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10 Influential Business Leaders of the Digital Era

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 10/13/2011

A common thread running through the lives of these digital business leaders is that most dropped out of school to chase their dreams. Did school bore them or did they fear their creative spark would be extinguished by academia? Learn more about the inner drives of these entrepreneurial super stars.

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    In Memory of...Steve Jobs

    In Memory of...Steve Jobs 

    I don't know about you, but from now on whenever I listen to some of my favorite songs on my iPod or I download another terrific 99 cent (or free!) value from iTunes, I plan to say a mental thank-you to Steve Jobs. I'm hoping to find an iPad or Mac laptop under the Christmas tree this year – just another reason to be grateful to this genius who transformed the world of computing and computers for the betterment of all.

    Steve Jobs was co-founder of Apple Computer, and the Jobs' name will always be synonymous for most with simple-to-understand, user-friendly technology and products such as:

    • Apple I
    • Apple II
    • iMac
    • iPod
    • iPad
    • iTunes, the Apple Apps store, and Apple TV

    Jobs' legacy to entrepreneurs everywhere is the example of his innate curiosity, his out-of-the box vision, and his dedication to quality and customer satisfaction. We can't say it any better than the man did himself: "We just wanted to build the best thing we could build."

    Note: October 6, 2011: In a move unheard of in the history of Google, there was a link to and a single line tribute to Steve Jobs appearing on the Google homepage as a sign of respect to the memory of Steve Jobs.

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    Google CEO and Co-Founder Larry Page

    Google CEO and Co-Founder Larry Page 

    Larry Page and Sergey Brin are the co-founders of Google, the Internet search giant. Turning to Google for information is as accepted and commonplace as the terms "Googling" or "Googled."

    When you think of Google, the more familiar products—Gmail, Google Chrome, Adsense and Adwords, and YouTube—may be your first thought. However, the entire line of products and services runs the gamut from web-related to mobile-related to media-related to social...well, you get the picture.

    The two friends' first search engine—BackRub—was launched in 1996 and by 1998 had evolved into what we all know and love as Google. Page's main contributions to the digital world and entrepreneurs everywhere? Laser-like focus and dedication to customer satisfaction with the product, becoming a master of one trade versus a jack-of-all-trades, and high ethics, morals, and integrity.

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    Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin

    Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin 

    Sergey Brin, along with friend and co-founder Larry Page (Google) was recognized in 2002 by MIT Technology Review as one of the top 100 world innovators under 35 years old. Brin, a computer scientist, developed the data mining system that the two friends used to build what would become known as Google.

    The characteristic that has probably contributed the most to his success is his ability to take a vision from concept to reality regardless of the bumps along the way. His belief in Google's potential was so strong that he abandoned his doctorial studies to pursue his dream. His analytic mind and aptitude for organizing information and solving computer problems are also key elements of his success.

    In his own words, spoken as a guest lecturer at a UC Berkeley class, "We came up with the notion that not all web pages were created equal. People are – but not web pages."

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    Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg

    Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg 

    Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of the wildly successful social networking site Facebook, was deemed a child prodigy by his computer tutor David Newman. While still in his early tweens, Zuckerman was performing astounding feats of programming such as designing a messaging program (Zuckernet) and developing computer games.

    This single-minded focus on and obsession with all things computing was the foundation for his phenomenal accomplishments in projects undertaken while he attended Harvard – such as CourseMatch, Facemash, Harvard Connection, and The Facebook. Drive and vision are qualities all entrepreneurs, not just digital entrepreneurs, should emulate.

    Like his fellow digital entrepreneurs Page and Brin, Zuckerberg dropped out of school to pursue his dream. The lesson to be learned is how commitment to a goal—burning your bridges, in effect—and doing one thing extremely well can lead to achievement and reward.

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    Evan Williams, Digital Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

    Evan Williams, Digital Entrepreneur Extraordinaire 

    Listing all of Evan Williams' achievements would probably take a book or two as he has made his mark on the digital world by co-founding several of the top 10 Internet companies: Blogger, Pyra Labs and Twitter. In addition to co-founding Twitter, he was the CEO from 2008 to 2010. Williams is reputed to have coined both the term "blogger" and "blog." Interestingly, Pyra Labs was acquired in 2003 by Google.

