Widgets Magazine


What Steve Jobs meant to me

Correction: A previous version of this letter incorrectly identified the author as a co-founder of BASES and a member of the class of 2009. Ricky Yean graduated in 2010 and is a former co-president of BASES.

Having just learned about his death, I’m mustering something together to try to articulate Steve Jobs’ impact on my life. Unlike many people here in the Valley, I wasn’t much of a geek, let alone an Apple fanboy. I came to Stanford because they offered me a great financial aid package and because it was an elite institution close enough to home in Los Angeles in case I ever needed to go back. That was ’06. I had no idea Steve Jobs just made a Commencement speech one year before that I’d discover later and would change my life.

Going to school at Stanford was a huge culture shock. I couldn’t fit in. In dorm activities, I learned about my peers’ amazing backgrounds and felt sorry for myself for not having any of their experiences in life. I walked around the dorm asking every person if he/she played an instrument, and I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t. I did not have the study skills necessary to succeed, and got a C during my first quarter while others marched on to great academic performance. On campus, iPods and other Apple products were pervasive, and that only added to the perception–this was a school for privileged kids, not me.

I felt that way until my first spring break. I didn’t want to go home since there wasn’t much to return to. I decided to stay and went on a trip led by some upperclassmen called “Social Entrepreneurship in the Bay Area.” A little context, I hated “business.” That was a dirty word. My father was in the stock market and he was pretty much bankrupt by the time I turned four. Growing up, he tried to give me what he knew while trying to turn himself around with no capital, to no avail. I always rejected him. My mother left around then, and I struggled to grow up like a normal kid when nothing was normal about my environment. At 14, I started working so I could help pay for things around the household. It wasn’t much, but it helped. Business, more precisely, buying and selling stocks, was the reason why all this had to happen.

On this trip, we visited companies like Kiva, World of Good, Papilia, and Benetech. I realized where I was. I am not just at Stanford, but at Silicon Valley, where there are “businesses” that actually did good things and made the world a better place. That was extremely eye-opening. By the time spring quarter rolled around, I knew what I needed to do. My perspective was completely transformed.

By bringing me here, Stanford was lifting me up and putting me on equal footing as everyone else because for once in my life, I did not have to worry about money, at least not here. The school also gave me everything I needed to succeed, with resources like the alternative spring break trip, and incredible peers I can team up with to achieve dreams. I wanted to change the world the way that people in the Silicon Valley were doing it, with massive impact. As I learned more about startups and entrepreneurship, I found myself increasingly drawn to it. In school, I made it a point to utilize the resources available to me and, more importantly, I tried to learn as much as I could from my peers.

Over time, I found out what I was good at. I’m good with people. My upbringing had ingrained in me special sensitivities that helped me navigate teams to work better together and eventually achieve success. I was never the smartest in the room, but I didn’t need to be. I found a niche in school as someone who championed the cause of entrepreneurship, bringing the startup spirit and the message of empowerment to every part of campus. I also started dabbling in startups by first working for them, and later, with the right teammates, built products that would eventually become Crowdbooster.

So what did all this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well, in college, I discovered his Commencement speech. I found myself watching it over and over again. Even though I am a fanboy now, it wasn’t about his products. It was his story. Like me, he came from a low-income, immigrant family. He had to do things like pick up cans so he could sell them to buy a meal. When he found out what he needed to do, he went after it, without fear. He took the leap, and he assured me in his speech that you can’t connect the dots going forward, so you just have to have faith. That encouraged me to go from a kid who didn’t fit in to one who dared to pursue his dreams, despite economic circumstances and allures of elite jobs that pay. I knew what I needed to do. He told me to jump, and I did. I jumped. Crowdbooster is the first of many businesses I will build to maximize the impact I have in this world. Thank you, Steve.

Ricky Yean ’10
Co-president of the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES)