Class of 1992, BS
Steve Mollenkopf admits he is often the “last person standing” when he makes a decision that involves risks. But he would not have it any other way.
In fact, what truly bothers him is when people shy from making decisions that involve possible liabilities because, as he advised, “If you are a leader, it is your job to take risks.”
At 45, his philosophy has paid him great dividends. Twenty years have passed since he accepted his first job offer as an entry-level electrical engineer at a then fledgling start-up company called Qualcomm. Today, Mollenkopf serves as the chief executive officer of this lightning-fast growing $25 billion-a-year business. His career trajectory has soared from his upbringing in Baltimore, Maryland, by parents who were both school teachers.
He credits his father and brother as influential personalities in his life choices. When his dad coached him on his high school basketball and lacrosse teams, his locker room advice to his athletic son was to make mistakes by throwing the ball away, not by holding onto it. Now in the corporate board room, Mollenkopf uses this analogy with his more than 30,000 employees.
And how did he decide to move 3,000 miles from his family’s east-coast home to California’s self-proclaimed innovation hub for collaboration between wireless technology and the life sciences? He thanked his brother who suggested he interview with Qualcomm in 1994, at that time a nine-year-old wireless telecommunications company based in San Diego.
Steve had already profited from his older brother’s advice to study engineering at Virginia Tech, now alma mater to both of them. Steve’s early trips to Blacksburg, Virginia, started at an impressionable age, just as he was becoming a teenager. When it was his turn to apply to a university, he was quite familiar with Virginia Tech’s reputation and he “loved the town” so he basically sole sourced his options.
As a Hokie, Mollenkopf juggled the demands of a tough academic curriculum, successfully becoming a member of the electrical engineering honor society, with the grueling schedule of an athlete on the men’s lacrosse team. The combination had him studying for his coursework on average five to six hours nightly while practicing lacrosse six days a week during spring semester, and five days a week with games on weekends for the remainder of the season.
He had no complaints. Neither did his mentors. Electrical engineering professor Warren Stutzman said, “Steve was in one of my large classes in 1990, but I remember him as one with unusual maturity for his level and as having true potential for accomplishing big things.”
Stutzman later employed Mollenkopf’s talents as an undergraduate to work on some of his antenna projects conducted mostly by graduate students. “I was the lowest rung on the technical ladder,” Mollenkopf acknowledged. “But it got me exposed to graduate work.” He may have been the “lowest rung” but Stutzman said Mollenkopf’s work on an antenna range remains today, more than 20 years later, on the roof of Whittemore Hall at Virginia Tech and, most impressively, is still operational.
On the lacrosse field, Joel Nachlas, professor of industrial and systems engineering, led the Hokies for four decades before retiring as head coach, and four of those years were spent with Mollenkopf. Nachlas described Mollenkopf as “one of his best players and a super guy ” — strong accolades from a man who coached some 2,000 students during his career. “He served as a team leader and as a role model for his teammates. Naturally, this was a result of his ability to manage his time well,” Nachlas added.
With mutual admiration, Mollenkopf recalled his time with Nachlas as “great” and as “one who influenced so many kids.”
“I received a great broad-based fundamental engineering education from Virginia Tech. It prepares a person very well to be a practicing engineer. You can see that through the various successes of its alumni,” Mollenkopf reflected.
His stint in Stutzman’s research group helped convince him that he wanted to pursue graduate school and, to broaden his horizons, he selected the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. While a graduate student, he married his Virginia Tech sweetheart, Susan Beth Thurston, a marketing major, and together they made the 1994 career decision that involved a fair amount of risk. So much risk, in fact, that they hesitated to buy a home at first until they were less apprehensive about job security.
“I selected Qualcomm because the people working there were really high caliber. It was important to me to be part of a group of people I could learn from. Qualcomm was ramping up to commercialize its CDMA (code division multiple access) technologies,” Mollenkopf said. CDMA allowed several transmitters to send information simultaneously over a single communication channel, allowing several users to share a band of frequencies, a revolutionary technology for its time.
Mollenkopf found that he was using every vital piece of information he had learned in his antennas classes as he worked on Qualcomm’s global satellite system. This system provided the calculations for the CDMA-based cellular base station.
Following his successful role with the commercialization of CDMA cell phones, base stations, and chips, Mollenkopf was tasked with developing Qualcomm’s Universal Mobile Terminal System, more commonly known as 3G. His team was able to develop a receiver and tie it into the CDMA.
In 2003, he introduced the first universal mobile telecommunications system (UMTS), enabling Qualcomm to take a lead position in this emerging technology, also known as Wideband CDMA.
The technological engineering success was outstanding, causing a small conundrum for the man who has seven patents in his name. From a professional level, Mollenkopf was not personally sure he wanted to transition into management. Conversely, Qualcomm was positive, promoting him in April of 2002 to a vice president of engineering.
He admitted his hesitancy, saying, “I was reluctant… but our research is a mix of engineering and business. With a company like Qualcomm, we make bets on a particular technology,” Mollenkopf said. “I thought it would be a big transition, but it really was not. As with most international technology companies, the sun never sets … much like the research growth at a university. You are always thinking about the projects.”
“Steve then headed the smart phone program inside Qualcomm which had full 3G capabilities and much more complex modems. He led the interaction with Samsung, HTC Corporation, Motorola, and Apple, delivering highly complex chip sets for smart phones. He demonstrated with his team that such chip sets could be built and delivered on time and with a high profit margin,” said Sanjay Raman, associate vice president of Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region, and Ed Tiedemann, Qualcomm’s Vice President of Engineering and a Fellow of the company.
For the next few years, Mollenkopf leapfrogged through the company’s administration, serving: as senior vice president of engineering and product management from 2006 until 2008; as executive vice president of QCT product management for three months in 2008; as executive vice president of Qualcomm Inc., from May of 2008 until November of 2011, and its president and chief operating officer from November of 2011 until March of 2014. He held some dual titles during those times, including: group president at Qualcomm Inc., from September 2010 until November 2011; group president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies from September 2010 to October 2010, and its executive vice president from August 2008 to November 2011. On March 4, 2014, he became the CEO.
As he mixed the roles of technocrat with his Wall Street acumen, he found himself emailing people in the middle of the night with some new insight or question. As Qualcomm’s top executive, he readily admits he doesn’t have all the answers, and that is why he likes to surround himself with strong people.
“We are an aggressive company but we treat people well. Look at what our people are able to work on. Our employees are satisfied because we are at the center of the mobile technology industry. We are lucky to have maintained relevance over multiple decades,” said the man who also chairs the Global Semiconductor Alliance, a group of more than 400 companies with over $300 billion in sales.
“Steve empowers the teams working under him to make their own decisions to meet the objectives that have been developed. He works to set high goals. He involves the teams in the decision making process … and he focuses on the big picture trying to make sure that the objectives are set right…,” wrote Raman and Tiedemann in their nomination of Mollenkopf to Virginia Tech’s Academy of Engineering Excellence.
This “big picture” allows Qualcomm to claim its role as the largest supplier of semiconductor chips for mobile phones, as the third largest semiconductor company in the world, and as the largest fabless semiconductor global company. The combination of these statistics makes Qualcomm one of the top international electrical engineering companies.
Class of: 1992
Year Inducted into Academy: 2015