Being Esther Dyson
By Ellen Gilbert // Photography by Tom Grimes
“I’m flattered,” Esther Dyson says quietly when asked how it feels to be referred to by names like “queen of the internet,” “digital visionary,” or “innovation evangelist par excellence.” In a list of “Famous Real-life People Named ‘Esther’” her name appears next to Queen Esther and the competitive swimmer/movie star, Esther Williams. A tenacious pursuer of new causes and a swimmer who steadfastly hits the pool every day no matter where she is, citing this trio of Esthers in the same entry has a certain unintended logic.
On this snowy Saturday in New York City, Dyson is the only person at Meet-up.com’s Broadway headquarters. Moving around the broad expanse of computer banks, she cuts a slight figure in worn jeans and a well-laundered tee-shirt. Sitting down, she kicks off her comfortable flats, exposing cozy-looking red socks. For an “angel investor” who is “one of the most influential voices in technology,” she comes across as pretty earth-bound.
After over thirty years of being “one of the most powerful women in American business,” the 62-year old’s history is pretty well-known by now. The eldest child of the distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson was born to Dyson and his first wife, mathematician Verena Huber, in Zurich. Her brother, George, is also from this marriage. She grew up in Princeton with her father and his second wife, Imme, mother to four more daughters, surrounded by brainiacs at the Institute for Advanced Study, where her father is still a beloved figure. Family and colleagues recently celebrated his 90th birthday there.
Dyson has fond memories of Princeton. “I had a wonderful childhood; I was oblivious to everything going on around me.” At around the age of eight, she says, she wanted to marry Prince Charles. Other childhood memories include sharing a sled with her father who took it to work on snowy days, and fantasizing about becoming a librarian as a result of the pleasure she took in the Princeton Public Library, located then in Bainbridge House. Ever the acute observer, Dyson noted different parenting styles at the library, as some parents let their kids have free rein among the books while others strictly controlled whatever their children read. Dyson is clearly a product of the first.
However happy her childhood was, Dyson left home at 15. “I really wanted to be a teenager and we needed room for the younger kids,” she explains. She had her parents’ blessing and enrolled at Harvard. Writing for the daily newspaper, The Crimson, proved to be far more engaging than going to math and science classes. Harvard administrators were not pleased: calling her in one day, they expressed concern about how the promising student they had accepted appeared now to be a laggard with mediocre grades. Her response was to take a year off for travelling in Morocco with her boyfriend.
When she returned to Harvard the following year she switched her major to economics. Still devoted to The Crimson, Dyson’s attendance record and grades remained undistinguished. She served as an extra when the movie Love Story was filmed on campus. After it was released, she gave it a “pompous” review in the The Crimson.
Dyson describes her economics degree as a “convenience.” After graduation, the time she time spent as a college journalist was rewarded with a three-year stint as a reporter for Forbes, a job she has described as transformational, teaching her the ins and outs of the business world.
On the way to becoming “the most powerful woman in the Neterati,” Dyson worked as a tech analyst. In the mid-80s she bought Rosen Research from her boss and renamed it EDventure Holdings; it’s been her investment vehicle ever since. She is a board member of numerous companies, including 23andMe, Eventful, Meetup, NewspaperDirect, Voxiva, WPP Group, XCOR Aerospace, and Yandex, and was an early investor in such notable start-ups as Evernote, Flickr, Mashery, Medstory, Omada Health, and Square.
In 1997 Dyson wrote the best-selling, widely translated book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. In his review of the book, former Senator Bill Bradley described it as a “must reading for people who want to understand the Internet’s development and potential.” Summing up Dyson’s prescience about the internet and ability to make connections, Bradley continued by saying that she “explains–in words that both laypeople and ‘techies’ will find illuminating–how the Net is a tool to improve our workplaces, schools, and government.”
