Venture capital legend Tom Perkins apologized last week for likening besieged techies to Holocaust victims, but it’s hardly the first time the 82-year-old and his wealth have stoked the flames of controversy.
Eight years ago, he built a sailing yacht for $130 million, admitting he could have spent that fortune on charity but wanted the world’s biggest boat. When he later snapped up a 5,500-square-foot apartment atop a San Francisco skyscraper, he told The Wall Street Journal: “I’m called the king of Silicon Valley; why can’t I have a penthouse?”
And at the urging of his ex-wife, romance novelist Danielle Steel, Perkins once wrote his own bodice-ripper titled, “Sex and the Single Zillionaire.”
But in a very different book, his 2006 memoir “Valley Boy,” Perkins recalled growing up in a struggling middle-class family in White Plains, N.Y. The young Perkins vowed to rise above that background by becoming a millionaire before age 30.
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After years at Hewlett-Packard, where he became head of the company’s fledgling computer division, Perkins in 1972 met Eugene Kleiner, who had fled the Nazis and later helped launch another seminal tech company, Fairchild Semiconductor. The venture firm they founded, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has seeded titans ranging from Genentech to Google.
His latest moves, though, brought unwelcome publicity to Kleiner Perkins, which in the past year has been beset by headlines over failed bets on clean tech and a continuing sex-discrimination suit.
Perkins, in a weekend letter published in the Journal, said the recent targeting of Google buses by affordable-housing advocates parallels Nazi targeting of Jews. “I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful 1 percent,” he wrote.
Kleiner Perkins rushed to distance itself from Perkins’ remarks, saying via Twitter that he has not been involved in the firm for years.
Last Monday, Perkins apologized for comparing political vandalism in the San Francisco Bay Area to Kristallnacht, the 1938 series of attacks in Germany on Jewish homes and businesses that preceded Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
“It was a terrible word to have chosen,” he said.
But Perkins said he did not regret his underlying message: “When you start to use hatred against a minority, it can get out of control.” He also argued, “The 1 percent are not causing inequality — they’re the job creators.”
David Kaplan, who wrote a 2008 book titled “Mine’s Bigger” about Perkins’ megayacht, said via email that it’s in Perkins’ nature to speak up, just as it is to take risks in business. Perhaps most famously, in 2006 he quit the HP board in protest of its secretly snooping on board members’ phone records; his whistle-blowing led to a federal investigation and the ouster of the company’s chairwoman.
Kaplan, a longtime tech reporter who previously wrote the best-selling “The Silicon Boys,” called Perkins “impulsive and instinctive.” While that can get him in trouble, Kaplan said, it also makes Perkins “the man most responsible for creating Silicon Valley.”
The yacht, which Perkins christened the Maltese Falcon, perhaps best illustrates his twin loves of excess and a good challenge. The vessel, the length of a football field, is made from the same carbon-fiber material as a B-1 bomber; he equipped it with sails that unfurl at the touch of a screen and flags that spelled out in maritime code, “Rarely does one have the privilege to witness vulgar ostentation on such a grand scale.”
Yet a few years after the yacht was finished, he sold it, saying the appeal had been in building something naysayers doubted was possible.
Perkins now owns an “adventure yacht” called the Dr. No that carries his private submarine and has explored remote regions of the South Pacific.
His nautical pursuits have launched other controversies. In 1996, he was convicted in France of involuntary manslaughter for an accident that killed another sailor; Perkins received a suspended jail sentence and a $10,000 fine.
And this year, he was part of a committee — along with other big names like former Secretary of State George Shultz and mutual-fund magnate Charles Schwab — tasked with raising money to stage San Francisco’s America’s Cup races. That fundraising effort was criticized by many city residents after the regatta lost money and required a $5.5 million taxpayer subsidy.
While such critiques may chafe Perkins, he doesn’t apologize for who he is, what he’s accomplished or how rich he’s gotten doing it. In the 2011 documentary “Something Ventured,” which featured Perkins along with fellow venture legends such as Arthur Rock, Don Valentine and Bill Draper, he laughingly offered a sort of summation of his philosophy:
“Isn’t it great,” he said, “if you can change the world and make money at the same time?”