From Experimental Physics to Internet Entrepreneurship: One Scientist's Journey

On October 7, 2010, MIT welcomed Dr. Charles Zhang back to campus to celebrate his accomplishments at the second School of Science Dean’s Colloquium. Zhang’s talk, entitled “From Experimental Physics to Internet Entrepreneurship: One Scientist’s Journey,” described his evolution from humble beginnings in rural China during the Cultural Revolution to the founder, Chairman, and CEO of Sohu.com Inc., a leading Internet service provider. Professor David Litster, Zhang’s thesis advisor, introduced Zhang by saying, “He could have had a successful academic career at any leading university because he was that good of a physicist.” Zhang told the audience how he studied ten hours a day 365 days a year to become one of only 100 students in all of China to win a full fellowship to MIT to study physics in graduate school. Zhang stayed on at MIT following his degree and transitioned to work as the MIT liaison officer with China. Then he did something extraordinary. He moved back to China in 1996 at age 31 to start an Internet company of his own.

According to Zhang, “Returning to China is like a fish swimming back to the sea. Being one of them (Chinese) and well educated by Tsinghua and MIT, I was able to be extremely efficient. I made 50 phone calls a day trying to crack an opening in the wall between me and the Chinese society that was not quite familiar to me due to 9 years of absence.”

Clearly, Zhang cracked that wall for in February, 1998, Sohu.com was launched from the China World Hotel; it achieved instant fame. Sohu.com is now considered one of the two largest media portals that are shaping millions of Chinese minds on an hourly basis.

During his lecture, Zhang shared many stories of himself at MIT as well as the mentors who influenced his success, including Professor Edward Roberts, Professor Litster, and Professor Nicolas Negroponte. His speech was honest, funny, and forthright. He spoke about his company, his mistakes, and his goals for the future. Zhang shared how the name Sohu came into existence. The company was originally named SoHoo from “So” meaning “search” in Chinese and “Hoo” to mimic the already popular American search site “Yahoo.” He soon changed the name to Sohu after learning that Americans would in fact pronounce “Sohu” as “Sohoo.” Zhang ended his talk by addressing the future of Sohu.com. “We were the earliest Internet company in China, we were sensitive to new trends, we did something right, [which] is why we survived. But in terms of market cap, Sohu.com has largely been passed by baidu.com and QQ.”

For the next 700 days, Zhang intends to transform the company.

“After a long summer of meditation and soul searching, myself and Sohu.com management decided to reform. We either become an Internet giant that will share one-third or one-fourth of the Internet territory of China in the next a few years, or we will shrink into history. There is no middle position: winners take all.”