Culture and Society

What is your background?
Answered by Ralph Osterhout, Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman and 7 others
  • Ralph Osterhout

    Ralph Osterhout

  • Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman

    Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman

  • Eric Mantion

    Eric Mantion

  • Jim St. Leger

    Jim St. Leger

  • Alexa Meade

    Alexa Meade

  •  Marissa Mayer

    Marissa Mayer

  • Charles F. Bolden Jr.

    Charles F. Bolden Jr.

  • Joi Ito

    Joi Ito

  • Brewster Kahle

    Brewster Kahle

  1. Ralph Osterhout Serial Productizer of Technology


    Oh my. I think I was so much trouble in grade school and high school that everybody said, "You really better become a trial lawyer." Because as my fourth grade teacher once said on a report card that was littered with check marks for behavior, "Ralph almost succeeds in believing his own stories," and I thought, "Oh, okay," so everybody said, "You better become a trial lawyer because that's probably what you're better suited for."

    And so, I was aiming to become a trial lawyer ultimately and I was in college majoring in psychology and minoring in English, so I would be reasonably literate, and hopefully had a fair understanding of who was completely psychotic and not if you were in the courtroom, only to find out when I took my LSATs I got the lowest score I think they ever recorded. And I feel that was divine intervention to send me on a different path. And that was fortunate, because most of my friends that are attorneys periodically wanna kill themselves out of sheer boredom. So, that was a good thing.

    So, anyway, off I was, and while I was preparing to retake the LSAT test – this is sort of like sticking your fingers in a hand fan for more abuse -- I was thinking about what would be fun in this interim because I had to wait 6 months. And I took up scuba diving, nearly drowned in short order by a friend of mine who was well-meaning but not the best teacher and I said, "Well, that was pretty interesting, why not develop a submarine to buzz around underwater." And so, I started my first company when I was 22. Making submarines, I thought was a grand idea, only in short order to find out that there's not a huge market for $15,000 personal submarines.

    So, I took the guts out of them and made small underwater vehicles that were propulsion vehicles, and that was the foundation of the first company that I started. And I spent, oh, way too long in the diving industry, which was fascinating, made the most wonderful friends imaginable, had adventures all over the world until I finally concluded after a serious bout of introspection that in fact the diving industry was smaller than the dartboard industry or the peanut butter industry and I decided it was time for me to move on to hopefully greener financial pastures.

    That led me to designing equipment because I was doing a lot of – besides diving equipment I also was designing flashlights and personal accessories and all kinds of interesting things that you'd really call sort of consumer product design, and I started to get a reputation for that. And I was approached by Knoll, the furniture company, and I was working on office systems of the future for them and lighting systems and all. And then I came up with the epiphany when approached by some people who knew my work said I ought to get into the toy industry that was really where the big opportunity was.

    So, why I done that I also had started another company in the military arena designing all kinds of equipment for the military as an outgrowth of my experience in diving and so I did the famous PVS-7 night vision goggles and the first waterproof multi-wavelength laser aiming devices and tactical load bearing vests and all kinds of things for the military that were used in Desert Storm and are still in use today worldwide.

    So, that was fascinating and so I developed a habit of every three or four years starting a different kind of company always in a field that I knew nothing about just to challenge myself and find out, "Could I do it?" It was not a really a competition with anybody but myself. Just, "Would this be fun, could I prevail if I applied myself," and that was great fun.

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  2. Bill and Nicolette Hahn Niman Co-Owners, BN Ranch


    Bill: I had some experience with food. I grew up in pre-supermarket days in Minnesota. In Minneapolis, actually, I grew up. My family had a corner grocery store and it was actually a fine food, specialty food kind of environment with delivery, and known for its produce and fresh meat. So I was exposed to great food. And I, in fact, would go to the farmers markets or the wholesale produce terminal with my father. That was required on Saturday mornings and during vacations and summers. I wasn't aware of how much I was learning about food at that time, but it did stick. And then I found myself – fast-forwarding to 1968 – I found myself in the central valley of California, which is, in my opinion, the bread basket of the country as opposed to the Midwest. I was just surrounded by agriculture, and I was teaching school in a rural community there. I really picked up a fever for it.

    And then as my career changed, I ended up where we are today. What I learned there, and what was imprinted by my father in that experience, just kind of came together here. And then the efforts of that community here, too, began to raise our own food. And being curious. Curiosity, wanting to master animal agriculture, the rest – quickly learned that and got to this point.

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  3. Eric Mantion Social Media Strategist, Intel


    I went through a various myriad of paths here. Like you said, I had done that work as kind of like a civil engineer for a while. And when I got out, I actually worked for another semi-conductor company, a small one, in California. I did that for two years. I was a product marketing engineer.

    From there, I actually got picked up by a great market research firm up in Scottsdale called In-Stat and I became a senior analyst for them working on a lot of very esoteric semi-conductors, like network processors, switch fabrics, and things like that. I did that for about four years. And then I got a different position with a different firm. At that point, Intel approached me and thought I might be a good fit for their marketing area in embedded. I've been there for the last six years now.

