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Jack Harris

Arizona State University
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News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

John Doerr could see his vision coming to life back in 2011.

Teamed up with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the group almost overhauled the city’s education system with a charter school revolution.

It didn’t last.

“You elected a new school board that was dominated by the teacher’s union,” Doerr said, “and all those reforms went out the window.”

Eight years later, the chairman of investment firm Kleiner Perkins still yearns for total school reform, remaining one of the loudest proponents of a charter movement that has steadily built steam. Since 2000, enrollment in charters has increased nearly six-fold, finding its deepest roots in California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona according to a Bellwether Education Partners study.

More and more parents have adopted the same views as Doerr, believing in the premise that charters will revive America’s education system and cultivate creative and comprehensive curriculum not currently available.

“One of the tragedies of public education in America is that it’s failing at least 20% of our kids, who are not reading at grade level,” Doerr claimed during a press conference Monday.

Though the accuracy of those assertions varies by source, a 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progres study found more than 25 percent of fourth and eighth graders had “below basic” reading levels.

“They can’t do symbolic manipulation,” Doerr said. “They can’t participate in the information economy. And it’s incumbent of a well functioning civil society that we have an education system that ensures that’s not the case.”

Doerr doesn’t want to eliminate the public-school model, but rather introduce enough publicly-funded charters – generally open-enrollment schools operated by private entities – to create competition that could raise standards.

“By the time that charters get to 30-40 percent of the student body,” he said, “that’s going to put a pressure on the regular public schools to improve and to perform.”

Not all education experts are so bullish. Oversight of charter schools in places such as Los Angeles and Phoenix have received ridicule. In other cases, disputes between politicians in state legislatures have left charter students to suffer. Teachers unions also widely oppose the potential change.

Outside of New Orleans – where more than 90 percent of public-school students attend charters – charters are only semi-prevalent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, still only six percent of US students in 2016 attended charters.

“There’s good charter schools, there’s bad charter schools,” Doerr conceded. “But, in general, the charters are providing a degree of freedom, experimentation, attractiveness.”

If Doerr doesn’t get his dream, he’s afraid his nightmares will be realized instead. He warned Monday that if “crummy public schools” aren’t addressed, students will get swept away by the waves of technological “tsunamis” – such as artificial intelligence – he sees swelling on the horizon.

To fix the problem, he said, “charter public schools appear to be our best lever.”

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Scott Warren isn’t sure how many calls John Doerr must have made, or how much he sweet-talked those on the other end of the line.

All he knows is, back when the small software-engineering company the two had started with some friends at Rice University in the mid-1970s looked like it was about to fold, Doerr saved the day.

Their firm (called Waren, Rowe and Associates) had almost finished building its first machine when its main supplier discontinued production of a key part, chips for a specific type of circuit transistor called ECL. Suddenly, they had hit a dead end.

“We found this out on a Friday,” Warren said. “Everybody was pretty bummed.”

So, Doerr did something about it.

“He spent the entire weekend making phone calls,” Warren remembered. “He found all the distributors that carry this chip in the entire continental United States and got them to send all of their remaining inventory over to Rice and piled up enough chips to actually finish the machine.”

Warren was floored. Their company wasn’t any Facebook-esque start-up. The profits were meager, the work laborious.

And yet – long before he became chairman at powerful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, or an early investor in Google and Amazon and Netscape, or even a top salesman at Intel – there Doerr was as an undergrad, fueled by the same genuine optimism, energy and drive that has carried him through his distinguished career.

“We’d go on a food run at 2 in the morning or something, and we’re all sitting down exhausted from our days, relaxing over our hamburgers,” Warren recalled. “And [Doerr] would get so excited, he had to stand up at the dinner table and pace back and forth and talk about what he was going to do tomorrow.”

With its finished product, Warren said the group graduated from a dorm-room workspace to a two-room office, pulling in enough cash to help the partners get by in the summers. It became the first in a countless line of companies that have survived, then thrived, because of Doerr’s investment and advice.

