By Mark Malseed
How the Moscow-born entrepreneur cofounded Google and changed the way the world searches
It takes a bit of searching to find Sergey Brin’s office at the Googleplex. Tucked away in a corner of Building #43 on this sprawling campus near the southern tip of San Francisco Bay, past rows of colorfully decorated cubicles and dorm-like meeting spaces, Office 211 has a nondescript exterior and sits far from the public eye. Although it takes several twists and turns to get there, his office is not protected—as you would expect for the cofounder of a $150-billion company—by a Russian nesting doll’s worth of doors and gatekeepers.
Sergey, 33, shares the space with his Google cofounder, fellow Stanford Ph.D. dropout and billionaire pal, 34-year-old Larry Page, an arrangement that began eight years ago in the company’s first humble headquarters in a Menlo Park, California, garage. Since then, Google has grown from just another Silicon Valley startup into the world’s largest media corporation; in fact, based on its recent stock price of $513 per share, Google, which has made searching the Web easy and even fun, is larger than Disney, General Motors and McDonald’s combined. It achieved these lofty heights by revolutionizing how people surf the Internet: Before Sergey and Larry analyzed the links between web pages to deliver search results speedily based on relevance, looking up information on the Web was a shot in the dark.
Stepping through the sliding glass door into their office is like walking into a playroom for tech-savvy adults. A row of sleek flat-screen monitors lining one wall displays critical information: email, calendars, documents and, naturally, the Google search engine. Assorted green plants and an air purifier keep the oxygen flowing, while medicine balls provide appropriately kinetic seating. Upstairs, a private mezzanine with Astroturf carpeting and an electric massage chair afford Sergey and Larry a comfortable perch from which to entertain visitors and survey the carnival of innovation going on below. And there is ample space for walking around, which is absolutely essential for Sergey, who just can’t seem to sit still.
Trim and boyishly handsome, with low sloping shoulders that give him a perpetually relaxed appearance, Sergey bounces around the Googleplex with apparently endless energy. He has dark hair, penetrating eyes and a puckish sense of humor that often catches people off guard. A typical workday finds him in jeans, sneakers and a fitted black T-shirt, though his casual manner belies a serious, even aggressive sense of purpose. This intensity emerges during weekly strategy meetings, where Sergey and Larry—who share the title of president—command the last word on approving new products, reviewing new hires and funding long-term research. Sergey also holds sway over the unscientific but all-important realms of people, policy and politics. Google’s workers enjoy such family-friendly perks as three free meals a day, free home food delivery for new parents, designated private spaces for nursing mothers, and full on-site medical care, all of which recently led Fortune magazine to rank the company as the #1 place to work in the country.
The co-presidents share management duties with Eric Schmidt, a seasoned software executive whom they hired as chief executive officer in 2001 to oversee the day-to-day aspects of Google’s business—in short, to be the “adult” in the playroom. But they have no intention of ceding control. Since day one, they have resisted outside meddling, preferring to do everything their own way, from opting to piece together computers on the cheap (and build a computer casing out of Lego blocks) to flouting Wall Street in an unconventional initial public offering.
Blazing one’s own trail comes naturally to Sergey. The Moscow-born entrepreneur and his parents have been doing it their entire lives.
On December 16, 2005, 16 months after the company’s high-flying initial stock auction, Google closed its biggest deal yet: a $1-billion advertising partnership with America Online, the popular Internet service provider.
That evening, by coincidence, I am meeting with Sergey’s parents at their home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Michael Brin, wearing a black fleece vest emblazoned with the multicolored Google logo, greets me in the driveway. I ask if he has heard the big news. “We spoke with Sergey earlier today and he didn’t mention anything,” he tells me. “He did say he was on his way home from yoga.”
Michael, 59, a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, and his wife, Eugenia, 58, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, are gracious and down-to-earth and still somewhat astonished by their son’s success. “It’s mind-boggling,” marvels Genia, as family and friends call her. She speaks slowly, in a syrupy, Russian-accented English that quickens when she is competing with her husband. “It’s hard to comprehend, really. He was a very capable child in math and computers, but we could have never imagined this.” Michael, in his milder accent, adds with typical pragmatism, “Google has saved more time for more people than anything else in the world.”
