John Hennessy, Early Silicon Valley Visionary Blending Academia With an Entrepreneurial Spirit

John Hennessy has had the rare experience of traveling down the two main avenues of Silicon Valley's growth explosion, first as an engineering entrepreneur then as a scholar and leader at Stanford University.

For that reason, perhaps, the chairman of Alphabet and former Stanford president has been called the "Godfather of Silicon Valley," something he says is an overstatement.

Hennessy, who still works on campus with the Knight-Hennessy Scholars (with Nike co-founder Phil Knight), sat down for a podcast interview on NBC Bay Area's "Sand Hill Road" to talk about his influence, what makes the valley such an ideal tech hub, how government regulation will play into the future of the tech industry and how Google will impact the future here in Silicon Valley and worldwide.


In Hennessy's book "Leading Matters," he writes about humility in a leader. But there's no denying he's been a valley pioneer on multiple fronts.

"I've had one benefit that perhaps few people in the valley have had – I've had the opportunity to work both in the valley as an entrepreneur as well as work at the university where a lot of these entrepreneurs are educated," Hennessy said. "That’s a unique opportunity, and it’s determined to a large extent my impact on the world."

That unique blend, however, may not be entirely accidental: Hennessy's father was a businessman and his mother was a teacher.

"I have mixed both, and I've learned from both," he said. "What I learned during my time in the valley helped make me a better leader at Stanford – it helped me deal with complexity and ambiguity and all the things that occur in startups."

Hennessy recalled dealing with crisis while working with a startup. The company had to lay off some if its workers because it expanded too fast.

"It's one of the hardest things I've had to do," he said. "We had about 120 employees, and we had to fire about 40. We handed out the pink slips Friday morning, and (the CEO) asked me to get up at the TGIF that afternoon and tell everybody why this was still going to be a great company and they should stick with it. That was tough. But you get through it, you learn a lesson and you can bring that lesson to other places later in your life."

Valley Verve

There's no mistaking the attraction to Silicon Valley: money and connections; spectacular climate; prestigious schools. Hennessy says there's one more very important trait.

"What I would add is culture – and two aspects of culture: one, a willingness to tolerate failure and accept failure," he said. "And also a culture that embraces people from around the world. One of the amazing things about the valley is you go and look at the people who become entrepreneurs, they come from all over the world. Not only is the weather good, but wherever you come from in the world, you can find the kind of food you like, you can find people who come from that part of the world. And that makes a big difference. There are not that many places in the U.S. where that’s true."

More Hennessy takes on ...

Immigrants in tech and innovation: "I take the view you ought to staple a green card to their diploma when they graduate from Stanford or Berkeley or any of our great universities."

Government regulation: "I don’t think Congress is in a position to write that legislation on their own – they don’t understand technology. ... So the industry is going to have to work with government to get that because it's going to have to be a compromise, and they're gonna have to bring their knowledge to the table."

What Google looks for in partners: "First, it looks at the team – what kind of people. Because that really determines the future of that technology. ... I still remember the acquisition of YouTube, which on the face of it, YouTube was growing leaps and bounds, but it had no revenue. I remember the compelling argument: that video is to the next generation what email was to my generation."

One piece of advice to a young startup: "Make sure you can tell me exactly what your technology is, why it’s better and why you’re going to be able to turn it into a major company."

Google in San Jose: "I think what we have to do in our cities is make them both places where people want to live and people can work so that we get away from getting in cars and driving all over the place. If we don’t solve our car problem in the valley, were gonna be hosed in the long term."

Listen to the entire interview in the latest episode of the Sand Hill Road podcast titled "Alphabet Chairman John Hennessy."

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