2019 Writing Finalist

Eduardo Medina

Auburn University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

John Doerr says U.S. will not win race against China for control of AI

John Doerr, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists, said Monday that the U.S. is in a race against China for leadership of artificial intelligence — and he doesn’t think America’s odds look great.

“Right now,” Doerr said. “I predict we’re going to lose.”

Artificial intelligence — a computing hardware able to essentially think for itself and make decisions based on the data it is being fed — is viewed by Doerr as the next revolutionary wave of technology. For Doerr, the chairman of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, there was the web browser, the iPhone and now the incoming artificially intelligent technology. But whereas the U.S. spearheaded the other waves, this one, he said, will likely be steered by China.

“The Chinese have way more data and far fewer constraints on how that data is used,” Doerr said. “You can’t get that data in the U.S.”

Something else that’s lacking in the U.S., according to Doerr, is people.

“There are more people studying AI in China then there are in the U.S.,” Doerr said.

Doerr admits an argument could be made American AI researchers “are more creative or higher quality,” but he “wouldn’t want to bet on that today.”

That bet is rooted in how AI is being approached cautiously by many Americans — much to the disappointment of Doerr — because of its unintended consequences.

In August 2018, Alphabet, which owns Google and has Doerr as a board member, released its annual report, marking the first time the company admitted the possible dangers of AI. The report states “artificial intelligence … can raise new or exacerbate existing ethical, technological, legal, and other challenges” that could hurt Alphabets brand.

In April 2018, months before the annual report, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in the Pentagon program Project Maven, which used artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery and potentially improve the targeting of drone strikes.

Employees believed Google should not be in “the business of war,” according to the letter. Google eventually removed itself from the project, but Doerr questions if dropping out was the right call.

“Was that the right decision?” Doerr asked rhetorically. “A lot of people would say that Google has the best AI in the country. Shouldn’t the leaders of the company be able to make a decision.”

Doerr also questions if this trepidatious, teetering approach to utilizing AI is actually hurting America’s goal of leading the technology.

“My concern isn’t so much the ethical uses of AI, but it’s whether or not China or the western World is going to win the race,” Doerr said. “There are no voluntary or mandatory ethical standards that apply to how the Chinese are going to develop, promulgate the use of AI technologies.”

Doerr said the federal government should fund AI research to ensure America leads.

“I look forward to there being a big, bold, bipartisan, backed by Trump and democrats, bill that would put hundreds of billions of dollars of resource into AI technology,” Doerr said.

Back to top


After 39 years in venture capital, John Doerr is still trying to ‘make a difference’

The soon-to-be billionaire arrived at the bay a no-job, 55-dollar-valued, Star Trek-obsessed, despondent, dumped-by-his-girlfriend, young man.

Far removed from his now legendary status in Silicon Valley, John Doerr came to San Francisco not for the tech, but because the love of his life Ann Doerr, then Ann Howland, got there first and had recently broken up with him.

A renowned venture capitalist, chairman of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers and an early investor in Google and Amazon, Doerr is sympathetic to those who come to San Francisco chasing a dream. His was marrying Ann Doerr, he said in an interview with PandoDaily.

The dream manifested when he landed a summer job. Doerr had wanted to apprentice with a venture capital firm, but none gave him a chance. He then took his technological curiosity to the epicenter of the 8-bit microchip tech — Intel.

His first day, he recalls, was mystifying.

“I showed up for work, they said, ‘your office is right here,’ and guess whose office was down the hall from mine?” Doerr asked in his interview with PandoDaily. “Ann Doerr.”

The two had met at Rice University as undergrads, both studying electrical engineering. In a commencement speech given by Doerr to Rice graduates in 2007, he details how nervous he was around her in college.

“For months, I wrote Ann’s name over and over again, and her number, on the side of my legal pad,” Doerr said in his commencement speech. “But I couldn’t find the courage to call her.”

For Dr. C. Sidney Burrus, professor emeritus of computer and electrical engineering at Rice University, it isn’t surprising to hear. Burrus taught both John and Ann Doerr.