Her latest venture, HICcup (Health Intervention Coordinating Council) proposes to promulgate good health habits in large communities of people in an effort to forestall the onset or even eliminate many of the illnesses that plague us. “Individuals often lack willpower or access to healthy food or convenient exercise facilities, and are surrounded by poor examples that encourage instant gratification rather than effort and restraint,” she writes in “The HICcup Manifesto,” sounding a bit like Michael Bloomberg on the subject of oversized soft drinks.
Like many of Dyson’s other ventures, this one requires a leap of faith or two, as well as the help of others. The first thing she did for HICcup, she says, was to hire a CEO to get it off the ground. HICcup will begin by selecting five American communities of 100,000 or fewer to participate in a pilot project. “The majority in each community and its institutions must be enthusiastic,” she points out. “If most community members work for just a few employers and obtain health care from just a few providers, the effort of corralling the players will be easier. And, of course, community leaders–the mayor, city council members, and others–must work together rather than undermine one another.”
Another hurdle is money. “The trick is to capture some of what is being spent on health care already,” says Dyson. Before that happens, though, an investor, ideally in the form of a benevolent but ultimately profit-driven billionaire or hedge fund; or a philanthropy that “sees a way to do good while earning money for future goodness,” must come forward with a sizable initial down payment. If this is not enough, the investor will “need to repurpose the health-care facilities and workers to some other role, including prevention, serving outsiders, or conversion to another use entirely.” Like all of the other causes she chooses to back, Dyson is optimistic about achieving good results: healthier people and less money spent on health care. Once the ball gets rolling, she says, “we will wonder what took us so long to get started.”
MAKING THINGS HAPPEN
Dyson insists that she never set out to be an entrepreneur, humorously contending that she is a court jester, or, more seriously, a “catalyst” who helps to make things happen. She wants to be needed for her problem-solving abilities. Endorsing a new effort, which can be for-profit or non-profit, isn’t enough for her; she needs to figure how it will work or how it can be made better, with a result that is usually socially conscious, promising a positive outcome for many people.
The desire to confront things that need fixing up probably accounts for Dyson’s affinity for Russia. After learning the language at Princeton High School, Dyson travelled to the then-Soviet Union. “It was like a fish discovering air,” she says. “It was just a fascinating, screwed up place where nothing made sense.” Being in Russia also afforded her the opportunity to view the United States from afar.
Her many return trips to Russia include a particularly satisfying stint preparing to be a back-up cosmonaut. She stayed in Star City, the former Russian military facility that is home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center and spent six months there, taking courses and participating in simulations and drills.
Dyson was in Budapest over the Christmas weekend when the Ceaucescus were executed. “It was all over Hungarian TV, not just the execution, but the Romanian riots, and all this stuff,” she recalls. “The village where it all started was mostly Hungarian, and people were in anguish.” She experienced a profound sense of homesickness which she recognized it as a longing to be in Russia, not the U.S. It makes sense that one of Dyson’s favorite movies is is The Lives of Others, which depicts East Germany in the 1980s. Another is Chinatown, and recently she was making plans to see the recently released movie Gravity, which may or may not have quenched her desire for space travel.
Here on Earth, Dyson’s year-round itinerary would probably hold its own against that of any other well-seasoned traveler. In November, for example, she spent two days talking about Yandax, a Russian Internet company. The Yandax conversation continued, without a break, in Amsterdam. A day later she was in London to talk about the mobile virtual network operator Credo, and from London she flew to Abu Dhabi for a World Economic Forum event. She had no meetings the next day only because of the time needed to travel between Abu Dhabi and Boston. The day after that she participated in a discussion about privacy and authentication of digitally relayed data, which depicts East Germany in the 1980s. Another is Chinatown, and recently she was making plans to see the recently released movie Gravity, which may or may not have quenched her desire for space travel.
