Carmen Chang: Pioneering Law and Investment in China

Decades ago, with a Stanford Law degree and a deep formal knowledge of Chinese history and politics, Carmen Chang pioneered American legal practice in a fast-changing China, then just on the cusp of becoming an economic power. Today, blending her knowledge of law, business, and Chinese culture, Chang is a venture capitalist—backing some of China’s latest and most cutting-edge technologies.

When Chang, JD ’93 (MA ’81), joined Silicon Valley’s powerhouse law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati soon after graduating from Stanford Law, she stood out. At the time, few in the Valley had her range and depth of knowledge and expertise—in law and in China. Technology companies and funds from Taiwan, China, and Singapore were starting to sniff out the area and were in need of legal representation. Chang, who is originally from China, knew these funds and companies. 

Chang recalls that many top partners at Wilson Sonsini at that time were interested primarily in serving homegrown blue-chip companies, so Asian clients were frequently funneled to her. All this created opportunity for Chang, at the time only a mid-level associate.

At Wilson Sonsini and during a short interval as a partner at Shearman & Sterling, Chang represented Tencent Holdings, Lenovo Group, UMC, Huawei Technologies, Foxconn, UTStarcom, and others—companies that today make up a “Who’s Who of Corporate China.” As her reputation and relationships grew, Chang also became counsel to major Silicon Valley technology firms seeking business in China. She represented Google when it invested in Baidu, 3Com in its joint venture with Huawei, and U.S. venture funds seeking deals in China.

“Carmen’s greatest strength is her ability to sit between China and the U.S. and bridge the cultural, political, and economic gaps.”

—Oliver Weisberg, chief executive of Blue Pool Capital in Hong Kong

“I hit a period when Asia and China just boomed,” says Chang, currently a general partner at venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates (NEA) in Menlo Park, California, which she joined in 2012. She understood the Chinese system and the language and history, so she ended up being hired for many of the seminal deals.

Chang’s early success at Wilson Sonsini completely changed her career trajectory. She had long envisioned herself as an academic. Before law school she was well on her way to a doctorate from Stanford in modern Chinese history (her research area: the intellectual differences and conflicts between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China in the 1920s). But realizing she’d likely have more job opportunities as a law professor than as a history professor, Chang entered SLS and planned to work at a firm for just a few years before pursuing a teaching job.

But at Wilson, the China-related work kept coming, and Chang accepted it in large part because of her fundamental intellectual interest in China and its history, institutions, and developing companies.

“I did what I wanted to do,” says Chang, who recalls that a colleague at Wilson warned her against “ghettoizing” herself into a China corner. “I told him, ‘I don’t care; this is what I am interested in,’ ” she says. After two years at Shearman, she was lured back to Wilson in 2005, this time with the mandate to lead the firm’s official launch in China with an office in Shanghai, its first overseas.

A Palo Alto resident, Chang, who was born in Nanjing and raised in Taiwan, speaks fondly of her years at SLS, recalling torts with Professor Thomas C. Grey and criminal law with Professor Robert Weisberg. Studying for her graduate degree at Stanford, Chang recalls, she learned historical context and how institutions developed and evolved in modern China. But the law school “gave me an education in how to think, in ethics and values and how they relate to business and law, and how to think about solving problems,” she says.

Carmen Chang: Pioneering Law and Investment in China 2
Carmen Chang, JD ’93 (MA ’81), at the office of Menlo Park VC firm New Enterprise Associates, where she is chairman and head of the Asia group and a general partner (photo by Timothy Archibald)

Law school teaches students about responsibility and judgment—crucial virtues regardless of whether a student ultimately becomes a lawyer—Chang says. She notes SLS gave her a solid grasp of ethics to allow her in turn to help Chinese executives understand the expectations of U.S. regulators and business partners. “In my years representing Chinese companies, I took a lot of what I learned from Stanford to explain to Chinese companies going public in the U.S. the genesis and purpose of U.S. corporate and securities laws,” she says. “There was a view among some of these new Chinese executives at that time that capitalism was only about making money, but one of the roles I played in China was to explain that many corporate securities regulations and corporate governance laws were enacted to protect ‘widows and orphans’—to protect social interests and the weak as well as create a more-efficient market.

“I was able to explain the ethical basis and reasons to adhere to U.S. law to this first generation of Chinese companies that listed in the U.S.,” she continues. “I credit SLS for giving me that understanding.”

“Carmen’s greatest strength is her ability to sit between China and the U.S. and bridge the cultural, political, and economic gaps,” says Oliver Weisberg, chief executive of Blue Pool Capital in Hong Kong and longtime family friend and business colleague of Chang’s. “She has incredible integrity and incredible ethics. She’s got an unbelievable way of helping both sides whether in a boardroom or a legal dispute or a venture capital situation.”

Chang, who as an attorney represented NEA, says she was drawn to working in venture capital in part by her long-standing appreciation of entrepreneurs and the challenges they face in building successful companies. Since moving to NEA, Chang says she has shifted her approach from the always risk-averse one of a lawyer to the more risk-taking mindset of a venture partner.

She has embraced the non-legal aspects of entrepreneurship too. Andrew Ng, co-founder of online learning firm Coursera, in which NEA is an investor, recalls the support Chang provided to the company as it pursued strategic initiatives, including expanding in China. “Carmen explained the pros and cons of different options, helped us explore different strategic possibilities, was insightful and generous with her time and also very generous with helping make connections and opening doors to others who could help us,” says Ng.

Still, Chang notes, her legal background remains highly relevant in her current career. “All the years of trying to get CEOs to do the right thing have helped me a lot because in venture capital, you have to manage the companies after you invest,” she says.

As a general partner at NEA, Chang has a portfolio of about 20 companies, most of which are based in China. It’s an eclectic list that includes internet, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT) and psychotherapy companies. Chang has also invested in a U.S. company that delivers psychotherapy services via a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence. Another standout in her portfolio: the Hollywood studio STX Entertainment.

Movies, in fact, are one of Chang’s long-standing interests and represent a growth opportunity for her as an individual. In fact, she’s planning to work with a friend to make a movie as a personal project. “I recently found a book that I’m thinking of optioning,” says Chang, who declined to elaborate. “We will have to see what is possible.”