Jeff Henley, former Chairman of the Board, now Vice Chair, of Oracle Corp., has gifted University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) 50 million dollars to build a new building that will house 16 laboratories for the Institute for Energy Efficiency. It is the first building at UCSB funded by private money.

impactmania spoke with Jeff at his home in Santa Barbara, California about philanthropy, how to prepare for a changing economy, and whether entrepreneurs are made or born that way. 


Jeff, a few times a week I drive by Henley Hall, your building that is going up at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). I understand that it will become an Institute for Energy Efficiency.

Yes, Henley Hall will house a lot of the people doing research for the Energy Efficiency Institute. There will be 16 labs, a mix of dry and wet labs, including for computer science work. A variety of research that is happening at UCSB will move over to Henley Hall.

What are you hoping to foster—what would you like to come out of Henley Hall?

I went to UCSB almost 19 years ago. When I moved back to Santa Barbara, I got more involved with the school. The more I became involved, the more I realized that UCSB was well regarded, especially in Science Engineering.

What I learned was that we are attracting lots of good young system professors, but the problem was we didn’t have enough labs. We weren’t keeping up with the infrastructure.

Schools like UCSD and UCLA were way ahead of us in terms of the amount of space per student in engineering. There were several of us that helped start the Institute for Energy Efficiency, but I never dreamed that I would be doing a building.

I kept realizing that if we were going to raise the bar at UCSB in Science Engineering we would need to get more lab space, which meant a new building. The building is due a year from now and we’ve got every space assigned already. From a recruiting standpoint, it’s been critical, to be able to tell students, doctoral students, and professors to come to UCSB.

When we started the state was still in a financial crisis. The school couldn’t get any authorization for funding to build more space, which was part of it too. This is the only private building that UC Santa Barbara has ever done.

It will be the only building funded with private funds at UCSB. I had no idea. Congratulations.

I wanted to make a gift that was large so others could think bigger about supporting the school.

The building was half of the 50 million we announced. It was part of a match I set out to get. I put in half and gave some money for other things. It took us a while to get the match.

Subsequently, Charlie Munger [Vice Chairman Berkshire Hathaway] put in a gift larger than mine. Charlie Munger is a brilliant guy. The fact that he didn’t go to UCSB but still made some very large investments says UCSB’s a good investment, right? 

How do you challenge the people moving into that building? What would you like to see coming out of it?

Specifically, the research that’s going to be done will be primarily around Energy Efficiency.

We have a reasonably good computer science program these days at UCSB, we’re maybe in the top 20. We’re scored unbelievably high in Material Science which is in the top 3. Chemical Engineering is in the top 3. People will be coming out of John Bower’s area and the Computer Science department. There will be a variety of the disciplines that will be doing research affiliated around this theme.

UCSB’s Materials Research Lab, for example, spun out a lot of companies that are very successful and highly impactful. How do we encourage more of what we do in academia serving the public at large to be successful in the marketplace?

Right, we have the TMP [Technology Management Program] and that has grown over time. We’ve added a credentialed masters program. There are primarily non-academics teaching. With the TMP competition every year, we’ve seen some start-ups that have been great in terms of fostering practical application of research.

I think we have a growing history of commercial and innovation. John Bowers himself has started three companies. I think we’ve got a good basis, but a lot of things that higher education does, at UCSB or UCLA, are very advanced stuff. A lot of it is way before start-up stage.

And that’s still, I think, a big part of what academia is about. You’re not going to get the Oracles of the world or venture capitalists even investing in something that’s ten years away. Somebody has to do that with early research. We used to have Bell Labs and IBM doing more research. Universities, through government and other grants, still have the role of doing very early stuff. Out of all that early research that universities do in science engineering, ultimately entrepreneurs will step in.

Companies also recruit from universities. UCSB is in the top five of where Hewlett Packard recruits from many from Material Science, for instance. So part of the mission is to educate people, get them ready, and then bring them into the commercialization.

A lot of the basic research of the semiconductor came out of universities. A lot of it came from government funding. I’m a libertarian, I’m not a big government guy, but I have always said that one of the wisest investments the United States government has made is in these research labs. It’s chump change compared to the benefit it’s given back to the public. A lot of the public doesn’t realize that.

Is it important that the public is more aware of these things?

It is like anything, it is good if more that people could understand that. Many of us give government a generic bad rap. Government isn’t always good at doing certain things. One of the biggest problem with the government is they can’t kill stuff, right?

They create something, which was a great idea, like the bullet train. It sounded good at the time, but then the reality set in that it wasn’t going to be good economically. I think the public should be very proud of what these national labs have done over the years. I’m sure a lot of the things that they funded have gone nowhere. That’s what happens with basic research but a tremendous amount of innovation started in the research labs, funded by the US government.

We have companies too, Samsungfor example investing in the LED lighting and that’s great too. But if you just look at the numbers, the largest sum of money in the UC systems and MIT comes from the government.

If government stopped doing that, there would be a lag effect, but it would be terrible.

