How ambitious can a guy get?
Not content with picking winners and losers in the volatile world of high-tech, John Doerr thinks he can re-engineer society too. His agenda is simple. First he’ll fix the schools, then upgrade the skills of American workers and-who knows? -maybe finish off by bringing racial harmony to the land. And he won’t even break a sweat because his ideas compute. Or so he beeps.
Only those out of radio contact with the digital world need an introduction to Doerr, a partner in the top-drawer venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins, based in Menlo Park, Calif. Doerr is arguably the shrewdest, quickest and most celebrated venture capitalist alive. He’s the Bill Gates of high-tech finance, or so say a stream of cheerleaders, from The New Yorker to Wired to The San Jose Mercury News, his local rag. Doerr doesn’t just write checks, his fans insist; he actually concocts strategies and tactics, gazes into the future of technology, even hand-picks the executive team for his new ventures. While he has had his share of misses, his hits are tremendous. They include Sun Microsystems and Netscape.
To be sure, Doerr’s high-tech achievements are impressive. But since when has that qualified someone as the public’s savior? Maybe a general on the heels of a victorious war (Eisenhower, Colin Powell) deserves such status. Or even a family of aristocrats (the Roosevelts). But an electrical engineer with an MBA? That is new.
Doerr’s ascension speaks volumes about the merger of celebrity and innovation in fin de sicle America. High-tech is hot; innovation is the new god. In the unbridled celebration, it is difficult indeed for a tech titan to banish thoughts of Napoleonic grandeur from the digital processor he calls his brain. The fawning attitude of the media, and of the political class, quickens this slide into megalomania. After decades of treating techies like members of the Belushi family, politicians have finally realized that these overgrown children are steering the engine of the American economy. Cozying up to a computer tycoon is now the equivalent of kissing a baby on Main Street.
The federal government has for decades zealously funded technological research and trumpeted to the nation the importance of innovation. But that’s not the same as the president taking late-night phone calls from the CEO of Apple, or sneaking away on Air Force One for a clandestine briefing on the future of Windows. With TIME magazine declaring Bill Gates to be more influential than Bill Clinton, it is no wonder that lesser-known billionaires such as Oracle’s Larry Ellison never go lonely at lunch.