AI expert Dr. Kai-Fu Lee returns to alma mater

St. Mary-Oak Ridge honors the internationally known venture capitalist and author at a school assembly 

By Dan McWilliams

What a difference a sister can make in the life of one of her students.

Before he became the internationally known venture capitalist, artificial-intelligence expert, and bestselling author that he is today, Dr. Kai-Fu Lee was a seventh-grader at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge in the 1970s who had just emigrated from Taiwan and did not know a word of English.

That’s when Sister Mary David, OP, principal of St. Mary, stepped in. She taught the young teen English on her lunch breaks, catapulting him on a career that saw him earn a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University and serve as an executive at Google China, Microsoft, and Apple.

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee shares a laugh during his Q-and-A with St. Mary fifth- through eighth-grade students.

St. Mary School honored Dr. Lee on May 6 as he returned to his alma mater for a visit to classrooms and a school-wide assembly that included Bishop Richard F. Stika and Oak Ridge mayor Warren Gooch among its guests.

The day meant a great deal to Dr. Lee, he said.

“It brings back a lot of memories and also reminded me again what a difference that a great education means,” he said. “St. Mary’s was where I went from knowing zero words in English to becoming fluent in six months, and also Oak Ridge is the city in which I got the best education one could have in those days. Seeing all the classrooms and teachers and the energy and the inquisitiveness of the students—I think that spirit is still here. This is still the best school.”

Dr. Lee spent only a half-year at St. Mary before going on to Jefferson Junior High for eighth grade and graduating from Oak Ridge High School in 1979.

But that short time at St. Mary made an influence on the young man.

“It did, because I came not speaking one word of English, so it was arguably, theoretically the toughest half-year, but people here made it so easy,” he said. “Sister Mary David was the principal, and she took every lunch period to teach me English. She had to get a first-grade English textbook and start with, ‘run, Spot, run.’ Can you imagine a seventh-grader going through that?” he added with a laugh.

Dr. Lee’s May visit to St. Mary was his first in more than 30 years. Even after his long career, he still recalls his days at the Catholic school in Oak Ridge.

“I had a lot of fun, made a lot of friends. Today three of my classmates from St. Mary’s came, and one more will see me tomorrow. All of them remember the days,” he said. “It’s very special. There were very small classes, so the students got to know each other. People got along; there weren’t cliques of people. Everybody had the same faith and had the same warmth and compassion, and there was a group where people were encouraged to ask questions and ask why and people were asked to raise their hands.

St. Mary principal Sister Marie Blanchette, OP, and director of admissions and development Darcy Welch prepare to present Dr. Lee the first Distinguished Alumni Visionary Leadership Award.

“That was important to me, because from an Asian education there was not as much encouragement in asking questions and asking why, and the teacher didn’t call on the students nearly as much—partly cultural but partly also the class size was much bigger.”

Dr. Lee is now the head of Sinovation Ventures in China. In 2018 he published AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. For his Ph.D. thesis at Carnegie Mellon, he developed the world’s first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system.

While visiting St. Mary, Dr. Lee fielded questions from fifth- through eighth-graders on topics such as his favorite countries to live in, his time at Google China, and what field he would work in if he wasn’t in computers (he said teaching).

He joked about his Apple career, saying he worked there “between Jobs,” during the time from 1985-97 when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had stepped away from the company.

In a ceremony before the entire St. Mary student body, principal Sister Marie Blanchette, OP, acknowledged dignitaries attending, including Bishop Stika; Anderson County mayor Terry Frank, who was there earlier in the day; Mr. Gooch; St. Mary board president Kevin Corbett; John Deinhart, Diocese of Knoxville director of Stewardship and Strategic Planning; and St. Mary School director of admissions and development Darcy Welch.

Mayor Gooch read a proclamation that summarized Dr. Lee’s career, including how in 2013 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The mayor proclaimed May 6 as Dr. Kai-Fu Lee Day in Oak Ridge.

Bishop Stika took the mic next and recognized the teacher who taught the young Dr. Lee in the 1970s.

“Sister Mary David—she made a difference in the life of one person. Do you know who it is? The good doc here,” the bishop said. “Then he went on to do great things. He is bringing the world together. I just want to thank him for all the thousands and millions of lives he has touched so that people might know more and more about the world in which we live. That’s why we’re so grateful he is here today.”

Sister Marie Blanchette introduced an award presentation to Dr. Lee.

“We are so happy to have him here and to know that he walked these halls and that St. Mary’s helped to make him who he is today. He has done so much good in the world. . . . Safety-wise, for people who are limited with physical handicaps. He does a lot of work with students. He’s very interested in education. He has really helped so many people,” she said.

