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If you like James Kimsey's story, you might also like:
Frederick Smith,
Stephen Case,
Lawrence Ellison,
Pierre Omidyar
and David Petraeus

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring James Kimsey in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Information Age

Related Links:
Inside Philanthropy
Georgetown University
Kimsey Scholarship

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James V. Kimsey
James V. Kimsey
Profile of James V. Kimsey Biography of James V. Kimsey Interview with James V. Kimsey James V. Kimsey Photo Gallery

James V. Kimsey Interview (page: 6 / 6)

Founding Chairman,
America Online

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  James V. Kimsey

It's interesting that you chose to leave active operations and go into philanthropy. What governed that move?

James V. Kimsey Interview Photo
James V. Kimsey: We used to have these meetings in the basement at AOL and get all the employees in one room. I gave a talk to the AOL employees a couple of weeks ago, and we took out the Patriot Center, which is a huge facility near Washington. It had satellite hook-ups to all the other locations around the world and I told the employees about the creation of the foundation.

It started off with an explanation. I wasn't sure how they led their lives but speaking for myself, as you go through life, typically you run into challenges and difficulties. Many times you talk to somebody up there somewhere and make little deals: "If I can get through this test..." "If I can get through this fire fight. If I can come out of this particular battle alive..." "If I could get over this brush with bankruptcy..." Whatever challenge you happen to face, consciously or subconsciously you make little bargains that you'll be a better person, or you'll do the right thing. And someday, when you get to the place where you always wanted to be, something happens. I heard this big voice go, "Well?"

I think America Online has gotten to that point. It is a much bigger company than people predicted it would be in its incipiency. It's gotten to a very central position and, as a result of that, it has terrific social obligations, to my mind. Not only is the strategy to avoid the regulators and the legislators, but I think people want to work for a company that has lofty ideas that are driven by higher goals than earnings per share and stock price.

I think there's a growing disparity between the information haves and have-nots. Pretty soon the kids from the inner city are not going to be able to get a job at McDonald's if they're not technically qualified. I think a company like America Online has a unique responsibility to do what it can to narrow the gap between the information haves and have-nots.

Will you be providing technology to kids, or providing access to interactivity, or teaching kids, or all of those?

James V. Kimsey: All of the above, but my job is to figure out how to do that in ways that are scaleable and can be done with great efficiency.

Is that more fun than running a business?

James V. Kimsey: I'll be mostly a figurehead and I'll give speeches now and again. In some ways it's like starting AOL all over again.

I'm doing projects in Washington, D.C., about what's wrong with the educational system and how it can be fixed. And, how you can reach these kids who, I think, are going to represent -- they're going to be the kids that hijack your car. And, if you don't reach out to them early on they're going to recognize that we have a great proliferation of wealth in the country and they're not participating. If you don't reach out to them and try to help them, I think it's going to be at your long-term peril. I think as a social obligation, it's not something that a government is particularly well organized or well resourced to do. I think Corporate America has that responsibility primarily, in my mind.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I've found the people that inhabit this philanthropic world a little bit different than the people I'm used to in the military and business world.

How so?

James V. Kimsey: They seem to be more interested in process than results. I've had a difficult and somewhat frustrating time trying to figure out who's doing what to whom. What studies have been done? What moneys have been spent? Washington, D.C. is a great example. Of any school system in the country, it has spent the most money per kid, and it has the worst result in terms of test scores. It's criminal, in my view. I think some of the people associated with that should be in jail.

James V. Kimsey Interview Photo
I think somebody like me has got an interesting set of qualifications to try to attack this problem, because I have no other motivation than trying to help the kids. We have a bully pulpit in AOL, and we have some resources, and it's my challenge to figure out how to focus those resources laser-like on the problem and get results. It's easy to talk about this, but my challenge is to figure out how to do it. I don't know yet exactly how it's going to get done.

Over the last 10 years we're been seeing a shift in corporate-based philanthropy, going to a much more results-based pattern of giving.

James V. Kimsey: In Washington, for instance, there's a place called Anacostia that's sort of the epitome of the inner city. People typically have sort of thrown money over the Anacostia River and hoped something good happens over in Anacostia. After I talked with my staff and all the folks that are working on this, I said, "We're going to go do something in Anacostia." I'm going to open a learning center over there. Whether it's the right place, or the right formula, I don't know yet, but we're just going to go do it. I'm going to physically go spend some time in Anacostia and be seen to spend some time in Anacostia, so I begin to understand the dynamics of poverty and how it goes from generation to generation. Let's find out what we can do to help these kids and get them out of this vicious circle.

That's very much the approach you took in Vietnam, when you lived in the village and got to know the people.

James V. Kimsey: Sometimes there's just no substitute for understanding at a grassroots and hands-one level what really is going on and what the people are doing. I think it sends a signal. All these limousine liberals talk nicely about these issues, but the results are not occurring. The U.S. educational system is terrible, and it's our fault for letting this happen.

Do you miss being involved in AOL directly?

James V. Kimsey: No, I don't. What I do is start things. I don't have an interest in running something in a routine way, although it's certainly not routine to run America Online. My view is that the primary responsibility of every CEO is to figure out the succession. Most people don't do that, and I think that inures to the detriment of the organization. You have to start figuring it out. What if I get hit by a car tomorrow? The leader of anything should never do anything routinely. There are enough things that are not routine that he's going to get caught up in, to ever have to be doing anything routine. You have to delegate.

I've always believed in delegation. For my own self, I've always wanted to do something different every five to ten years. In this case I've been a little retarded; it's taken me 15 years to change venues. I've changed venues from things that are commercially driven, because they're not relevant to me anymore. I mean, you can only spend so much money.

There's only four things you can do with your money: you can give it to the government, you can spend it, you can give it to your ungrateful kids to their detriment. And my sons -- I have three -- all understand this. I never want to deprive them of the wonderful feeling of making it on their own. I don't think you do your kids a favor by leaving them a lot of money, or letting them think they're working with a net. And so, the fourth and final thing you can do with your money is give it to charity, or do something good with it. And I think it's incumbent on everybody with any amount of money at all to start thinking like that.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

And it's not enough to just write checks to people. You have to think about where the money is going and how efficiently it's going to be used. So that's my new ambience now. That's the direction that I want to go in.

Was there any special person that you would consider your mentor?

James V. Kimsey Interview Photo
James V. Kimsey: No, and I miss that. I've been asked that before. There were a couple of army officers. When I was Secretary of General Staff out at Fort Lewis, there was one colonel -- he was the Chief of Staff -- who made me understand that staff work wasn't all just boring things, that it was necessary, and if done well it could have big impact. There were a couple of people in my life that I watched do things and they did have an impact on me, but there was no great mentor I could point to. I'm sorry for that; I wish I had had one at some point.

Have you served as mentor to someone?

James V. Kimsey: I hope so.

Was there a book that you turned to in your youth, or even now?

James V. Kimsey: When I was younger I was a voracious reader. As a young boy in a poor family, with not many outlets, books became sort of my window on the world. There were too many to mention. Adventure books were particularly interesting to me. I think my sense of adventure and the things I've done -- even in recent years, going to Bosnia, and going to Cambodia, all these kind of things -- appeal to me more than sitting in an office and thinking about office kinds of things.

I'm somebody that likes to go places and do things, much more than sit in an office. That's one of the things that has motivated me as I ask myself, "How much time have I got left?" As I check off the long list of things I want to do before I go, I find that the list doesn't get shorter; it grows longer. I want to go to all the places on the globe that I can possibly get to, just to see them.

I hope you do. Thank you for talking with us.

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This page last revised on Mar 03, 2008 15:59 EST
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