Friday, January 31, 2014

Lives Well Lived

This afternoon, I left the office early to attend the memorial service for my old professor, Ron Rebholz.

When I was at Stanford in the early 1990s, Ron was already a legendary teacher, with his Shakespeare course considered one of the top "bucket list" courses at Stanford (along with other legendary classes like ME101 and of course, the notorious SLE).

Ron didn't disappoint when I finally took the course.  Not only was he a passionate, insightful lecturer, he made a point of reading numerous passages aloud in his expressive, mellifluous voice.  (Sadly, I couldn't find any of his lectures on YouTube)

He also made a point of making Shakespeare interactive, believing that the best way to learn was by watching or giving performances.  Thanks to him, I got the chance to play Richard II, and to direct Hamlet, both of which gave me a much greater appreciation for the Bard's techniques.

Outside of class, he was kind, wise, and giving.  He encouraged me in my studies, and even wrote a recommendation for me when I tried to follow in his footsteps and applied for a Rhodes Scholarship (Spoiler alert: I wasn't accepted, which resulted in my joining D. E. Shaw, moving to Cambridge, and getting into the startup world.  Just lucky, I guess!).

Ron's memorial was moving, inspiring, and a perfect reflection of the man.  The various speakers included a number of former students, one of whom had gone on to become a fellow member of Stanford's English Department, another of whom had Ron as a groomsman at his wedding, as the godfather of his son, as his son's teacher when that son attended Stanford, and at a combination 25th wedding anniversary/graduation party for that same son when he completed Stanford.

For better or worse, I've begun attending more funerals of friends in the past few years (the peril of growing old).  Each time, it strikes me that those memorials are truly the sign of a life well lived.  Whether at Ron's memorial today, Arynne Simon's memorial in San Jose, or Ranjan Das' memorial at SAP, the friends and loved ones in attendance, and their stories and memories demonstrate just how much impact a life well lived can have.

Yet while I get a lot of inspiration from attending these memorials, I wish that we could celebrate people's lives before it's too late.

While I would love to be able to attend and enjoy my own funeral, there's some fundamental barriers to achieving that goal.  Failing that, I would love to throw a pre-memorial party when I'm 80 or 90, and can still enjoy seeing the many people who have been a part of my life.

That's one of the reasons I was delighted to run into my old advisor, John L'Heureux, at the memorial.  I had hoped that he would attend, and I scanned the room a number of times trying to find him, to no avail.

After the memorial ended, I looked around again, then started walking to my car.  But I stopped and turned around.  Having just left Ron's memorial, after not having seen him in years, I decided I had to go back and try harder to find John.  After another minute or two of searching, I spotted a man who looked like him.  But as I got closer, I thought, "It couldn't be him.  He looks far too young."

Nonetheless, I was determined, so I did the only reasonable thing: I stalked him and his wife, and eavesdropped on their conversations, hoping to hear John's distinctive voice.  Success!  It was clearly him.  I intercepted him and his wife Joan before they could leave and introduced myself.

"John, I'm Chris Yeh," I said, "One of your students from the 1990s."  I couldn't have possibly anticipated what he said next."

"Chris Yeh?"  He stared into my face.  "It's good to see you.  You're connected to all sorts of famous people on LinkedIn, you know.  I also have a Facebook account now--my publicist insists on it--but I have no idea how to answer people.  That's the problem with getting old!"


We talked for a bit longer, he wished me well, and then he and Joan took their leave.

John is 80 years old, and his latest novel, "The Medici Boy," comes out on April 1.  Amazing.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wealth and Entrepreneurship (why the rich get richer and why we should help the poor)

The popular belief is that entrepreneurs are "hungry" because they come from modest backgrounds.

Here in America, we love a great "rags to riches" story.  Of course, it should be noted that America's two richest men, Bill Gates (son of a wealthy attorney) and Warren Buffett (son of a stockbroker/Congressman) don't exactly provide validation for that kind of story.

The fact is that a disproportionate number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, like Gates and Buffett, come from privileged backgrounds (there is probably a strong correlation with Ivy League and Ivy-esque schools as well).

This isn't coincidence; it's science.

A recent spate of studies shows that people who experience economic turmoil become more risk-averse:
"Using detailed data on tax, unemployment and military conscription, the authors were able to analyse the investment choices of those affected by Finland’s “Great Depression”. Controlling for age, education, gender and marital status, they found that those in occupations, industries and regions hit harder by unemployment were less likely to own stocks a decade later. Individuals’ personal misfortunes, however, could explain at most half of the variation in stock ownership, the authors reckon. They attribute the remainder to “changes in beliefs and preferences” that are not easily measured."
In yet another example of how life isn't fair, entrepreneurs from wealthy backgrounds have a major psychological, as well as financial advantage.  Shielded from deprivation, they are far more likely to develop the healthy risk tolerance that is a prerequisite of entrepreneurship.

But the answer isn't for investors like me to limit our investments to people who are already millionaires.  Rather, these findings imply that one of the best ways to unlock greater entrepreneurship is to build a stronger societal safety net.

Poverty scars childrens' psychology--who knows how many Gateses and Buffetts, who might have created billions in wealth and millions of jobs, never started the next Microsoft because of the risk-aversion generated by a deprived childhood.

The problem with income inequality isn't that the rich are too rich; it's that the poor are too poor.  If the Gini coefficient remained high, but no child ever had to worry about food, shelter, or education, this country would be massively better off.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

You can be a dick and be right

Venture Capital legend Tom Perkins stirred up quite a bit of outrage with his letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal:

In this editorial (which Perkins presumably dashed off without showing it to any competent public relations professional), he criticizes what he perceives as a rise in unfair criticism of the wealthy.  While few Americans feel sympathy for a man who spent over $150 million on a yacht with its own Wikipedia entry (, Perkins really ran off the rails (and straight into Godwin's Law) when he compared progressive criticism of "the 1%" to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany:
"Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its "one percent," namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the "rich."
Perkins apologized for this tasteless analogy in a follow-up interview, in which he seemed genuinely apologetic, but fell prey to a variety of "Mitt Romney" moments:

a) Carefully correcting the Bloomberg reporter, who had said that he had owned a submarine, by saying, "Underwater airplane."

b) Discussing how the New York Times had made a big point about the ostentatiousness of Rolexes by saying, "This isn’t a Rolex. I could buy a six pack of Rolexes for this, but so what?"  He did not help his cause later on by pointing out that he didn't buy it, but received it as a present from the firm that built his $150 million yacht.

c) Mentioning that he is a knight of the kingdom of Norway.

None of these things makes Perkins a sympathetic figure (though I encourage you to read the entire interview, which makes it clear that Perkins isn't some cartoonish Mr. Burns).

However, none of these things invalidates his criticism either.

There clearly is a rising sentiment that tech gazillionaires and their younger wannabes are arrogant and out of touch.  (It doesn't help that Valleywag gleefully pounces on the bad behavior and careless words of a few people)

Yet what exactly is their crime?  Making money?  Wanting to live in San Francisco?  Last I heard, those weren't illegal.

As for operating shuttle buses and accepting tax breaks from the city, those were also legal choices.

I'm reminded of NBA star LeBron James' "Decision".  James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat.  I've always defended this choice, which he had every right to make, and which netted him two championships (while the Cavs have stunk since his departure).  But the way he did it--jilting his home town and his fans on live national TV--was certainly a dick move.

Sadly, by creating a circus with his word choice, Perkins has guaranteed that the legitimate issues he raises won't be talked about.