Joe Wu is a Duke alumnus and founding partner of MFund. He delivered the following keynote address during Duke Kunshan’s in-person graduation ceremony on June 6 for students in the master of management studies program, classes of 2020 and 2021.
Thank you Dean [William] Boulding. Thank you Chancellor [Youmei] Feng, Vice Chancellor [Xiaolin] Chang and Vice Chancellor Scott MacEachern, faculty members, family, friends and, most importantly, graduates in the classes of 2020 and 2021. It is a great honor speaking with you today.
I want to further thank Dean Boulding for offering me this precious opportunity. I told Bill I was not ready last year. The fact is, I don’t think I am ready this year. But it is you who remind me of myself when I was your age, just graduated and trying hard to figure out my career direction. I thought, maybe, my life experiences – failures and successes – could offer some help as you explore yourself and your life. For this matter, thank you all for inspiring me to step out of my comfort zone and speak with you today.
In the past few weeks, I have kept asking myself what I wanted to share with you today. It has been a very painful process. I listened to different speeches, such as famous ones delivered by Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and other speakers, in the hope of stealing some of their wisdom. I felt even more puzzled. The reason I was struggling so much was because I didn’t grow up in a conventional way. I was not a top student at school. I was not a diligent entrepreneur or investor. I owe my successes and achievements mostly to luck and the people I worked with. I’ve been called “Lucky Joe” among my friends. Yes, I deeply believe that I am blessed with luck.
So what is luck? Is luck given or is it earned? Can we change our luck? Today, I would like to share with you my understanding about luck.
I would like to start with my childhood. Before going to school, I was raised by my grandmother, in a small village in southern China. She cared for me with unconditional love during the years I spent with her. Although we were very limited in our material possessions, she did her best to provide for me. The unconditional and selfless love I experienced as a child from my grandmother built a powerful and solid foundation of self-esteem in me. For this, I forever feel lucky.
I moved back with my parents and my sister when I began elementary school. My parents, like most Chinese parents, were very strict about our schoolwork and had high expectations for us. Between my sister and me, my sister was no doubt smarter, prettier and harder working. It’s not easy living with a superstar, but I eventually found a way to cope with this. I used every means to lower the expectations that my parents had for me. Here’s an example. The night before I left for the United States to start school, my father and I took a walk in a nearby park. He asked me what kind of career I would like to choose. I replied, with hesitation, “Dentist.” Although he seemed satisfied with my answer, he still asked why. I told him that for a careless person like me, being a doctor is very risky, as there is a really good chance I might jeopardize someone’s life. But the worst damage a dentist can do is probably just pulling out the wrong teeth. After hearing my reason, I could see my father was trying very hard to control his temper, and he walked on without saying another word.
I told him that for a careless person like me, being a doctor is very risky, as there is a really good chance I might jeopardize someone’s life. But the worst damage a dentist can do is probably just pulling out the wrong teeth.
So the acceptance letter from the University of California, Berkeley, came as a surprise. Up until that point, I had pretty much lived in my sister’s shadow and with the knowledge that there were many people smarter than me in school. I really thought that UC Berkeley had made a mistake. When it was confirmed that I was one of only two students in our school that had been accepted, I felt lucky and relieved at the same time. But shortly after I began my semester at UC Berkeley, I received two consecutive Cs, and my confidence was completely shattered again.
Try imagining what it’s like for an academic loser to be surrounded by straight-A students. I came to face the fact that I was not a smart person. This feeling subconsciously influenced me in not wanting to compete with my peers in the job market after graduation, so I told my parents that I wanted to run my own business. Not a convincing excuse, but they decided to give it a chance. Thus, I was on the unconventional path to becoming an entrepreneur, and I faced three failures over eight years. I started my first company with my good friend Alfred in the food trading business. We exported rice noodles and dry mushrooms from Fujian province to the U.S. and sold them to local U.S. wholesalers.
Just when our business was on track, the supplier shipped us five containers of the wrong rice noodles. Instead of giving us the restaurant grade of noodles, the supplier shipped us ones for home consumption. The U.S. wholesaler rejected the entire shipment. My friend and I had to drive around visiting all the local Asian supermarkets. It was a two-man show company. We had to play all the different roles: sales person, truck driver, and account manager. It took us three months to clear out all the rice noodles. This was my first lesson from the business world.
