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Early in his career as an engineer in the Chicago area, Dave Liguang Chenn, ’00, faced a crossroads. He had achieved his goals of moving to the United States from China and completing graduate studies in engineering, but he couldn’t stop thinking about something a coworker had said. One day, in casual conversation, the man told Chenn he had been doing the same work, in the same place, for 20 years. The comment stopped Chenn cold. “I felt I needed to do something different,” Chenn says now. “Otherwise, I could easily see myself there for my whole life, just like my colleague, sitting in my cubicle for decades, and that was not the life I wanted.”

That encounter gave Chenn the push he needed to change paths. He applied to Chicago Booth—a decision that ultimately led him to success as a technology entrepreneur, a founder of business conglomerates, and an influential investor in China.

Although Chenn always considered himself driven, he didn’t initially see himself as a businessman or a risk-taker. He grew up in a remote part of Fujian province in southeastern China, where the Cultural Revolution had denied his parents and grandparents the opportunity to attend college. At Beijing Institute of Technology, a professor advised Chenn to major in mechanical engineering, saying, “The most important thing is to survive. With engineering, you can have a job during wartime or peacetime.”

To 17-year-old Chenn, whose family had experienced disruption and deprivation, the logic was sound. And, for a while, his chosen path was enough. He was the first student in his class to go to the US for graduate studies, emigrating in 1992 with only $100 in savings. His $50,000 engineer’s salary two years later was 100 times what he could have earned in China. His parents were proud of him. “I was daring enough going to the US by myself with only a few dollars in my pocket,” he says. “At that time, I was quite satisfied being an engineer.”

But he was so shaken by envisioning his entire life unfolding in a single cubicle that he decided to do something completely unfamiliar for his next steps. In fact, he chose business because he knew so little about it. “As an engineer by training, I found all of it—the coursework, the case studies—so new to me,” Chenn says.

His first class, in financial accounting, taught by Roman L. Weil, the V. Duane Rath Professor Emeritus of Accounting until his death in 2023, was “a huge blowup for me,” says Chenn, who recalls scoring a C on his first exam. Not much about accounting principles stayed with him. But Weil gave the class some advice that did stick: “Read the Wall Street Journal every day, and day by day, you will develop your own business mind,” Chenn remembers him saying. Weil even brought copies of the newspaper to distribute to the class, Chenn recalls.

“As a result, I have kept up the habit of reading WSJ and other financial news and business magazines for more than 15 years,” he says. “That had a huge impact on me.”

Although he wasn’t yet thinking about entrepreneurship, Chenn took a course with Steve Kaplan, the Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance. Chenn recalls that he didn’t have enough bid points to enroll directly, so he audited, sitting in the back of the room or sometimes in the aisle. He also took the Developing a New Venture course, where he first studied comprehensive methods for researching and evaluating business ideas.

“I learned a lot of business skills and business knowledge and, most importantly, a business mindset from my Booth education,” he says. “It’s not just the financial knowledge and business strategies, but the idea of innovation and staying rigorous.”

While Chenn was learning enduring lessons from Booth faculty, he also was developing lasting relationships with his classmates. A number of his fellow MBA students have gone on to work with him in China, even serving as managing partners and managing directors of his various businesses, which have ranged from communication technology to venture investing.

Chenn had so many businesses percolating, in fact, that he created China Century Group, an umbrella holding company headquartered in Beijing. By 2018, it held more than 10 companies in technology, real estate and hospitality, energy, and financial investment. CCG currently has more than 5,000 employees in China, the US, and worldwide. About 20 are Booth alumni, and eight are in senior management roles.

“We may be the largest institution in China with this many Chicago Booth alumni in senior roles,” he says. “That’s an example of how the Chicago Booth network has been so valuable to me and my companies.”

Jianmei Jia, ’00, who now works with Chenn as managing director of his investment firm, Oceanpine Capital, didn’t cross paths with Chenn at Booth but recalls getting to know him at gatherings Chenn organized for recent Booth graduates in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s. “He is very social and was kind of the network center of our class,” she says. “He excels in making friends and maintaining relationships. In 2019, when I told people that I wanted to move back to China, he was the one person who took it seriously and really helped me reach my goal.”

