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You had an unusual childhood. What were you doing in the jungle?
My dad was an entomologist, so when I was four years old we moved to the middle of the Amazon jungle in Brazil—in a small village along the Amazon River between Belém and Manaus. I lived there for about three years. When I turned seven years old, my parents realized that I should probably receive some formal education, so we moved from the Amazon to Berkeley, California—in some ways, from one jungle to another.
Your travels were just getting started. How did those experiences affect you?
My elementary school education didn’t start until I was almost eight years old, after my family moved to Berkeley. A few years later, my father opened the mainland China market for Dow Chemical, so my family moved to Hong Kong, where I completed high school under the British education system. I then came back to the US to attend Caltech. Such frequent and dramatic changes in living and academic circumstances made me quite adaptable to new environments. These dynamic early-life experiences were invaluable lessons on how to adapt, assimilate and succeed.
How did living in China affect your interest in technology?
Observing the rapid changes in China from the mid-’80s to today is like watching one of those time-lapse videos where movements that happen over years are collapsed into minutes. Every aspect of life in China underwent dramatic transformation in a time period that is without precedent in the modern world. From such change, I saw that technology was a key accelerant of societal and economic progress, with a rate of change that was getting faster and faster.
What key factors do you consider when evaluating startups?
I’ve always been curious about the upper limits of science and engineering; this underpins my approach to HardTech investing. Between a theoretical ceiling that cannot be exceeded, and the floor of current progress lies vast opportunity for the development of revolutionary new products and technologies. But you can’t determine the upper limit of possibility without having a fundamental grasp of basic science and engineering principles. My deep background in engineering and sciences has been indispensable in helping me more accurately assess that delta of opportunity on a timely basis.
How would you describe your unique style of investing?
I consider myself a cofounder-type investor. It is important for a venture investor to be able to roll up their sleeves and dive in to help entrepreneurs in the trenches with company building—of course, only if such value-add is welcomed by the entrepreneurs. It’s not right for investors to just show up at board meetings and periodically ask dumb questions or make naïve suggestions. If an investor cannot measurably help the entrepreneur, then the investor has not earned the right to a seat at the board table.