Jeff Bezos opens up about his childhood—and ignores Miami

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If you want to know the place that left the biggest mark on Jeff Bezos, currently the world’s richest person, Miami may want to look away.

In a new interview with the head of German publishing giant Axel Springer, the Amazon founder discusses his life from childhood and into his career.

While Bezos doesn’t tip his hand about where Amazon’s much-hyped second headquarters may end up, his latest remarks about the place that has been most important to him suggest Miami, where Bezos attended high school and a current finalist for the HQ2, may not top of mind.

Bezos graduated from Palmetto High School in Pinecrest, where he earned a Silver Knight Award. But he says his most formative experiences came in the Southwest.

He first fell in love with computers in fourth grade, when he was living in Houston. His elementary school had a teletype machine that was connected to a mainframe computer. A local business donated computer time to the students.

“Me and two other kids stayed after school and sort of figured out how to do it, and kind of taught ourselves programming from books. I think one thing is, I got very lucky early in my childhood,” he said.

Bezos was born in 1964 New Mexico to a teenage mother, who faced ostracism for her pregnancy. Her father Lawrence Gise—Bezos’ grandfather and Albuquerque’s administrator for the Atomic Energy Commission—kept things under control.

“My grandfather went to bat for her, and then they tried to kick her out of school, and they’re incredible, so the gift I had was I that had this incredible family.”

Bezos said Gise was “super important” to him and that he spent “an unusual amount of time with my grandparents, and especially with my grandfather” on their ranch in the south Texas town of Cotulla between ages 4 and 16.

“I could fix prolapsed cattle; we did all our own veterinary work—some of the cattle even survived,” he joked. “And we fixed windmills, and laid water pipelines, and built fences, and barns, and fixed the bulldozer.

“One of the things that’s so interesting about that lifestyle and about my grandfather is he did everything himself. You know, he didn’t call a vet if one of the animals was sick; he figured out what to do himself.”

The most important lesson Bezos learned from Gise came after the boy wisecracked to his grandmother how many minutes of her life she had lost while smoking in the car.

“My grandfather stopped the car and he took me out of the car. And I had no idea what was about to happen, because he had never said a cross word to me,” Bezos said. “I thought, he might actually be angry with me. But he wasn’t. He took me out so that we had some privacy from her and he said these incredible words. He said, “You’re going to figure out one day that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Miami is not mentioned once in the new interview—but Bezos’ dad is. Miguel “Mike” Bezos came to the U.S. as a teenager fleeing Communist Cuba. He met Bezos’ mom in Albuquerque; they ended up in Houston after the elder Bezos landed a job as an engineer for Exxon. He would stay with the company for 30 years.

“My dad, who’s a Cuban immigrant…he came to the US when he was 16 in a refugee camp in the Everglades,” Bezos said. “They are so loving and supportive. When you have loving and supportive people in your life, like [wife] MacKenzie, my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, you end up being able to take risks. Because I think it’s one of those things, you know, you kind of know that somebody’s got your back. And so if you’re thinking about it logically, it’s an emotional thing.”

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The last time Bezos visited Miami is not clear. He did tell the Herald in 2007 that winning the local 1982 Silver Knight Award for academic achievement was the first time he “got any formal recognition for being a good student.”

He left South Florida to attend Princeton. He has since turned Texas into the launching pad for his space venture; it’s also the place where he’s recreated a ranch like the one he grew up on for his own family. A list of places Bezos calls home put together by the Wall Street Journal last year did not include Miami.

That hasn’t stopped Amazon from putting Miami its list for potential sites for the highly sought Amazon second headquarters, dubbed HQ2. A final decision on the winning city will likely come before the end of the year. Pundits have tipped the Washington DC metro area as the most likely destination; Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, has a home there, and multiple cities in the region were chosen as finalists. Amazon also recently announced it would be bringing more 2,000 jobs to the Boston area.

You can read the rest of the latest interview here.


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