“We may be the largest institution in China with this many Chicago Booth alumni in senior roles. That’s an example of how the Chicago Booth network has been so valuable to me and my companies.”

— David Chenn
Dave Chen posing in front of a boardroom

Facing New Risks—And Possibilities

After graduating from Booth, Chenn experienced another dilemma. Many of his classmates joined consulting or investment-banking firms, and he fell into a similar path, working as a consultant for McKinsey & Company in Chicago. But he quickly realized that McKinsey was highly competitive, and he didn’t have a clear way to distinguish himself.

Chenn reflected on the strategy advice he’d received in his MBA classes. “You should be a novelty; you should be different,” he says. The dot-com boom was underway, and he decided to go west to Silicon Valley. “Even though it was a little too late, I thought I would be able to catch the last train, the last chance,” he says.

He received a job offer as a product manager from a startup that had been funded for only a year and had about 40 employees at the time: Google. “If I had joined the company, my career would have been totally different,” he says. “But I was not daring enough to take the risk.”

Instead, Chenn went to work at software giant Oracle as a senior product manager. At the time, Oracle was widely admired for its development of innovative database technology. The company was led by cofounder and then-CEO Larry Ellison. Chenn moved through positions at Oracle in product management, sales, and marketing. But on the weekends, he and his fellow engineers were constantly brainstorming concepts for new businesses.

In 2005, Chenn resigned from Oracle to start his own company. “I had seen the ceiling for me,” he says. “There was no way for me to grow further. Oracle was a giant already. I was a little too late. And entrepreneurship was so popular in Silicon Valley. Everyone was talking about new startups, new ideas—that was the spirit. I have to admit, I was influenced dramatically by the culture there.”

Chenn already had a family at that point, and he felt that financially, he couldn’t afford to fail. He did as much research as possible to reduce his risk. Drawing on his Booth education, he laid out his criteria for a successful venture: the market potential had to be huge, the competition needed to be minimal to nonexistent, and the barrier to entry had to be relatively high.

He decided that his best opportunity was to apply his knowledge of the US telecom industry to China, which had an enormous population and a brand-new market with no competition. That same year, he moved to China with his family and launched an internet-based communications technology company that provided a comprehensive tool on mobile phones that could be described as an early version of WhatsApp. The tool was the first of its kind in China.

“There was no 3G, no iPhone, no touch screen,” Chenn recalls. “But I had the conviction that the bandwidth of the internet would be expanding exponentially, mobile phone penetration would increase significantly, and voice communication would be free in the near future.”

Within a year, his product had more than 1 million customers. Unfortunately, the service was soon forced to shut down. Chinese government regulations did not allow private companies to provide internet-based voice and text communication services on mobile phones, reserving those services for state-owned enterprises such as China Mobile.

Chenn quickly pivoted to a new business model. He started a second company that resold access to China Mobile’s network under his own brand, with a few add-on services. Although the market potential was much smaller than for his original idea, he acquired more than 30 million customers and sold the company for about $30 million after five years.

“Considering that I started the company with my own savings from Oracle of about $300,000, it was still quite a success—a 100-times return,” he says. “But it wasn’t possible to develop it into a big company. My goal at the time was to survive, to stay in the game. You can’t quit.”

In 2009, when Chenn was getting ready to sell his company, he saw the first version of WhatsApp, which looked remarkably similar to his initial idea. “I felt both sad and happy,” he says. “I was sad that because of the government restrictions, I was not persistent enough to hold on. If I had been able to hold on for several years, I would have had the first version of such a service, not only in China but in the world. But I was also happy because my vision proved to be right.”

For his next act, Chenn looked once more to a wide-open market. He was impressed with OnStar, an innovative service for its time that connected drivers in high-end Buick and GMC vehicles to operators who could assist with directions or emergencies.

By 2010, both 3G wireless technology and the market for new cars were growing rapidly in China. At the same time, new cities and highways were being constructed so quickly that driving was a major hassle. “The maps could not be updated fast enough,” Chenn recalls.