Here on Earth, Dyson’s year-round itinerary would probably hold its own against that of any other well-seasoned traveler. In November, for example, she spent two days talking about Yandax, a Russian Internet company. The Yandax conversation continued, without a break, in Amsterdam. A day later she was in London to talk about the mobile virtual network operator Credo, and from London she flew to Abu Dhabi for a World Economic Forum event. She had no meetings the next day only because of the time needed to travel between Abu Dhabi and Boston. The day after that she participated in a discussion about privacy and authentication of digitally relayed data.
Dyson, who thought that two-and-a-half month vacations were the norm when she was a child in Princeton, hasn’t taken a real vacation in years. She says that good quality sleep and her morning swim help her maintain a pace that would give anyone else permanent jet lag. She allows that she tallies the number of unread messages in her email inbox every night: “it’s the best indicator of stress.” Her commitment to swimming is absolute. On the road she finds luxurious hotel pools. At home in New York City, she alternates between two YMCAs each day, and, seems to particularly drawn to the idiosyncratic atmosphere of the Chinatown branch, though it’s not clear whether or not this ties in with loving the movie.
Dyson professes to being “proud” of using modest facilities like the YMCA and there’s a kind of grittiness too, in Dyson’s choice of where she lives: a four-flight walk-up that is, she pointedly says, “furnished, not decorated.” Her use of frequent flyer miles for family visits during the holidays seems like another “just folks” touch, and Dyson’s globe-hopping may offset, in a way, the fact that she never learned to drive a car.
Dyson was among the first people to have her genome sequenced using the $99 23andMe home kit that was briefly available to consumers before the FDA pulled it off the market. She looks forward to its return. The verdict is still out as to how, when, and by whom DNA genomes will be sequenced, but Dyson was happy to have more information about herself. While she ultimately didn’t learn anything really new (she already knew that her parents are long-lived), she responded to anything that looked potentially threatening by quickly making lifestyle adjustments. Her attitude about genome sequencing is consistent with her philosophy about HICcup, and she describes early participants in study as being “benefactors” who will provide lots of good data.” In five years, she adds, they will also be beneficiaries. Dyson is adamant about encouraging the next generation of digital stars not to take unconventional paths to success. She claims to have learned more from her job at Forbes than she did at Harvard or could have from an advanced degree. “Without a business school education to confuse me, I learned how business actually worked,” she says. While that formula may have worked for her, she tells others not to “do what I did.” Bill Gates may have dropped out of Harvard (and her father does not have a PhD), but encouraging “a normal person” to do that would “bad advice.” Unlike Malcolm Gladwell, who sees truths in anomalous statistics, she goes for critical masses of logical data to prove a point. In general, she is “amazed” by how uninformed many people are, and by their willingness to take cues from questionable statistics.
The would-be librarian was also, at one point, an aspiring novelist. Although her work right now is firmly grounded in non-fiction writing, Dyson is happy to share three plots she has in mind for a potential novel. In one, a “large malicious corporation” murders people, allowing them to create new IDs for others. In another, a “delusional correspondent creates a fictional correspondence with him- or herself,” and the third is based on an act of terrorism. Armchair psychoanalysts, take aim.
Dyson’s papers are already housed at Harvard University, a pretty unusual achievement for someone who is relatively young. The collection was processed last fall, and there’s an online finding aid to guide researchers in locating particular documents.
The online resource that Esther-enthusiasts (or critics) should really look at, though, is her photostream on Flickr. It consists of about 75 screens-worth of beautiful images annotated with pithy captions by Dyson. Together they document a remarkable life, with pictures of famous people she has met (the Obamas, Mick Jagger); whimsical moments (an arrangement of toilet paper rolls); and shots of the gorgeous swimming pools she frequents around the world. Group shots from recent meetings provide a who’s who in the world of computers. One photograph shows her brother, George, standing in front of an image of John von Neumann, one of the subjects of his well-received book about the advent of the digital age, Turing’s Cathedral. Dyson has labeled the photo “Two extraordinary people.” A third one, of course, was behind the camera.