Alumni Spotlight: Syed B. Ali (MSE EE 81)

“I wanted to give back. If it wasn’t for Michigan I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

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Syed B. Ali - President and CEO of Cavium

Student education takes top priority at Michigan. In addition to their classroom learning, students are working on extracurricular research projects, participating in team projects and organizations, and serving the community.To support their efforts, and to help ensure that EECS remains one of the top-tier departments in the world, Mr. Ali established the Syed Ali ECE Education Fund.

“I wanted to give back,” says Syed B. Ali (MSE EE ‘81) about the fund. “If it wasn’t for Michigan I wouldn’t be where I am today.” And where he is today is Chairman, President, and CEO of the company he founded in 2000, Cavium. In 2011, Cavium, publicly listed on NASDAQ, was named one of the 25 fastest growing technology companies in the United States by Forbes Magazine; in fact, they were #5.

Syed Ali is committed to assisting and encouraging students in their education. Recalling his own experience at Michigan, he stated, “I received excellent exposure to semiconductor design and technology. At Michigan, you could implement an entire design cycle for a product, including manufacturing it in the lab, and then testing it. This was very unusual for a University, especially at that time.” Michigan is still doing a great job according to Ali, who added, “Michigan grads are always among our top performers at Cavium.”

About Cavium 

Syed Ali founded Cavium in 2000. He saw that the Internet was expanding more and more into business communications and e-commerce, both of which required high security communication. Believing that security could be significantly enhanced by silicon technology, his company successfully offloaded all the heavy computational work onto silicon, which had not been done before.
Today, the company provides highly integrated semiconductor processors that enable intelligent networking, communications, storage, video and security applications to worldwide markets.

To be successful, Syed and his team must determine what will be needed three to four years in the future. “The most satisfying part,” he says, “is when the products actually come out, the markets develop, and you have the best product. That’s a big high.”

Advice for Student Entrepreneurs

Starting your own company can sound like a daunting avenue to pursue, yet Syed wants students to know that, in his opinion, being an entrepreneur is not that hard. “From the outside it looks very difficult. But if you have the heart, if you have the desire, and if you’re willing to take some risks and some downsides, you can do it.”

Syed did not step into the role of entrepreneur right out of school. At the time that he founded Cavium, he brought nearly 20 years of experience to the company. He first worked at several smaller companies in product design and development, followed by four key years as Executive Director at Samsung Electronics in Korea where he played a major role in starting and growing Samsung’s Flash memory and CPU businesses, and then he co-founded his first startup company, Malleable Technologies (acquired by PMC-Sierra in 2000).

Currently about 50% of Cavium’s business is overseas. He’d like students to know that, “Increasingly, if you’re coming from an engineering background, being able to understand and work with different cultures is very important. Having the viewpoint of both the U.S. and Asia will help you to be successful in your business. This is true whether you are starting a company, or working in an international organization.”

Thanks from ECE to Syed Ali

The Department thanks this high-tech visionary for reaching out to help today’s students follow their own path to success. “It’s been a privilege to work with Syed and have his participation in shaping the future,” stated Khalil Najafi, ECE Chair. “The Syed Ali ECE Education Fund provides us with the flexibility that is critical to support our students as needs and opportunities arise, allowing them to continue to transform the world with their new ideas and technology.”


Meet Syed Ali

ECE Distinguished Lecture (video) From Michigan to NASDAQ (10/28/11)

Syed Ali, successful entrepreneur and self-professed “average” student (“and I’m being kind to myself,” says Ali), discusses how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. This video includes the 20 minute Q&A with faculty and students.

Advice for student entrepreneurs (from the video)

Work in an area you love

Visualize where you want to be in 10 years

Work with a diversified team

Interact with people from different departments and parts of the world

Carefully hire your first 50 people

Be prepared to adapt to changing markets

Don’t be afraid of failure

Don’t take the easy way out

Living and working in different cultures is going to be more and more important, because they will be your future markets. If possible, every engineer should go and work in a foreign culture before they graduate.

Be stupidly optimistic

The most important thing is to take a risk. Don’t be afraid, do something different.

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