Eva Chen, Trend Micro: The CEO who was afraid of the phone

Asian entrepreneur Eva Chen has had to conquer some big fears to build Trend Micro into a $1bn-turnover cybersecurity company.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Eva Chen co-founded Trend Micro with her brother-in-law Steve Chang and her sister Jenny Chang in 1998. Today, the Tokyo-headquartered company is a cybersecurity juggernaut with revenues of $1bn and more than 5,000 staff across 50 countries. Chen has been named as one of 'Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen' by Forbes – but admits that leading a tech giant hasn’t come naturally to her.

Taiwan-native Chen is an engineer by background. When she co-founded Trend Micro, she took charge of product development and R&D, while the Changs handled marketing and sales. ‘I was always the little sister; the one that was protected, the one that was in the background,’ she says.

It was the late nineties, and female entrepreneurs were thin on the ground in Asia. ‘Back then, my biggest problem was being a woman,’ she says. ‘Every time I walked into a boardroom, everyone assumed I was there to make the tea and coffee. So that’s what I did: I made everyone tea and coffee, and then I’d walk over to the white board and start the meeting. Everyone was so shocked when I started talking about technology that they just agreed with everything I said! I was unexpected – and I used that to my advantage.’

But Chen struggled on the phone. Making calls to clients and business contacts would bring her out in a cold sweat. ‘I’d been dealing with an engineer from the Czech Republic over the phone. When he eventually came out to visit Trend Micro, he looked at me in surprise and said ‘I didn’t realise you were nice!’ He told me I was impatient and short over the phone. When I asked my friends and family about it, they all agreed. That’s when I realised I had a problem: I was afraid of talking to people on the phone.’

Chen went to a psychiatrist to find out why – and realised her phobia stemmed from a childhood experience. When Chen was five or six, a storm caused a tree to fall onto her family’s Japanese-style wooden house. Her mother was on the phone at the time, and the wires caught fire. ‘I was petrified she’d get hurt; that’s where the negative association came from,’ she explains. ‘It took me nearly two years to conquer that fear. If I hadn’t, I doubt I’d be running a global company today.’

Chen also had to find the confidence to step out of her CTO role and into the CEO role. ‘Steve asked me several times to take the reins – but I always said no. I wanted to avoid the front line. I don’t know what I was afraid of.’ In 2004, right after her father’s funeral, Steve took her to one side and asked her again to take charge of the business. ‘He said, "Now you’re ready to grow up, take responsibility and be the CEO. Go home and think about it." He was right. I had to be independent; I couldn’t be the little sister hiding behind people anymore.’

She became CEO that year – but just four months later one of the company’s signature files caused computers worldwide to crash. It was a monumental disaster. ‘I flew straight to Japan, our biggest market. I got off the plane and there were hundreds of television cameras and reporters asking me what I was going to do. I was like a rock star for all the wrong reasons. I made a public apology, and then I visited our customers and apologised personally.’ Chen doesn’t know which employee made the mistake – and she doesn’t want to find out. ‘The day I pin the blame on someone is the day I crush innovation in this company,’ she says.

Trend Micro has a 30% share of the global corporate server security market (and was recently named a tech leader by Forrester), with Chen putting its success down to its relentless focus. She cites the ‘Hedgehog Concept’ in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Collins  uses the parable of the clever, devious fox and the simple hedgehog; the fox keeps coming up with new ideas to eat the hedgehog, but the hedgehog defeats him by doing his one trick: rolling into a thorny ball. 'We do one thing – and we do it really well,’ says Chen.

Meet the UK's most powerful businesswomen at MT's Inspiring Women conference on 16th November with guest speakers including TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding, Clydesdale Bank COO Debbie Crosbie and top chef Angela Hartnett. Find out more and book your tickets here

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