“They were both EE majors, she a couple of years behind him,” Burrus said in an email interview. “[John Doerr] was involved with his residential college, similar to a dorm, with the radio station KTRU, as a DJ and technician, and with pursuing his relationship with Ann.”

A DJ, a technician and a young man in love: This was John Doerr at Rice.

At Intel, however, John dropped the DJ and technician part, focusing instead on a possible relationship with Ann Doerr. 41 years later, the two are still married.

Retired Brig. Gen. Tom Kolditz, the founding director of the Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University, said this commitment to relationships, to family, is a staple for Doerr. It’s a commitment, he adds, that Doerr somehow makes time for, even with the plethora of businesses he sits on the board and invests on.

“He’s so wise and so experienced, he’ll never be disengaged from the different facets of his life,” Kolditz said in a phone interview.

The business facet exploded when he became a partner with Kleiner Perkins in 1980 and an early investor in Google in 1999. In his book “Measure What Matters,” Doerr writes about the time he first met Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

“The two of them came to my office to pitch me, their PowerPoint deck had just 17 slides—and only two with numbers. They added three cartoons just to flesh out the deck,” Doerr writes.

Kolditz credits Doerr for believing in Google’s staying power and helping the company become hugely profitable, even while his first encounter with Page and Brin was clumsy, to say the least.

“There is a purity about [Doerr] that allows him to be very realistic,” Kolditz said. “He’s very good at reality testing, and that was especially true when it came to Google.”

Google succeeded, along with many of the companies he backed in the dot-com era.

Blunders came, however, when Kleiner Perkins backed the electric-auto company Fisker Automotive. Fisker would later file for bankruptcy. Doerr would then deemphasize Kleiner Perkins focus on clean technology.

The most unwanted spotlight Doerr and Kleiner Perkins received was in May 2012 when Ellen Pao, the then chief of staff for Kleiner Perkins, sued the firm for gender discrimination. The highly covered incident resulted in Kleiner Perkins winning the trial. But as Doerr is quick to point out, it was the “right issue, wrong case.” The issue being Silicone Valleys notorious mistreatment of, and unequal bias against, women in the workplace.

“Until we get to a fifty-fifty world, I’m not going to be satisfied,” Doerr said.

He added that while Pao “was a very talented chief of staff,” she was not a successful investor. Nonetheless, Doerr said the trial disheartened him.

“The silver lining in that case is that it brought attention to a problem,” Doerr said. “After five weeks of testimony, a dozen jurors found that her claims of being retaliated or being discriminated had no merit.”

Shortly after the case, The Doerrs donated $50 million to Rice University for an institute focused on developing a diverse group of new leaders. It marked the largest single gift in the university’s history.

“I think my partners will tell you I do bring a kind of big idea optimism to any kind of project, whether it’s AI or public education,” Doerr said.

As chairman of Kleiner Perkins, Doerr continues to invest in start-ups, looking for the next person with a dream in the valley, searching for the glimmer of a revolutionary, big-idea.

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

Back to top

Spot News

For Latinx immigrants, housing shortage is killing business

Oscar Rodriguez tossed a sandwich in his sack, tied his “horribly torn up” shoes and left the tiny, one-bedroom home which sheltered his family in Sinaloa, Mexico.

He was desperate for opportunity, for a space to breathe and grow safely, he said. He didn’t want to be stuck in a small room all his life.

“In Sinaloa, it was a very, very small room,” Rodriguez said. “I never thought I would end up in a home this ugly and small, here, in San Francisco.”

Unlike the room in Mexico, which his family built, the one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is costing him over $1,000 a month, paid by a wage dependent on who purchases coconuts from his vehicle parked on a curb in Mission Street.

“There’s not enough apartments here,” Rodriguez said. “The rent’s too high. Latino’s can’t afford to live here anymore.”

He delays draining the sweet, beige-tinted water from los cocos and points toward 22 Mission St.

“You know, I used to have a fruit market there. Then the rent, like everywhere else, rose there too — a lot,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and other Latinx-immigrant-owned businesses on Mission Street say they’re not sure business is possible anymore in San Francisco. Because of the housing shortage, business owners like Rodriguez say fewer immigrants can afford to live in the city. Those immigrants are their customers, and without them there’s less money to pay for the ever-increasing, skyrocketing rent prices asked by the owners of the business property.

