Jim Clark was born in 1944 in Fort Worth, Texas. When he was two, his parents moved the family to Plainview to be closer to both sets of grandparents, with whom he spent much of his preschool years. His mother's father was a trucker, and her mother was a seamstress; Clark's paternal grandparents were gentle farmers, devoted to his growth and happiness. He was with them a great deal of time in the fields, helping to pull cotton and do various other chores.
When World War II ended in 1945, Clark's father went to work in jobs that mostly serviced the farming industry. His father was a man who was prone to having a beer or two. Clark's mother disapproved of her husband's drinking habits, and the couple often fought over this. When Clark was 13, his parents divorced, at a time when divorce was still a social taboo. Soon after, his parents remarried, only to divorce again less than a year later, confusing the boy even more.
After his parents' final divorce, Clark's mother dated a man named Glenn who put Clark to work in his business. Glenn owned farming equipment and contracted his equipment to farmers in need of help with harvesting and planting. Clark spent one summer working alongside this man, harvesting wheat throughout the central plains. "My mother married Glenn when I was 17," says Clark, "but less than four years later he had a fatal heart attack."
Clark's mother worked as a nurse and medical secretary, saving all her money one summer to pay for nursing school. "Her father, who was a truck driver, accidentally killed a son while backing up his truck. He had to borrow my mother's savings to pay for the boy's funeral," he recalls. "Later, a group of his truck-driving friends got a fund together so that he could repay her and make it possible for her to attend nursing school. My mother was a hard worker and my mentor. She taught me to never shirk my responsibilities and to always work hard."
The divorce of his parents may have contributed to Clark's discipline problems in school. In his early years, he was a good student. But in junior high, he began coasting through his courses. "I didn't think about the future," he says. "I once briefly thought about becoming a court reporter, but the more trouble I got into at school, the more I started a downward spiral."
While a junior, Clark was expelled from school after swearing at a teacher. He could not return to classes until the school board met two weeks later. Because expulsion meant a point was deducted from his grades for each day missed, Clark decided not to return to school at all. "My mother was upset about that," he says. "She was working, trying to support three kids. My father never paid child support, and we were in tough shape financially."
Having an uncle whom he admired and who had served in the U.S. Navy, Clark impulsively decided to join. Because he was only 17, his mother had to sign a release for him. He spent the next three and a half years in the Navy, which he credits with a "series of awakenings." The Navy's discipline and the structure that were part of each day helped Clark think in a more organized manner. After nine months at sea, he was sent to school, where he tested high in physics and electronics. At the end of 13 weeks, Clark was the top student in his class. "That was my second awakening," he says. "I discovered I could be good at something."
When Clark went back out to sea, he began taking correspondence courses to complete high school. Near the end of his tour of duty, he took three college courses from Tulane University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and received three A's. The Navy gave him an early release to enroll at Texas Tech, where he majored in electrical engineering. While in the Navy, Clark married and had a son.
In Texas, he was a dispatcher at the local fire department, but one year later, he needed a better-paying job. His calculus professor from Tulane was working at Boeing in New Orleans and was able to get Clark a full-time job at Boeing. Clark transferred to Louisiana State University because he could not afford the tuition at Tulane, and he switched his major to physics.
Clark enjoyed his coursework. He was learning to program computers at Boeing, and he decided he wanted to become a professor. After graduation, he earned a fellowship, which made it possible for him to continue his education full time. He earned his master's in physics and then went to the University of Utah, where he earned a doctorate in computer science. He accepted a position as associate professor at the University of Santa Cruz in 1974. Four years later, he accomplished one of his goals, becoming an associate professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. But within two years, he knew teaching wasn't going to hold his interest for long.
Clark's specialty was computer graphics. In 1982, two staff members and five students joined him to create Silicon Graphics, Inc. He took a leave of absence to do this, but by 1984 when he decided that business was more rewarding for him than academia, he resigned his position at Stanford.
Over the next 13 years, Silicon Graphics grew to 10,000 employees and more than $4 billion in annual revenues. By then, Clark was 50 and financially comfortable, but he felt restless and wanted to move in a different direction. He resigned as chairman of the Board and contacted Marc Andreessen, a 20-year-old graduate student who in 1994 led a team in writing the first Internet browser. The two formed a company around the idea of commercializing the web browser, with Clark investing $5 million; within three months they formed Mosaic, later renamed Netscape. Seven of Andreessen's student collaborators were co-founders with them.
Netscape was an immediate success. The first Netscape browser shipped in January 1995, and the company reported $75 million in revenues that year. Halfway through its first year of business, the company went public in the most successful IPO up to that time. By the end of that first day of trading, Clark's 20 percent of the company was worth $663 million. Credited with launching the Internet boom, Netscape was sold in 1998 to AOL for $1 billion. Within a year, Netscape's portion of AOL was worth almost $10 billion.
When asked about his phenomenal success, Clark is quick to point out that until he began to believe in himself and his abilities, his successes were few. "I never tried to excel at anything," he says. "I was aware I was good in math, but that didn't strike me as being pertinent to anything. It wasn't until I went into the Navy and I could see the applications for math in electronics that it all began to make sense to me. But it took a lot of hard work on my part. I studied hard and made myself an expert in several areas, including computer science and business."
Although Clark is a fan of all the Internet can do for society, he harbors some concern about societal changes. "If you are going to socialize, do it personally," he advises. "That's how you develop real relationships. Use your day to absorb knowledge. For me, success is productivity. You should make things, do things for other people, be productive, add something to society, that's how I define success."
Clark believes he had low expectations for himself while growing up in Plainview. But once was exposed to the world beyond his hometown, he realized he could compete with the best people in his chosen fields of study. His advice is to "forget about where or what you come from. Don't feel sorry for yourself. Just put your head down and get to work. Ultimately, if you can get yourself to a point of having choices, then you are in charge. Choose a career that allows you to add something to humanity. If you find you don't like your first choice, then quit your job and go in a new direction. But always add something to the world rather than taking something from it."
After learning he has a genetic disorder called hemochromatosis, which causes him to absorb too much iron, Clark developed an interest in healthcare. When he was first diagnosed, he went to several doctors for differing opinions and was frustrated each time he had to fill out long forms about his health history. He decided it was time to computerize the healthcare industry. He founded Healtheon, which later became WebMD. Clark was also part of MyCFO and Shutterfly.
In 1999, Clark donated $150 million to establish Stanford's James A. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering & Science, which has since become one of the world's leading biology research centers. Clark supports research and numerous nonprofit activities related to healthcare, education, and the world's oceans. He funded production of the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary film titled The Cove, and he holds annual fundraisers for the Perlman Music Program.
Clark continues to program computers and became involved in a startup company that addresses security, energy, and home automation. He believes that young men and women can get a good education anywhere, but that it is up to the individual to make any circumstance work. "Once you realize that," he says, "then I believe anything is possible as long as you persevere.""