How Google’s Larry Page became a responsible entrepreneur
Four early influences helped shape the Google CEO’s world view and turn him into a change agent, writes Carol Sanford
Our planet’s natural systems are under siege, whole communities are filing for bankruptcy, and the disparity between rich and poor has widened. These reasons, among others, are why we need entrepreneurs who challenge the world to rethink assumptions about how business “should” be done. These kinds of leaders can make sustainable the status quo.
My book, The Responsible Entrepreneur, calls upon entrepreneurs and businesses to step up their game. In it I profile rising stars including Jay Coen Gilbert of B Lab and Cheryl Contee of attentive.ly, along with well-known leaders like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey.
In this excerpt, I describe the early influences that helped Larry Page, the co-founder and CEO of Google, become a changemaker:
To understand Google’s orientation toward creating global change, it’s helpful to know a bit about four influences that helped shape Larry Page’s world view: his grandfather’s history in the early labor movement, his education in Montessori schools, his admiration for the visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, and his participation in the LeaderShape Institute when he was enrolled at the University of Michigan’s engineering school. These helped build in Page the desire and confidence to take on large-scale systemic change.
In the 1920s and 30s, Page’s paternal grandfather worked as a pipe fitter at a Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan. Prior to 1937, serious injury on the General Motors assembly line was a normal part of daily life for workers, and they could be fired at the drop of a hat for exhibiting a “questioning attitude.” Workers could be beaten by their bosses. No government organization ensured worker safety. No union negotiated for decent working conditions and fair wages.
As early organizers for the United Automobile Workers union, Page’s grandfather and his peers risked their lives to change conditions for American workers. They locked themselves into the factory for months to prevent work. They fought and lost and then fought and won in the courts for their right to organize. Their efforts helped bring millions into the middle class and shaped a new ethic in America.
Page told Adam Lashinsky in an interview for Fortune magazine that the hardships of his grandfather’s story made him want to make Google an entirely different kind of workplace, one that, instead of crushing the dreams of workers, encouraged their pursuit:
My grandfather was an autoworker, and I have a weapon he manufactured to protect himself from the company that he would carry to work. It’s a big iron pipe with a hunk of lead on the head. I think about how far we’ve come as companies from those days, where workers had to protect themselves from the company. My job as a leader is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, and that they feel they’re having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society. As a world, we’re doing a better job of that. My goal is for Google to lead, not follow.
An unconventional education was a second significant influence in Page’s life. Like his Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, Page attended Montessori schools until he entered high school. They both cite the educational method of Maria Montessori as the major influence in how they designed Google’s work systems.
The Montessori Method believes that it has a “duty to undertake, in the school of the future, to revolutionize the individual.” Montessori’s ultimate goal of education was to create individuals who could improve society and were unafraid to take on seemingly impossible tasks. In fact, Montessori spoke at length about education for peace. “Everything that concerns education assumes today an importance of a general kind, and must represent a protection and a practical aid to the development of man; that is to say, it must aim at improving the individual in order to improve society”
Maria Montessori believed that the liberty of the child was of utmost importance. For her it was imperative that the school allow a child’s activities to freely develop. Without this freedom, children could not grow the personal agency that would allow them to serve a social purpose as adults. Thus, Page’s childhood education promoted independence. It encouraged students to grow at their own rate. They were allowed large chunks of uninterrupted time to work on projects they created themselves. Students were encouraged to take on small-scale but real-world challenges and to invent ways to solve them.
It’s easy to see how Google’s well-known policy of encouraging all engineers to dedicate 20% of work time to projects of personal interest grew directly out of this educational history. And why collaboration without supervision is core to Google’s work culture. And why Page repeatedly exhorts his colleagues to generate “10x returns” with regard to the social benefits they are striving to create. He is recreating the inspiring learning environment he had as a child, where the focus was on growing free people with the capacity to transform society.
One of Page’s childhood heroes was the eccentric and brilliant Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla’s work laid the ground for everything from lasers to radios, fluorescent lightbulbs to remote controls. He pioneered electrical engineering and developed the alternating current system of electrical distribution.
Tesla’s story caused the adolescent Page to dream of making important technological advances. But he also knew it was a cautionary tale, because Tesla died in poverty, the quintessential “mad scientist.” Page deduced that Tesla died penniless because he lost control of his inventions, and it dawned on him that if he wanted to retain control of his own products and inventions, he would someday need to start his own company.
The last piece of Page’s development as a regenerative entrepreneur fell into place in 1992, when he was a student at the University of Michigan. Page participated in a new program called LeaderShape, whose motto was: “Lead with Integrity. Disregard the Impossible. Do Something Extraordinary.” Participants were asked to imagine a world without poverty, racism, sexism, crime and all the other barriers to realizing people’s full potential. They were encouraged to make choices, take risks and develop a vision for change corresponding to their passion. Page says he took the admonition to make a really big systemic change to heart. He started by wanting to change transportation. (Actually, he still does. Google is working on a driverless transportation system that Page conceived in 1993, when he won 11th place in the World Solar Challenge.)
As a regenerative entrepreneur, Larry Page has scouted for leverage points that allow him to use his position to influence the way the game is structured at the highest level. He has used the rules to change the rules (institutional jujitsu), often before people have had a chance to perceive the implications of what he has set in motion. Whereas most people see laws or regulations as an impediment to change, Page sees them as leverage.
Carol Sanford is an author and consultant who has advised such companies as DuPont, Procter & Gamble, Seventh Generation and Google. Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game-Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders, and Impact Investors by Carol Sanford.