In 1956, a Hungarian refugee ship docked in New York and unloaded hundreds of passengers, including the man we know now as Andy Grove. He was just 20 years old then — hungry, nervous, and anonymous. Today, he is one of the most famous executives in the United States: chairman of Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor company.
What drove him to leave his native country? What did he hope to find in America? And how did early experiences shape the rest of his life? Those are timeless, compelling questions for anyone thinking about the ways that immigration shapes the American experience. But they have an extra urgency today — when the temptation to seal U.S. borders has never been greater.
In his new book, Swimming Across (Warner Books, 2001), Grove writes about his early life with stunning candor. He was born Andras Grof in 1936, in Budapest, in the shadow of increasing Nazi aggression. Throughout World War II, he and his mother were Jews on the run — moving from town to town and assuming fake names to stay one step ahead of the Nazi killing machine.
When peace came in 1945, he thought that life would be much better. But gradually he came to see Soviet bloc communism as a horror in its own right. When Soviet tanks squashed a Hungarian democratic movement in 1956, his grandmother told him: “You must go. And you must go immediately.” Days later, he was scrambling across the Hungarian-Austrian border, splattered with mud, looking for a brighter future in the West.
In a recent interview at Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, California, Grove talked about the wider lessons of his own odyssey, sharing stories that were funny, frightening, and inspiring. Much of the time, he was in salty good humor, confident that he had survived the worst that others could throw at him. But once or twice, flashes of anger came through — and it was easy to imagine a schoolboy in Hungary many decades ago, clinging desperately to a hope of freedom.
Your early years were filled with enormous adversity. Did that make you a stronger person — better able to rise in later life?
Everyone wants to connect the boy of that book with the Andy Grove of today. I have no idea what the right answer is. People are free to speculate. But I would remind you that Gordon Moore [the previous chairman of Intel] grew up in Pescadero, California. You can do it either way.
But there’s a story you tell about your uncle …
After I had scarlet fever at age four, I had 50% hearing loss. It was difficult sometimes for me to follow what the teacher said in school. My uncle said that I had learned to compensate — just as a blind person develops other senses more keenly, I became more attentive to nonverbal signals. And because I understood only parts of sentences, I had to exercise my mind constantly. I took that as a compliment. But it was only his opinion.
Growing up in Hungary, what were your early images of America? What made you decide to come to the United States?
I read a lot of Karl May’s novels as a boy. He was a white-collar criminal who never set foot in the American West. But while he was in prison in the late 1800s, he started writing epic Westerns, full of stories about noble Indians and their loyal white allies. He created a mystique of the West.
My father encouraged me to learn English, even before the war. He thought it would be the most useful language. When the communists were in power in Hungary, we were constantly told how many problems there were in the United States. Racism. Poverty. Capitalist bosses oppressing workers. But I could look all around me and see that communism wasn’t working. All the propaganda at the time bankrupted itself.
Is there a new generation of Andras Grofs looking for a better chance in America? And if so, where should we find them?
I’m very involved with the City College of New York. It’s where I got my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. It’s physically run down, but functionally, it’s doing the same thing as always: training newcomers to America so that they have the skills to succeed. There are Russian and Middle Eastern immigrants there who are very impressive. They’re just as eager to become a part of things as I was.
Or look right here at Intel. You’ll see an incredible diversity among our employees. The immigration of talent to America hasn’t stopped, and I hope it continues.
There’s a haunting image in the book of what it’s like growing up in a totalitarian society. The Korean War was under way in the early 1950s, and the communists from the north were overrunning the south …
But we had been told in school that the south had attacked first. The north supposedly was just fighting back. A friend and I were talking about it. We remembered how slowly the front lines moved in Hungary when the Nazis were losing ground. So we started wondering: What if everything we’ve been told in school was wrong? What if it was the north that attacked first? We were walking home from school, just approaching the state security building. It was at 60 Stalin Street. I’ll never forget that address. We went silent. Then we crossed the street. We didn’t even want to be thinking such thoughts so close to the state security apparatus.
When did you get firsthand evidence that the United States would be different?
When we were crossing the Atlantic in 1956, some of the Hungarian passengers started to make anti-Semitic comments. A minister on board gathered all the Christian refugees. He told them that as we entered this new world, old hatreds and prejudices needed to be left behind. I wasn’t sure everyone would believe him, but I liked what he said.
What are the factors that helped you pull through everything? I think of your mother’s love, your intellect, maybe optimism. Anything else?
I’m not sure it’s correct to consider me an optimist. I’ve been accused of looking at the world through shit-colored glasses. I’d say the biggest thing is just plain stamina — not just in terms of the war and communism, but even in something like physics classes. That was very hard for me. There weren’t any short cuts. I just had to keep trying — and never give up.
George Anders (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.