Larry Ellison tells USC grads how he went from divorced college dropout to high-tech billionaire

Oracle founder Larry Ellison delivers the commencement address at USC on Friday.
Oracle founder Larry Ellison delivers the commencement address at USC on Friday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Before Larry Ellison became a high-tech billionaire wealthy enough to establish a cancer research center at USC, he was a divorced college dropout living on a sailboat with his cat.

He had planned to fulfill his family’s wishes and become a doctor. But he came to regard an anatomy class as a “perversely pointless form of psychological torture” and changed his mind.

His wife asked for a divorce, expressing disappointment in his apparent lack of ambition.


Only then did he have the key insight that turned his life around.

See the most-read stories this hour >>

“Their dreams and my dreams were different,” Ellison explained to nearly 16,000 USC students during a commencement address Friday. “I would never confuse the two again.”

Following his own path meant working with computers, not patients. He was drawn to the idea of designing a database that could save data in new, faster ways.

And so he formed his own company, figuring he would never have more than 50 employees.

That business grew into Oracle Corp., one of the largest technology companies in the world. The Redwood City firm now has about 130,000 employees. And Ellison is the second wealthiest man in the world, with a net worth of $50 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

That’s how Ellison was able to make one of the biggest donations in the history of U.S. higher education, pledging $200 million to establish the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC. The institute will be built in West Los Angeles and will employ physics, biology, math and engineering experts engaged in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer.

During his address in Alumni Park in the center of campus, Ellison recounted growing up lower-middle class in Chicago. His family encouraged him to become a doctor because “medicine was considered the pinnacle of professions,” he said. As a young man, he wanted to attend USC medical school, get married and raise a family.

He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago, but struggled with his medical courses -- especially anatomy. So he dropped out of school and moved to California.

Ellison said he came to love the Sierra Nevada mountains and worked as a rock climbing instructor and river guide as well as a computer programmer. He developed an interest in sailing and told his wife he wanted to buy a boat.

Her reaction: “It was the single stupidest idea she’d ever heard in her entire life,” Ellison said.

“And then she kicked me out,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd.

His path into high-tech led to another important life lesson, which he learned from his friend Steve Jobs.

During a hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains 20 years ago, when Jobs was considering a return to Apple, the two mused about ways to have Jobs run the company again. Ellison suggested that he buy it and install Jobs as CEO, telling Jobs, “If we don’t buy Apple, how are we going to make money?”

Interested in the stories shaping California? Sign up for the free Essential California newsletter >>

Ellison said Jobs held him by the shoulders and said they didn’t need to make money. “If I do this, I need to do this my way,” Jobs said.

“Steve was right,” Ellison told the USC crowd. “After a certain point, it can’t be about the money. I believe that, deep inside all of us, there’s a primal desire to do something important with our lives.”

Rini Sampath, the former student body president who received her bachelor’s degree in international relations Friday, said she found Ellison’s speech inspiring.

“I love that he touched on failure,” she said, “that his career should be X or Y but that he decided to pursue what made him happy.”

Twitter: @byjsong


Gov. Brown backs $2-billion plan to ease homelessness across California

L.A. bakery owners ordered to pay $15.3 million for abuse of workers on visas

Joe Arpaio, ‘America’s toughest sheriff,’ found in contempt of court in racial profiling case