Jianhui Zhou (MS '92, PhD '95) recently served as the CEO for the HC SemiTek Corporation, which designs, fabricates, and sells LED chips and wafers for use in lighting, LCD and RGB displays, and backlighting. Jianhui was born and raised in China but has recently returned to California (the Bay Area).
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
Jianhui Zhou: After completing my Ph.D. at Caltech, I started as a technical staff member at Bell Labs, a conventional career path for a Techer. After a few years, I moved to the business side, taking on roles in marketing, sales and, eventually, CEO of a public company. Professionally, I made some fundamental contributions to fiber optics communication systems early in my career. Recently, my contributions are focused more on building, managing, and turning around companies.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Zhou: My Caltech education has profound influences on me in many aspects. What has served me well is not limited to the solid technical knowledge gained at Caltech, but also the way in which I approach and solve problems, technical and otherwise. Another less obvious benefit of a Caltech education is our Honor Code, which has guided me throughout my career in dealing with many complex issues.
ENGenuity: What inspired you to become an engineer/scientist/researcher?
Zhou: I was born and grew up in China. I was very good at math at a very young age, and I also liked to build and take apart things apart as well. These interests naturally led to a path of engineering and science. In the 1980s, China's university system was highly competitive, but offered very limited choices. Basically, almost all the top students went into math, sciences, and engineering.
ENGenuity: What advice do you have for the next generation of Caltech students?
Zhou: Caltech students receive the best education this world has to offer. While you are at Caltech, I would encourage a balanced experience. Deepen your subject matter knowledge and broaden your minds. After all, Caltech graduates contribute to the world through both creativity and leadership, with the latter requiring a lifetime of learning, and your time in college plays an important role.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story and why (story, myth, book, film, TV show, etc.)?
Zhou: Years after graduation, The Big Bang Theory became a culture phenomenon. I am often asked what Caltech is really like and I always tell people that I know many Caltech friends who resemble Sheldon and other characters in the show. To this day, whenever the characters mention a Pasadena street name in the show, I always try to figure out how many blocks it is from the campus—from my memory, not from Google Maps.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Zhou: I am an avid photographer and have been to many unique places in the world. My favorite destination is definitely Africa. I love Africa's majestic wildlife and natural wonders, dramatic coastline, amazing cities, and unique cultures and heritages. My favorite destination within Africa is Namibia—its Etosha National Park was established as a game reserve back in 1907, one of the oldest in Africa.
ENGenuity: Is there a project you're most proud of or that you found the most challenging?
Zhou: I was part of the team at Bell Labs that carried out, for the first time, a fiber optical transmission experiment at 1 Terabyte/second in 1996. It was a major milestone in communication technology, and it was not considered possible by many at the time. Dozens of Bell Labs researchers and engineers participated in the project. In addition to overcoming many technical hurdles, we also had to coordinate among many groups and pool resources and equipment together to pull off this heroic experiment—It was a LIGO-like project (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) at the time. The core team won the 1998 Bell Labs President Award. It was also amazing to see commercial fiber optical transmission systems breaking that Tb/s barrier just a few years after the lab experiment.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Zhou: As my career progresses, what gives me satisfaction has also evolved. Initially, it was individual contributions in the technical areas. More recently, it became the impact of my leadership in shaping the future of a company.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Zhou: I am an optimistic person; nothing really worries me much. I know there are always tough issues ahead, the best way is to sleep well and to deal with it in the morning.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Zhou: The pure enjoyment of what I am doing, and a strong sense of responsibility compel me to work tirelessly every day.