Before 1979, Sergey Brin was just another Russian child, living with his parents in a tiny apartment in Moscow and feeling the sting of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic society. But within only a few years, that little boy grew up to be an incredible American success story. His parents — wealthy in terms of education but poor in every other way — fought to bring their young son to America, where the boy first conquered academic life and then the technological world.
He became a household name after he joined with a college friend to create Google, the world’s largest search engine. It’s a creation that reflects his humble beginnings, where he learned that education is the key to success, and that free, easy-to-obtain information is essential to helping everyone learn.
He’s more than just Google, though, and his humble background likely influenced how a boy from Communist Russia grew up to be one of the most influential men in not only technology, but far beyond Silicon Valley.
Brin was born in Moscow to Michael and Eugenia Brin, both Russian Jews who felt the sting of anti-Semitism deeply in the then-Communist Soviet Union. So in 1979, the Brins, both highly educated graduates of Moscow State University, left the tiny three-room apartment they shared with his maternal grandmother, and headed to America, where they believed their young son would have more opportunities.
The elder Brins found their skills were much in demand in the U.S., even though the couple was discriminated against in their homeland. Michael Brin works as a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, and Eugenia is a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
But their son — for whom they left their homeland — has gone on to fame and fortune far beyond what they could have imagined, taking him light years away from that tiny three-room apartment in Moscow. The America the Brins had arrived in was at the beginning of huge changes in technology and was definitely the land of opportunity for a young man with Sergey’s brains, talent and hard work.
For years, Brin didn’t know the struggles his parents went through while in the Soviet Union. His father claims that while an anti-Semitism policy didn’t exist officially in the Communist nations, party heads barred Jews from upper professional ranks, and he was excluded from the physics department, so he changed his major to mathematics. But despite straight A’s, he was not allowed to attend graduate school.
The Brins, though, didn’t make the decision to emigrate to the U.S. until 1977, when Sergey’s father came back from a mathematics conference in Poland, where he was able to mingle freely with colleagues from other nations. But it wasn’t that easy to leave. His parents were fired from their jobs when they applied to leave the USSR, and they were forced to take temporary jobs while hoping their petitions wouldn’t be denied.
After arriving in the U.S., his father was hired on for his university job, and he took it upon himself to make sure his young son was highly educated. The boy attended a Montessori school, but his father made sure his math skills were honed, and the family made sure he never forgot how to speak Russian.
And while Sergey Brin says he wasn’t aware of his father’s background and struggles until he grew up a bit, the story obviously had an impact on him, likely even leading to what would become of one Google’s mottos — “Do no evil.”
Brin graduated with honors with degrees in computer science and mathematics in 1993, just three years after he enrolled, and like so many other young men with that type of degree, headed west to California. He signed up for graduate school at Stanford, where he made a new friend during student orientation — fellow Google co-founder Larry Page.
At first, they didn’t really get along, but they soon realized they had a great deal in common, and it didn’t take long before they were crashing the Stanford’s computer systems while developing a web-based search engine, “Back Rub,” that would eventually become Google. Brin suspended his doctorate studies in favor of developing Google, and still to this day hasn’t returned to them.
The friends renamed the site Google, though, as a play on the word “googol,” a math term for the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes, saying they name would reflect the company’s mission to organize an unlimited amount of information.
By September 1998, Brin and Page were ready to launch their search engine, with the help of a $100,000 check from Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, who invested even before Google incorporated. Brin and Page launched Google in September 1998 — just about at the time when Internet use was starting to grow nationwide.
It took next to no time at all for Google to catch on. PC Magazine wrote that the new search engine had “an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results” and recognized it as the search engine of choice in its Top 100 websites for 1998.
And by the following June, Google announced, in its first press release, that it had completed a $25 million round of equity funding.
Brin could have sold his company and become a Silicon Valley millionaire at any point after that. Google, of course, not only became a household name, but also a verb of its own, with everyone still saying they “Google” something when looking it up online. It also eventually acquired and parlayed its Android OS into one of the biggest mobile platforms in the world.
