NEW YORK—What is a fitting follow-up to Steve Ballmer’s career at Microsoft, where he was one of the tech giant’s first employees and longtime CEO? How about becoming co-owner of basketball’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise with his wife four years ago and also trying to figure out one of the trickiest puzzles in philanthropy.
Steve and Connie Ballmer are attempting to tackle economic mobility, or how to give low-income, disadvantaged kids a legitimate shot at the American Dream.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, the Ballmers spoke about their own winding life journeys.
Q: How did your early years influence where you are now?
Steve: My dad was an immigrant from Switzerland who went to work for GM and then Ford for 30 years and he spoke with pride of working for those great American companies. He had an expression he used all the time: “If you do a job, do a job.” It sounds silly but I gotta say it has rung in my head my whole career. It meant if you’re not going to really work at something, then you shouldn’t even start.
Connie: I grew up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on a farm surrounded by turkeys and cows. It gave me a real appreciation for smaller rural communities. We didn’t have great wealth so it was a real juxtaposition to where I am now. It was a nice grounding place to start.
Q: Once you hit it big by being one of Microsoft’s first employees, how did you handle that success?
Steve: I dropped out of business school to be a bookkeeper for a little 30-person company so I wasn’t actually sure I made the right decision. But I didn’t really need to think about investments until the company went public. In my early days, my broker was just a guy I had gone to college (Harvard) with—someone by the name of Jim Cramer, who you might know from “Mad Money.” I knew him because we worked on the school paper together. He was the editor and I handled ad sales.
Q: How are you directing your philanthropic dollars these days?
Connie: We are particularly interested in the social-services sector, like kids and families at risk. The difficulty about philanthropy in this area is that organizations can be pretty small, unlike hospitals or universities. So we are trying to build non-profits up and explore how we can have the most impact—and how to make it all happen faster.
Steve: If you look at the numbers, kids from birth don’t have a lot of opportunity to aspire to much more than their parents had. That is a problem of economic mobility and it seems like a fundamental issue of fairness to us. Every kid deserves a shot.
Q: You bought the L.A. Clippers—a very different operation from Microsoft—so what has that experience taught you?
Steve: For me it has been a ton of fun. We have some great experts like Lawrence Frank and Doc Rivers and Jerry West who help us think through things like coaching and putting together the right roster. The business side has some interesting stuff, too, as we look towards a new arena. I love the enthusiasm and juice I get out of it.
Q: Just as the players learn from you, do you learn from the players?
Steve: Our guys have an unbelievable work ethic. Look at the calmness under pressure of a guy like Lou Williams. One thing I’ve learned from watching basketball: Whether you hit or miss your shot, you have to let go of the outcome and move on.
Q: You have three kids, so have you advised them on how to handle wealth down the line?
Steve: At some point they may get some money from us. But right now they are out there making it on their own. So I tell them, make sure you have a good budget! We also talk to them about avoiding visible affluence because it really changes the way people perceive you.
Q: What life lessons do you try to pass along to them?
Connie: Work hard, be kind, do something to make the world a better place. And just like any parent hopes for their child: Please be happy.
By Chris Taylor