A tough-minded investor, the 1954 Fordham graduate helped build Apple, Cisco, and other world-changing tech companies.
The key to making great investments, Don Valentine once said, is to “assume that the past is wrong, and to do something that’s not part of the past, to do something entirely differently.”
He did just that in 1960. Having studied chemistry at Fordham, he quickly grasped how silicon would transform the electronics industry. He joined the seminal startup Fairchild Semiconductor and was among the first to market and sell the silicon chip, the technological breakthrough at the heart of the digital age.
In 1972, he established the venture firm Sequoia Capital. Its first investment was in Atari, the pioneering arcade and home video game company. Valentine later met a young Atari employee named Steve Jobs, and with a $150,000 check in 1978, became one of the earliest investors in Apple Computer.
“When we invested in Apple … nobody had a personal computer,” Valentine said in a 2009 oral history interview. “The cheapest computer was $250,000. And Steve’s vision was, we’re going to make them so that everybody will have one. Pretty simple.”
Throughout his career, Valentine funded and advised entrepreneurs who went after big markets—the one for personal computers with Apple, for databases with Oracle, and for routers with Cisco Systems, the networking company Valentine led as chair for three decades.
He was known for asking startup founders, “Who cares?” in response to their pitches, urging them to hone their own ability to ask the right questions. It’s a habit of mind he attributed in part to his Jesuit education at Fordham, where he said faculty favored the Socratic technique of teaching. “My middle initial is T for Thomas, the doubting person,” he said in the 2009 oral history interview, noting that his natural “inquisitiveness and inclination not to believe what I was told or heard” had served him well.
Valentine died last October at his home in Woodside, California, at the age of 87. He had stepped aside from leading Sequoia in the mid-1990s, though he stayed involved with the firm, which has since partnered with Google, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, and YouTube, among other companies.
In recent years, he met with students and alumni of Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business at the University’s annual entrepreneurship dinner in Silicon Valley.
“Don Valentine was an incredible pioneer in so many ways,” said Gabelli School Dean Donna Rapaccioli, Ph.D., GABELLI ’83. “It was a privilege to spend time with him on several occasions—he pushed me and everyone around him to think more strategically and to tell a more compelling story.”