The first thing to understand about Navdeep Sooch is that he does not do things casually. There is always a purpose, a goal. When he decided to take up golf four years ago, it wasn’t because he wanted to drink beer with friends at the nineteenth hole. His objective was to qualify to play in the Buckman Cup, an elite annual tournament at Austin’s Barton Creek Resort and Club. So he took private lessons. He hit balls at the driving range four times a week. His score dropped precipitously, and that spring he not only qualified to play in the Buckman—a remarkable feat for a rank novice—but also won his flight in the club championship tournament. Sooch would never share such a story. Like most of the other interesting details about him, it comes from his wife. But this sort of determination is precisely what has pushed him and his company, Silicon Laboratories, to the forefront of one of the hottest industries in the world: specialty computer chips. When Sooch, now 38, co-founded Silicon Laboratories in 1996, he left a $149,000 job and took no salary for six months, betting everything he had on a new type of chip design. Today, as Silicon Labs’ chairman and CEO, his shares in the company, which designs chips that make modems and cell phones more efficient, are worth $200 million. Those shares were worth as much as $522 million last year—which landed Sooch on Fortune’s “America’s Forty Richest Under 40” list. That was before the high-tech Armageddon in the stock market began in April. In spite of the market drop, industry analysts are confident of Silicon Labs’ future. And even at the lower valuation, it’s not a bad haul for three years’ work.
The second important thing to understand about Sooch is that he would rather do almost anything than say something revealing about himself. His stripped-down second-floor office in a nondescript building in southwest Austin tells you little about the man, other than that he is spartan, precise, and—this he will admit—”no nonsense.” He wears sensible black slacks and a beige cotton sweater. Small, neat stacks of manila folders line the top of his desk, where there is but one item that could be considered personal—a hand-painted coffee mug that his daughter, Kelly, made for him for Father’s Day when she was three. He never uses it, though, because he rarely drinks coffee. His recent award from Ernst and Young as the area’s entrepreneur of the year doesn’t hang on the wall. Neither does the framed stock certificate from when Silicon Labs went public, on March 24, 2000, and which quickly boosted his net worth above half a billion. They’re both at home, decorating his wife’s office. He refuses to let her order the plaques for the 24 patents he has received. “No self-respecting engineer would put those things up,” he says. “It’s too pretentious.”
His silver BMW 740i and red Porsche Carrera, however, are apparently not too pretentious. Cars are his one weakness, as it turns out, and it is comforting to know, at least, that he has one. He drives both cars at speeds that sometimes top 100 miles per hour along the curvy, hilly, two-lane road from his five-bedroom Westlake Hills home to his office. This detail does not come from Sooch either. It is related by his wife, who has heard the breathless accounts of their three children, who have been along on some of the joyrides.
When asked to describe what, exactly, he does, Sooch, leaning forward over his desk, is immediately evasive. “My role is …” he says, pausing for a moment and smiling coyly, “I’m the leader. So I don’t do anything.” This will no doubt delight his shareholders, who have already watched the price of their shares fall from a high of $105 in March of last year to a low of $10 in January. Of course, he’s lying. Silicon Labs is not a fly-by-night dot-com and didn’t grow from zero to $100 million in annual revenues in just four years’ time—up 100 percent over last year—with a chief executive who does nothing at all. Walking past an empty office on a Monday afternoon, Sooch hesitates for a moment, as if he really has forgotten that he’s the leader, and then slips in. He picks up a plastic container resting on the desk, where a single black chip, just three-eighths of an inch long, is nestled in gray foam. This is one of his products. “Here’s one,” he says and angles the chip toward the light, a bit of real enthusiasm creeping into his voice. “See where the plastic is etched off? That’s the actual silicon. It’s beautiful.”
Navdeep Sooch was born in Amritsar, in northern India, in 1962, the second child of Shangara and Pritam Sooch. Both had been raised on farms in the agrarian state of Punjab, and after their marriage they wanted to break free from the country’s rigid caste system. They went to college, then moved to Detroit. As it turned out, degrees from India didn’t help them find work in the U.S., so they both enrolled in Wayne State University, while Nav and his sister, Jasdeep, stayed behind in Amritsar, where they attended Catholic boarding school. A few years later, when Sooch was ten, he and his sister joined their parents. Living in a small apartment in an area known as the Cass Corridor, one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, he became more fluent in English, picking up slang to go along with it. His mother worked as a high school librarian; his father was a systems analyst at Michigan Bell. They lived frugally, and within a few years the family had saved enough to buy a modest house in the suburbs.
Sooch attended the University of Michigan and majored in the closest thing to electronics that he could find—electrical engineering. He quickly learned the language of ones and zeros, but he found digital design unchallenging. He focused instead on the rarest