Bertram Aaron, of Williamsburg, suggested Prof. Dr. Andrew Viterbi would be an interesting subject for an interview. I took him up on that idea.
Viterbi is best known for inventing the Viterbi Algorithm, which was key in the development of cellphones and satellite receivers. He co-founded Qualcomm Inc., with Irwin Jacobs, another friend of Aaron’s. Fortune Magazine listed both Viterbi and Jacobs as among America’s 400 richest individuals.
They are also listed as very generous philanthropists. In 2004, Viterbi, donated $52 million to the University of Southern California. Jacobs started by donating $31 million to the school where we obtained his post-graduate degrees, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, he has donated $125 million to the University of California at San Diego and contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the fields of education, arts and culture. His most recent donation was $133 million to the joint Cornell/Technion (Israel) Technology campus development on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
Aaron recalled that he recommended the College of William and Mary‘s Mason School of Business invite Irwin Jacobs to give a talk to the school’s graduate students. Aaron knew that Jacobs would tell the students about how he and Viterbi, having engineering and academic backgrounds, succeeded as entrepreneurs. He also knew Jacobs would share their shared philosophy of life.
I asked Viterbi what he sees as the ingredients that made it possible for him to succeed so spectacularly in America.
“I am an immigrant to this country,” Viterbi said in a recent interview with the Gazette. “I came here as a 4-year-old refugee from Mussolini’s Italy to escape the Racial Laws. My parents had the foresight to bring me here. Only in America could I have attained the positions, renown and financial success. All this came by way of an excellent education provided free of charge by the City of Boston, generous scholarships, diligent study and work and an excess of good luck.”
Viterbi explained that government funding for part of his education and most of his research, at the dawn of both the Space Age and the Silicon Revolution, were essential to bringing about his success.
“While I made the most of the opportunity and started living the ‘American Dream’ at an early age, sadly my parents arriving at advanced age could not regain the comfortable and respected life they enjoyed in their native land.”
Reflecting on the current outbreak of nativism, which he called “a disease that has afflicted our nation periodically over centuries,” Viterbi said, “After WWII we have enjoyed a more open policy toward immigrants and refugees from virtually the whole world. A large number of highly-skilled entrants from East and South Asia have contributed mightily to making America great in science, technology and the arts.”
He considers the current policy on immigration “a self inflicted wound and a shame.”
“Our country has prospered not only by brainpower,” he said. “Progress depends on sweat power as well and often it has depended on the struggling masses who seek a better life for themselves and their children.”
I asked Viterbi what consideration made him and his partner in business, Irwin Jacobs, such generous philanthropists.
“In a nutshell, giving back. This country and my fellow citizens have supported me and given me the means to succeed. I want to support them by contributing to their education, health and culture in that order. The last chapter of my memoir, titled ‘Reflections of an Academic, Researcher and Entrepreneur,’ deals with my views and initiatives.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.