you give student entrepreneurs hoping to break into the tech industry?
Sunil: One thing I notice is that everyone falls in love with their idea/technology and tries to cling onto it and protect it. While it is great to be passionate about an idea, my advice is to fall in love with the problem you are trying to solve instead, and understand it at the deepest level. When you understand the problem and the target customer, you will develop much deeper insights into what it takes to really address the issue. This will help you develop solutions that are more authentic and believable, and it makes it much easier to get others to invest with you. My second piece of advice is to get feedback early on from the people you trust. Build a systematic way to get the feedback and incorporate these as you iterate. Finally, prioritize and focus on solving one problem better than anything else out there. Don’t try to be everything for everybody.
Ryan: In your opinion, what are the largest challenges that student entrepreneurs face today, and what can they do to overcome these challenges?
Sunil: I think the three biggest challenges are: (1) Access to practical education on what it takes to build successful businesses, (2) Having a safe place to explore, try new ideas, and learn from experts and peers, and (3) Being credible when it comes to raising funds.
Being part of the UCI student community and taking advantage of the courses, tools, and training offered by ANTrepreneur Center is an excellent way to jumpstart your entrepreneurship journey. Being part of the ANTrepreneur Center offers the opportunity to be around like-minded people and connect with domain experts, coaches, and mentors. Participating in various events and competitions organized by the Center will give broad exposure to any aspiring entrepreneur on how to put together a proposal, present ideas to potential investors, and get feedback early on the process.
Ryan: Sunil, thank you again for sitting down with me and sharing your insights. To conclude this interview, would you like to send a message to the UCI community about why they should support entrepreneurship?
Sunil: Many of the things we take for granted in our lives began as mere ideas—thoughts in someone’s mind. What set these individuals apart was their confidence to take on the risks of pursuing something new without fear of failure, and their commitment to making a difference in their community. Today, we refer to these individuals as pioneers or entrepreneurs, and we need more such young people in our society.
The UCI ANTrepreneur Center, with its core value of democratizing entrepreneurship knowledge, education, and processes, is the perfect place to help young undergraduates embark on their entrepreneurial journey. UCI and the local community boast of many professionals with rich real-life experience in building and growing successful enterprises. This community now has an opportunity to support the ANTrepreneur Center in fully realizing its vision and mission.
Want to learn more about our ACE members? Stay tuned for the next installment of the “Meet the ANTrepreneur Center External Committee” interview series. For more information about the UCI ANTrepreneur Center and how it can support your entrepreneurial journey, visit our website or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.