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  4. Jim St. Leger Technology Marketing Manager, Intel’s Embedded and Communications Group


    I have a very interesting background for someone at Intel. I started out -- I did a few round robins on the "Should I go to college; should I not go to college?" circle of life. Then, I eventually got into mechanical engineering, went to work, went back to school, got a dual master's and an MBA from Kellogg and a master's in engineering from McCormick at Northwestern. And I've done a lot of non-traditional things for an Intel person. I started working in hardcore manufacturing at a General Motors facility right out of school. I found that I love the hands-on element of making things. So I worked in places that did die casting, injection molding, machining operations, things like that, and then worked the process, sort of like the typical Japanese automotive motto of, "If you don't understand how it's built, you couldn't possibly design it." And I worked my way back up to a design engineer before transitioning into the semiconductor industry.

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  5. Alexa Meade Interdisciplinary Artist

    I grew up in Washington D.C. and I interned on Capitol Hill when I was in high school and college, and then I worked as a press aide for the Obama campaign in Colorado. Just being exposed to politicians and press and media, I became really interested in how we oftentimes perceive things at face value and how we never really receive objective information; it's always spun at some source. Then I also studied Political Science, undergraduate, at Vassar College.

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  6. Marissa Mayer President and Chief Executive Officer and Member of the Board of Directors, Yahoo!


    Well, I grew up in Wausau, Wisconsin, and my mother was an art teacher, and my father was an engineer. So I grew up with a brain that really loved math and science from the very beginning. I was always very good at math and science, and I really liked it. I had an appreciation, if not a talent -- because I definitely don't have artistic talent -- but an appreciation of art.

    I think that it's been really fun for me at Google to get a chance to blend both of those together. I get to do a lot of technology, but I also get to do really fun artistic things, like the Google Doodles and curating that program, and working on SketchUps, which are the fun logos that we put on the home page.

    I think that those are things that I've always found very influential. My father and I just speak the same language, both being very mathematical and scientific, and we think the same way. My mother really inspired me with her love of art and what she taught me about art.

    I also had great role models in terms of teachers and grandparents. I had a grandfather who was stricken with polio at age 7, and it never slowed him down. He was mayor of his town for 32 years, grew a very successful insurance business, and he was just unstoppable.

    I remember actually writing one of my college admissions essays, the college admissions essay for Stanford actually, on who I admire most and why, and it was about my grandfather. It might be a fun anecdote about curiosity because we have a cabin in northern Wisconsin, and because my grandfather couldn't walk very well because of the polio, we would drive around a lot, and we would look for animals. Basically, you're looking for bear and bobcat and timber wolves, and what you see are a lot of deer.

    But we'd be driving around, and we were on this road, and there were these big pits getting dug on the left-hand side of the road. I said to my grandfather, "Grandpa, what are those pits?" And he said, "I don't know." We kind of guessed what they might be, and I didn't think much of it, and we drove on down the road.

    Two weeks later, we drove past, and he said, "Marissa, I know what those pits are." And I said, "What are they?" And he said, "They're cranberry bogs. They're digging them, and they're planting cranberries, and they're going to flood them, and the cranberries grow in the water." He gave me the whole explanation of how cranberries grew. I said, "Grandpa, how did you find that out?" because it was a very complicated explanation.

    It turns out, he couldn't get out of his car, but he saw one day when he was driving by that there were workers in there, and there was this little fire lane that was all overgrown with bushes and weeds. He said, "Well, I just barreled my car down in there, just pulled over to the side of one of the pits and rolled down the window and called to them until someone came over and explained what they were doing." And he said, "That's when I learned all about the cranberry bogs."

    I was always very touched by that story because, one, it sort of shows how unstoppable my grandfather was, but, two, the fact that I had a lot of people around me who really fed my curiosity. If I asked a question and they didn't know the answer, my grandfather or my parents would go the extra mile to try and figure it out and help me understand it.

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  7. Charles F. Bolden Jr. NASA Administrator; Former Astronaut


    First thing is, I had incredible parents, so it all starts there. I was blessed to have the best mom and dad that probably anybody could have. They are both dead now, but when they lived, they were both career educators. They had grown up together, much the same as my wife and me, to be quite honest. They'd gone to high school together, college, got married after they came out of college, went into teaching, and my Dad was drafted almost right away and went to the Army from 1941 until the war ended and then came home. He got right back into teaching.

    Their impact and influence on me is immeasurable. I was my mother's library assistant as a middle-school student, and she founded the first library in an elementary school for black students in South Carolina. I played football for my father, not very well. I was a lousy football player, but he was my high-school football coach, and I think anybody who had done any sport knows that there's a special relationship between a coach and an athlete. So I had two of the greatest leaders and mentors in the world in my dad and my coach because they were two different people. When we were on the practice field or in a game, he was a coach, and he treated me just like everybody else on the team. He had certain demands of me that were different than when we were at home. I was very fortunate in that respect.

