Forbes Udacity CEO And Former Google X Head Reflects On What Makes America Special

December 09, 2013
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by Peter High, published on


The U.S. is blessed with perhaps the best immigrant talent in the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the technology sector. From Sergey Brin to Elon Musk to Andy Grove, the number of high powered organizations that have been started and/or led by someone born outside of the country is too numerous to count. An inordinate number of patents are filed by immigrants in U.S. Like a convert to a religion, many times the most ardent supporters of a country are those who have chosen to immigrate to said country. Why do they come? During the course of a recent conversation that I had with uber-entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun (CEO of Udacity, and former leader of Google X, I was inspired by a segment of our conversation regarding his feelings about his adopted country.

In his native Germany, Thrun completed a Vordiplom (bachelor’s degree) in computer science, economics, and medicine, from the University of Hildesheim in 1988. At the University of Bonn, he completed a Diplom (master’s degree) in 1993 and a PhD in 1995 in computer science and statistics. He pursued academic positions in the United States after graduation, and accepted a role as research computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1995. Three years later, he became an assistant professor and co-director of the Robot Learning Laboratory at the university. He joined the faculty of Stanford in 2003 and he was appointed the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His work would attract the attention of Google through which he founded Google X, which would propel him to lead projects that would become Google Glass, the self-driving car initiative, and Google Street View, among others.

When I asked Thrun how his improbable rise to lead so many greatly influential projects both at the academic settings as well as in industry was impacted by his having come to America, he indicated that the two were inextricably linked. He said, “I am deeply in love with Silicon Valley and with the American Dream that we can change the world. I came from Germany, which is a bit more traditional in its thinking and risk taking isn’t as prominent there as it is in Silicon Valley or in America more generally.  In Silicon Valley, I have learned by being here that you can ask any question and you can climb any mountain and if you don’t aim high enough you won’t shoot very high. This is the time to go crazy about innovation, and what better place than in Silicon Valley where I am surrounded by people that are much smarter than me and from whom I can learn a lot in how to change the world.”

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