Let’s talk about how others can give, because people think that giving is pretty straightforward but it’s very complex. Do you have any ingredients of how you give with a positive impact and also in a sustained way?

I read lots of articles about philanthropy. Unless you are the Gates Foundationand you have massive amounts of money, most of us generally try to pick a few things. Rather than give 100 people money all the time, I try to focus on a few big things and then stick with it. I’ve been involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for 35 years.

I’m very involved with UCSB. I give time, which is precious, and then I try to give significant money. I have other organizations—Sansum Clinic, Cottage Hospital — that I’ve given a reasonable amount of money, but I’m not on their boards. There’s only so much you can do with your time.

I think most people have not been as lucky as I have to make as much money, but you can still do things—volunteer your time. But again, it would be the same thing. Most people have limited time, so they should find something they really care about and stick with it. Over time, it’ll pay back.

If everybody found something they really cared about, it would have a real impact.

Do you see the next generation giving differently?

I think younger people today are much more balanced. They believe in giving their time. Actually, I think the younger generation is very open to philanthropy.

They might not have a lot of money yet but the idea of giving, volunteering, is so much more happening than probably with my generation.

How did this happen to be different with you—the 30-plus years support of the Boys and Girls Club? What spurred that?

I got involved up in the Bay Area in 1984. I was the CFO of a public company, my boss asked me to go on the board. This was the local Boys and Girls club. I had gone to the club as a kid. I said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” The next thing you know, I was the president of the local club. Then I got onto the regional board and then ultimately, on the national board.

Once you got involved, you realized the impact that these clubs have on kids. We’re serving a lot of kids that don’t have much. I like that, ‘cause I didn’t have much as a kid. I was pretty lucky that things worked out for me.

I’ve always have had a soft spot for helping kids getting a chance to be the best they can be. The clubs do a lot of things. Apart from a kids’ gym, we do a lot of educational things. I’m actually retiring from the national board this year. I will be 75 this year, so I said, “That’s it.”

I’ll still keep giving money but everybody’s got to retire at some point. I’ll certainly still stay involved.

We always ask who’s had an impact on their DNA? I’m sure there’s been many, but has there been a specific person who made Jeff Henley the way Jeff Henley is?

My mother would be my best answer. My dad was a pilot during World War II. He was from Texas but stationed out in Southern California where he met my mom. I was born in Phoenix after he did his sortie in North Africa in 1944. Then my sister and my brother were born. My dad decided to go back and be a career officer and was killed in 1948.

My mother raised us. We didn’t have much, but we had veteran’s benefits, so we weren’t starving. A lot of these kids today have it much rougher, ‘cause you’ve got gangs and drugs.

My mother was like a lot of people in those days, she had a high school education but she had a lot of common sense. We had no money, so we had to work hard for anything we wanted. But my mother was a very terrific, caring person. I think by far that’s had the most effect on me.

After I got out of college, I worked for a number of bosses and companies. Obviously, I’ve learned from all those people. But I don’t think there’s anybody close to the impact that my mother had on me.

Is there anything specifically that she said that stayed with you?

Probably a lot of people feel good about their moms, but she was my only parent. She had the old time values, like people had in those days. I’m a big sports fan so I’ve read a lot of John Wooden stuff. 

Wooden was older than my mom and she wasn’t raised in the Midwest. But she had the kind of basic stuff: you’re accountable for your actions and you don’t lie. It’s just all those basics. She was a good role model, I think. She trusted us and didn’t over-parent us. If we had made mistakes, we had to learn from them. There are clearly other relatives and people in business. But there’s no one person, not even in business that has molded me like my mom.

Your tenure at Oracle is significant, right?

Yes, more than half of my career. Yes, 28 years. I graduated from UCLA in ’67. I have been 52 years in business working. At Oracle for 28, so that’s more than half. I’ve crashed the half way of my career. I’m not planning on leaving anytime real soon!

What’s the single most important thing you learned at Oracle?

By the time I came to Oracle, I was at a stage where I was helping them. So I learned a lot to be a CFO, turnarounds. By the time I got to Oracle, I was actually in a position to apply my knowledge to help. I’d say working with a guy like Larry Ellison who’s clearly a brilliant, mercurial entrepreneur, is different than working for professional managers.

He’s incredibly funny and thinks differently. After working with him for so long, I’ve learned to appreciate entrepreneurs—why they’re different. They just are. He’s not without his mistakes or flaws, like anybody. But entrepreneurs operate differently than a professional manager.

I’m a professional manager, so I’ve actually learned to appreciate those traits in business. Particularly in tech, you have to keep evolving. In a lot of tech companies they just have a hard time getting on to the next thing and the world passes them by.

Especially when you’re that large at some point, right?

Yes, it’s a real risk. We’ve definitely made bad mistakes at times or been slow to adapt. But in general, the good has outweighed the bad. I think we’re in pretty good shape. It’s harder I think unless you have someone like Larry that thinks different.