They sit me down at the dining room table, clearing off papers to make space for a spread of cheese and fruit. The room itself is simply decorated, even sparse; the only signs of wealth I can see anywhere are a big-screen TV in the living room and a Lexus in the driveway.
The Brins are a compact, young-looking couple; Michael is skeptical in demeanor with a precise manner of speaking, and Genia soft and nurturing. Both have sincere, easygoing laughs. We talk for several hours, interrupted occasionally by Michael’s cigarette breaks, for which he heads outside with the family dog, Toby. Smoking is a habit he brought with him from the Soviet Union in 1979, when he immigrated to the United States with his mother, Maya, Genia and Sergey, then six. (A second son, Sam, was born in 1987.)
One of Michael’s stories particularly strikes me. In the summer of 1990, a few weeks before Sergey’s 17th birthday, Michael led a group of gifted high school math students on a two-week exchange program to the Soviet Union. He decided to bring the family along, despite uneasiness about the welcome they could expect from Communist authorities. It would give them a chance to visit family members still living in Moscow, including Sergey’s paternal grandfather, like Michael, a Ph.D. mathematician.
It didn’t take long for Sergey, a precocious teenager about to enter college, to size up his former environs. The Soviet empire was crumbling and, in the drab, cinder-block landscape and people’s stony mien of resignation, he could see first-hand the bleak future that would have been his. On the second day of the trip, while the group toured a sanitarium in the countryside near Moscow, Sergey took his father aside, looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you for taking us all out of Russia.”
“There were only two occasions when my children were grateful to me,” Michael says dryly, and I get the sense that he is completely serious. The other occasion, he says, involved Sergey’s younger brother, Sam, and the repair of a broken toilet.
Genia, seated next to him, protests. “Misha, what are you talking about!?” she exclaims, as she often does when their memories differ or when she feels Michael is editorializing.
As Sergey recalls, the trip awakened his childhood fear of authority. His crisp tenor voice, tinged with a faint accent that is no longer identifiably Russian, came to me via satellite phone as he flew to Asia last November. Teenagers have their own way of transforming fear into defiance, Sergey reflects, remembering that his impulse on confronting Soviet oppression had been to throw pebbles at a police car. The two officers sitting inside got out of the car “quite upset” he says but, luckily, his parents were able to defuse the matter.
“My rebelliousness, I think, came out of being born in Moscow,” Sergey says, adding, “I’d say this is something that followed me into adulthood.”
At a bagel shop across the street from the Maryland campus where he has taught dynamical systems and statistics for 25 years, Michael talks of the discrimination that drove him to take his family out of Russia. It’s a bitter cold day in College Park, reminiscent of winter in Moscow. Over a lunch of soup and sandwiches, Michael explains how he was forced to abandon his dream of becoming an astronomer even before he reached college. Officially, anti-Semitism didn’t exist in the U.S.S.R. but, in reality, Communist Party heads barred Jews from upper professional ranks by denying them entry to universities. Jews were excluded from the physics department, in particular, at the prestigious Moscow State University, because Soviet leaders did not trust them with nuclear rocket research. Unfortunately for Michael, astronomy fell under the rubric of physics.
Michael opted to study mathematics instead. But gaining acceptance to the math department at Moscow State, home of arguably the brightest mathematicians in the world, also proved exceedingly difficult. Discrimination there was administered by means of entrance exams for which Jews were tested in different rooms from other applicants—morbidly nicknamed “gas chambers”—and graded more harshly. Nevertheless, with help from a well-connected family friend, Michael was accepted and in 1970 graduated with an honors degree.
“I had all A’s except for three classes where I got B’s: history of the Communist Party, military training and statistics,” he says. “But nobody would even consider me for graduate school because I was Jewish. That was normal.” So Michael became an economist for GOSPLAN, the central planning agency. “I was trying to prove that, in a few years, living standards in Russia would be higher than in the United States,” he says. “And I proved it. I know enough about math to prove whatever you want.”
