Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley
Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment
A genial, enthusiastic exponent of the glories of entrepreneurship and innovation, Steve Blank is widely recognized as one of the godfathers of Silicon Valley. Selected by Harvard Business School as one of America’s “masters of innovation”—he has the cover story in this month’s Harvard Business Review—he started eight tech companies including E.piphany. After cashing out nicely at the top of the 1990s dot.com bubble, he became the Johnny Appleseed of the “lean start-up movement,” whose gospel he spreads by teaching classes at Stanford, Columbia, and Berkeley, and other public lectures, and by leading entrepreneurship seminars in China, Eastern Europe, and other places where he is treated like a rock star.
What separates Blank from so many of his wisdom-dropping peers in the Valley is the path he took to get there. His genius didn’t come from knowing the right people at Stanford or Harvard in the middle of the tech boom and then loading up on stock options. He made his money the hard way, if not exactly the old-fashioned way: He dropped out of college, loaded race horses onto airplanes in Miami, joined the Air Force at the height of the Vietnam War, and then went to Thailand. The work he did there led him into the “black world” of CIA and NRO-sponsored companies that worked on super-secret high-tech projects for the U.S. government, which have since offered him unique insight into the Silicon Valley miracle.
In addition to being a mensch, Blank knows as much about Silicon Valley—the official history, the secret history, the personalities, and the distinctive culture of innovation and entrepreneurship—as anyone alive. It was a pleasure to meet him for dinner recently on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before a series of lectures and seminars he gave at Columbia University.
What follows is an edited version of portions of our conversation about the history of the Valley, secret and otherwise, his own equally colorful personal history, and the role of Jews in the tech business.
Your parents split up, your dad disappeared, you got thrown out of Michigan State, and then you went into the U.S. military at the height of the Vietnam War. Now in your late middle age you are one of the godfathers of Silicon Valley. How does that work?
If you come from a dysfunctional family, it gives you an enormous competitive edge in entrepreneurship because you can bring order out of chaos—because while everyone else is melting down, it feels like a typical day for you.
The bad part is that when things start becoming repeatable and normal you throw hand grenades into your own organization and become destructive. It takes a couple of years and some therapy to figure this out, but it’s important for a healthy personal and professional life. Some of us recognize it later, and some of us never recognize it.
I know that your father had a grocery store in Chelsea. Where were your parents from?
This is a bizarre story, and I never understood it until maybe 10 years ago. My mother came over when she was 9 from a town outside of Vilna. My grandmother met my grandfather as he was passing through town, in what my mother described as a “love affair”—meaning he knocked her up and then left for the States promising he would sent her a ticket. Instead he was sending her enough money not to come to the States. But if you ever met my grandmother, she was pretty tenacious, and when my mother was about 3, she was getting letters from her cousins in the Lower East Side, saying, “This guy is living with someone else, you better get over here.”
So, my grandmother saves money and goes to some port with her cousin. And just as they get to the hill, my grandmother remembers she left some of the gold still buried in the village. So, they go back when my mom was 3 years old, its August 1914, and World War I starts and then the Russians invade Germany, and then the Germans invade Lithuania, and they don’t get out until 1919, smuggled out in a hay cart. And when they get to Ellis Island, my grandmother wrote my grandfather, “You will meet me here.”
So, my grandmother and my mother move in, my grandmother doesn’t speak English, not a word, but she realizes there’s another woman living with her. So, my grandfather goes to work the next day, and her second day in America, my grandmother rents a pushcart, takes not only her stuff but my grandfather’s clothes, and gets a new apartment, and says, “Congrats, we’re now a family.”
Wait; it gets better! My mom grows up on the Lower East Side, and she meets my father who came when he was in his late 20s—my parents meet in a Socialist Workers Party Dance, they were garment workers, ILGWU. My dad and his father (he was the oldest of seven) come over to work, and he meets my mother—but he was supposed to make money to bring over to the rest of the family in Poland. So, he tells his parents, and his mother writes a letter in January, 1939 saying, “Don’t worry you can always do this another time.” Then Hitler marches into Poland, and his father blames him for killing the rest of his family.
So, my sister and my parents lived in Chelsea, on 23rd and 8th, and by the time I was born they owned a grocery store. Then they opened a second store in the Bronx and quickly lost it. Then they bought a house in Douglaston near the LIE and 61st avenue, and then my parents got divorced when I was 6. My father ran away to Israel with a woman who looked identical to my mother. It was really bizarre. She was 4’10” and blonde.
No, she was an Argentine Jew, who for all I know might have been a German in disguise. I think I saw my father once after that. Between living at home and going to Israel, he lived in San Francisco, and from age 6 to 17, all my mother used to call him was “the bastard.” But when you’re a teenager, it doesn’t matter what your mother says; she can’t be right. So, I hitch-hiked across the country to find my father, and guess what! He was an idiot!
You went to the North Shore Hebrew Academy? What was it like back then?
I don’t know if this was standard or not, yeshiva was half day Hebrew, half day English. I went through fourth grade. I didn’t know a single world of Hebrew. When my girls were bat-mitzvahed I was like, “How do you read this stuff? I can’t remember a thing!” I hated that school. Actually when my kids were small, I went back and found it. A) it looked a lot smaller than when I remember it, and B) it still looked like a nutty, Orthodox school.
For Sharon Kleinbaum—friend of Christine Quinn, partner to Randi Weingarten—the personal is political