Each year, the College of Engineering recognizes outstanding alumni during Engineers’ Day—a celebration of engineers, held on Homecoming weekend. Sunny Lo is among the engineers we will honor in 2019 at an Oct. 11 banquet.
One year into his chemical engineering graduate program at Stanford University, Sunny made an important discovery—and that new knowledge ultimately led him back to Hong Kong, where he became leader of the first-ever Hong Kong restaurant business to go public.
In the lab at Stanford, Sunny realized that research wasn’t for him. And even though people in his life questioned his choice, Sunny earned his master’s degree and left school. After working a few odd jobs—including one at McDonald’s—he landed a job in software technical sales. A few years later, when his father asked for help running his small restaurant business, Sunny jumped at the chance to apply his engineering education and problem-solving skills in the company.
He took Café de Coral public with an initial stock offering in 1986, and today, the company has more than 460 locations around Hong Kong and southern China.
We are honoring Sunny as an entrepreneur who has helped change business models and China and proudly serves as an ambassador for UW-Madison in Asia.
Recently, we chatted with him about everything from his memories as a student at UW-Madison to his career and hobbies. Here are his responses to some of our questions.
How did your experience in the college shape your career path?
I went into business, but engineering still helped with business. Engineering taught me to solve problems and push through challenges.
Which engineering professor made the greatest impact on you?
BSL—Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot. They were such brilliant guys and they were so compassionate. And I still keep a copy of the “red book.” Professor Harmon Ray taught me about control theory, and James Dumesic helped convince me to go to Stanford.
Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
When I left my PhD and then, when I left my sales career, a lot of people questioned my decisions, but I kept following my path and working hard. I had worked in restaurants, and then I ran the restaurant company. Now I have had the opportunity to hand-pick the leadership for the company. So I think the achievement is to meet challenges, keep going, and be true to yourself.
What advice would you give students today?
Always think of innovative ideas and solutions to problems. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; they are learning opportunities. Embrace a learning mind to overcome that fear. You can continue more strongly after mistakes. And be kind to one another. There will always be challenges, but the way we meet the challenges is the most important thing.
Can you share are a few of your best memories from your time at UW-Madison?
I still remember arriving on my first day from Hong Kong—you know, Hong Kong is all skyscrapers and tall buildings—and driving from the airport seeing all the beautiful wide-open spaces and farm fields and the lakes. Madison is such a beautiful place. I also have memories of the Memorial Union Terrace, watching the sailboats on the lake. And, working with Professor Harmon Ray.
What are your hobbies?
I have so many hobbies! I’m a maker, I love electronics, programming and working with Raspberry Pi. I recently took a 10-week course on artificial intelligence.
I also love sailing. Right now, I’m merging sailing and AI. One of my racing partners is an expert sailor and it took him 35 years to perfect his abilities, but I wanted to know if I could use AI to bring me to an advanced level more quickly. I’m using optics to measure the shape of the sail and correlate that with the performance of the boat in all wind conditions. Expert sailors trim their sails by feel, and I’m wondering if I can use AI to achieve the best performance from my sailboat without years and years of experience. I also have started angel investing.
Yes, my wife and children. One of my sons is a writer, one is an illustrator, and my daughter is an environmental scientist.