The world's richest man says he has his family to thank for his unmatched fortune—especially his Cuba-born father.
In a new interview with German publishing giant Axel Springer, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, discusses his life from childhood and into his career.
While Bezos doesn't tip his hand about where Amazon's much-hyped second headquarters may end up, his latest remarks about the place that has been most important to him suggest Miami, where Bezos attended high school and a current finalist for the HQ2, may not top his list.
But as far as people go, Miguel "Mike" Bezos, a Cuban immigrant, figures prominently.
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The elder Bezos came to the U.S. as a teenager, alone, fleeing Communist Cuba in the early '60s. He met Jeff Bezos' mom in Albuquerque, where Mike had earned a scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico. They couple ended up in Houston after Mike landed a job as an engineer for Exxon. He would stay with that company for 30 years.
"My dad, who's a Cuban immigrant ... he came to the US when he was 16 in a refugee camp in the Everglades," Jeff Bezos said. "[My family] is so loving and supportive. When you have loving and supportive people in your life, like [wife] MacKenzie, my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, you end up being able to take risks. Because I think it's one of those things, you know, you kind of know that somebody's got your back. And so if you're thinking about it logically, it's an emotional thing."
Mike Bezos has commented frequently on his experience as a Cuban American.
"I'm a Cuban first, but I always feel very proud to be American at the same time," he told the National Museum of American history. "At home, the language was English, and it wasn't until later when the kids were growing up that we brought Spanish back, because whenever we got together with my Cuban family, it was all Spanish. Jackie, my wife, who speaks perfect Spanish, learned Spanish because she wanted to know what my mother was saying about her and she found out that my mother loved her."
Though he has not been known to speak Spanish in public, it may mean Jeff Bezos could make his way around a Spanish conversation.
Jeff Bezos graduated from Palmetto High School in Pinecrest, where he earned a Silver Knight Award for academic achievement. But he says his most formative experiences came in the Southwest.
He fell in love with computers in fourth grade, when he was living in Houston. His elementary school had a teletype machine that was connected to a mainframe computer. A local business donated computer time to the students.
"Me and two other kids stayed after school and sort of figured out how to do it, and kind of taught ourselves programming from books. I think one thing is, I got very lucky early in my childhood," he said.
Bezos was born in 1964 New Mexico to a teenage mother, Jackie Gise, who faced ostracism for her pregnancy. Soon after his birth, Bezos says his biological father fell out of the picture; Mike married Jackie when Bezos was four and adopted him.
Bezos' maternal grandfather Preston, an administrator for the Atomic Energy Commission, kept things under control.
"My grandfather went to bat for her, and then they tried to kick her out of school, and they're incredible, so the gift I had was that I had this incredible family," he said.
Bezos said Preston was "super important" to him and that he spent "an unusual amount of time with my grandparents, and especially with my grandfather" on their ranch in the south Texas town of Cotulla between ages 4 and 16.
"I could fix prolapsed cattle; we did all our own veterinary work — some of the cattle even survived," he joked. "And we fixed windmills, and laid water pipelines, and built fences, and barns, and fixed the bulldozer.
"One of the things that's so interesting about that lifestyle and about my grandfather is he did everything himself. You know, he didn't call a vet if one of the animals was sick; he figured out what to do himself."
The most important lesson Bezos learned from Preston came after the boy wisecracked to his grandmother about how many minutes of her life she had lost while smoking in the car.
"My grandfather stopped the car and he took me out of the car. And I had no idea what was about to happen, because he had never said a cross word to me," Bezos said. "I thought, he might actually be angry with me. But he wasn't. He took me out so that we had some privacy from her and he said these incredible words. He said, 'You're going to figure out one day that it's harder to be kind than clever.' "
The last time Bezos visited Miami is not clear. He did tell the Herald in 2007 that winning the local 1982 Silver Knight Award for academic achievement was the first time he "got any formal recognition for being a good student."
He left South Florida to attend Princeton. He has since turned Texas into the launching pad for his space venture; it's also the place where he's recreated a ranch like the one he grew up on for his own family. A list of places Bezos calls home put together by the Wall Street Journal last year did not include Miami.
That hasn't stopped Amazon from putting Miami on its list for potential sites for the highly sought Amazon second headquarters, dubbed HQ2. A final decision on the winning city will likely come before the end of the year. Pundits have tipped the Washington, D.C., metro area as the most likely destination; Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, has a home there, and multiple cities in the region were chosen as finalists. Amazon also recently announced it would be bringing more than 2,000 jobs to the Boston area.
This post has been updated.