Born in the blue collar town of Lufkin, Texas, in 1936, Jack Gill was the fourth of six children. His parents were poor and under-educated. No one in his mother’s family had ever graduated from high school. At the time of Gill’s birth, Lufkin’s paper mill and foundry supported most of the town’s population of 10,000. His father drove heavy equipment and worked 12-hour days, six days a week. Gill says he didn’t see a lot of his father, but knew his father to be very bright and principled. “My father was self-taught. He read newspapers and books and enjoyed sharing with us what he learned,” he says.
The Gill family lived 10 miles outside Lufkin and had a small orchard that provided them with fresh fruit. They raised chickens and had a vegetable garden and a cow. It was Gill’s job to milk the cow each day. As a youth, he often filled a bucket with peaches and plums from the orchard and made a little money selling them. He started mowing lawns when he was eight. At the age of 10, he became the janitor of his church. He spent his earning on store-bought shirts, because the only ones his parents were able to provide were made from feed bags.
Gill worked hard in school and studied late at night. He began to develop an interest in chemistry and cleaned out a garage storage room for his laboratory. In high school, he worked his way up to the position of checker at the local grocery store, where his nearly photographic memory helped him to remember all the prices.
After graduating near the top of his class, Gill and a friend moved to Beaumont, Texas, which was near Lamar University—a school Gill felt he could afford. He worked at a grocery store 40 hours a week and earned a degree in four years in both chemistry and engineering. While in college, Gill read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, a turn-of-the century philosopher. The book outlined eight characteristics necessary for a rich life: ambition, awareness, curiosity, enthusiasm, patience, perception, perseverance, and positiveness. Gill fully adopted Hill’s ideas.
After graduating with honors in both chemistry and engineering, Gill won teaching assistantships and fellowships, which paid for graduate school at Indiana University. He passed all the exams that would allow him to bypass a master’s program and earned his doctorate in four years.
Gill’s first job after finishing his education in 1963 was as a scientist and engineer for Monsanto, where he continued his research and, using his engineering background, designed chromatography instruments. In 1965, Gill took a job in California as vice president of research and development for Wilkins, which was later acquired by Varian Associates. “These were the fledgling days of Silicon Valley,” says Gill. “It became a mega event; the world’s greatest business experiment. It was an incredible experience and I was lucky to be there from the beginning.”
Still, Gill was making little money. He decided to found his own company to start his entrepreneurial career. His company, Autolab, made the world’s first microprocessor-based computers for use in laboratories. After three years, Autolab merged into Spectra Physics, Inc., and Gill served as group president and co-COO. He left at the age of 40 and founded Vanguard Venture Partners, which became one of the nation’s leading high-tech venture capital firms.
Although Gill has remained active in venture capital and angel investing, he also teaches courses on leadership and entrepreneurship at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Rice University.
Gill strongly believes that education plays a critical role in determining success. “Education provides the best opportunities for personal growth and development, career and professional achievement, income and family security, and success in building satisfying relationships,” he says. “It is all the enablement a person ever needs.” In 1997, the Gill Foundation of Texas was established to further the family’s interest in and support of educational philanthropy.
Pleased with his Horatio Alger Award, Gill says, “I admire and respect the Association’s focus on helping young people get their education.” That’s why we support over 200 college scholarships in six states through the Gill Foundation and the Horatio Alger Association.