The Billionaire Dropout: The Early Years of Larry Ellison

“Being first is more important to me,” says Ellison. “I have so much more money. Whatever money is, it's just a method of keeping score now. I mean I certainly don't need more money.”

He is the CEO of the second largest software company in the world; he was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 1990 by the Harvard Business School; and he is the 9th richest person in the world as ranked by Forbes, with a net worth of $18.4 billion. Larry Ellison transformed his small start-up into not only a multi-billion dollar company but also the fastest growing database software company in the world.

Lawrence Joseph Ellison was born on August 17, 1944 in New York City. His mother, Florence Spellman, was just 19 years old and unwed. When Ellison contracted pneumonia at nine months old, Spellman decided to give her son up for adoption to her great aunt and uncle who lived on the south side of Chicago. Lillian and Louis Ellison raised Ellison as their own son in their modest two-bedroom apartment. Louis had lost his real estate business during the Great Depression and now supported his family as a public housing auditor. Lillian proved to be a warm and supportive mother, while Louis was an uninterested father. Ellison did not find out he was adopted until he was 12 years old.

Ellison attended South Shore High School, where he excelled. After graduating in 1962, he enrolled at the University of Illinois, but he wouldn’t last long there. At the end of his sophomore year, Ellison’s adoptive mother died of cancer and he subsequently dropped out of school. After spending a summer in Northern California, Ellison enrolled at the University of Chicago, intending to pursue a degree in physics and mathematics. Again, Ellison dropped out after just one quarter. His father was convinced his son would never amount to anything.

College, however, was not a complete waste of time for Ellison, who had taught himself computer programming as part of one of his courses in physics. He began doing freelance programming and found that the culture suited him more than academics. “My short attention span didn’t work against me because I could get programs written very quickly,” he recalls. “I ended up making quite a lot of money, and I only had to work a few days a week. It was fun and it was easy. And nobody cared if you were a Ph.D. from MIT or had never finished high school.”

In 1966, Ellison decided to move to California. Over the next few years, Ellison would bounce around between Californian companies as a programmer. Although he found that the work matched his lifestyle and temperament, Ellison’s main motivation was to make enough money to be able to spend time hiking in the Yosemite Valley.

In 1977, Ellison began to work for a company called Ampex Corporation, where one of his main projects was to build a database for the CIA, whose code name was ‘Oracle.’ Determined to be his own boss, Ellison and his former supervisor at Ampex, Robert Miner, founded Software Development Labs with $2,000 capital. Initially a consulting business, the two soon decided to go into the software business. They thought that as computer hardware technology developed, there would be a growing demand for prepackaged, ready-to-use software programs. If they could develop a useful program that could be sold repeatedly to different companies, Ellison knew they would hit the jackpot. The only question now was coming up with the right product.

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