By Meredith Alexander Kunz
STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Guided by his passion for small companies and learning leadership along the way, Omid Kordestani took a chance in 1999 and joined the one-year-old startup Google—which he then helped transform into one of the world’s most successful brands.
Kordestani, today the senior vice president of global sales and business development at Google, told an audience of first-year business students to listen to the same instincts that landed him at the top of the Silicon Valley search and information giant: Don’t follow money, but pursue what inspires you. His September 21 talk was the first this academic year in the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ View from the Top student-sponsored speaker series.
Dean Robert L.Joss introduced Kordestani as a man who “personifies the American dream.” Born in Iran, Kordestani moved to San Jose at age 14 after the death of his father. Graduating with an electrical engineering degree from San Jose State University, he went to work for Hewlett Packard as an engineer. When he decided several years later to pursue a business degree, Stanford was the only school he applied to, and he earned his MBA in 1991. He worked for two startups before joining Netscape and then Google, where, as the 12th employee, he became the company’s “business founder.”
Though his Google holdings are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Kordestani made clear that he never made decisions based solely on financial rewards. “I completely believe in following your own instincts and passions. Don’t focus on money,” he said.
Early on, he was drawn towards a lucrative career in banking, but when he tried to land a job with investment bank Robertson Stephens while still a student, Kordestani was told he was “just too positive for this business.” Looking back, he said, the experience should have shown him that his skills lay in the more “positive” fields of selling and business development. Soon after, he attended a brown bag lunch with GO Corp., a software maker for PDAs run by Stanford alumni. “My heart was saying, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I couldn’t wait to connect with the alumni to see how I could get into the company. It saved me.” He worked for GO and another startup, game platform designer 3DO, before joining Netscape.
Kordestani described his job offer from Google’s founders as a moment when money could have gotten in the way of doing what he really wanted. After a Netscape colleague introduced him to former Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, he met with the engineers over a ping pong table. When they offered him a job, he weighed two potential positions—one at Google, the other at AOL.
“The Google offer was very risky. I thought: ‘Maybe we could sell the company to Yahoo.’ It was a very low salary with all this equity,” he remembered, smiling. When his wife reminded him of his passion for growing small businesses, he realized the decision he had to make and became the first business-side employee at Google in 1999. (The decision paid off financially when his Google equity later came to represent a figure much larger than any competing salary.) Kordestani helped bring the company to profitability—by 2005, Google was generating more than $6 billion in revenue.
Kordestani was inspired by business school to learn to lead. Two classes had a lasting impact. From a leadership class taught by the late John Gardner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and founder of Common Cause, Kordestani took away this single statement: “Leadership can be learned.” From organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Managing With Power class, he recalled the parting advice: “Really successful people push the envelope. ₀ If 10 years from now, you’re in a junior position deep inside an organization, I don’t want you to ask me ‘What happened to me?’” Both helped Kordestani find a path towards leadership.
Another memorable moment Kordestani described was an encounter with Microsoft’s Bill Gates who had just met with Apple’s Steve Jobs and was mesmerized by Jobs’ presentation. Gates had to pinch himself to see beyond Jobs’ inspiring vision. The notion of looking at the reality beyond a charismatic leader’s ideas had a profound influence on Gates.
When asked about how he balances his work with his personal relationships—Kordestani is married with two children—he gave this answer: “There is something about weekends that is magical. Do not miss weekends with your family.” He talked of traveling home from Japan just to spend the weekend with his wife and children, and then returning afterwards.
Kordestani advised students to try to “build a business. There’s no greater sense of accomplishment than to build something in the world.” When a student asked Kordestani how, as “a startup guy,” he reconciles himself with helping to run the huge company that Google has become, Kordestani admitted, “I really miss those days when everyone was in one room, in one building.” But he pointed out that Google tries to maintain the work environment of a smaller company by breaking large groups into teams. While he said, “Some early entrepreneurs left the company so they can work on something small,” Kordestani gave no signs that he would follow in that direction.
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