Meeting Steve Jobs…

Tuesday, 18 October 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

After a tiring 24 hour flight the day before, I woke up at the Plaza in New York around 8 a.m., knowing that making it to the 8:30 inauguration of the Global CEO Forum was going to be a challenge.

Anyway, in my seat by 8:40, I was quite embarrassed as there were only 75-100 people in the room with CEO for Macy’s at the helm sharing his insights on how Madonna had injected new blood to the store with the ‘Material Girl’ collection even though she was way above the age of being a girl.

I guess that’s the beauty of the spirit of America and why it is yet considered a great nation to the world. It was followed up with a performance by Madonna herself with her 14-year-old daughter that sure gave the punch that was required to me.

At the breakout, I was eager to chat up with Mark Zuckerberg of FB as this brand is very dear to me and I was also going to be at Harvard later on in the very corridors that FB was created.

The Man

Picking the circle that Mark Z was in, I got myself introduced by my colleague in the UN in New York. The others in the circle were Dick Costolo of Twitter, eBay CEO John Donahoe, Tommy Hilfiger and another gent who looked frail but very charismatic. He was wearing a black tunic neck top and denim jeans and did not have as much as traffic as the others so I thought of moving to him, keep the networking alive.

His name was Steve Jobs. I had heard of him but given that I am not an IT guy, the name did not ring a strong bell and we started talking. He knew about Sri Lanka due to the tsunami and the discussion centred round this.

He had a charismatic persona especially in the way he quietly asked his questions but as always, great minds ask sharp questions and he shot at me: “What was the biggest issue that the tsunami brought about for your country?” I honestly was not ready to answer.

However, his brilliance was such that he kept speaking giving me time to think and I replied “the money that poured into the country resulted in high wages of the construction industry workers that today we are paying the price, especially in the post war infrastructure boom”.

He nodded and said it was the same in the valley (he must have been referring to the Silicone Valley) in the dotcom era and now the US uses the resources in places like India. The sessions began and we had to move on then.

Today when I look at the media, be it YouTube, Facebook or the newspapers, what I see is the genius of this man and it forced me understand the works of this legend that we never actually recognised until he died. I suppose the slogan that says ‘until you die you do not belong to the world’ holds ground. Let me share six key thoughts I picked up.

1) Money

It is very clear that Steve Jobs’ focus was not money. Though he was the CEO of the most valuable brands in the world from 1997 his salary has been $ 1. Though he is ranked the 110th richest person in the world with a fortune of $ 8.5 billion, if he had not sold his Apple stock in 1985, he would have been the fifth richest individual in the world.

His passion was to innovate to the world what is required for tomorrow. In effect he was a servant to the world and the world paid tribute to him when he died.

2) Better

His ethos of life was to surround yourself with people better than yourself. So he recruited the best in the industry for Apple in the likes of John Ive, Peter Oppenheimer and Tim Cook to name a few, knowing that he was going to fade away soon.

He supported the team by launching the iPhone 4S the day before he died so that with the record breaking sales that happened, it gave confidence to the investors, which once again demonstrated his visionary thinking.

3) Select life

Steve Job, the man he is, spent the last week of his life just like he did in years back. Jobs had invited his close friends like Dean Ornish for his favourite sushi meal and also spent time with his Board Member of Apple Bill Campbell, Disney CEO Robin Iger. Then he took time off to talk to the key decision makers about the launch of the iPhone 4S.

Very politely declined any outside engagements, he spent the rest of his time with his family and kids, which ones again tells us the real purpose of life that manifests only in the time of trials.

4) Easy/simple

A key take on his great works to me was how he understood the youngster of tomorrow and how he made their life easy. Be is the original Mac or the iPod, iTunes of iPad. He beautifully married the science with the art of life that left a Steve Jobs signature on every consumer he touched. I guess this is the mark of a true genius.

5) Love

Though Steve Jobs was fired in 1985 from Apple, his love for the company continued even though he thought of leaving the Silicone Valley due to the public spat.

When he decided to return in 1997 as interim CEO, the company was virtually bankrupt. But with some smart moves internally he grounded the company and launched innovative products of the future that once again made Apple one of the most valuable brands in 2011, which indicates the power that gets unleashed if one is passionate in one’s job.

6) Own terms

What was amazing about this man to me is that he lived life on his own terms. He lived in a brick house in a residential neighbourhood and not in a mansion away from reality. The only reason he asked Isaacson to write a biography was to enable his kids to know what he did and why he did it and not for the world.


I suppose it’s strange but the world appreciates the greatness of people only once they have left the world. The truth is that when one is alive, you belong to a family, organisation and a country, but it is only after you die that you belong to the world.

(Rohantha is the Head of National Portfolio Development – Sri Lanka and Maldives in the United Nations – UNOPS based in Sri Lanka. He also serves the Government of Sri Lanka on policy for industry and commerce. The thoughts expressed are his personal observations and not the views of any organisation he serves.)

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