The past two decades have been riotous for America’s private sector. The country’s largest and oldest corporations have enjoyed booms and suffered busts, championed the development of the Internet and information economy, and weathered the pressures of globalization. Moreover, major shifts in policy have redefined the entire landscape within which businesses must operate, creating tailwinds for some and headwinds for others.
Through it all, the United States has managed to maintain its position at the leading edge of business. This is thanks largely to the efforts and genius of people like Bill Gates, who founded Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Steve Jobs, who founded Apple (NADSAQ:AAPL). On the policy front, there have been few people more influential than the chairs of the Federal Reserve — first Alan Greenspan, and then Ben Bernanke — who, for better or worse, together guided American monetary policy for the twenty-six years that ended in January.
These leaders have exemplified what American business is all about by being both forward thinking innovators and business leaders as well as policymakers, reacting as well as they could to a complex and rapidly evolving financial and economic landscape. Here’s a closer look.
1. Bill Gates
Bill Gates was the type of kid who got all he needed from high school and his own intuition. The son of a prominent lawyer and a mother who served on the board of directors for First Interstate BancSystem and United Way, according to Stephen Manes’s Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself The Richest Man in America, he was already prepared for the challenges ahead.
According to Microsoft, in college, Gates developed his own version of BASIC computer code after dropping out of Harvard, per Gates’ own autobiography, The Road Ahead. He was ready for the future and started Microsoft Inc. in 1981 with friend Paul Allen. Leadership and Development says Gates envisioned the scale of personal computing and had hoped the devices would become cheap so that everyone could afford one.
His leadership style, according to Leadership and Development, was one of authoritarianism, in which he would request his employees to present and report on their ideas and findings to him on a regular basis. At the same time, he would regularly interrupt meetings to question and challenge facts and assumptions.
This was just his style, though. It was really nothing different from the ordinary boss you would work for anywhere else who had a specific idea of how he wanted something to be. Yet like any businessperson, if things aren’t running the way they should be, he was there to fix those things. How do you think Gates was able to turn the entire decade of the ’90s into his time?
Per The Richest, Gates and Apple founder Steve Jobs met and became friends when they grew up together. While Gates would eventually find himself at the mercy of the U.S. government over Microsoft’s business practices, Jobs would go on to endure an even rougher trial.
2. Steve Jobs
While the 1990s belonged to Bill Gates, one could say that the 2000s ended up going to his friend Steve Jobs. Born to a Syrian-born father and a Swiss-American Catholic mother, according to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, he was raised in San Francisco by adoptive parents Paul and Clara Jobs.
Not only did Jobs not know his father, according to Maclean’s, he didn’t even acknowledge his biological parents having anything to do with his true self in Isaacson’s authorized biography. Jobs would go onto study at Reed College but decided to drop out after six months to focus his next eighteen months on creative classes such as calligraphy, according to The Guardian.
That would not be a surprise to many who are familiar with the similar path Gates took. His decision to leave college was because he was not challenged enough and knew enough to move forward – just as Jobs did in his founding of Apple.
After founding Apple, Jobs was defined as persuasive and charismatic at the company but started to receive complaints from employees as erratic and temperamental, Apple Matters reports. This, Apple Matters said, led to the ousting of Jobs after a few board meetings that gave Apple CEO John Sculley the authority to remove Jobs from the company.
Just because he was down didn’t mean he was out. Jobs knew that the company was his and eventually would need him again to get its creative juices flowing. When the accountants are in charge, the products are the same, not interesting and innovative, but that changed when Jobs made his grand return.
From 1996 to 1997, Jobs would return to his authority as chief executive, after-then CEO Gil Amelio was fired, The New York Times reported. Over the next decade, Jobs would go onto create some of the most revolutionary devices including the iPod, iPad, iMac, and many other products that would define the next American century.
3. Ben Bernanke
Ben Bernanke came from probably the most bizarre place that a young Jewish genius would grow up in: Augusta, Georgia, according to The Wall Street Journal. He was born to a Hungarian couple who left right before World War II, according to The Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine.
Bernanke attended Harvard University, graduating with a B.A. and later with a Masters of Arts in economics summa cum laude in 1975, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, in 1979, Bernanke received his Ph.D in economics and gave his dissertation, titled Long-Term Commitments, Dynamic Optimization, and the Business Cycle.
Bernanke would go on to serve as a member of the Board of the Governors of the Federal Reserve System from 2002 to 2005. He would eventually serve as Fed chair from 2006 to 2014 after being nominated by President George Bush initially.
His Keynesian economic aesthetic was quite controversial among many, especially conservatives, The New York Times reported during the financial crisis of 2008. He was involved in the merger between Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, according to a letter from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The AIG bailout was also controversial when a whistleblower blew the details on Bernanke’s role in it to The Huffington Post.
Bernanke and Secretary of the Treasury partner-in-crime Hank Paulson went about doing things that had never been done economically in the history of the U.S. Some of the Keynesian aesthetic doesn’t necessarily translate very well to the country’s founding ideas of federalism and free market economics, but Bernanke saw this as a greater means to an end. Bernanke’s goal was always to prevent the Great Depression from happening again, but recent microeconomic conditions throw that into question, as they remain recessive.
4. Alan Greenspan
Alan Greenspan has become the most controversial and blamed Federal Reserve chair for the financial crisis that many say he caused during his tenure. From 1987, under Ronald Reagan, to 2006, under George W. Bush, he put in measures to deregulate the economy, emphasizing free markets all the way.
Greenspan grew up with a Romanian-Jewish father and Hungarian-Jewish mother, according to his autobiography, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. He attended New York University in 1945, where he earned a Bachelor’s of Science in economics summa cum laude in 1948. He also earned a Master’s of Arts in economics in 1950 there, according to Justin Martin’s Greenspan: The Man Behind Money.
He began to pursue advanced economics studies at Columbia University, according to Martin’s biography, but dropped out. However, in 1977, he would obtain his doctorate in economics from NYU, Barron’s reports.
After being nominated as chair of the Fed by Reagan, he was confirmed in August 1987. The blame began with the Fed’s response to the 1987 stock market crash, when George H.W. Bush blamed him for not getting a second term, The Washington Post reported. At the bursting of the dot-com bubble, he was accused by Paul Krugman for not raising rates enough, even though he did raise rates, as recorded in Krugman’s book The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008.
Greenspan would go on to be criticized for proposed tax decreases during the 2001 recession, the lowering of the federal funds rate after 9/11, and, eventually, his overall policy, which many say led to the Great Recession. But the truth of the matter is that his economic policies under Reagan, Clinton, Bush, etc., led to a vibrant economy for at least two decades, and incomes and the standard of living greatly increased for many families, alongside markets that flourished under being free and able to do what they wished. However, that approach didn’t necessarily work out the best for the financial markets, which many now say should have had more regulation.