Nine Lessons From a Living Legend, Ambassador Andy Young

October, 2015
By Joe Lonsdale

Ambassador Andy Young is one of the great men of our times. It was an honor to get to spend part of an evening with him at the National Monument Foundation’s Annual Gala in Atlanta, where he was honored this week.

My brief summary here won’t do him justice given his energy and intellect and all he’s accomplished in his 83 years.  For over a decade in the 1950s and 60s, he worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and was there the night that Dr. King was assassinated. He continued to be an instrumental leader throughout the Civil Rights period.  He later worked as an Ambassador for President Carter, and he was a transformational mayor in Atlanta from 1982 to 1990, when he brought in tens of billions of dollars of FDI (foreign direct investment) by leveraging his international network.  In 1973, he became the first African American to be elected to Congress. He has worked with President Clinton on an African development fund, and he continues to mentor leaders around the world. He is passionate about bringing innovation and leadership to important causes such as supporting diverse communities, working on an offshore high-tech port in Savannah, and helping the hungry rise from poverty.

My fiancée and I were inspired by our conversation, and we wanted to share some of his thoughts and story.  Some people might wonder what this has to do with investing in technology.  As it’s traditionally defined, it doesn’t.  But our mission as venture capitalists is to partner with leaders who are transforming the world, which requires learning from those who have already done so. It also requires understanding and sharing their passion and their worldview.  So from my perspective, this has everything to do with what we do.

We chatted with the Ambassador ahead of time and also got to sit next to him through dinner and the ceremonies.  Some of our notes from the evening—

1.He takes great joy in what he does, and this was the case even in the trying times of the Civil Rights Movement.  The movies rightly portray the seriousness of the times, but they often neglect the more jubilant moments. For instance, during a tense disagreement even the night before Dr. King was assassinated, the group resorted to a pillow fight and ended up laughing with each other.

2. He is relentlessly focused on innovation—and he’s practical about it.  The first thing he wanted to talk about was an aquaponics installation with a fast-growing duckweed that he identified to use as a protein source. He showed us pictures of how scientists are growing tilapia and shrimp in small areas and using the products to create vegetables and vegetable proteins at minimal cost while using only solar energy.  He then rallied off a bunch of numbers and noted how students at a local college could spend a little time managing these and have jobs and learn while creating healthy food and saving the school over a million dollars a year.

3. He is loyal and values loyalty.  Part of what gets him excited about the aquaponics is that many of his biggest supporters during the Civil Rights Movement were farmers—farmers who are now falling on harder times and unable to maintain the farms in their old age.  He cited a story of a man in a wheelchair who is now able to tend to these aquaponic systems, and he hopes that these solutions will be easier for some of his more elderly friends.  At another point in the conversation, we learned that he’d also helped the endangered children and wife of a jailed friend and former leader in Africa come to America and helped care for them when they arrived.

4. The FBI gave him and his friends a lot of trouble back in the day.  The non-violence strategy of the Civil Rights Movement was one that allowed transparency, which was good because the Feds were trying to find any excuse to give them trouble.  He said that, even when they broke laws, they’d note why ahead of time and disclose their plans for civil disobedience.  When the Ambassador had somebody over to his home more recently, they found five telephone lines where he thought there should only be four.  The fifth led to a house nearby that he thinks was used for spying on him and others in their predominantly African American community.

5. He values talent very highly.  He had the highest praise for some of his very bright and innovative friends from school—doctors, businesspeople, innovators.  He spoke about how Dr. King did as well. He said they hired a very smart African man who they knew was likely tied to the CIA because, as Dr. King pointed out, neither of them were as organized or could run the operations of their growing organization as well as this person.  (And they decided they’d rather have the CIA on the inside than just the FBI—sounds like the politics of the intel world has been complex for a long time and not just in Palantir’s day).

6. He believes in the power of markets and business to help lift up communities and create prosperity. Ambassador Young expressed the most pride about the FDI he brought in, as well as the number of new businesses that were started while he was mayor (unfortunately I forget the number).  He also did a lot of work in Africa along these lines.  He describes how, as mayor, he’d get top business leaders and investors to come see him, and he’d tell them, “our bureaucracy in our city – that’s our problem.  If you are trying to do something and we are stopping it or slowing it down too much, it’s my job to fix that.” He had a second ‘ceremonial’ office available and told business leaders to drop by at anytime, and he’d briefly drop what he was doing and go visit with them in this other office, and then work with his staff to solve whatever problem and increase their ability to invest in his city. Imagine some of the government leaders today telling us that their bureaucracy is the problem that needs solving!  This is not something we’d expected to hear, but one can understand why Atlanta thrived so much under his leadership.

ambaFrom left to right: Tayler Cox, Ambassador Andy Young, Joe Lonsdale

7. The Ambassador is realistic about the corruption and ineptitude of our foreign aid organizations in Africa, but he is still engaged and helps where he can.  It’s easy for anybody to get discouraged when they hear of all the failures and nonsense that goes on when we give aid to the third world, but he had a practical view and focused on the wins. He thinks we should be applying common sense to our foreign aid and doing what we can to help with education, health, and laying a foundation for young people to be successful.  One couldn’t help but feel that if everyone had this attitude and just did what we he, or she could to create common sense wins—and to inspire others and enjoy ourselves as we did it—the world would be a lot better place.

8. At 83, Ambassador Young still delivers a compelling speech. I’ve noticed the same about Bill Perry and George Shultz. My conclusion is that staying engaged in leadership positions and new projects and continuing to be engaged with your community is the most important thing you can do for your health as you age.

9. The Ambassador talked a lot about the “politics of respect”. While he was Ambassador to the UN, the Russians and the Chinese were the most important veto for passing US motions. He found out by chance that the Russian ambassador and his wife liked tennis, and soon fell into a monthly habit of meeting for doubles tennis with his wife Jean. They never got a Russian veto after that. The Chinese, well, no one knew what to say to them, except to ask about Chinese food because that was the only thing we knew about China. So one day the Chinese ambassador asked in return, “Where can you get good Georgia food here in New York City?” Ambassador young replied, “Why, at the Waldorf, where my wife and I stay when we’re in town,” and invited them to dinner. His wife flew up her mother from Alabama to make a traditional Southern Meal, and he broke bread with the Chinese Ambassador and his wife over corn on the cob, ribs, smoked black eyed peas, and other Southern classics. He never got a Chinese veto! The moral of the story is that you should never underestimate the value of genuine acts of friendship and respect in aligning the stakeholders that are important for your work.

The Ambassador has a twinkle in his eye and a lot of energy, and I hope he keeps adding value to the world for many more years.  When I suggested I was excited to see what he did over the next twenty or thirty years, he didn’t miss a beat, and agreed with me that he was going to be quite busy – only his knees were giving him a little bit of trouble, he noted, but everything else was fine and he is full speed ahead.

Such is the nature of one of the legends of our time.