Much of the personal story of tech mogul and Sacramento Kings lead owner Vivek Ranadive has been often quoted. How he landed at MIT from India with essentially $50 (and a rupee-paid tuition) in his pocket. How he started a software company that revolutionized Wall Street trading. How he coached his daughter’s Silicon Valley underdog basketball team to a state tournament. How he created the phenomenal success – and subsequent sale – of his software company, TIBCO. And, of course, how he led the long-shot campaign to keep the Kings in Sacramento.
In a rare public appearance, Ranadive was in Davis recently, speaking to a UC Davis Graduate School of Management audience. Dressed in trendy black sneakers and a Silicon Valley-hip jacket with a zippered lapel, the 57-year-old entrepreneur touched on everything from Neil Armstrong’s moon landing to Jeff Koons’ artwork. Here’s an edited excerpt:
On the “pivotal moment” in his Bombay, India, boyhood:
When I was a little boy, 10 or 11 years old, it was the middle of the night and I had my ear plastered to a little transistor radio. I heard these magical words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I was listening to the Voice of America and listening to the moon landing. This turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life. I was just a little kid and thought to myself: This is unbelievable. Who are these people? ... Who are able to take a man, put him in a box and propel him 250,000 miles to land on a rock – flawlessly – for the first time. What brilliance, what vision, what creativity, what courage, what perseverance. ... And I said to myself, I want to be one of them. That’s when I decided I was going to study science and technology and come to America.
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On how the world has changed: What’s amazing about that story is, back then (during the moon landing) the entire NASA program had less computing capacity than all of us have in our pockets today. It still blows my mind ... there’s no better time to be a student than today, there’s no better time to be alive, really. The next 10 to 15 years are going to see unprecedented opportunity and change.
On his first Wall Street contract: I managed to talk my way into the office of (Goldman Sachs’ CEO). He took pity on me and gave me my first contract. ... I show up, take (the) elevator up to ... these very lush private rooms where the top partners would meet every morning for breakfast. So here I am, this young punk out of school ... the age of most of you here. I walk into this dining room and there’s the five guys who run Wall Street. ... So I started talking and the door opens and this guy walks in. The CEO waves him away. I start talking again. The door opens and a guy walks in again and the CEO waves him away. The third time it happens, he tells me: “Son, you’ve gotta stop tapping your feet.” I was so nervous that every time I did that, there was a switch under the carpet and (it) would summon the waiter. (Laughter). So that was my first day as an entrepreneur.
On being smart: I’ve always been able to surround myself with people who are way smarter than me. That’s led to some success as an entrepreneur.
On dinner at UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi’s home before his speech: “Thanks for the fabulous dinner. I loved the Wayne Thiebauds on the walls at your house. I was trying to see if I could slip one in my car on the way out (laughter), but you guys were watching me closely.”
On left-brain thinking: People have historically looked at education as being left brain or right brain. You need to cross both of those. There are many advantages to a left-brain education … the ability to think outside the box and connect the dots. But if you can connect the dots, you’re not going far enough. You need to go find dots that you can’t even connect.
On using big data. Every problem is a big-data problem. Agriculture has a water shortage; most ... water (that) goes into a field is wasted. So with satellite data, how can you look at every single plant and figure out how much and where should the water go. This field (of study) is going to explode. We don’t have enough people who have that kind of thinking. You need both left brain and right brain (to do that).
On being too easy. The greatest good you can do for your students is to make it really hard on them. Really challenge them. If you don’t, you’re insulting them. ... Don’t do that to your kids; don’t do that to your students; don’t do that to your employees. At my companies, I was always the stupidest guy, surrounded by people who were way smarter than me. So we made it really hard on them. Set the bar really high. Give them big problems. If you make it easy, you’re telling them they’re really not that good. And they are really good.
On the Sacramento Kings new arena: The charter I gave the team was to create the WBA: the World’s Best Arena. I wanted it to be iconic. I wanted it to be on postcards of California. ... It’s going to be the world’s first indoor/outdoor arena. We’re pushing the envelope. It’s going to be the smartest building, the greenest; it’ll tell you how to park, how to get to your seat. ... It’ll be ticketless, cashless. I don’t even want you to have to pull out your phone. When you walk up, (the building’s technology) should recognize you and guide you to your seat. We’ve set a very high bar, but I have complete confidence the team will deliver on these promises.
On math trumping science: The 21st century will be the century of math. You don’t have to know the why, you have to know the what. When research scientists were trying to figure out how the AIDS virus mutated, they spent years and years trying to figure it out. Then they converted (it) into a math problem and ... within a week, they found answers. If A happens and B happens, then high likelihood C will happen. ... You have to find the pattern.
On finding patterns: I had a customer in Europe, a large retailer, trying to solve the problem of credit card fraud. They spent millions and millions of dollars to fight the problem and were either too stringent or not stringent enough. We looked at it as a math problem and looked for the pattern. And we found that if you bought champagne, razor blades and diapers, it was probably a stolen credit card. ... You see this theme repeating itself. You can use math to find a pattern. And in that data, the answers lie. The answers to many of mankind’s problems – water problems or disease or security threats, there’s enough data that you can find the pattern and you can actually find the answers.
On the Jeff Koons sculpture: I will share a little secret. There’s a piece of art that I’ve personally been in love with for many years, called the Coloring Book by Jeff Koons. My thought had been when I was with the Warriors was to figure out a way to buy it and put it outside the arena the Warriors hoped to build. ... Now, of course, I’m with the Kings, so we bought the Coloring Book. ... It’ll be the only public display of Jeff Koons anywhere in the world. My hope is this area becomes a destination point for art. Hopefully, we will have our entire downtown be a museum, so we want to have sculpture and art throughout the mall and throughout the arena.
On getting up every morning: It sounds corny, but I can’t wait to get up every day and figure out how to do my part in making the world a better place. This is an unprecedented time. There’s going to be more opportunity than we’ve ever seen before; there’s going to be more wealth created; we’re going to solve many of mankind’s problems. And hopefully, I’ll be able to play some small part in that.
To see a complete video of Ranadive’s UC Davis talk, go to: gsm.ucdavis.edu.
Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.