Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Chamath Palihapitiya, chief executive of Social Capital, a venture capital firm, who prizes an ability to learn from failure. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.
Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times
* * *
What were your early years like?
I was born in Sri Lanka. My mom was a nurse, and my dad worked in the Health Ministry as a civil servant. When I was 6 years old, my dad got a job at the Sri Lankan High Commission in Canada, so we moved there.
But after my dad lost his job, he was unemployed for a long time, and there was a lot of drinking and stuff like that. My mom worked nights, and she was a housekeeper and then became a nurse’s aide. We had this 400-square-foot two-bedroom apartment above a laundromat. They had to grind every month to make ends meet.
What were you doing outside of class?
I worked a lot. My first job was at a Burger King. I then got a job through a government program to do data entry. They told me there was so much to do that I probably wasn’t going to get it all done in the summer.
But I became obsessed with getting it all done. The same thing happened with another job in high school. The manager told me that I probably wouldn’t get it all done, but that if I did, he would take me to McDonald’s and buy me as much as I wanted.
I did all the work, we went to McDonald’s, and I ate six Big Macs. He was flabbergasted. I don’t know how I was able to eat six, quite honestly. I think I trained myself from when I worked at Burger King.
What else were you involved in during high school?
I loved gambling, and I loved card games. I would run a little blackjack game at one of the lunch tables. The kids could bet 25 cents to a dollar.
I was the house. I was making $40 or $50 each lunch hour, and it was all the money in the world. On the weekends, I would take that money and sneak into the charity casinos with my fake ID.
That showed me that I have a passion for risk, and that I really like decision-making under pressure. I still play a lot high-stakes poker.
* * *
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.