But his an innovative, creative man who still had, and has, a long career ahead of him — not to mention a personal life that’s increasingly affecting his business and technological decisions.
Brin isn’t always developing computer code — he married biotech analyst Anne Wojcicki in 2007. She and Brin are developing ways to improve access to health information, including working with leading researchers about the human genome. Wojcicki is the co-founder of 23andMe, a privately owned biotech and genome testing company in Mountain View, Calif.
Ironically, 23andMe, whose personal genome test kit was named “Invention of the Year” in 2008, lead to a shocking discovery for Brin, whose mother has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He used the services of 23andMe and learned that both he and his mother possess a mutation of a gene that increases his own likelihood of developing the disease.
According to an editorial in The Economist, Brin regards the mutation as “a bug in his personal code and thus no different from the bugs in computer code that Google’s engineers fix every day.”
Learning he carries the gene for Parkinson’s has affected many of his subsequent decisions, and he’s been using his Google money to try to help not only himself, but others suffering from diseases.
For example, Brin has donated $132 million, mainly through the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research, to create a DNA database of patients and to work on targeted treatments that aim at genetic causes of the disease.
“If I felt it was guaranteed to cure Parkinson’s disease a check for a billion dollars would be the easiest one I have written,” he told Bloomberg News. “Pretty much everybody in the world has or will have some serious condition. How much is it worth to you to have that condition be potentially curable?”
And even aside from his medical interests, Brin is behind technology that will change how we view the outside world and even down to how we drive our cars.
Brin and Page could have retired as billionaires at very young ages, but they haven’t been content to rest on their laurels.
For example, Brin is heavily pushing Google’s latest gadget, Google Glass. While initially the augmented reality glasses — which work like smartphones to take photos, record video and of course, enhance search — would be out this year, the general public release date is now pushed back to 2014.
But that doesn’t mean Brin is backing away from the project, which he believes will revolutionize the mobile market far beyond hand-held devices.
“By bringing technology closer, we can get it more out of the way,” he wrote on his Google+ page. “Whether you’re exploring a new city, hiking in the woods, or playing with your kids — Glass allows you to enjoy and share life’s moments without being tied down by technology.”
Brin was also pleased with a California law that allows the company’s driverless cars to be street legal.
In February, Google CEO Eric Schmidt presented a vision of the world where technology and information are power and the modern marvels of the digital world are commonplace. California joined Nevada to become the second state enacting legislation covering autonomous cars, and other states, such as Arizona, Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma are reportedly considering similar measures.
“These vehicles have the potential to avoid accidents — we can save lives, create jobs, and reduce congestion,” said Brin, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Self-driving cars can transform lives and communities — providing transportation to those not currently served, increasing safety on the road, reducing or eliminating congestion, and turning parking into parkland.”
Not even outer space is out of his reach. In 2008, he invested $4.5 million in Space Adventures, a Virginia-based space tourism company in return for a seat on a future Russian Soyuz flight to the International Space Station. He hasn’t gone yet, but he won’t have trouble paying for the rest of the trip, which carries an astounding price tag of $20 million. With a fortune that’s been estimated at $20 billion or more, Brin does have plenty of money to fly.
But before that happens, he and Page are working through Google.org on the world’s energy and climate problems. They also co-own customized Boeing 767-200 and Dornier Alpha jets, which have scientific equipment installed by NASA that allows experimental data to be captured during flight.
Google readily admits Brin and Page want “to solve really big problems using technology.”
But don’t expect Brin to back away from the original search engine he and Page created anytime soon, as every purchase and innovation ties right back in to Google and its advertising, which appears free on millions of website all over the world.
Even the Android and YouTube purchases, made well after Google became a household name, both tie back in with Google search and advertising. Nearly all YouTube videos contain a Google-based advertisement, and the Android mobile unit also ties back into Google through Search, Maps, Apps and more.
But no matter how much his fortune continues to grow, he doesn’t plans to rest and relax anytime soon. He’s not only a tech giant, but continues to be one of the hardest working entrepreneurs in the world — and as he works, his fortunes will continue to grow, making him one of the most well-known and wealthiest immigrants to ever hit U.S. shores. ♦