He continued to study mathematics on his own, sneaking into evening seminars at the university and writing research papers. After several were published, Brin began a doctoral thesis. At the time, a student in the Soviet Union could earn a doctorate without going to graduate school if he passed certain exams and an institution agreed to consider his thesis. Michael found two advisers, an official adviser, an ethnic Russian, and an informal Jewish mentor. (“Jews could not have Jewish advisers,” he says.) With their help, he successfully defended his thesis at a university in Kharkov, Ukraine, but life didn’t change much even after he received his Ph.D. He continued in his day job at GOSPLAN and received a 100-ruble raise. “I thought I was rich. Life was beautiful,” he says with a wry chuckle.
For Genia, life in Moscow was also comfortable enough. She, too, had managed to overcome the entrance hurdles to attend Moscow State, graduating from the School of Mechanics and Mathematics. In a research lab of the Soviet Oil and Gas Institute, a prestigious industrial school, she worked alongside a number of other Jews. “I was content in my job and had many friends,” she says. The Brins’ encounters with institutional anti-Semitism did not extend to day-to-day interactions with colleagues and neighbors. Highly assimilated into Russian culture, they were part of the intelligentsia and had a circle of university-educated friends. Occupying a tiny, three-room apartment in central Moscow, 350 square feet in all shared with Michael’s mother, they were better off than many Muscovites who still lived in communal apartments. After Sergey was born, on August 21, 1973, the courtyard of their hulking five-story building became his playground. In keeping with Russian tradition, Sergey spent two hours in the morning and evening each day outdoors, regardless of the season.
As we talk at the bagel shop, Michael keeps careful watch on the time. Every so often he leaps from his chair and dashes outside. This isn’t just for a smoke, although he does light up. He’s also keeping close tabs on the parking meters, his and mine, and takes care when the time runs out to drop in more quarters.
The history of Russian Jewish emigration in the mid-1970s can be neatly summarized in a joke from the era: Two Jews are talking in the street, a third walks by and says to them, “I don’t know what you’re talking about but yes, it’s time to get out of here!”
“I’ve known for a long time that my father wasn’t able to pursue the career he wanted,” Sergey tells me. As a young boy, though, Sergey had only a vague awareness of why his family wanted to leave their native Russia. He picked up the ugly details of the anti-Semitism they faced bit by bit years later, he says. Nevertheless, he sensed, early on, all of the things that he wasn’t: He wasn’t Russian. He wasn’t welcome in his own country. He wasn’t going to get a fair shake in advancing through its schools. Further complicating his understanding of his Jewish identity was the fact that, under the ardently atheist Soviet regime, there were few religious or cultural models of what being Jewish was. The negatives were all he had.
Sergey is too young to remember the day, in the summer of 1977, when his father came home and announced that it was time for the family to emigrate. “We cannot stay here any more,” he told his wife and mother. He had arrived at his decision while attending a mathematics conference in Warsaw. For the first time, he had been able to mingle freely with colleagues from the United States, France, England and Germany. Discovering that his intellectual brethren in the West “were not monsters,” he listened as they described the opportunities and comforts of life beyond the Iron Curtain. “He said he wouldn’t stay, now that he had seen what life could be about,” says Genia.
The couple knew, of course, the perils of applying for an exit visa. They could easily end up refuseniks, unable to find work, shunned, in perpetual limbo. Nobody had promised Michael a position abroad but he was confident he could find work in the West that was intellectually stimulating and would support the family. Genia, however, was unconvinced. They had lived in Moscow their entire lives. They had decent jobs and a young son. Was it worth it to try to leave? “I didn’t want to go,” she says. “It took a while for me and his mother to agree. I had a lot more attachments.” It was up to Michael to do the convincing. “I was the only one in the family who decided it was really important to leave—not in some distant future,” he says.
The Brins’ story provides me with a clue to the origins of Sergey’s entrepreneurial instincts. His parents, academics through and through, deny any role in forming their son’s considerable business acumen—“He did not learn it from us, absolutely not our area,” Michael says. Yet Sergey’s willingness to take risks, his sense of whom to trust and ask for help, his vision to see something better and the conviction to go after it—these traits are evident in much of what Michael Brin did in circumventing the system and working twice as hard as others to earn his doctorate, then leave the Soviet Union.