We concluded that being a “middleman,” such in food trading, was not a good business model for us. So we decided to develop our own product in the beauty nutritional market. Our brand of deep-sea fish collagen came to market within three months. Although we still encountered many challenges, this time, we did much better than with the first business. At least we paid ourselves salaries. During this time, the founder of Netdragon, DJ, was in the U.S., managing his mother’s nutritional supplement business. He talked me into combining my business with his to raise money in the U.S. public market, and then bring the GNC health food business model back to China. What a great idea! We both were very excited and worked very hard. Unluckily, there was a financial crisis in 1997, so the IPO failed, and the year after, the company ran out of cash. We had to close down the business, and this was the end of my second business venture.
In 1999, my friend saw on the news that Taiwan had been hit by the great earthquake of Sept. 21. He came up with the idea of initially employing GPS technology to locate people buried alive in the rubble of buildings. I was invited to be his founding partner. We raised US$2 million from investors in Silicon Valley and came back to China. A team of 60 people was set up in Shanghai for product development, and an operation center was put in place in Chengdu. Everything seemed great at the beginning. Later, we found the technology and solution was too ahead of its time, so the business failed.
You see, I had failed so many times up to that moment in my life. I definitely didn’t see myself as “Lucky Joe.” Maybe “Average Joe” or even “Poor Joe.” I was very confused at that time, and my self-confidence was very low.
Even my mom started worrying about my future. So I decided to go back to pursue an MBA degree. This decision happened to be the turning point in my life. Being accepted by Duke’s Fuqua School of Business was an important factor. Another critical factor was that I was ignited by a single essay question that I have since used as a compass for life. “What matters most to you?” As I tried repeatedly to answer this essay question, it dawned on me that I had never given this any serious thought up until that point. I did not have a good answer. It was after I arrived at Duke that I began exploring myself.
“What matters most to you?” As I tried repeatedly to answer this essay question, it dawned on me that I had never given this any serious thought up until that point. I did not have a good answer. It was after I arrived at Duke that I began exploring myself.
After graduating from Fuqua in 2004, I was faced with choosing between a career at one of the Fortune 500 companies or pursuing something hidden in my heart. I tried to picture myself wearing expensive, tailor-made suits and ties, holding a glass of wine, and making important conversation at banquets and social events. Would I be happy with this image of myself for the next five or 10 years? I kept on asking myself this question, and I couldn’t seem to make up my mind.
Just when I was in agony, my old friend DJ – you may remember him from the story about the nutrition chain store business – called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to do something together. “What matters most to me?” again popped into my mind. “What kind of life am I looking for?” I asked these questions to myself again and again. Luckily, I chose to listen to my heart.
I wanted to have control of my life. Being an entrepreneur is a natural fit. I came back to China to begin my most well-known ventures. I led NetDragon to IPO in 2007, and I sold 91 Wireless to Baidu in 2013 for US$1.9 billion. After that, in the hope of nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs, I founded MFund, which focuses on making early-stage investment.
Since 2015, we’ve invested in more than 80 startups. In 2017, I also initiated Match Edu, a charity organization that supports rural teachers by providing online and offline soft-skill training, in the hope of enhancing their overall wellbeing. Match Edu has connected more than 70,000 teachers from more than 4,000 rural schools across 29 provinces.
My life has taken a completely different direction. From what I have shared with you, you can see my life development until now consists of three different stories. The first story began with my childhood and my family, which was given to me by default. I was born into it. I was lucky that my family provided me love and support as I was growing up. The second story is about how I had failed so many times because I was making random, unconscious decisions. Luckily, I survived and built myself with different skillsets. More importantly, I acquired long time friendships along the way. The last story is of how I begun asking myself what matters most, and how I intentionally followed my heart and acted on it consistently. I have grown luckier and luckier.
So what is luck? To some extent, it is given to you. It is the things you cannot choose for yourself. Like your country, your race, and your family. But still, a very big part of it comes from your own choices, too. It comes from how you view this world and how you utilize every chance that you have to make important choices. Although every choice seems to be an isolated moment in time, these choices gradually connect with one another to evolve into your life story.
I would like you to believe that the preciousness of life is not determined by money, power, or any labels that come with these things. It should be defined by love, meaning, happiness, and what matters most to you in the long run. For this reason, look inside. Treat yourself as a piece of unique art, not a commodity. Take every failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. Pay the price to deserve what you want the most. Build long-term relationships with trustworthy people. Be curious. Be positive. And be kind.
Even after undergoing moments of pain, grief and trouble, you still have the ability to feel lucky, and you will have a successful life by your own definition. Your life journey lies ahead of you. Enjoy it, and have fun.
I wish you all good luck!