I often talk about the importance of mentoring and giving back. I didn’t come up with these ideas on my own. I had a mentor in my early years as a VC who taught me by example the importance of using your good fortune to help others rise up. John Freidenrich was the founder of Bay Partners and my mentor in the Silicon Valley VC business. Unfortunately, he passed away recently. It’s taken me some time to get my thoughts together about what he meant to my career, but I’d like to share my learnings from this extraordinary man.
I first met John when he invested in one of my companies back when I was still a founder and CEO. That company didn’t make much money for John, as we had to close it down. But he believed in me, so he invested in my second company. That one did a bit better, but I’m sure it was not as lucrative as he’d hoped.
I felt a bit washed up after failing not once, but twice. John didn’t see it that way. He believed I had the perfect experience to understand how companies succeed, and more importantly, what leads to failure. For whatever reason, he took a chance on me and asked me to join Bay Partners. He’s the reason I found my calling and my dream job as a venture capitalist.
John was the one who taught me that great companies are all about the people. Focus on the people, not the product. The product can and will change. But a stellar team can pivot and adapt to any market pressure. This guidance led me to invest personally in Starbucks because I thought Howard Schultz was the kind of person who could make even a coffee shop successful. John was right. It’s all about the people. Starbucks is the embodiment of that philosophy.
More than mentoring young founders and investors, John believed in giving back to the community. John served as the Chairman of Board of Trustees at Stanford University in the 1990s. He was a major donor to Stanford Medical Center, one of the founding donors of Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, where he also served on the board, and he created the Jill and John Freidenrich Center for Translational Research at Stanford University Medical Center, which conducts research that translates basic science discoveries into treatments and diagnostics. John gave money and time to make the community around him better for everyone. That’s a lesson I took to heart and why I was inspired to become more involved with my alma mater, the University of Washington.
I remember the first time I got a big payout on an investment I’d made. John took me to lunch to talk to me about why it was so important to take some of that money and give it back to the community. Prior to that conversation, my giving had been maybe $10 here and there around Christmas. I hadn’t given much thought to charitable giving. But that conversation with him over lunch led me to get involved in Family Uplift Services when it was still Eastfield Ming Quong (EMQ) back in 1995. John challenged me to think about what I could do to help others improve their current situations. He told me sometimes, what people need is encouragement. Sometimes it’s a meal. Sometimes it’s mentorship and sometimes it’s money. But if you do well, you must give back. So, I gave that money to a few different places and then I was hooked. I saw the results and I realized why it was so important to contribute to your community in whatever way you can. Moreover, John told me to take a leadership role with organizations I really believed in, not just in the business world.
There is no doubt I am who I am today because of John Freidenrich. As a close friend reminded me recently, “Without John, you’d be a rent-a-cop rattling doors at night at the UW, at best.” Having said that joke, I tip my hat to the security people who keep our students safe on campus. No disrespect intended. But I certainly wouldn’t be in the position to help young entrepreneurs with big ideas make their dreams happen, and I wouldn’t be able to give back to my community in the ways that I’ve been able to without John.
Despite his many successes, John remained a humble man and avoided the spotlight. He purposefully kept a low profile and let others take the credit. He was always willing to step back and let others do what they do best. I was shocked to see there was so little written about him at his passing given his role as one of the founders of Silicon Valley’s tech industry. On the other hand, that’s the way John would have wanted it.
John’s legacy can be witnessed across Silicon Valley, from Stanford University, arts programs, hospitals, law firms, and yes, venture capitalists like me. His example of mentoring and giving back is carried on through all those he took under his wings and continues to be passed on to the next generation as we try to uphold his example.
Though he may deserve fanfare and adulation for his many contributions to Silicon Valley, he has departed this world in the same way he lived – discreetly and with dignity. John, thank you for being my mentor and my friend. Thank you for all you gave to our community. My sincerest condolences to his wife of 54 years, Jill, and his wonderful children, Gail Marks and son Eric Freidenrich and their families. May we all be able to say we lived as well as the incomparable John Freidenrich did.