For Genia, the decision ultimately came down to Sergey. While her husband admits he was thinking as much about his own future as his son’s, for her, “it was 80/20 about Sergey.” They formally applied for an exit visa in September 1978. Michael was promptly fired. Genia, who had obtained her job through a relative, had to quit to insulate him from any recrimination. “When he got a whiff of our intentions,” she says, “he said ‘please get out of there as soon as possible.’ It had to be a secret from everybody at work, my real reason for leaving. So I lied to all of my coworkers that I was simply leaving my job because I got another job, where I would only have to be at work three days a week and the salary would be higher. I made up—totally made up—the name of a place where I was planning to work.” There was no other job, of course, and suddenly they found themselves with no income. To get by, Michael translated technical books into English, but it was painstaking work. He also began to teach himself computer programming, having no expectation of getting an academic position if they ever got out. When Genia found temporary work, again lying about her situation, they shared responsibility for looking after Sergey, who stayed at home rather than attend a miserable Soviet pre-school.
And then they waited.
For many Soviet Jews, exit visas never came. But, in May 1979, the Brins were granted papers to leave the U.S.S.R. “We hoped it would happen,” Genia says, “but we were completely surprised by how quickly it did.” The timing was fortuitous: They were among the last Jews allowed to leave until the Gorbachev era.
Sergey, who turned six that summer, remembers what followed as simply “unsettling”—literally so. “We were in different places from day to day,” he says. The journey was a blur. First Vienna, where the family was met by representatives of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helped thousands of Eastern European Jews establish new lives in the free world. Then, on to the suburbs of Paris, where Michael’s “unofficial” Jewish Ph.D. advisor, Anatole Katok, had arranged a temporary research position for him at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques. Katok, who had emigrated the year before with his family, looked after the Brins and paved the way for Michael to teach at Maryland.
When the family finally landed in America on October 25, they were met at New York’s Kennedy Airport by friends from Moscow. Sergey’s first memory of the United States was of sitting in the backseat of the car, amazed at all the giant automobiles on the highway as their hosts drove them home to Long Island.
The Brins found a house to rent in Maryland—a simple, cinder-block structure in a lower-middle-class neighborhood not far from the university campus. With a $2,000 loan from the Jewish community, they bought a 1973 Ford Maverick. And, at Katok’s suggestion, they enrolled Sergey in Paint Branch Montessori School in Adelphi, Maryland.
He struggled to adjust. Bright-eyed and bashful, with only a rudimentary knowledge of English, Sergey spoke with a heavy accent when he started school. “It was a difficult year for him, the first year,” recalls Genia. “We were constantly discussing the fact we had been told that children are like sponges, that they immediately grasp the language and have no problem, and that wasn’t the case.”
Patty Barshay, the school’s director, became a friend and mentor to Sergey and his parents. She invited them to a party at her house that first December (“a bunch of Jewish people with nothing to do on Christmas Day”) and wound up teaching Genia how to drive. Everywhere they turned, there was so much to take in. “I remember them inviting me over for dinner one day,” Barshay says, “and I asked Genia, ‘What kind of meat is this?’ She had no idea. They had never seen so much meat” as American supermarkets offer.
When I ask about her former pupil, Barshay lights up, obviously proud of Sergey’s achievements. “Sergey wasn’t a particularly outgoing child,” she says, “but he always had the self-confidence to pursue what he had his mind set on.”
He gravitated toward puzzles, maps and math games that taught multiplication. “I really enjoyed the Montessori method,” he tells me. “I could grow at my own pace.” He adds that the Montessori environment—which gives students the freedom to choose activities that suit their interests—helped foster his creativity.
“He was interested in everything,” Barshay says, but adds, “I never thought he was any brighter than anyone else.”
One thing the Brins shared with thousands of other families emigrating to the West from the Soviet Union was the discovery that, suddenly, they were free to be Jews.
“Russian Jews lacked the vocabulary to even articulate what they were feeling,” says Lenny Gusel, the founder of a San Francisco-based network of Russian-Jewish immigrants; many newcomers he encounters struggle with this fundamental change. “They were considered Jews back home. Here they were considered Russians. Many longed just to assimilate as Americans.” Gusel’s group, which he calls the “79ers,” after the peak year of immigration in the 1970s, and its New York cousin, RJeneration, have attracted hundreds of 20- and 30-something immigrants who grapple with their Jewish identity. “Sergey is the absolute emblem of our group, the number one Russian-Jewish immigrant success story,” he says.
