2012 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Success is productivity."
Jim Clark was born in 1944 in Ft. Worth, Texas. When he was two, his parents moved the family to Plainview to be closer to both sets of grandparents, with whom he spent much of his preschool years. On his mother’s side, his grandparents were a trucker and a seamstress. His paternal grandparents were gentle farmers, devoted to his growth and happiness. He was with them a great deal of time in the fields, helping to pull cotton and do various other chores.
When World War II ended in 1945, Jim’s father went to work in jobs that mostly serviced the farming industry. He was a man who was prone to having a beer or two. Jim’s mother disapproved of her husband’s drinking habits, and the couple often fought over this. When Jim was 13, his parents divorced. This was when divorce was a social taboo, and Jim felt embarrassed about it around his schoolmates. Not long after the divorce, his parents remarried, only to divorce again less than a year later. This doubled Jim’s confusion and embarrassment.
After his parents’ final divorce, Jim’s mother dated a man, Glenn, who put Jim to work in his business. Glenn owned farming equipment and contracted his equipment to farmers in need of help with harvesting and planting. Jim spent one summer working alongside Glenn, harvesting wheat throughout the central plains. “My mother married Glenn when I was 17,” says Jim, “but less than four years later he had a fatal heart attack.”
Jim’s mother worked as a nurse and medical secretary. “My mother put herself through nursing school,” he says. “She saved all her money one summer to pay for school. Her father, who was a truck driver, accidentally killed a son while backing up his truck. He had to borrow my mother’s savings to pay for the boy’s funeral. Later, a group of his truck driving friends got a fund together so that he could repay her and make it possible for her to attend nursing school. My mother was a hard worker and my mentor. She taught me to never shirk my responsibilities and to always work hard.”
The upheaval of Jim’s parents’ divorce may have been the cause of his discipline problems in school. In his early years, he was a good student. But in junior high he began coasting through his courses. “I didn’t think about the future,” he says, “I once briefly thought about becoming a court reporter, but the more trouble I got into at school, the more I started a downward spiral.”
When he was a junior, Jim was expelled from school after swearing at a teacher. He couldn’t return to school until the school board met, which was two weeks away. Since expulsion meant a point was deducted from his grades for each day missed, Jim decided not to return to school at all. “My mother was upset about that,” he says. “She was working, trying to support three kids. My father never paid child support, and we were in tough shape financially.”
Having an uncle he admired who had served in the Navy, Jim impulsively decided to join. Since he was only 17, his mother had to sign a release for him. He spent the next three and a half years in the Navy, which he credits with a “series of awakenings.” The discipline of the Navy and the structure that was part of each day helped Jim to think in a more organized manner. After nine months on a ship in the fleet, he was sent to school. He tested high in physics and electronics. At the end of 13 weeks, he was the top student in his class. “That was my second awakening,” he says. “I discovered I could be good at something.”
When he went back out to sea, he began taking correspondence courses to complete high school. Near the end of his tour of duty, he took three college courses from Tulane in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and received three A’s. The Navy gave him an early release to enroll at Texas Tech, where he majored in electrical engineering. While in the Navy, Jim married and had a son. While living in Texas, he worked as a dispatcher at the local fire department, but one year later, he needed a better-paying job. His calculus professor from Tulane was working at Boeing in New Orleans, and he was able to get Jim a full-time job with the company. Jim transferred to Louisiana State University in New Orleans, since he could not afford the tuition at Tulane, and switched his major to physics.
Jim enjoyed his coursework. He was also learning to program computers at Boeing, and he decided he wanted to become a professor. After graduation, he earned a fellowship, which made it possible for him to continue his education full time. He earned his master’s in physics and then went to the University of Utah, where he earned a Ph.D. in computer science. He accepted a position as associate professor at the University of Santa Cruz in 1974. In 1978 he accomplished one of his goals, becoming an associate professor of electrical engineering at Stanford. But within two years, he knew teaching wasn’t going to hold his interest long-term.
Jim Clark’s specialty was computer graphics. In 1982 two staff members and five students joined him in creating Silicon Graphics. He took a leave of absence to do this, but by 1984, deciding that business was more rewarding for him than academia, he resigned his position at Stanford.
Over the next 13 years, Silicon Graphics, Inc., grew to ten thousand employees and more than $4 billion a year in revenues. By then, Mr. Clark was 50 and financially comfortable, but he felt restless and wanted to move in a different direction. He resigned as chairman of the Board and contacted Marc Andreessen, a 20-year-old graduate student who had been the leader in writing the first web browser. In 1994 Marc Andreessen and fellow students had written the first browser for the Worldwide Web. The two formed a company around the idea of commercializing the web browser, with Mr. Clark investing $5 million; within three months they formed Netscape (first called Mosaic). Seven of Marc’s student collaborators were cofounders with them.
Netscape was an immediate success. The first Netscape browser was introduced in January 1995, and the company had $75 million in revenues for the year. Halfway through its first year of business, the company went public in the most successful IPO up to that time. By the end of that first day of trading, Mr. Clark’s 20 percent of the company was worth $663 million. Credited with launching the Internet boom, Netscape was sold in 1998 to AOL for $1 billion. Within a year, Netscape’s portion of AOL was valued at almost $10 billion.
When asked about his phenomenal success, Jim Clark is quick to point out that until he began to believe in himself and his abilities, his successes were few. “When I was young, I didn’t believe in myself,” he says. “I never tried to excel at anything. I was aware I was good in math, but that didn’t strike me as being pertinent to anything. It wasn’t until I went into the Navy and I could see the applications for math in electronics that it all began to make sense to me. But it took a lot of hard work on my part. I studied hard and made myself an expert in several areas, including computer science and business.”
Although Jim Clark is a fan of all the Internet can do for society, he harbors some concern for the changes in social structure. “If you are going to socialize,” he advises, “do it personally. That’s how you develop real relationships. Use your day to absorb knowledge. For me, success is productivity. You should make things, do things for other people, be productive, add something to society—that’s how I define success.”
Coming from Plainview, Texas, Mr. Clark believes he had low expectations for himself. But once he got exposure to the world beyond his hometown, he realized he could compete with the best people in his chosen fields of study. His advice is to “forget about where or what you come from. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just put your head down and get to work. Ultimately, if you can get yourself to a point of having choices, then you are in charge. Choose a career that allows you to add something to humanity. If you find you don’t like your first choice, then quit your job and go in a new direction. But always add something to the world rather than taking something from it.”
Jim Clark’s Current Activities
Jim Clark developed an interest in healthcare after learning he has a genetic disorder called hemochromatosis, which causes him to absorb too much iron. When he was first diagnosed, he went around to several doctors for differing opinions and was frustrated each time he had to fill out long forms on his health history. He decided it was time to computerize the healthcare industry. He founded Healtheon, which has become WebMD.
Mr. Clark has been part of two other companies, MyCFO and Shutterfly. MyCFO was merged into a large bank and no longer operates as a stand-alone entity. Shutterfly is still a moderately successful company.
Mr. Clark has donated $100 million to form The Clark Center for Biology, Science and Engineering on the Stanford University campus. This has since become one of the leading biology research centers in the world. Mr. Clark supports research and numerous nonprofit activities. He funded the production of the Academy Award-winning documentary film The Cove, and he holds annual fund-raisers for the Perlman Music Program. He actively supports many other nonprofit activities related to the world’s oceans, healthcare, and education.
Jim Clark continues to program computers and is now involved in a start-up company, which addresses security, energy, and home automation. He believes young men and women can get a good education anywhere, but it is up to the individual to make any circumstance work. “Once you realize that,” he says, “then I believe anything is possible as long as you persevere.”