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Benny Lee On Innovation: One Success Can Offset Many Failures

Julie Denesha
Benny Lee, CEO and president of DuraComm, sits beneath one of the LED light panels in his product showroom.

Benny Lee grew up in Taiwan. His first visit to Kansas City was in 1975, one of many business trips he would make here on various ventures — from distributing ginsu knives to developing and selling handheld steamers. Lee eventually moved his family to Kansas City in 1995, when he became an investor in DuraComm, which makes power supply and lighting equipment. By 2008, he was the sole owner. 

Today, Lee is a widely respected business leader in Kansas City. In addition to serving as CEO and president of DuraComm, he is a major shareholder in Eliton, which among other products is developing a foldable cello. In 2014, Nonprofit Connect designated him "Kansas City Philanthropist of the Year."

Lee spoke with me as part of KCUR'sInnovation KC series. Here are some of his thoughts on innovation, his path to success and adapting to the business practices of other cultures:

On the necessity of innovation

Always you have to think about future; if you don't think about future, you will die. Even power supply: I said, "There are two choices in business—either innovate, or die." You always have to think about something different.

On the meaning of 'success'

Success is a journey, not a destination. You can say, "Oh, I'm a success," but tomorrow there's a person better or more successful than you. And it is true: There are so many successful companies, even much, much bigger than me. I'm okay. I'm better than average people. Because I take risks. I try. I fail. But the end result is that I must have more success than my failure. Just sometimes one success can compensate for ten failures. But if you don't try, you don't have even one success. 

On his journey to Kansas City

I have a long history, or relationship, with Kansas City. I worked for a company called Mitland International in Taiwan, which is Kansas City-based. So my first visit to Kansas City was in 1975. And I had a good impression of Kansas City—nice people. So when I decided to immigrate to the United States, I said, "It's people who are most important." We had so many friends here, so I decided to come here.

The challenges of innovating in an unfamiliar culture

I think language and culture in the beginning is hard. You need to express yourself the first time you go out to the community. You know nobody, you sit in the corner, you don't know how to talk, even say hello. So then I forced myself to do that. But then first time, second time, third time, you become better, and people are nice. Even if you don't speak perfect English, they like you! They try to understand you, and you both try, you become more comfortable, your English becomes better. And I'm learning that always.  

This interview was part of Innovation KC, a series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an emailtweetus, or find us on Facebook.

Brian Ellison is a host/contributor at KCUR. You can reach him at brian@kcur.org or on Twitter @ptsbrian.

As a host and contributor at KCUR, I seek to create a more informed citizenry and richer community. I want to enlighten and inspire our audience by delivering the information they need with accuracy and urgency, clarifying what’s complicated and teasing out the complexities of what seems simple. I work to craft conversations that reveal realities in our midst and model civil discourse in a divided world. Follow me on Twitter @ptsbrian or email me at brian@kcur.org.
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