“I’m an optimist,” Doerr said while accepting a lifetime achievement award from the National Venture Capitalist Association this February. “I believe there are very few problems that can’t be solved by leaders and teams who share the right goals, for the right reasons.”

The other turning points in his life were rooted in those same beliefs.

He first came to the Bay Area on something of a whim, loading up the Ford Galaxy he got at half-price from his Dad to make a Good Will Hunting-style trek across the country and win back an ex-girlfriend named Ann. Upon arriving, he got his job at Intel, where she worked too. They’ve now been married 41 years.

“I think he would have come to Intel if I had offered $0,” laughed Bill Davidow, who hired Doerr at Intel before becoming a successful venture investor himself. “He’s got true energy, optimism, enthusiasm.”

Though he once dreamt of running his own business, Doerr found his niche by betting on, and helping develop, other companies instead. He let his good-intentioned instincts guide him almost as much as his economic intuition. For example, Warren insisted Doerr’s eventual windfall investments on internet startups in the ‘90s were in search of profits, yes, but also because of the potential positive societal impact he believed they’d make.

“Even when I met him at Rice, he was an idealist,” Warren said, adding: “His motto, I kid you not, he said it all the time: ‘Better living through technology,’ and he would rub his hands excitedly.

“He was talking about making the world better.”

Not every genuine motive has netted Doerr such productive results though. He poured Kleiner funds into numerous “clean-tech” companies in the past two decades, in part, at the behest of his daughter, and also to ease his own conscience.

But those investments didn’t all pan out, seemingly setting Kleiner Perkins back while wiping some of the shine from Doerr’s personal legacy too. Fortune Magazine, which once wrote Doerr belonged on Silicon Valley’s Mt. Rushmore, ran a story in April titled “How the Kleiner Perkins Empire Fell,” which detailed what it described as a “two-decade losing streak” for the firm under Doerr’s control.

That would be a curtain call for most, the cue that their time has passed.

But that’s not Doerr.

His focus on reversing climate change remains a central objective. He is part of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a coalition of investors funding “new energy” corporations. He was also the first backer of G2VP, a fund created by a group of his former Kleiner investors following a similar core mission of seeking out the potential created by new sustainable technologies.

“He’s never been afraid to think big,” said Brook Porter, one of G2VP’s co-founders who formerly worked for Doerr at Kleiner, later adding: “That kind of thinking, I think, is really core to some of the great companies that have created the foundation of Silicon Valley. John was a big part of many of those.”

Even at age 67, Doerr is not walking away yet either.

“You want to divide the world into the things that really matter, and those that don’t,” he said. “Focus on the things that matter and then, within those, try to find the places where you can make a difference.”

To that end, he still has work to do, goals he’s yet to accomplish. But he makes his beliefs seem genuine, and he seems to genuinely believe he can make almost any of his objectives come true.

Which is why, months after receiving the NVCA lifetime award, he walked into Kleiner Perkins’ Sand Hill Road headquarters at 9 a.m. this Monday, rolled up the blue sleeves of his button-down, and was hustled from conference room to conference room. Asked at one point about looking back at his career, an ambitious smile spread across his face.

“Mostly,” Doerr said, “I’m looking forward.”

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Two things have always been present in Phil Ferrigno’s life: San Francisco, and football.

As one of eight kids growing up in a three-bedroom house in the city’s Sunset neighborhood, just blocks from Ocean Beach, Ferrigno found a second home on the gridiron. He played at Riordan High, where he graduated in 1980, then City College of San Francisco, then San Francisco State.

He went into coaching once he finished school, eventually getting hired in 2002 to rebuild Lincoln High’s program. Seventeen years later, his team won the school’s first football state championship last season – at City College’s stadium, no less, marking the first state title game to ever be played in the city.

“All the sports fans from the city came out to that day,” Ferrigno said. “You saw generations of people coming out for that game. That was really cool.”

But as he looked around, he saw all the ways his city has changed too.

