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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

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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

Founding Chairman,
America Online

May 22, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  James V. Kimsey

What was your childhood like?

James V. Kimsey: I had a fairly easy childhood. We were from a poor family, so I had to have a lot of jobs growing up, which was probably a good thing. Paper routes, caddying at a local golf course, mowing yards, the kind of thing that you would expect kids to do.

At the time I wished I had come from a rich family -- obviously, as you looked around and saw the other kids, particularly in the later years in high school, getting cars and so forth -- that I'd come from a more wealthy family. But, in retrospect I think it was probably a good thing to grow up poor because if you do achieve some success in life you really appreciate it. If I had grown up in a wealthy family I'd probably take all this for granted right now. But, I'm now like a little kid enjoying himself.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

You grew up near Washington, DC, didn't you?

James V. Kimsey: I did. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in South Arlington and we'd hitchhike to school in the District. I went to school in downtown Washington.

Weren't there any schools in South Arlington?

James V. Kimsey: There were, but I got a scholarship to a private school, called Gonzaga, which was a Jesuit high school, at North Capitol and I Street, which was actually a pretty bad section of Washington then.

Values are pretty important in a Jesuit educational institution. Can you talk about that a little bit?

James V. Kimsey: The Jesuits were the sort of storm troopers of the Catholic Church; they were tough guys. At an early age, I think -- when you're 14 years old going into a Jesuit high school -- that it's a little bit of a shocking experience because they don't put up with a lot of nonsense. I think they teach you how to think. They're very big on making sure you follow logical processes in your thoughts that lead you to logical conclusions.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Was it hard coming from South Arlington and going to that private school, or was there a good mix socioeconomically at the school?

James V. Kimsey: No. I was one of the poorest kids in the school.

Were both parents in the household?

James V. Kimsey: Yes.

What did your father do?

James V. Kimsey Interview Photo
James V. Kimsey: He was a civil servant, a GS-2. He married very late in life and was a sergeant in World War I. He became a GS-2 in the Army Map Service. My mother stayed at home. She was a nice little Irish Catholic woman who raised five kids. She was a big influence in my life. She was very supportive of continuing my education and urged me to apply for scholarships I probably wouldn't have done without her urging, and without which I couldn't have gotten the education that I got.

Did you have brothers or sisters? Where do you fit?

James V. Kimsey: Two brothers and two sisters. I'm the oldest.

Did being the oldest have any special impact? Were you in a caretaker role for the younger siblings?

James V. Kimsey: Yes I was, and that puts you in a leadership position right off the bat. It teaches you some of the responsibilities of leadership, being the oldest kid. When you're in a poor household, there's an age when you realize you don't have as much stuff as other people have. Getting enough food on the table every night is even a little bit of an issue. As the oldest, you have a responsibility to take care of your younger siblings, and I think that it becomes almost instinctive.

That seems carried through, throughout your life in various ways.

James V. Kimsey: Somewhat. It's been a natural sort of thing for me to assume leadership positions and that's what I've done.

Looking at the various things you've done in your life, it's surprising that you went to West Point. Did you originally see yourself in a military career, or were you already thinking of yourself as a business executive?

James V. Kimsey: Most kids don't really know exactly what they want. It's a very lucky high school senior who knows exactly what they want to do the rest of their life and have that single, focused passion. Most kids were like me; I really didn't know exactly what I wanted to do.

I went to Georgetown University for a year before I went to West Point. Again it was on scholarship, and I had everything paid for, but I still couldn't afford to go there. I was by far the poorest kid at Georgetown. Back in those days, West Point was somewhat idealized in TV shows.

A movie, The Long Gray Line had just come out, and so West Point had a certain cachet back then that it's gone through having less of in various times, and hopefully will regain again. So at that point, it was a free education and it looked like the kind of thing that was -- it drew me as a kid, as an 18-year-old kid, just looking at the movies, watching the episodes on TV and recognizing that there was a certain egalitarianism to the whole process, that all the kids went in equal. It didn't make any difference how much money you had or didn't have. That I think drew me.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Of course, the first week I was there, I was once again shocked and asked myself what in God's name I had done.


James V. Kimsey: It was an environment that I didn't expect. In those days they had what they called beast barracks. You showed up on the first day and you had a million upperclassmen yelling at you and having you run around. It was one of those ordeals they put you through for a year. They would make you brace at the tables. On the 4th of July they let us fall out for one meal, and I remember this kid from some southern state looked up and said, "Boy, I knew they couldn't keep this up forever," -- not realizing he had a whole other year to go. They're somewhat less stringent now in the way they handle plebes. But as Nietzsche said, "If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger."

I think it was a good regimen for me, because I was the kind of kid who pushed the envelope. I would always be the one that disrupted class and had discipline problems. West Point taught me a lot. I was up there recently giving a talk, and at the end of the talk one of the cadets asked me what had I taken from the West Point training that I think stood me in good stead? I indicated that "Duty, honor, country" was a given. That's just part of your make-up. But one other thing sticks in my mind.

The very first day when you reported in to West Point they said there were only three answers you could give: "Yes sir," "No, sir," and "No excuse sir." And at the time, I think the natural inclination of an 18 year-old kid is always to explain why he didn't have his shoes shined, or why he was late for formation and of course, over time they made it very clear to you that there were no excuses. And, it took a while for me to understand the deep implication of that phrase.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

As leaders you don't have any excuses and you can't sort of point to other people, or external circumstances because as a leader it's your responsibility to understand external circumstances, and there are no excuses. You either take the hill, or you don't take the hill, and if you get all your people killed, then you're wrong. And, there are no excuses. There are lots of companies on the corporate American landscape that are gone because of external circumstances and the CEOs of those companies have always been able to offer excuses, but I think it's very, very important for all leaders to understand that they stand at the end of the responsibility chain and it is as Harry Truman wisely put it, "The buck stops there." It's an important concept for people to understand.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

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