SHI’s Thai Lee On The Five Things That Contributed To Her Success

‘I’ve had more chances to fail than to succeed,’ says Thai Lee, president and CEO of SHI International

Thai Lee has overcome many obstacles in her life, but that hasn’t stopped her from going after what she wants. In fact, facing adversity has only fueled her to work harder.

“I’ve had more chances to fail than to succeed,” she said.

Lee has served as the only president and CEO, and co-founder, of Somerset, New Jersey-based global solution provider SHI International, which is recognized as the largest minority and woman-owned business enterprise in the United States.

Coming out of the pandemic, SHI International, which is No. 12 on CRN’s 2021 Solution Provider 500, brought in a record-breaking $12.3 billion in revenue in 2021, growing 10 percent over 2020. Heading a growing company with 5,000 employees worldwide, Lee has no plans of slowing down.

Lee participated in Dell Technologies Women’s Partner Network Partnering in Leadership series this week to talk about her path to success as well as being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

From feeling like an outsider to using her father’s story as a driver for her own success, here are Thai Lee’s five secrets to leadership success.

Her Mentor Is Her Father, Who Escaped The Hiroshima Atomic Bomb

Lee’s father‘s story includes overcoming desperate poverty and achieving tremendous success. He was born in a poor family in a poor country, she said.

“His family could not even provide him tuition to complete his primary school,” she said. “But through his hard work, he had a day job and [went] to school at night on his own and took the national examination to escape poverty to get a full scholarship.”

He attended Hiroshima University but because he was sent back to Korea, he escaped the atomic bomb. He then had the opportunity to come to the U.S. and attend college all over again.

“It was his third country, his third language,” she said.

After college he went back to Korea and helped the country’s economic development.

“If you can overcome poverty through having that vision and apply yourself every single day to be the best version of yourself that you can be, then apply your fortune to be something that could really contribute to society,” she said.

She Had To Learn Coping Mechanisms Early In Life

If she had to pen a memoir, the title would be “Owning My Future.“

“My coping mechanism to try to overcome my difficulties and circumstances is really my story,” she said. “We are very lucky that we‘ve had opportunity to escape the expectations. For most women who are born in a poor or developing country, their destinies are set. For me, who I am today has a lot to do with my childhood circumstances and a coping mechanism that I had to build.”

During her childhood her father‘s job required the family to move around a lot. By 10 years old Lee had lived in four different countries across three different continents.

“I was exposed to multiple countries, languages, people and environments,” she said. “My parents put us in local schools [which] meant that we had to talk fast, learn new languages and most of all learn how to be an outsider. I was always an outsider for the first 20-30 years of my life.”

She said the coping mechanism involving grit and a strong work ethic set a strong foundation for her.

She also attended a Buddhist primary school even though her parents and grandparents were Christian, which taught her a lot.

“The foundational belief in Buddhism is that life is unavoidably about suffering,” she said. “So learning to adjust my expectation was really a huge advantage for me, combined with hard work and learning that education really allows one to achieve mobility.”

The Secret Sauce To SHI’s Success Is The Team

With an entrepreneurial background, she came to SHI with a drive to be successful. During her first 10 years at the company she learned everything she could on how to be a leader.

“I also chose to work harder,” she said. “I wanted to outwork the competition.”

But she soon realized that it takes a village and believes SHI is great because of its people.

Heading the human resources department for the first 10 years at SHI she recruited the first 1,000 or so people for the company.

“I interviewed all of the people and then made offers,” she said. “In the early years and choosing the first 1,000 people correctly, I think a quarter of those people are still with SHI.”

Her first employee that she hired is still with the company, she added.

“I am very proud of the fact that SHI has such wonderful, extraordinary talents, many of whom chose SHI when we didn’t have much to offer,” she said. “In the first 10 years they chose to be with SHI and grow with the company.”

In A Largely Male-Dominated Industry, It’s Important For Women To Focus On The Person You Want To Become

Lee said to not focus on the mistakes you have made or the person you were yesterday.

“Focus on the person you want to become,” she said. “We only have a short life here on Earth, so be the most you can be.”

It’s also important to begin with the end in mind.

“Do what you want and then be proactive and go after it,” she said. “That’s as relevant for me today as it was when I was 21.”

Since the pandemic, Lee said SHI underwent a major reorganization within the company “which has had some disruptive impacts on people but was really to align SHI for the better and to accelerate growth.”

Some transformative projects have also caused disruption, she added.

“But I have learned that it’s very efficient to meet virtually and that we can achieve, in some sense, some greater teamwork,” she said.

She Would Tell Her 21-Year-Old Self To Care Less What Others Think

“As I get older I realize that I had a lot of insecurities when I was growing up,” she said. “I find that other people are insecure as well. I wouldn’t have felt so lonely had I known that.”

And today, she cares less of what others think of her which she believes derives from her self confidence.

“I wish I could have realized that even earlier because maybe I would have been slightly happier,” she said. “What other people think of me doesn’t matter as much.”

It’s also important, she said, to focus on yourself. She didn’t know she had to be her, “best friend, believer, advocate” when she was 21.

“You’re the most important person to you,” she said. “Even if you have the best spouse, parents, children, family, sisters, whatever, they can never be a substitute for you.”