He thought, why not create an upgraded version of OnStar in China? His next company, Beidou Intelligent Connected Vehicle Technology, began with that service and has since expanded into assisted autonomous driving, intelligent and connected services for vehicles, and “infotainment” systems sold to original equipment manufacturers.

Today, Chenn says, the company is a leader in the industry, with more than 1,000 engineers and $500 million in annual revenue. “My goal is to double revenue in three years, take the company public, and expand globally,” he says.

Oceanpine Capital’s Jia says this ambitious goal demonstrates Chenn’s powerful work ethic. She describes him as a detail-oriented, visionary, and self-reflective leader. “Sometimes he shares articles with us very late at night, and so we know he’s working,” she says. “He’s already so successful. Why is he working so hard? From all my interactions with him, I can see that he has a drive for excellence.”

“The most important for me was trying to help recruit the best talents for Chicago Booth. The best product will come from fostering and cultivating the most successful business leaders in the world.”

— David Chenn

Funding the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

Chenn could have been satisfied with running China Century Group, but he was still looking around for the next big idea. “Those companies are no longer so cutting-edge,” he says. “And the prime time for me to start another company has passed. I thought, ‘Hey, I can’t do it by myself, but I could help and make an impact.’”

This time, it would be as an investor. In 2018, Chenn launched Oceanpine Capital to focus on technology investments, particularly in chipsets, AI, green tech, advanced manufacturing, medical technologies, and biotech. “I believe technology is the future, not only in the US, but more importantly, in China,” he says. He has turned over the day-to-day operations of China Century Group to his colleagues to free up time for the newer investment business.

So far, Oceanpine has invested more than $2 billion in 100-plus portfolio companies in technology and related industries. “We have had a number of success stories already, some with more than 15 times the return in only about five years,” Chenn says. “But some have totally failed. Of course, we never like to lose money, but that’s the nature of the business.”

He sees opportunities in small-cap businesses, which he believes will have a harder time going public in the next few years and will be more likely to agree to mergers and acquisitions. Like many investors, he is excited about the possibilities in commercializing artificial intelligence. “I have a conviction that AI will dominate every industry in the near future,” he says.

He hopes that one of his upcoming investments will be the first to meet his three criteria for being transformational: “First, it must have at least a 10-times return or a $1 billion absolute return,” Chenn explains. “Second, I, as an investor, must be highly influential in the company—or even have a controlling position. Third, this company has got to be highly impactful in its industry and in the world. Putting together all three of those dimensions? We’re not there yet.”

Wei Zhu, ’92, the former chairman of Accenture’s China business and an advisor to Oceanpine Capital, says Chenn emphasizes the “local character” of his fund, mentoring younger employees who are new to the private-equity business. Zhu remembers Chenn saying, “‘I’m not just doing this to make money. I want to build the next generation of investment experts.’”

In addition to helping up-and-coming entrepreneurs and investors, Chenn has given back to Booth. He is a current member of the Council on Chicago Booth as well as Booth’s Global Leaders Group. In 2018, he donated $10 million to support the Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Academic Complex | The University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong, which houses Booth’s Executive MBA Program Asia, and to fund scholarships for Full-Time MBA students at Booth and UChicago undergraduates.

Chenn’s highest priority was this scholarship support. “The most important for me was trying to help recruit the best talents for Chicago Booth,” he says. “The best product will come from fostering and cultivating the most successful business leaders in the world.”

Despite his success, he doesn’t think Oceanpine will be his last act. “I’m still in the middle of my career, so I’m still striving hard every day,” he says. “I’m not sure where my journey will be ending in the next 15 or 20 years. But I hope I will be recognized as someone who is impactful not only to his community but also to society.”

His advice to students and alumni is to keep an open mind—the same perspective that has led him down so many different and prosperous paths. He remembers wondering whether he should follow his classmates and stay in consulting, and whether the same view from the same cubicle would define his entire career in engineering. Today, he knows what makes him unique. Referencing the poem by Robert Frost, he says, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”