Rest in Peace, Tom Stemberg

I on Friday read with great sadness about Tom Stemberg’s death.

I recalled my last two interactions with him. One was puzzling and the other was comforting. Let me explain.

Shortly after announcing that I wanted to quit my job and start a new VC firm, I ran into Tom.

“Why leave?” he asked.

“It’s hard to explain. I’m an immigrant, I feel I have to do this. And,….”

Tom raised his hand and cut me off. “I understand completely.”

“I feel I’d rather try and fail versus not try at all.”

“Again,” he said, “I understand completely.”

How does he understand?, I asked myself.

“Jo, you’re going to succeed at it. I really believe it.” He looked very convinced of that.

I left that meeting hoping he was right. I also wondered how he knew about how I felt. After reading his obituary, I now know why. I didn’t realize he too had strong immigrant roots and had to overcome challenges in childhood:

The only son of Austrian immigrants who fled the Anschluss prior to World War II, Mr. Stemberg’s life embodied his own personal mantra of ‘turning adversity into opportunity’.

His father Oscar was a Jewish restaurateur who managed the restaurants inside the prestigious Hotel Imperial in Vienna. His mother Erika, a Catholic, fell in love with Oscar after meeting him in Vienna and married him thereafter, despite being disinherited by her father for marrying a Jewish man.

Erika endured the scorn of her family members, some of whom would go on to serve as SS Officers for the Nazis. With the anxieties surrounding Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1930s, Erika decided it best that they leave the country and start anew in the United States….

Mr. Stemberg’s father founded a successful new restaurant named Zig’s near the family’s home in Orange, New Jersey, and Mr. Stemberg recalled how some of the all-time greats from the 1950s New York Yankees would visit the restaurant.

However, Mr. Stemberg’s father passed away tragically when he was 11 years old. His mother, living only on monthly Social Security checks, moved back to Vienna to raise her son.

Mr. Stemberg attended high school at the American International School in Vienna. A standout student, he received an academic scholarship to attend Harvard College in the fall of 1967.

I saw Tom a year ago, at a HBS conference for alumni who are VCs. We chatted at length. I had heard that he had been ill, and I was amazed by how energetic he was. He said he was in good health and was excited about raising a new VC fund.

I told him how much I respected him and admired him. I told him that I knew he could do it. He seemed very touched.

That was the last time I saw Tom. I’m very glad that our last interaction was direct and sincere, and that I could pay him back by showing my confidence in him.

Rest in peace, Tom. It’s no wonder that you endowed two scholarships at Harvard for students who have lost a parent. It’s no wonder that you adopted children, too, to make sure they would not be fatherless.

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