Tom Perkins sails away from changed Silicon Valley

June 10, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Tom Perkins has sailed away from a Silicon Valley that’s largely unrecognizable from the one he arrived in many decades ago. The swashbuckling investor, who has died at 84, pioneered the venture-capital model that gave rise to the likes of Alphabet’s Google and Amazon. He ultimately ended up an outsider to the more buttoned-down corporate culture his money helped nurture.

The first MBA hired by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in the 1960s, Perkins become head of Hewlett-Packard’s nascent computer business before turning to entrepreneurship. In the early 1970s, he joined semiconductor investor Eugene Kleiner to found Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, the firm that would go on to fund a host of successful startups, from Compaq to Airbnb.

Perkins was equally famous for his antics outside the boardroom. In 1998, he married the romance novelist Danielle Steel. Although they eventually divorced, he later penned a novel, “Sex and the Single Zillionaire,” dedicated to her. A keen yachtsman, Perkins was once convicted of involuntary manslaughter in France after an accident at sea. He later spent more than $150 million to build the Maltese Falcon, a triple-masted, square-rigged clipper ship that became a symbol of Silicon Valley’s exploding wealth.

In 2014, the Sand Hill institution with his name on the door distanced itself from its famous founder after he penned an ill-advised letter to the Wall Street Journal comparing the rise in popular resentment of the wealthy “1 percent” to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Unabashed opulence wasn’t the only way Perkins courted controversy. In 2006, he resigned from the HP board amid a bitter dispute with then Chair Patricia Dunn over the company’s aggressive investigation into boardroom leaks. Writing about the brouhaha in his autobiography, Perkins said his conflict with Dunn ultimately boiled down to differing views about the role of corporate directors. Perkins viewed the directors’ main job as advising management on technology and strategy, whereas for Dunn, he wrote, “a discussion of the finer points of the company bylaws was quite productive.”

The episode illustrated the widening cultural gap between the free-wheeling venture capitalist and the mature, more straitened industry that had sprung up around him. For better or worse, in the twilight of Perkins’ career, Silicon Valley had outgrown one of its most colorful founding fathers.

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