Henry Nicholas, Superhero

He made billions with Broadcom and then quit at 44. Now Nicks life gets really exciting

The whole purpose of Broadcom is to unclog and speed up the arteries of computer communication so more and more digitalized information—e-mail, movies, music, radio and TV stations, telephone calls, and the increasingly important whatever—can flow simultaneously, back and forth, into your world and out. Broadcom makes the tiny computer chips that blast this information. Nicholas envisions a future where nearly every machine will be interconnected by this network. And nearly every human, too.

"The reason this will happen—the reason it is unstoppable—is that there is immense money to be made," Nicholas said while sitting in his study like $2 billion worth of unarguable proof. He took a sip from a cup of black coffee and a bite from a MET-Rx energy bar and then sunk back into the couch in his office. It is a high-ceilinged room royally swathed in draperies of maroon and gold and illuminated by the glow of sunlight, which prisms through hundreds of diamond-shaped panes of beveled glass. The décor includes an elaborate antique Austrian clock, a full suit of knight's armor and one of Shaquille O'Neal's boat-like basketball shoes. "The future of commerce will be based on this interactive network—advertising and buying and selling products. We already have the model. Its entire existence and development is being driven and paid for and self-perpetuated by the profit motive."

But just because the network is created by greed doesn't mean it can only be used that way. Humanitarian causes can piggyback on the technology and on the profit motive to pursue higher purposes. "The idea," said Nicholas, "is to ride along on the business model that companies are directing toward profit—while reaching for results that will push them toward altruism."

Nicholas is very specific about which humanitarian cause he'd like to see riding the business model: he'd like to break down the traditional barriers to universal-quality education, which he says basically boil down to the economic law of supply and demand, although they are often compounded by elitism, too. He says the computer technology he has helped pioneer can do it. "The ever-widening broadband capability that Broadcom is at the forefront of," said Nicholas, "can also be used to transmit . . . Hey! A classroom!"

Nicholas has laid out $10 million in seed money to start. His donation to St. Margaret's Episcopal—the expensive private elementary school his kids attend in San Juan Capistrano—set up a relationship with the engineers at UCI. The goal is to create a meaningful, interactive classroom experience that could be transmitted to anybody via their home computer. The results could change dramatically the way we think about such enduring school issues as racial integration, voucher systems, affirmative action, the teacher shortage and public-education funding.

"We have freedom of speech and freedom of information, but there are substantial economic and social barriers to getting an education," said Nicholas. "We don't have enough money to build enough schools, buy enough materials, find and train enough good teachers, or get enough students to those schools in a good-enough frame of mind to learn. We've got millions of kids whose only perception of school is a place where there aren't enough textbooks, graffiti is sprayed all over the place, they're afraid because they're not Crips and they're made to feel like dorks if they somehow still get A's. What chance do they have, really?"

The answer to that question tempted Nicholas to give his $10 million to disadvantaged schools rather than St. Margaret's.

"There would have been immediate gratification for a lot more schools and a lot more kids—and they would have had a big parade for me," he punch lined, but he wasn't smiling. "That would have been plugging holes in the dike. When the money ran out, they would have needed another $10 million. I wanted to invest in changing the system—changing the future of how children are educated."

And not just children.

"Our system of education limits almost all of us," Nicholas charged. "Right now, the average person can't wake up one morning and say, 'You know, I've decided I'm going to be a doctor—and I'm going to Harvard Medical School 'cause it's the best!' Most people, because they have passed a certain crossroads in their lives, are permanently banned. But they wouldn't be banned if there was a Harvard Medical School Channel. Or a UCLA Channel. Or a UC Irvine Channel. If they could connect to the education they want at the time in their lives when they want it, can you imagine the potential benefits to them—and to the world?"

The obstacles are significant. "The technology cannot degrade the education in any way, and it must be easy to use," said Nicholas. "So we are making the technologists at UC Irvine answerable to the kindergarten teachers at St. Margaret's. Rather than creating a complicated tool that the teachers must learn how to use, the teachers demand what they need, and the technologists fill the order."

Nicholas recited this technological wish list as though he were reading from his résumé. And in a way, he was.

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