    What makes Willams such a strong entrepreneurial force in the digital world? According to Technology Review, who named him in 2003 on their annual list of innovators under 35: "Evan Williams is a survivor." The same commitment to a vision that we have seen exhibited in our other digital leaders enabled him to push past financial troubles to success.

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    Jeff Bezos: The Amazon Wizard

    Jeff Bezos: The Amazon Wizard 

    Jeff Bezos is the mastermind and founder of the giant online website Amazon and the creator of the Kindle, which revolutionized the way we read, store and purchase our reading content. Like entrepreneurs Page and Brin, he started Amazon in a garage but quickly took it to heights of digital success.

    Bezos' secret to success lies in his overly focused attention to detail (some would label it micromanagement) married to a creative, forward-thinking visionary spirit. Kindle and Kindle Fire are two recent examples of that entrepreneurial vision. He credits his love of reading and computer science, and his early introduction and access to the computer, as key building blocks for providing him with the tools he would need to build Amazon.

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    Pierre Omidyar: Founder & Chairman of eBay

    Pierre Omidyar: Founder & Chairman of eBay 

    In addition to being the person who wrote the original computer code and founded eBay, Pierre Omidyar is a well-known philanthropist and angel investor. His investments through the Omidyar Network benefit innovative entrepreneurs, and both for-profit and non-profit organizations, with funds to promote social, economic and political changes.

    Originally named Auction Web, Omidyar dubbed his creation eBay because his first choice for a name was already taken. He graduated from Tufts University with a major in computer science and was less than 30 years old when he created the code for his mega online auction venue.

    The trait that sets him apart and contributes to his success is his discovery-driven thinking and innovative drive to tinker and experiment – wondering why something can't be done instead of being stopped by real or perceived obstacles. In his own words: "What I wanted to do was create an efficient market, where regular people could compete with big was a little bit of an experiment."

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    Niklas Zennstrom: Co-Founder and CEO of Skype

    Niklas Zennstrom: Co-Founder and CEO of Skype 

    If you're not familiar with Skype, you might want to learn more about it soon. Skype is an Internet phone service that allows people to talk—for free—anywhere in the world. Niklas Zennstrom explains it thus: "...our vision was to create a business that could fundamentally transform the telecommunications industry and have a big impact, by letting the whole world talk for free. The innovative technology for Skype is built on a peer-to-peer model that Zennstrom has used in other successful ventures such as Kazaa.

    In addition to being a visionary, Zennstrom is a risk taker who is also wise enough to analyze his failures and learn from them. Like our other business leaders, he pushed his way to success by his single-minded belief in his dream.

    In an interesting bit of trivia, Pierre Omidyar (profiled above) and eBay bought Skype in 2005.

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    Peter Thiel, Co-Founder of PayPal

    Peter Thiel, Co-Founder of PayPal 

    What makes Peter Thiel, co-founder of the revolutionary digital payment system PayPal, unique? Most of those who know him well agree it is a combination of his own inherent innovative abilities combined with his ability to discern and encourage that same ability in others.

    In addition to being an inventor and innovator, he is also an angel investor. His current project may spur some of tomorrow's inventors to follow in the footsteps of other famous business leaders and ditch school to follow dreams. Thiel is backing a group of 20 enterprising innovators (all under 24) with a grant of $100,00 for two years. Their task? Instead of pursuing an elusive college degree, they'll be "building the technology companies of tomorrow." We're eagerly awaiting the news of their discoveries.

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    Blake Ross: "Mr. Firefox" & Mozilla

    Blake Ross:  

    Most adults would be amazed if their 10-year old sat down at the computer and designed a website, but Blake Ross's father not only took it in stride but was also instrumental in encouraging Ross's love for computing. However, according to reports, Ross has always preferred tinkering and experimenting with code and creating programs more than he does just playing computer games.

    Ross is the co-founder of the Internet web browser Mozilla Firefox, which was launched when he was just 19. Firefox is hugely popular browser with Internet users because it is easy enough for novices with little to no expertise, but robust enough with functions to suit the most discriminating tastes. His inquisitiveness and curiosity are the key elements of his success as a software developer.


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  • "Sergey Brin Speaks With UC Berkeley Class,"
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