STEM POWER: Amiee Chan

B.C.'s Most Influential Women 2018 - Telecommunications

Credit: Adam Blasberg

President and CEO, Norsat International

Amiee Chan saved Norsat International Inc. from ruin—and built it into a prime takeover target. Last summer the Richmond-based maker of satellite products for corporate, military and broadcasting clients was acquired by Hytera Communications Co. Ltd., a Chinese radio systems manufacturer. The $70.6-million deal saw Hytera pay US$11.50 per share for Norsat stock, an 86-percent premium over the market price.

An immigrant from Hong Kong, Chan began studying electronics in high school after her parents told her she would only succeed by taking a different path than others. She earned an electrical engineering degree from UBC, where her male classmates didn’t regard her as a rival, she says, so being one of the few women wasn’t a problem. “I always kind of saw myself as one of the guys,” recalls the keen hockey player, who laughs easily. “All my mentors have been male.”

Chan, who went on to earn a PhD in satellite communications at UBC and an MBA from SFU, first joined Norsat in 1992, becoming VP of operations and engineering. In 2006, with the company bleeding money thanks to its failed pursuit of high-volume business, the board promoted her to CEO. It was the right call: as credit markets dried up, Chan and her team quickly cut costs and pivoted to concentrate on customized products for high-end clients. “That really kick-started our profit engine,” recalls the Premier’s Technology Council member.

Declining to comment on criticism that Ottawa skipped a full national security review of the Hytera takeover, Chan says the new Shenzhen-listed owner will give 205-employee Norsat access to Asian markets and support its research and development. “We believe that over the next few years, there will be a lot of new and exciting products coming out of our R&D department.”

Chan’s efforts to change the STEM gender imbalance include mentoring young women who lack the confidence to pursue their passion. As a female CEO in her industry, she’s no stranger to sexism. When she visits South Korea with her purchasing manager, for example, people open doors for him because they assume he’s the boss. “There’s still the social perception that women do not lead high-tech companies,” says Chan, who holds three U.S. patents and was named to the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) Hall of Fame in 2015.

How can we get more women into STEM?

In the past few years, Chan says, at least 10 organizations promoting women in STEM have approached her. “I’m wondering if there’s a unified way of putting all the effort together,” she asks. “I’m hoping the government plays a larger role as well.”