The Beautiful Mind of Larry Page
The enigmatic Google co-founder turned CEO of Alphabet is on a mission to solve the world’s biggest problems, including mortality itself.
Twenty years ago, when he was still a graduate student, Larry Page changed the world. Now, with a fortune estimated at $36 billion, he wants to do it again.
Page, 42, is the CEO of Alphabet, Inc., the newly created holding company for Google, the planet’s dominant search engine, and for a bunch of loosely related businesses he hopes will someday allow every one of us to, among other things, have universal access to the totality of information known to man; be ferried by driverless, energy-efficient cars wherever we want to go; and live forever.
In other words, Page’s ambition is nearly limitless, and, thanks to the billions of dollars in cash flow that Google generates each year, he may be one of the few people with the resources to pull it off. Page may also be poised to revolutionize the way modern corporations function. He has long worried that companies get stuck doing the same thing repeatedly and become content with incremental change. Innovators tend to get frustrated and leave.
He wants Alphabet to be a place where entrepreneurs stay. He may succeed at this, too. Asked recently about the goal of Alphabet’s eclectic mix of projects, Page said he likes to apply some simple rules: “Is that thing really, really important? Is it going to affect everyone in the world? Is it going to affect a lot of people every day?” Needless to say, very few CEOs think this way.
Page was much less confident in 1995 when he enrolled in the computer science graduate program at Stanford University, where he first met Sergey Brin, who later
became his business partner. Page was anxious and thought he’d been admitted by mistake. “I had an irrational fear I would be sent home on the bus,” he explained. His feelings of inadequacy at the time kept him up, and he slept fitfully.
One night, when he was 23, he had a strange dream. Suddenly he woke up thinking, “What if we could download the whole Web and just keep the links?” He grabbed a pen and started doing some calculations. He figured he could do it in a couple of weeks. He told Terry Winograd, his academic adviser at Stanford. “He nodded knowingly,” Page says, “fully aware it would take much longer but wise enough to not tell me.” But eventually Page got it done. He had discovered a way to rank Web pages by how useful they were to people, and inadvertently figured out how to mint money.
Page and Brin developed the algorithm that created the world’s most successful search engine, and that led to the creation of Google itself, one of the world’s most important and admired companies (and for a few days recently, its most valuable). They offered the new search technology to David Filo, one of the founders of Yahoo, who rejected it. He told them to start their own company. “Maybe we’ll use you someday,” Filo said.
One person they turned to for funding was David Cheriton, a Stanford professor of computer science, who wrote them a check for $100,000. “I saw Page back then as a smart but somewhat understated grad student, who had built something cool that the world would benefit from,” Cheriton wrote in an email. (Forbes estimates Cheriton’s net worth at $3 billion.) Google struggled a bit at first but with the help of Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Novell, whom Page and Brin recruited as CEO in 2001 to famously provide “adult supervision,” the juggernaut took off. (For the record, Brin came up with the name “Alphabet”; Page gets the credit for “Google.”)
Page’s love of technological innovation is in his DNA. His father, Carl, got “three and a half” degrees from the University of Michigan, including, in 1965, a Ph.D. in “communications science” instead of “computer science,” because people thought “computers were just a passing fad,” his son explained. His parents met at Michigan in 1962, when his father noticed his mother, Gloria, standing atop a ladder in order to clean the dirty ceiling at a student housing co-op.
Money was tight, especially early on when they were raising Page’s brother, Carl Jr., nine years his senior. (In 2000, Carl Jr. sold his cofounded company eGroups to Yahoo for $432 million in stock; he now works as a serial entrepreneur in San Francisco.) Eventually, his parents joined the Michigan State University faculty, his father as a professor of computer science, his mother as a teacher of computer programming. Larry was born in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1973.
