A Brooklyn loyalist

June 17, 2022 William A. Gralnick
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Most everyone in Brooklyn, and maybe the nation, knows that Barbra Streisand is from Brooklyn. That’s reinforced every time she talks. There are, however, scads of others, some fairly well known, others not so much. Along with my Brooklyn Dodger birthday columns, I am going to begin a series of “Did you know?” articles about those persons. Let’s start with Mitch Kapor, someone you tekkies will know, but that’s probably all the recognition he’ll get. Yet from a little guy in Brooklyn, he became a big wheel in technology. His success? He only invented what’s known as the Lotus system for computers. He’s a genius.

Kapor said this. “I was born in Brooklyn. My parents moved us out to Long Island. But once a Brooklynite, always a Brooklynite.” 

I’ve lived in cities in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Georgia, and Florida. I left Brooklyn at 17, though my folks remained. When someone to this day asks me where I’m from, I’m with Kapor. Brooklyn is always the answer. Not even New York. I say Brooklyn, loud and proud.

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So, what is Lotus and who is this guy Kapor who put a plant’s  leaves onto a computer program? Just kidding. To tell the Kapor story, I’ll as always lean heavily on Wikipedia but will add observations. Here’s one. Take what he said about “once and always” and reflect on this. Carl Erskine, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, and Jackie Robinson, none of whom were from Brooklyn, had a lot to say about the people of Brooklyn. Playing in Brooklyn, in front of Brooklynites, changed them, made them different, and it was all positive. Apparently, so too for Kapor.

Here’s a guy who went to Yale, dropped out of his MS program, and founded Lotus in 1982. Lotus’ first product was presentation software for the Apple ll, known as the Lotus Executive Briefing System. Kapor founded Lotus after leaving his post as head of development at VisiCorp and selling all his rights to VisiPlot and VisiTrend to VisiCorp. Pretty gutsy I’d say. Another Brooklyn quality.

Shortly after Kapor left Visi-Corp, he and investors produced an integrated spreadsheet and graphics program. Even though IBM and VisiCorp had a collaboration agreement whereby Visi-Calc was being shipped simultaneously with the PC, Lotus had a clearly superior product. Lotus released Lotus 1-2-3 on January 26, 1983. The name referred to the three ways the product could be used, as a spreadsheet, graphics package, and database manager. In practice, the latter two functions were less often used, but 1-2-3 was the most powerful spreadsheet program available. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” comes to mind. And he did.

Just a few months ago, I was at a dead-end doing some research. I called a friend who I thought would know how to get where I needed to go. His answer? Lotus. Still an integral part of the tech world and going strong.

Lotus was almost immediately successful, becoming the world’s third-largest microcomputer software company in 1983 with $53 million in sales in its first year, compared to its business plan forecast of $1 million in sales. Analyst Jerome Want says:

“Under founder and CEO Mitch Kapor, Lotus was a company with few rules and fewer internal bureaucratic barriers…. Kapor decided that he was no longer suited to running a company, and [in 1986] he replaced himself with Jim Manzi.” 

Again, it was a Brooklyn move, being smart enough to know you’re not talented enough but also being smart enough to hire someone who is. He took the ego out of the decision—maybe not so Brooklyn on that one. 

In August 2015, Mitch and wife Freada (sic) announced they would invest $40 million over three years to accelerate their work to make the tech ecosystem more inclusive. 

In addition to his roles at Kapor Capital and Kapor Center, Kapor currently serves on the Board of SMASH, whose mission is to enhance equal opportunity in education and the workplace, and sits on the Advisory Board of Generation Investment Management, a firm whose vision is to embed sustainability into the mainstream capital markets.

Kapor was extensively involved in initiatives that created the modern Internet. He co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990 and served as its chairman until 1994. EFF defends civil liberties in the digital world and works to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as the use of technology grows. His fierce support of diversity? Very Brooklyn and I’d say also very Jewish.  

True, he can’t sing like “Babs”…but street smarts and the grit to go with them he has. Over the past eleven years, he has invested in 55 start-up companies to a tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He and his wife have stepped back from Kapor Capital, but they said they will continue to support the 170 start-ups (yes, 170!) they were involved in nurturing, 59% of which are ventures by women or “underrepresented people of color. Very Brooklyn.  

Conclusion? Brooklyn helped make a success out of him.

Chalk one up for Brooklyn!


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