Nowadays, Ferrigno can’t find many families like his. They’ve mostly moved to the suburbs, if not out of the state completely, searching for new homes in places they can afford – squeezed out of an inflated San Francisco real estate market overwhelmed with demand and already at maximum supply, the epicenter of the state’s housing crisis.

Much of the middle-class community in which Ferrigno grew up has gone with it, triggering a chain of events that has affected seemingly everything, right down to his football team’s ability to compete on the field and the recruiting trail.

Yet he has stayed put all these years, trying to lift up the players the housing-shortage exodus has left behind.

“It’s changed, the whole population,” he said. “It’s hard to live in San Francisco.”

It didn’t use to be like this. For most of the 20th century, the city and surrounding Bay Area were more accessible, affordable. Families laid down their roots.

Legendary athletes blossomed. Superstars such as NFL Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson, a star for Galileo High near San Francisco’s Marina District, or NBA legend Bill Russell, a product of Oakland’s west-side neighborhoods, were the cream of the region’s rich athletic crop. That’s not the case in most parts of the Bay anymore.

Because while median incomes and overall wealth have been on the rise, the fortunes of many high school athletes have dried up, especially in the urban areas so many no longer can afford.

“The Bay Area used to be, in Northern California, king in all sports,” said Mitch Stephens, a reporter with MaxPreps and The San Francisco Chronicle who has covered prep sports in the region since 1984. “Now if you go out to the Sacramento area, it’s now on equal footing.”

Football has suffered perhaps the most.

This decade, not a single San Franciscan high school football player has earned a top 500 national recruiting ranking, according to 247Sports. Some select few suburban schools have turned into powerhouses, private institutions such as De La Salle in Concord or far-flung public schools including Pittsburgh and Liberty.

Otherwise, most parts of the Bay are like dead zones to college recruiters.

“That’s just how it is,” said former Fresno State and current Arizona State assistant football coach Jamar Cain, who during recruiting trips to Northern California has heard more than a few stories of up-and-coming Bay Area players moving to Sacramento or Stockton to garner more eyeballs. “It’s so expensive to live there that people are moving out.”

Urban public schools such as Lincoln feel it the most.

According to the school’s 2017-18 Accountability Report Card, more than half of its 2,067 student body is “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Many of the city’s other public schools are in similar, if not worse situations, leaving Ferrigno and his coaching colleagues with heavy burdens to carry. After all, parents struggling to get by often can’t pour themselves into booster clubs or fundraising events for their children’s football team.

The schools themselves are financially-restricted too. According to SFGate, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of kids of any major U.S. city. That means fewer students and, in some cases, fewer federal funding dollars, forcing athletic departments to further tighten their already squeezed budgetary belts.

The situation isn’t entirely bleak. According to John Zlatunich, assistant commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation’s San Francisco Section, city schools have begun seeing modest annual increases in player participation across all sports in recent years of around 50-100 athletes.

But it might take a lot more involvement to reverse the area’s overall downward trends in athletics.

When tied together, all those strands of adversity create a tangled web, one that has kept some of the region’s brightest football players trapped inside.

Ferrigno points to his quarterback, Jovon Baker, as the latest casualty of this cycle. Raised by a working single mom, the dynamic playmaker keyed the school’s state title run last year. Yet, he barely made a blip on the recruiting radar, receiving no serious scholarship offers from any Division-I teams.

Perhaps in another place, or at another school, Baker would have been more noticed. But not in his part of the Bay. Not anymore.

To football lifers such as Ferrigno, this evolution has been nothing short of a tragedy. Friday nights used to be when communities would come together to celebrate the players they would soon send into the world. Now, game crowds are sparse, interest is seemingly dropping, and the experience of playing the sport in this part of the world continues to change – for what many fear is the worse.

“It gives kids opportunities to see each other out of school and cheer together and unite and all those things that really aren’t corny,” Stephens said. “They are important. Every high school student can think back to their high school days and sports was a really important slice and spice of their high school life. When these are taken away or downgraded, I think it takes away a big portion of high school life.”

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