His father encouraged his interest in computers, in business, and in problem solving. The Page home was filled with computer detritus and computer magazines. In 1979, when Larry was six, the Pages got hold of a home computer, the Exidy Sorcerer, and Carl Jr. wrote an operating system for it. With homemade word-processing software and a dot-matrix printer, Larry used the Exidy to type a homework assignment. “It was the first time anyone at the school had ever seen anything produced on a word processor—or heard of such a thing,” observed Richard L. Brandt in his book The Google Guys.
Carl Page, who suffered throughout his life from polio, died of pneumonia in May 1996, some months after his son had moved to California. The BBC described him as a “pioneer in computer science and artificial intelligence.” His father’s death affected Page deeply. One day he came across a copy of his father’s valedictory speech from Flint Mandeville High School, class of 1956, and was “blown away” by it. He could have written it himself: “We are entering a changing world,” Page’s father had said. “We shall take part in, or witness, developments in science, medicine, and industry that we cannot dream of today.”
You don’t get to be one of the world’s richest people without taking some calculated risks and dreaming big. And Larry Page has been doing both for a long time. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he had what he called the “crazy idea” to build a personal rapid transit system at the school—essentially a driverless monorail—to replace the campus buses. He didn’t like waiting for the bus. Sometimes the bus was late, or it was raining outside. “It was a futuristic way of solving our transportation problems,” he said in a May 2009 commencement address at his alma mater. And though he never built it, he remained obsessed about changing the way we get around.
Now, thanks to Page’s nurturing (and boundless resources), that seemingly far-fetched dream has become the driverless car, which may soon be transporting the elderly and the blind on their daily errands and helping to reduce the more than 1.2 million annual traffic fatalities worldwide, the majority of which result from driver error. “You never lose a dream; it just incubates as a hobby,” Page has said.
And as he told the Michigan graduates, it’s often easier to make progress on “mega-ambitious” dreams. “Since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition,” he said, distilling his business philosophy down to a few sentences. “There are so few people this crazy that I feel like I know them all by first name. They all travel as if they are pack dogs and stick to each other like glue. The best people want to work the big challenges. That is what happened with Google. Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. How can that not get you excited?”
Page is notoriously press-shy. (“Larry’s not doing any interviews,” said Alphabet’s head of global communications, who also declined to make other senior executives available to speak about Page.) But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t talk to people. He recently got back from the TED conference in Vancouver, one of many such events he likes to attend that allow him to meet other engineers and pick their brains about new, new things.
By all appearances, he is also a devoted family man. In December 2007, after dating onetime Google executive Marissa Mayer (now the embattled CEO of Yahoo), Page married Lucinda “Lucy” Southworth, a gorgeous blonde Stanford doctoral student (in biomedical informatics, naturally) and the sister of actress Carrie Southworth. The wedding was held on Necker Island, which is owned by his best man and fellow billionaire, Richard Branson. Some 600 guests were flown in on private jets and put up on the nearby island of Virgin Gorda. Page is thought to own Eustatia Island nearby.
The couple have two young children, and the family flies around on a modified Boeing 767 Page originally bought with Brin and then refurbished. (They also reportedly own two Gulfstream Vs, a Boeing 757, and a Dornier Alpha fighter jet.) For R&R, the Pages often head to Alaska or tour the tropics aboard Senses, the nearly 200-foot superyacht Page bought in 2011 for $45 million.
And in Palo Alto, they own two homes on a plot they combined from buying up adjacent land. But Page’s most exciting property may be Google’s proposed new canopy-covered corporate headquarters, designed by starchitects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick for a 60-acre tract next to its current base of operations in Mountain View, California. Ingels said the new headquarters will help define what “Google 2.0” is about.
Last November, Page spoke onstage in a rare interview with Fortune’s Alan Murray, whose magazine has described him as “the most ambitious CEO in the universe.” His dark hair now prematurely streaked with gray, Page still managed to look boyish in the Silicon Valley uniform of black T-shirt and gray sports jacket as he laid out his vision for Alphabet.