The Brins were no different from their fellow immigrants in that being Jewish was an ethnic, not a religious experience. “We felt our Jewishness in different ways, not by keeping kosher or going to synagogue. It is genetic,” explains Michael. “We were not very religious. My wife doesn’t eat on Yom Kippur; I do.” Genia interjects: “We always have a Passover dinner. We have a seder. I have the recipe for gefilte fish from my grandmother.”
Religious or not, on arriving in the suburbs of Washington, the Brins were adopted by a synagogue, Mishkan Torah of Greenbelt, Maryland, which helped them acquire furnishings for their home. “We didn’t need that much, but we saw how much the community helped other families,” Genia says.
Sergey attended Hebrew school at Mishkan Torah for the better part of three years but hated the language instruction and everything else, too. “He was teased there by other kids and he begged us not to send him any more,” his mother remembers. “Eventually, it worked.” The Conservative congregation turned out to be too religious for the Brins and they drifted. When a three-week trip to Israel awakened 11-year-old Sergey’s interest in all things Jewish, the family inquired at another synagogue about restarting studies to prepare for a bar mitzvah. But the rabbi said it would take more than a year to catch up and Sergey, who didn’t want to wait past his 13th birthday, abandoned the pursuit.
If there was one Jewish value the Brin family upheld without reservation, Michael says, it was scholarship. Sergey’s brother—who in his younger years was more fond of basketball than homework—even got the notion that advanced degrees were mandatory for all professions. “Sam once asked us, ‘Is it true that before you play in the N.B.A. you have to get a Ph.D.?’” recalls his dad. To which the professor couldn’t resist replying, “Yes, Sam, that’s it!”
Sergey attended Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a large public school in Greenbelt. He raced through in three years, amassing a year’s worth of college credits that would enable him to finish college in three years as well. At the University of Maryland, he majored in mathematics and computer science and graduated near the top of his class. When he won a prestigious National Science Foundation scholarship for graduate school, he insisted on Stanford. (M.I.T. had rejected him.) Aside from the physical beauty of Stanford’s campus, Sergey knew the school’s reputation for supporting high-tech entrepreneurs. At the time, though, his focus was squarely on getting his doctorate.
Personable, with an easy smile, Sergey brims with a healthy self-assuredness that at times spills over into arrogance. At Stanford, he was known for his habit of bursting in on professors without knocking. One of his advisers, Rajeev Motwani, recalls, “He was the brash young man. But he was so smart, it just oozed out of him.” His abiding interest was computer science, specifically the field of “data mining,” or how to extract meaningful patterns from mountains of information. But he also took time out to enjoy Stanford social life and all manner of sports: skiing, rollerblading, gymnastics, even trapeze. His father once remarked, “I asked him if he was taking any advanced courses, and he said, ‘yes, advanced swimming.’”
What came next is Google legend. In the spring of 1995, during a prospective student weekend, Sergey met an opinionated computer science student from the University of Michigan named Larry Page. They talked and argued over the course of two days, each finding the other cocky and obnoxious. They also formed an instant connection, relishing the intellectual combat.
Like Sergey, Larry is the son of high-powered intellects steeped in computer science. His father, Carl Victor Page, a computer science professor at Michigan State University until his death in 1996, received one of the first Ph.D.s awarded in the field. His mother, Gloria, holds a master’s degree in computer science and has taught college programming classes. The two young graduate students also shared a Jewish background. Larry’s maternal grandfather made aliyah and lived in the desert town of Arad near the Dead Sea, working as a tool and die maker, and his mother was raised Jewish. Larry, however, brought up in the mold of his father, whose religion was technology, does not readily identify as a Jew. He, too, never had a bar mitzvah.