Big companies—IBMs, Hewlett-Packards, it’s very difficult for big companies to evolve quickly enough. I learned to appreciate Larry’s uniqueness, and not just his, but entrepreneurs in general. Steve Jobs, I was fortunate enough to know him.

What are some of the traits they have in common?

Steve Jobs had that famous ad with Einstein when he came back to Apple. Think differentand I think that’s really it. I think that entrepreneurs tend to have a lot of confidence in themselves. They have an ability to be a contrarian, to think different. Larry and I talk about this many times, he’s always listening, but he’s not willing to accept conventional wisdom. Sometimes he will throw out an idea that turns out to be goofy. And we’ll tell him, “Larry!” He can say, “Yeah, I guess you are right.” But he’s always challenging conventional wisdom. In large companies a lot of the CEOs give into grooves of what they do and they’re not entrepreneurial. They don’t challenge conventional wisdom and that’s deadly.

Now, besides challenging, you have to execute.

Larry’s had many goofy ideas, but he talks them through. Sometimes he would do things that none of us were sure about. It turns out he was generally right. You have to have a reasonably good batting average too.

Do you think they were born with that?

Sure, yeah.

Or is it environment?

I don’t believe you make entrepreneurs. I know that we have entrepreneurship programs, but come on.

You have to be a certain type of person?

I think so.

People can be trained to be more entrepreneurial and can be trained on financing and put themselves in a position that they can go out and do a start-up. It’s very hard to get anyone to think differently. Larry and Steve Jobs are incredibly smart people, but I think they were born skeptical in a way. Kinda smart-alecky.

I definitely think that true entrepreneurs grew up that way. I definitely think that people can be molded to some degree. If you’re going to get in the start-up business, you’d better get some help—entrepreneurial programs are helpful.

Every year so many students graduate. If you would have to start a new, what would you be looking into now, 2019, after graduation?

I was an economics major, but I believe that the world is changing faster and faster. Even if you don’t have a science or engineering background, I think you should be looking at new emerging things.

When I started, I came to Silicon Valley in ’72, from Southern California. I was 27 or 28, and wanted to get international experience. It seemed to me that that would make sense. I didn’t know what a semiconductor was. Those were early technologies that became very, very big over the years. You should be looking at things around the environment, artificial intelligence, bio stuff, and the brain.

This is where a lot of the opportunities are going to be for people. Either be an engineer or work in the company like I did as a CFO. I would encourage people try to figure out what’s out there on the horizon. As a kid coming out of our college, how do you possibly know? I think just keeping your ear to the ground, thinking about what’s evolving.

Science and engineering are lifting the standards and productivity around the world and it’s going to continue. It’s exciting. It’s not like the world doesn’t need teachers or nurses, but if you want to work on really exciting stuff, to me, it is going to be mostly around science and engineering.

Is there any particular science and engineering area that excites you if you would be a student today?

My oldest daughter was in tech. She’s almost finished with a nine-month program at Berkeley. She updated all of her tech skills, she’s learned OpenSoftand has redone her portfolio of technologies.

Every kid at UCSB should be taking something around analytics and data science. Whether you are an economy major or going into HR. You only have to take a few classes.

If you didn’t take it and you graduated, go back at night. I have a granddaughter that graduated with honors this year in Physics from UCSB. She has a job, and she’s like, “I really like algorithms.” I said, “You’re a physics major, which is great, but I if I were you, go at night and take a few of these data science programs that will supplement your physics degree.”

Analytics data and an understanding of artificial intelligence will help you be successful in your job, but also help you avoid getting into jobs that are going away. Automation of a lot of work hasn’t happened yet. In your lifetime, you’re going to have to reinvent your whole skill set, probably at least twice.

It may involve fundamentally retooling your skills at some point. You don’t have to necessarily go back to school.

If you’re a young person coming to college, go out with this idea: I know the world is changing, but it is cool. People that are in trouble are 50 year olds that didn’t grow up this way and don’t want to retrain themselves. They want to get by to retirement. If you’re 50, you’re still young. I would try to reinvent myself.

So what next for you?

I just love Oracle. I love being helpful. I don’t have to work full time. I don’t really enjoy being on boards anymore. Whenever I leave Oracle, I’d probably just volunteer more of my time.

We’re still going through a lot of change, to get us over to the CloudThat’s been going on for a long time. We’re now, within a couple of more years. I think it’ll be pretty clear that we’ve crossed that chasm.

I’m not a person that can just sit around idle, and I’ve traveled plenty in my life so I would have to find something to replace the time I spend at Oracle.

Where do you go to after serving as the chairman of the board, right?

Well, that’s what I keep asking myself.

What I would find that would fulfill me, right? I’m pretty good at what I do. The reason I’m still at Oracle is because I go out and see customers. Over the years, I’ve visited 20,000 customers. I try to limit myself to 13 weeks a year—I do videoconferences, phone calls, and I still enjoy it.

I like Larry a lot and believe in what we’re doing. What else would I do that I could be equally good at?