Scott Oki grew up on 14th and Yesler, where he shared a one-bedroom apartment with five family members. He worked throughout high school, with meager jobs such as car washing, paper delivering, and teaching drums. He then went to the University of Washington, and nearly flunked out before joining the air force. Little did the Sensai (third generation Japanese American) with a humble beginning know that he would become a top executive at Microsoft, a multimillionaire, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist who changes people’s lives.
On Wednesday, Feb. 22, Oki shared his journey to success and passion for helping others in front of an audience of 110 at Nagomi Tea House.
“I had no clue [that I was going to be this successful],” admitted Oki, “my dad wanted me to [become an] electrical engineer, and I hated it. I was a miserable failure.”
18 months into college, a discouraged Oki tried out for the Air Force band, and went into service.
“It wasn’t until I was in the Air Force [that] I got more mature. Once I figured out [what I wanted in life], I applied myself.”
After the Air Force, Oki enrolled in the University of Colorado, where he double-majored in Accounting and Information Systems. He then received a Master’s in Business Administration, graduating number one in his class.
Oki’s interest in technology, however, would never have started if it wasn’t for an insistent professor at the University of Colorado.
“One of my teachers, Dr. Cougar, was starting a Computer Science program. He was walking the hall [and] recruiting people to go into computers,” remembered Oki, “[my love for the software business] was his influence.”
Oki later made an endowment to the university in Dr. Cougar’s name.
After graduation, Oki worked in Cupertino, CA, where he created a technology startup with two business partners. The company failed. At that point, Oki found himself out of a job, and taking consulting projects here and there. Somehow, he heard about Microsoft.
“[At that time], if a company didn’t exist in Silicon Valley or Boston, it didn’t exist,” said Oki, who was immediately intrigued by a software company from his home town. He wrote a letter to Bill Gates, proposing a business plan that focused on international expansion, and got hired right away.
In four years, as the head of Microsoft’s international operations, Oki brought in “42% of revenue [and ] half of the profit.”
He was then appointed the head of the domestic division, and though he made tough changes – “I laid off 80% of the employees” – he raised profit by about 15%.
Success, however, comes at a price. After 10 years at Microsoft, working 90 – 100 hour weeks, Oki decided to put his family first.
“I retired exactly 10 years from the day Bill hired me,” recalled Oki, “I never regretted that decision.”
Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. Merely weeks after retired, Oki literally “sat under a tree,” and decided to make it his personal mission “to marry my passion for things entrepreneurial with things philanthropic in ways that encourage others to do the same.”
It has been 20 years since that revelation. Since then, Oki started numerous nonprofit organizations, including Scott Oki Foundation, and countless philanthropic projects. He now serves on over 100 nonprofit boards.
During his speech at Nagomi Tea House, Oki introduced a few of his philanthropic feats. They include Children’s Hospital’s Children’s Circle of Care, which generates donation by matching donors, Social Venture Partnership, which engages young billionaires to get involved in community service, Microsoft Alumni, whose purpose is to unite 85,000 Microsoft Alumni around the world to “do good things,” and Densho, a Legacy project that preserves stories from WWII-generation Japanese Americans. Densho is now a technology platform that can record stories to preserve history from all cultures.
During his speech, Oki also expressed concerns about the public education system, and his belief that education reform comes from parents, as well as teachers. His book, Outrageous Living, which explains his thoughts and solutions on education reform in detail, is sold on Kindle.
“If we can get parents as a very solid voice, to essentially add to the discussion and the bait surrounding what they need to do to reform education, then maybe we have a chance to move the needle.”
Oki is currently launching an organization called Parents’ Union, with the hope to generate a quarter of a million member base.
“With a quarter of a million parents, if we go to Olympia, legislators will listen.”
Lastly, Oki introduced See Your Impact, which enables everyday people to raise money for a cause by the power of social networking.
For young people out there who dream of success, Oki advised, “Find someone like Dr. Cougar. Or Mary Gates (whose own dedication to charities motivated Oki in his). Find someone who can motivate you. [They] help open doors to make it happen.”
Finally, Oki added, “Find your passion. If you don’t find your passion, I can guarantee you won’t do [well].”