Larry and Sergey soon began working on ways to harness information on the World Wide Web, spending so much time together that they took on a joint identity, “LarryandSergey.” By 1996, Larry had hit on the idea of using the links between web pages to rank their relative importance. Borrowing from academia the concept of citations in research papers as a measure of topicality and value, he and Brin applied that thinking to the Web: if one page linked to another, it was in effect “citing” or casting a vote for that page. The more votes a page had, the more valuable it was. The concept seems rather obvious in retrospect, and today most search engines operate on this principle. But, at the time, it was groundbreaking. Calling their new invention Google—a misspelling of a very large number in mathematics—Larry and Sergey shopped it around to various companies for the price of $1 million.
No one was interested. In the technology boom of the late 1990s, conventional thinking was that so-called web portals like Yahoo! and AOL, which offered email, news, weather and more, would make the most money. No one cared about search. But Sergey and Larry knew they were on to something, so they decided to take leaves of absence from Stanford and build a company themselves. Sergey’s parents were skeptical. “We were definitely upset,” Genia says. “We thought everybody in their right mind ought to get a Ph.D.”
Soliciting funds from faculty members, family and friends, Sergey and Larry scraped together enough to buy some servers and rent that famous garage in Menlo Park. Their venture quickly bore fruit: After viewing a quick demo, Sun Microsystems cofounder Andy Bechtolsheim (himself a Jewish immigrant from Germany) wrote a $100,000 check to “Google, Inc.” The only problem was, “Google, Inc.” did not yet exist—the company hadn’t yet been incorporated. For two weeks, as they handled the paperwork, the young men had nowhere to deposit the money.
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment when Google became a true American phenomenon. Traditional measures, such as gracing the cover of Time magazine or being profiled on 60 Minutes, seem irrelevant when it comes to the fast-moving world of the Internet. But there’s no doubt about the date that Wall Street began to take the quirky California company seriously. It was April 29, 2004, when Google formally filed paperwork for its initial public offering of stock.
Two things shocked the investment world that day. First were the company’s staggeringly large revenue and profit figures, which until then had been closely guarded secrets. No one had dreamed that the subtle text advertisements Google placed alongside search results—which many web users don’t even recognize as ads—could be so profitable. Second was the ruthlessly earnest “founders’ letter” that Sergey and Larry had included with the filing, which began by stating that Google was “not a conventional company” and did not intend to become one. They followed up that show of bravado by granting an interview to Playboy for publication during a mandatory “quiet period” before the public offering, when securities regulations restrict company executives’ public comments. The misdeed prompted many to wonder whether the Google founders were careless and immature or just incorrigible troublemakers. It didn’t help that they had decided to make it tough for Wall Street insiders to dominate the stock offering by selling shares via public auction—their way of making the process more democratic and transparent.
On August 16, 2004, its first day of trading, Google stock shot from $85 to $100 per share. Last November, it crossed the $500 mark, a number seldom seen in stock market history and far above the share prices of rivals Microsoft and Yahoo! At that price, Sergey and Larry, who together hold a controlling interest the company, each boast an estimated net worth of $15 billion.
What does that sort of money do to a 33-year-old? If you’re Sergey, you buy a new house on the peninsula south of San Francisco, trade in your hybrid Toyota Prius for a fancier ride, and continue shopping at Costco. “From my parents, I certainly learned to be frugal and to be happy without very many things,” Sergey tells me. “It’s interesting—I still find myself not wanting to leave anything on the plate uneaten. I still look at prices. I try to force myself to do this less, not to be so frugal. But I was raised being happy with not so much.” His parents say Sergey taught them to shop at Costco, too. “He bought us a membership,” Michael says. “It’s a store that he knows and understands.”
Sergey also understands something about cooking, a skill he picked up on his own. “A month before leaving [for Stanford], he realized he didn’t know how to cook, so he learned,” his mother tells me. Now, he owns a pasta machine and often joins his father in the kitchen when he comes home to visit. His specialty is Chernobyl Chili—“45 minutes in the microwave.”
The trappings of extreme wealth haven’t passed Sergey by entirely. In 2005, he and Larry jointly purchased a Boeing 767 jet and had it refitted for personal use. Interior sketches of the “party airplane”—which has two staterooms, sitting and dining areas, a large galley and seating for 50—surfaced in The Wall Street Journal last July. At one point, according to the plane’s designer, the Google founders got into a spat over Sergey’s insistence on a “California” king-sized bed in his private cabin. CEO Schmidt had to mediate, telling them, “Sergey, you can have whatever bed you want in your room; Larry, you can have whatever bed you want in your bedroom. Let’s move on.”
