Great Fortune: How Three Talented Chinese Immigrants Mastered Bay Area Business (Maddux Business Report)

By Bob Andelman
Maddux Business Report
Cover Story
November 2007


Windy Zou Kohl
“The Born Diplomat”

Windy.

It’s a great first name, clearly, but it’s not real.

“When I first came to the United States to go to grad school,” says Windy Zou Kohl, 39, director of product management for Tampa-based Syniverse Technologies, “the first class of every term, the professor would read the roster and when there was dead silence, I knew it was me. I’d say ‘Windy is my American name.’”

Born and raised in Nanjing, China, Kohl’s legal first name is actually Xiaojie. Go ahead: you try to pronounce it.

In high school, Kohl liked to write poetry. One poem, “I am the Wind,” was published in 1984 in a national Chinese newspaper:

I am the wind

If one day I settled down somewhere

No longer would I exist

There’d be just the air

Kohl never envisioned herself with an American-sounding name – or, for that matter, a career with an American corporation – until the Chinese student uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Until then, she was in college pursuing career ambitions toward becoming a Chinese diplomat.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a mouthpiece for the Chinese government,” she recalls.
But rather than draw attention to herself as a radical, she stayed in school two more years, buying time by studying English at the Foreign Affairs Institute in Beijing. “That’s when I decided to come to the U.S., where people have a different way of life. The principles of self-reliance and independence were intriguing to me, so different from the way I was brought up. I was so desperate because of Tiananmen Square that I didn’t focus on what I was getting into so much as what I was getting out of. If I was in China today, I don’t know if I would be so motivated.”

Instructors at the Institute were typically American or Canadian. One encouraged his students to pick an English language name for themselves. Thinking of her poem, Kohl (then Zou) asked if she could call herself “Wind.” Her professor suggested adding a “y” would sound more Western, so she did.



A scholarship to American University in Washington, D.C., was Kohl’s reward for hard work and patience, although getting a passport wasn’t easy in the political climate of 1991. She made her long awaited escape, however, and briefly sought a career as a TV reporter, landing an internship with Fox News.

“Another reporter told me that ‘Windy’ had a bad meaning – it meant long-winded! So I ended up not pursuing that,” she says.

Kohl graduated from American in 1993 with a degree in international communications and took a marketing job with Comsat in Northern Virginia. Nearly four years later she was a product manager with marketable skills of interest to companies eyeing the superheated Asian technology marketplace.

GTE Telecommunications Services won her over and she became a Tampa-based product manager for international roaming services. That same year, Windy Zou met hedge fund manager Steve Kohl at a social function and fell in love. They married five years ago.

“My husband is as American as you can get,” she jokes.

In May 2007, Kohl was promoted to director of product management, a position in which she supervises eight product managers. “We’re responsible for the four Ps of marketing – product, price, placement, and promotion.”

Kohl started Syniverse’s business in Asia-Pacific, working with customers in a dozen countries. “I pride myself on being a bridge between them and another country. The best salespeople seek the win/win; we transfer the company’s needs to what’s in the customer’s best interest. To that end I consider myself an ambassador, the diplomat I once trained to be.”

The economic upheaval back home is a daily part of Kohl’s business and personal life. Her job involves a great deal of travel to a part of the world she once couldn’t wait to escape, which allows her to visit several time a year with her family. “I now have the good fortune to travel all over Asia-Pacific and Europe for my job. I am proud of my ability to adapt. I’m happy here; I’d also be happy to live in Europe or China.”

Also profiled in this story: Tony Leung, Sanwa Growers; Hongling Han-Ralston, attorney at law

© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.

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Copyright 2007 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman