Today, Sunny Lu Williams is a successful corporate executive who has brokered deals with Google and HTC, but she still remembers the day many years ago when her grandfather—a Chinese rice-farmer and later military man—spread some colorful banknotes on the table in front of her. The crumpled New Taiwan dollars and American greenbacks represented their family’s story, he told nine-year-old Sunny: his own flight from rural China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution; his efforts to carve out a new life in Taiwan; and his determination to bring the family to America, and to give his children and grandchildren the education and opportunities he’d been denied.
Above all, he said, the crumpled banknotes represented the power and promise of democracy — the ability of individuals to rise above hardship and forge a better future. “His takeaway was that the ethics and the hard work and the determination of the people determine the economic stability of the country,” Williams says. “He instilled in me the belief that you don’t deserve anything until you earn it.”
Sunny Lu Williams, an executive who has brokered deals with Google and HTC, says her grandfather “instilled in me the belief that you don’t deserve anything until you earn it.”
Her grandfather’s determination paid off: he sent all four of his children to the United States, where they earned PhDs at American universities. Williams’ own parents made the painful decision to leave their young daughter with her grandparents in Taipei while they pursued advanced degrees in Chicago; when they returned for her, years later, she barely recognized them. “It’s a jarring memory,” she recalls. “But it was very common in the Taiwanese context, because so many of our parents’ generation emigrated to pursue their educations. They really had to sacrifice.”
But this sacrifice also gave Williams a far easier path. Brought to America at the age of three, she attended grade school in Naperville, Ill., and coached her elders — first her grandmother, then her mother — as they prepared for their citizenship tests. Finally, in her sophomore year at Purdue University, Williams took the test herself — the third generation of her family to be formally adopted by the country she had long considered her home.
Williams earned an MBA from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and is now General Manager of Medical Solutions at Telamon Enterprise Ventures, a Carmel-based business solutions consultancy and integrator. Among her successes: deals with Google and HTC connected to the launch of the first Android phone; brokering a partnership with a Qatari company to export American health IT solutions to the Middle East; and healthcare innovation programs for linkage to care.
Williams credits much of her professional success to her experiences as an immigrant: having lived in another culture, it’s easier for her to build relationships with people unfamiliar with American ways of doing business. “I greatly appreciate my own immigrant journey … it’s one of the things to which I attribute my success,” she says. Speaking fluent Mandarin doesn’t hurt either, she notes.
The big takeaway from Williams’ family’s story, she says, is that immigration isn’t just a question of people coming to America in search of work. It’s also about people with a deep commitment to democratic values, and a real desire to contribute to American society, finding ways to use their skills in the service of their beliefs. “For me, immigration is about individuals who have already climbed beyond the middle classes in their own countries, and now want to take their skill set to a competitive environment that will better foster and grow their opportunities,” she says. “That’s really the group my parents were in.”
As a business leader, Williams is often frustrated by how hard it is to hire skilled immigrant workers. “In every city, there are shortages of skilled workers,” she says. “There are jobs, there just aren’t the right candidates to be placed into the openings.” On the one hand, Williams says, technology companies like Telamon are held back by the fact that American graduates lack skills in coding and other key technical areas; on the other, they’re constrained by quota systems that make it impossible to bring in enough skilled workers from overseas. “We can’t grow at the pace we need to grow because we don’t have workers with the right skill-sets, so often we partner with other companies instead of hiring,” she says.
Williams advocates for reform that allows businesses to hire skilled workers, and also cultivates a homegrown workforce that can compete in the modern workplace. The immigration debate “should not be about stemming the flow of immigration, it should be about building a sustainable infrastructure,” she says. “As we use immigration to fill the gaps, we need to be more future-focused. We need to leverage immigrants’ expertise to raise the standards, increase education opportunities for local workers, and maximize opportunities for everyone.”