He wants entrepreneurs to thrive. Just as working as a consultant earlier in his life was “not his calling,” for many entrepreneurs, working at a big company isn’t right, either. He sees his principal responsibility at Alphabet as giving the CEOs of the business units the latitude they need to succeed—as legendary investor Warren Buffett does at Berkshire Hathaway. Page also encourages his executives to fail, telling them that if they failed more often they would learn faster.
He told Murray the story of how he visits Google’s data centers and asks “lots and lots and lots of questions…as an entrepreneur and as a businessperson.” He explained that Google was having problems getting transformers, often waiting a year for them to arrive. “That’s a problem, but it’s also an opportunity,” he said. “Why does it take a year? Why does it get shipped on a train car and then a special truck? And then it takes a long time to arrive. Is that really the right solution? It makes you wonder.” Solving the transformer problem might become a new business 10 years down the line.
Page focuses on the little things in hopes of getting an idea for something really big. In 2015, he hired Daniel Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg LP, to create Sidewalk Labs, a company with the mission of improving “life in cities for everyone through the application of technology to solve urban problems.”
According to an insider, Alphabet invested $2 billion in the project. In January, a consortium of partners led by Doctoroff began rolling out high-speed wi-fi kiosks in New York City. That’s only the start. Page is also trying to solve the problem of bringing Internet access to people around the world who don’t have it. “Project Loon,” another idea currently in the testing phase, envisions a fleet of balloons flying 66,000 feet above the Earth’s surface that will connect the Internet to the cell phones in people’s pockets.
It’s all part of Page’s plan. Google X, the semi-secretive laboratory for Page’s long-shot ideas, is now simply called “X.” Projects developed there are evaluated by the Foundry, a newly appointed group that decides which ideas die and which go on to become independent companies under Alphabet.
Among those green-lighted are Google Fiber, which has already brought impossibly fast Internet connections to nine U.S. cities and has plans to roll the service out to a bunch more; Verily, which wants to marry technology with health-care services and recently joined forces with Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon to build better surgical robots; and the life extension company Calico, which Google introduced with the audacious proposal to “cure death.” Calico intends to devise what it nebulously describes as “interventions” that will allow people to live longer, healthier lives.
Cheriton applauds Page’s ambitions. “Most of the great leaps forward in technology have come from ‘skunkworks’ projects,” he said. “Larry loves to hang out with the skunks. But I think he is also motivated by being in a position where he can help turn these projects into realities.”
No matter how you cut it, Page is an unusual CEO. “He thinks about business in a different way than anybody else I’ve ever encountered,” said Fortune’s Murray after the interview, adding that of all the hundreds of CEOs he’s talked to, his conversation with Page was the most fun he’s ever had. For the past seven years, Google has topped the magazine’s list of best companies to work for. And for the second year in a row, it ranked as the second Most Admired (behind Apple). “It’s just all about trying to solve problems,” Murray said.
As for Page’s ultimate goals, there seems to be no ceiling. The further one ventures on the technological horizon, he says, the more one realizes what is possible. The “clunkiness” of computers still frustrates him. He wants to make them smarter so that they can understand people and be better at helping us. In 2014, Google acquired DeepMind, a British artificial intelligence company with a mission of “solving intelligence” and transforming the way we live.
Page has renamed it Google DeepMind and has encouraged inventor Ray Kurzweil, who joined Google in 2012, to work with it. Kurzweil has been attempting to create an artificial replica of the human brain that is capable, he believes, of consciousness. In an article in the MIT Technology Review, Kurzweil estimated that to emulate the human brain, a computer would need to perform around 100 trillion calculations per second. “It would be hard to provide that to a billion users,” Kurzweil explained, “although I’ve discussed that with Larry Page and he thinks it’s possible.”
Kurzweil also talks realistically about the so-called “singularity,” the day not too far off when the pace of technological change becomes so rapid that there will be a rupture and life as we know it will be transformed. Humans might live forever. Page is a believer as well, and helped to found Singularity University, a think tank to solve the “world’s toughest problems.” Figuring out the “mortality problem” is as mega as it gets on the ambition scale, and it’s no surprise that Page doesn’t find it daunting in the least.