He said it’s a like a machine that dispenses immigrants and their businesses — a machine fueled by San Francisco’s housing shortage.

“It’s happening all along this, this street. I’m not sure I’ll be living, let alone working, here anymore.”


Today, five family members cram inside Rodriguez’ sole bedroom in his apartment east of Mission Street. In Sinaloa, Mexico, five people also used to squeeze into a room.

He left Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1989 for reasons identical to many immigrants: zero opportunity, a fear of poverty, fear of dying the next night he goes to bed starving.

“I also left because I heard there were jobs, spaces for immigrants, in the city” Rodriguez said.

And there were, so his family came, too. In 1997, they had enough to purchase a narrow space for a fruit market on 22 Mission St., a stretch of San Francisco where many Latinx immigrants place their bets and start a business. The rent was modest, Rodriguez said. Pricey, but not bad.

Then Silicone Valley started booming. Luxury condos were built. Demand for houses proliferated. In 2014, the owner of the fruit market property told Rodriguez rent would be increasing.

“The rent rose, like, by 30 percent,” Rodriguez said. “It was completely unaffordable. I had to shut it down.”

His family used to live in a two-bedroom apartment. Then that rent rose. With his fruit market gone, and a higher bill to potentially pay, Rodriguez moved his family to the one-bedroom place he now occupies; it costs over $1,000, he said, adding that the claustrophobic, enclosed walls echo memories of his impoverished childhood in Mexico.

For Raul Dominguez, an immigrant from Peru who works at Peruvian art store Qosqo Maky on Mission Street, the memories of being without a job in Peru are also coming back. The increasing rent price forced the owner to lay off a worker earlier this year, he said.

Dominguez agreed with Rodriguez’ analysis of there being fewer Latinx customers.

“I know people who used to be here [in Mission Street] all the time and had to move out of the city,” Dominguez said.

The reason: rising rent and no place to live.

Immigrants like Raul Flores, who’s lived in the bay for 26 years and came from El Salvador with only a rusted, metal canteen, say “in 10 years, there’ll be no space” for immigrants, and even less space for existing immigrant-owned businesses, because of the housing shortage.

“The problem is this is a sanctuary city … but there aren’t projects, apartments for people with few resources,” Flores said.

Flores isn’t a business owner; he works in construction. But he sympathizes with friends of his who own a small business, like Maria Garcia.

Garcia sits on a short stool behind a table adorned with DVDs, all situated on a curve. Beside her is a scrawny tree that gives glimpses of shade for her outdoor business. One DVD for $5, three DVDs for $10. A great deal, she says. Garcia likes to call approaching customers “Mijo,” or “Mija,” — a colloquial translation of “My son, my daughter” — just like most grandmothers do in her homeland of El Salvador.

She used to sell more than DVDs when she had a storefront on Mission Street called La Fantasia. When her five-year lease for La Fantasia was up, the price for her space outpaced what she was making, and fewer Latinx shoppers entered her store.

“There’s various businesses here closed because of that — fewer shoppers,” Garcia said.

Her regular customers left Mission, left San Francisco, because a $1000 to $2,500 rent price isn’t adjudicated for a regular immigrant’s salary, she said. When they left, so did her store.


Soccer to Latinxs is what sunshine is to the bay; a source of joy always in demand. But even at Elite Sport Soccer on Mission Street, that demand is diminishing — not because of popularity, but because consumers left, said worker at Elite, Enrique Ramirez, from Jalisco, Mexico.

“So this term: sanctuary city — it’s not an invitation to live here; it’s an invitation to work and then leave the city,” Ramirez said. “There’s not as much cheap housing. Now, Mission is becoming less Latino and more American, affluent.”

Down the block, Rodriguez continues to hack coconuts, chipping brown, feathery debris across the curb. He’ll close at 6 p.m. and drive, he says, with jugs full of juice sloshing in the back, filled to the brim for his family back home.

Hopefully, he’ll be back, he says; tomorrow, and after.

*Note: All interviews were conducted in Spanish. Their quotes have been translated for the reader.

Back to top