As the son of a Chinese father and Australian mother, Bill Liao was lucky to experience the strengths of two strong and successful cultures in his home, but it was a different story at school. The bullying was relentless: “I was the only half-Chinese in the school. You name it, it happened, and the constant fear and shame even kept me from letting my parents know what was going on. My one triumph was not ending up in hospital.”
Any dreams and aspirations he may have had were subsumed by the need to be invisible. He dropped out of school at 17 to take up a series of low paid jobs from workshop engineer to a computer repair man. He says: “I was saved by tech. When humans are not kind to you, computers and technology don’t discriminate. I became a geek.”
By the time he was 27, Bill was married and about to be a father. He was a geek with two jobs, one in sales and the other as a workshop manager. One day his wife went to a meeting about the Hunger Project in India. “She came home and said she’d pledged $5000. We didn’t even have $500. We had $30k in credit card debt! I went straight to see the woman to whom that promise had been made and told her it was a mistake.”
The head of the Hunger Project India, Lalita Bhagwalla, looked at the downtrodden young Chinese-Australian and asked: “Who would you need to be to give me $5000?” When there was no answer, she went on: “Imagine who you would need to become. Imagine who you would need to become to give me $50,000 without any suffering.”
For Bill it was a turning point: “My treatment at school had made me feel my race would always hold me back. My parents were very supportive but when you are a BAME kid, it is the judgement of your peers that matters. In that moment, talking with Lalita who had achieved so much and never let anything get in the way of that, I had a glimpse of the future me. I resolved to do it.
“Better still, because I loved tech, which is colour blind, and blind to all the small details that differentiate us, I already had the means in my hands.”
Bill decided to start his own company training people in tech, how to sell. It did so well that within two years he gave Lalita the cheque she had asked for – not for $50,000 but $100,000. Shortly afterwards he sold the company and invested in Davnet, where he also became Director of Operations: “I love tech. Computers are the most exciting and enabling tool. It is a force for good. You can change the world in minutes.”
Davnet went public two years later growing $1.2Bn US the fastest capital appreciation in the history of the Australian stock market. Bill and his family headed to Switzerland for a break from the world of business, but tech is ubiquitous – it travels with you. Before long he was co-founding Xing, an early social network for career-oriented Europeans, which currently boasts over 13 million members. It has grown to £1.3Bn in value.
“Tech has given me so much: knowledge, entertainment, opportunity. Having done so well out of it, I wanted to give something back that would help all young people, and particularly BAME kids like the young me who may be feeling isolated because of who they are, or how they are seen by others. I wanted to demonstrate the value of tech as a tool for improving yourself and a tool for improving society.”
By this time, Bill and his family, had moved to Ireland to be near the sea. It was here, with his friend James Whelton, that Bill set up CoderDojo, now the CoderDojo Foundation, a global movement of free, volunteer-led, community-based computer programming clubs. Their belief, and brief, is that every child worldwide, irrespective of race, colour, creed, ability, gender, or socio-economic status, should have the opportunity to learn coding – to learn to manage technology creatively.
Today there are Dojos in 103 countries run by 12,000 volunteers working with around 60,000 children. Bill runs a weekly Dojo in his adopted home city, Cork. CoderDojo recently became part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
Bill is a trustee, and current Chair, of the Nominet Trust. Under his watch the Trust has spun out as the Social Tech Trust, which sets the transformation of lives through tech, as its purpose. Since 2008, the Social Tech Trust has provided more than £30M of funding to drive change with tech. The money has supported over 300 UK start-ups and social businesses and supports global initiatives such as NT100.
Away from social enterprise Bill Liao has made a plethora of tech investments in the UK and Ireland including global market leaders such as Storyful and Synthace. As a biotech innovator the accelerator programme he founded to fast-track cutting edge medical innovations, RebelBio, operates from Imperial College, London.
Bill has used the freedom of thought, movement and creativity that tech gifts us, to escape the impositions of society and find himself. In doing that, he has created opportunities for young people across the globe and across all spectrums seeking the opportunity for self expression, development, and validation. This is something he continues to put at the forefront of his agenda. His purpose is a world that works for all life.