The St. Mary principal then gave the first Distinguished Alumni Visionary Leadership Award to Dr. Lee.

Bishop Richard F. Stika talks to Dr. Lee during the St. Mary School assembly May 6.

“Dr. Lee’s work has influenced more than America, more than China. He has truly made a huge difference in the world, and we are grateful for the difference that you have made, and we are so proud to call you an alumnus of St. Mary’s School,” Sister Marie Blanchette said.

Many of the students formed a choir that sang several songs for Dr. Lee, concluding with “Rocky Top.”

Dr. Lee said he enjoyed fielding questions from St. Mary students.

“It was a lot of fun. One person asked me what is it when you face difficulty that makes you keep going. I thought that was a great question,” he said. “Other kids were curious about different countries in the world, so we talked about all the countries I had been to—the Middle East and India and of course China—and I think while Oak Ridge is a great place to be, St. Mary’s is a great place to be. People don’t go out a lot, and I think it’s good I’m able to bring some of the perspective outside of Tennessee and outside of the U.S. I would also encourage more people to travel more.”

Dr. Lee spoke of the work he is doing now at Sinovation Ventures.

“I’m investing in high-tech companies, so we invest in a lot of technology but primarily in artificial intelligence and primarily in artificial intelligence as applied to medical, health care, and education, so not only are we working on AI but we want to work on AI for good,” he said.

He recalled again his early unfamiliarity with the English language.

“I think when I came I don’t think I knew more than 100 words of English, because I only had one semester of English in Taiwan,” he said. “Everything else I had to pick up. I couldn’t understand a word in class, because when you know 100 words you can’t just spot for things. You hear a sentence, and one word you’ll understand—usually that’s the word that’s got the content—so I don’t think I understood a single sentence in the lecture when I first arrived.”

He continued to marvel at Sister Mary David taking him under her wing.

“Coming from Asian culture, it is not only unusual but probably unprecedented that a principal of a school would sacrifice her lunch and teach one child, one student, because she had to run the school,” he said. “She was very busy, and yet she found that this attentiveness and patience and self-sacrifice were important. It made a huge difference in one student’s life.

“I think that style of education was very, very moving for me, and it made me also see teachers in a very different way, that teachers were friendly, helpful, and that I could approach them. From an Asian education, teachers are very authoritative, and they lecture from the top of the classroom down, and you not only never question authority, you don’t think of them as your friends; you think of them as an authority figure who wants to educate you, but you’re not at the same level.”

Oak Ridge mayor Warren Gooch presents Dr. Lee a proclamation declaring May 6 Dr. Kai-Fu Lee Day in the city, as Bishop Stika applauds.

St. Mary-Oak Ridge “brought the principal down to the level of one mere student, and I just felt in the future of my pursuit of knowledge in the U.S. that I could approach any teacher at any time. I could ask for things I don’t understand. I could disagree, even, with their point of view and seek clarification. It was not only a onetime event, but it helped me see the role of the teacher and the new type of more effective education.

“I think it changed the way I learned from other teachers all the way through Ph.D. and also helped change the way I interact with younger people. I don’t think of me as an authority figure. I’m happy to talk about things in their language, so I was able to talk to kindergartners and hopefully they had some fun today, and if they did it was largely because I had the fortune of learning that education could be this way from Sister Mary David.”

Dr. Lee has a message for young people today.

“I think there are a number of new challenges that are coming up. One is with automation and artificial intelligence; routine jobs are going away, so how can young kids now pursue the types of occupations and the types of skill sets that won’t become obsolete? That’s one important aspect,” he said. “Another is that the students still tend to be regional, which is what makes Oak Ridge a wonderful, warm place—many people still stay around, and yet the whole world is getting closer and closer. The old world used to be connected by geography, and it took hours and days to travel from one place to another, but now we’re all connected by the Internet communications—people to people and people to information.

“It’s instantaneous and fully connected, and I would encourage people to spend a good amount of time understanding what’s going on in the whole world, not just locally focused, and also understand that while the education and the environment is wonderful here, there are many different geographies and ways of thinking and perspectives, and it’s important to see things in multiple perspectives so that you can see the whole picture as opposed to only seeing a part of the world.”

Google China was an important part of his career, Dr. Lee said.

“Yes, it was. It was eye-opening to go to a company like Google that was making information access available to everyone in the world,” he said. “Bringing it into China was challenging, but we had a lot of success. It was unfortunate that after I left, Google decided to pull out. I think earlier when I talked about the importance of connecting information to the whole world, and Google has such great technology, and not making it available to some countries is a pity. I understand the reasons they have for pulling out. I would have preferred to use engagement as a way to connect people together, as opposed to deciding to be separate.”

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