While everyone I’ve talked to who knows them well repeats the same line—“They’re good guys”—gossip web sites occasionally print rumors of Larry and Sergey’s soirees in posh private clubs and other typical jet-setter antics. They are without a doubt two of the most eligible bachelors on Google Earth, but both are reported to be in serious relationships: Larry with Stanford graduate student Lucy Southworth, and Sergey with Anne Wojcicki, a healthcare investor and the sister of Google executive Susan Wojcicki, who owned the garage where Google got started. In a 2001 interview for the now-defunct web site Women.com, Genia said she hoped Sergey would find “somebody exciting who could be really interesting to him….[who] had a sense of humor that could match his.” As one might expect, she also prefers that Sergey marry a Jewish girl. “I hope that he would keep it in mind,” she confided.
The Ten Commandments it’s not, but Google does operate with a moral code of sorts: “Don’t Be Evil.” The maxim is supposed to guide behavior at all levels of the company. When pressed for clarification, Eric Schmidt has famously said, “Evil is whatever Sergey says is evil.”
One malevolent practice, in Google’s view, is tampering with or otherwise censoring the list of results produced by a Google search. An early test of the Google founders’ commitment to providing unfiltered information struck very close to home. The anti-Semitic web site “Jew Watch” appeared prominently in Google results for searches on the term “Jew,” prompting some Jewish groups to demand that Google remove the defamatory site from the top of its listings. Google refused. Sergey said at the time, “I certainly am very offended by the site, but the objectivity of our rankings is one of our very important principles.” As a compromise, Google displays a warning at the top of questionable pages entitled “Offensive Search Results,” which links to a fuller explanation of Google’s policy: “Our search results are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google.”
The most telling measure of Google’s moral code has come in China, the world’s second largest Internet market, where an army of Communist Party bureaucrats actively monitors and censors the Internet. During months of intense debate at the Googleplex, Sergey, Larry and other executives weighed the vast profit potential of launching a China-based service against their opposition to the country’s odious human rights abuses. Ever the computer geeks, Schmidt said they actually worked up an “evil scale.” To their minds, operating a censored Google site in China was a lesser evil than providing spotty, substandard service from outside the country. The outcome also happened to favor the profit motive. Viewed against the backdrop of Sergey’s distaste for authority, the decision to cave in to China’s totalitarian leadership seems out of character.
Sergey’s public comments on the matter have evolved to reflect this contradiction. While firmly defending the decision at first, he later acknowledged that Google had “compromised” its principles. “Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense,” he allowed in June, but added, “It’s not where we chose to go right now.”
How Google deals with such thorny matters as accommodating government requests for information is not merely of passing interest. As the world’s dominant search engine, used some 300 million times daily, it marshals an immense amount of data about our collective interests, needs and desires. And that’s not all. Because every search typed into Google is stored indefinitely and can often be traced to individual computer users, privacy advocates point out that clever government prosecutors or divorce lawyers could get their hands on our personal digital dossiers. Google’s motto may be “Don’t Be Evil,” but it all depends into whose hands this information falls.
Does any company founded by two Jews, no matter how assimilated, necessarily retain some defining Jewish characteristics? The Google masterminds’ penchant for pushing boundaries—without asking permission—might as well be called chutzpah. However you label it, it’s an attitude that runs deeply through Google and may help explain why the company is embroiled in lawsuits over many of its new projects: the aggressive scanning of library books it doesn’t own; display of copyrighted material; and copyright issues connected to its acquisition of YouTube, the online video site whose popularity rests in part on the availability of pirated television and movie clips.