    They taught me to never be afraid of anything. They taught me respect, but to not let people disrespect me, and growing up in the segregated South, I worried them sometimes because they taught me very well and I would sometimes speak out when they wished I didn't speak out. My mother joined an organization, or helped found an organization, called Jack and Jill, and it still exists today, but its purpose in those days was to enable African-American kids to be able to do and see things that we could not ordinarily do.

    They went out and contacted people, like in the state museum or the planetarium, the places we couldn't go, and they would arrange for us to get in at night or on weekends or something like that, so we got an opportunity to see it because they felt cultural enrichment was a really important part of growing up. I kind of took those things into my work as a parent, my wife and I did.

    I had a good time growing up in the segregated South, and I tell people all the time that I had, maybe, a different perspective than some people. I knew what I could do and what I couldn't do. I knew where I could go and where I couldn't go, and in many ways, living in the segregated South was much easier than when I went up north, when I went to New York in the summertime when school got out, or I came here to D.C. where it wasn't segregated, and you could really get in trouble going into a place where you were not supposed to be.

    I tell people I am very disappointed in integration, and I have to explain it so that people don't misunderstand me. Integration came, and, instead of integrating, we assimilated. Nuanced, but instead of taking the best from our cultures, particularly the African-American culture and the Caucasian culture, we were required to come into the Caucasian culture. If they were named for an African-American person, high schools generally became middle schools or went away when the name was changed.

    In my case, at least in Columbia, South Carolina, or in South Carolina, you very seldom saw what was intended in integration, where we would take the best of both worlds and get a more perfect union. That part still disappoints me because we pay the price for that even now, in that a lot of what I thought was great in my culture, growing up, is just gone.

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  8. Joi Ito Director, MIT Media Lab



    Again, I'll reference my sister. So my sister and I were brought up in a relatively similar environment with similar opportunities. My sister has two Ph.D.s, went to Stanford and Harvard, magna cum laude, straight As, and I'm a double college dropout that didn't get into MIT.

    She calls me an interest-driven learner. I think about it, really, as I wasn't very good at long-term thinking. I didn't want to do anything unless I could see the immediate impact of what I was learning. Whereas my sister could say, "Okay, I want to be this when I grow up, so I have to go here, and I have to do this." There's a bunch of people like me, but anyway, what happened was, I became interested in computers. I became interested in media. I became interested in communities and I realized that with this kind of convergence of communities, networks, computers and media, there really wasn't a formal discipline around that.

    So I tried university. I tried doing things formally, but I realized that, first of all, it was easier to learn on my own. The Internet was just emerging as I was going through high school, so other than typing, I don't think I ever learned anything really substantial in school. Everything else I learned through participating in things online and actually meeting people that I connected with online. So I think I have an odd sort of a non-education. I often feel that I hated being educated, but I liked to learn, and I think I separate now in my mind very much learning and education. Having said that, I'm here at the Media Lab, and I think if I were here, I would have graduated. That's what I tell my students.

    In the early days, I dropped out of college and became a disc jockey because I was fascinated with the community, the ecosystem around the music. It was working class, but it was real. It was in Chicago. That was an important period of my life, to kind of get out of this somewhat privileged sort of family, but after a couple of years, my mom was like, "OK, you've had enough of that. You can come work in Japan."

    Then I worked in television and motion pictures and doing traditional media. I was always interested in computer networks on the side but hadn't really switched over, and it was when the Internet really started to take off in the late '80s, early '90s, that I realized that this was going to fundamentally change all of the media stuff that I'd been working on.

    In Japan, where I was working, it's very age-based, so as a 20-year-old, I saw that it would take me another 20 years before I had my own show or before I was doing anything substantial or interesting. Whereas with the Internet, it was actually a feature to be a young kid and irreverent, and the whole idea was that you could participate without asking permission. You didn't need a studio or a transponder or a printing press.

    So I threw myself into the Internet. I was the first CEO of the first commercial Internet service provider in Japan, who built one of the first Web companies and brought Infoseek to Japan, and really built a bunch of the layers of the Internet. I also worked very hard in keeping the Internet open by working in non-profits, ICANN, Open Source Initiative, Creative Commons and things like that.

    After being an entrepreneur for a while, I started investing and did a lot of angel investing. I invested in Flickr, Twitter and other blog companies. At the same time, I always liked to be on the edge of my comfort zone because as part of being curious, I always like to feel enough tension so that I'm always learning, sort of emotionally as well.

    I started spending time in Singapore, and then recently in the Middle East, sort of exploring, but then I always also realized -- this is in retrospect, when I came to visit the Media Lab -- that the Media Lab had this amazingly similar DNA to the fundamental DNA of the Internet, but also had this tremendous potential to do a whole bunch of things.

    I never thought I would be in academia. This is the last thing I envisioned, but after being at the Media Lab and talking to some of the people here, I realized that this was not my parents' academia.

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