Google’s first employee and a number of other early hires were Jewish and, when the initial winter holiday season rolled around, a menorah rather than a Christmas tree graced the lobby. (The next year, there was a tree wrapped in Hanukkah lights.) Google’s former chef, Charlie Ayers, cooked up latkes, brisket, tzimmes and matzah ball soup for Hanukkah meals and turned the Passover seder into a Google tradition. To some, Google’s emphasis on academic achievement—hiring only the best and the brightest and employing hundreds of Ph.D.s—could be considered Jewish. So, perhaps, could “Don’t Be Evil.” With its hint of tikkun olam, the Kabbalistic concept of “repairing the world” is evident in the company’s commitment to aggressive philanthropy. Sergey and Larry have pledged $1 billion of Google’s profits to the company’s philanthropic arm, known as Google.org, which will funnel money both to nonprofit charities and companies that deal with global poverty, environmental issues and renewable energy.
Personal philanthropy is one area where Sergey intends to proceed cautiously. “I take the philosophical view that, aside from some modest stuff now, I am waiting to do the bulk of my philanthropy later, maybe in a few years, when I feel I’m more educated,” he says. “I don’t think it’s something I have had time to become an expert at.” Nevertheless, he and his parents do support a few charities. “There are people who helped me and my family out. I do feel responsible to those organizations,” he says. One of them is HIAS, the immigrant aid group that helped the Brins come to the United States. Genia serves on its board and heads its project to create a digital record of Jewish immigrant archives.
Sergey’s own Jewish sensibility is grounded in his family’s experience. “I do somewhat feel like a minority,” he says. “Being Jewish, especially in Russia, is one aspect of that. Then, being an immigrant in the U.S. And then, since I was significantly ahead in math in school, being the youngest one in a class. I never felt like a part of the majority. So I think that is part of the Jewish heritage in a way.” Today, of course, being a young billionaire, he’s again in a class by himself. “I don’t feel comfortable being one of the crowd,” he reflects. “It’s kind of interesting—I really liked the schools that I went to, but I never rooted for the sports teams. I was never one of the crowd supporting something or not. I like to maintain my independence.”
I’m curious as to whether Sergey has been a target of anti-Semitism since he left the Soviet Union. “I’ve experienced it,” he tells me. “Usually it is fairly subtle. People harp on all media companies being run by Jewish executives, with the implication of a conspiracy.” As an example, he cites the entry about him in Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that famously accepts submissions and edits from anyone. “The Wikipedia page about me will be subtly edited in an anti-Semitic way,” he says.
He doesn’t elaborate, so I later take a look myself. Wikipedia retains the old versions of each of its pages and in that archive I find a number of occasions where people have added, moved or deleted references to Sergey’s Jewishness. Most seem harmless or ambiguous, but one jumps out. Several months ago, someone anonymously deleted a long-standing reference to the reason his parents had left Russia: “anti-Semitism.”
“I think I’m fortunate that it doesn’t really affect me personally,” Sergey says of anti-Semitism. “But there are hints of it all around. That’s why I think it is worth noting.”
Several years ago, Sergey and Larry visited a high school for gifted math students near Tel Aviv. When they came onto the stage of the darkened auditorium, the audience roared, as if they were rock stars. Every student there, many of them immigrants like Sergey from the former Soviet Union, knew of Google.
Larry took the podium first, urging the students to maintain a “healthy disregard for the impossible,” a favorite Google phrase. When it was Sergey’s turn to speak, he began, to the crowd’s delight, with a few words in Russian, which he still speaks at home with his parents.
“I have standard Russian-Jewish parents,” he then continued in English. “My dad is a math professor. They have a certain attitude about studies. And I think I can relate that here, because I was told that your school recently got seven out of the top 10 places in a math competition throughout all Israel.”
The students applauded their achievement and the recognition from Sergey, unaware that he was setting up a joke. “What I have to say,” he continued, “is in the words of my father: ‘What about the other three?’”
The students laughed. They knew where he was coming from. That Sergey has parlayed his talents and skills into unimaginable business success doesn’t mean those “standard Russian-Jewish parents” are ready to let him off the academic hook. Genia still believes that “everybody in their right mind” ought to have a doctorate, and she and Michael are not joking when they tell me that they would like to see Sergey return to Stanford and finish what he started.
Mark Malseed is the coauthor (with David Vise) of The Google Story, a national bestseller now out in paperback and being translated in two dozen languages worldwide, including Hebrew and Russian. He writes on politics, technology and travel, and was the researcher for journalist Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Bush at War.