Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Valley Girls: Esther Dyson

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Esther dyson at zero gravity
Zero gravity, where everything feels natural for Ms Dyson

Esther Dyson has been described as everything from the First Lady of the internet to its court jester.

But, she maintains, she has stumbled into a life that has taken her around the world and, hopefully, into space.

"My life has been complete blind evolution rather than intelligent design," she told the BBC.

"But I've got a good sense of direction and I just keep doing things I think are interesting and not redundant."

To that end, Ms Dyson has striven to make an impact in Silicon Valley - and on the internet as a whole - through her investments, her position on the boards of non-profit organisations, and on her ability to influence politicians and governments.

Humble start

Ms Dyson started her working life at the bottom of the heap as a fact checker at business magazine Forbes, only because Variety would not hire her. It was not long though before she became a reporter writing about technology.

After a few career moves, she bought the company she worked for and took over a highly influential newsletter called Release 1.0 that covered emerging markets. She also ran PC Forum, the computer industry's leading annual conference.

"What I did for a long time was make things obvious that people weren't noticing by explaining what was going on and pointing out stuff like the internet or the impact the internet would have," said Ms Dyson.

Esther Dyson
Ms Dyson is regarded as one of the most influential voices online

That was until one day in the mid 1990s when someone called her bluff.

"This guy I knew came to me and said: 'You talk about investing in Eastern Europe, suppose I give you a million dollars to invest, would you help me to do that?'"

"I said 'Oh. I can't. Its a conflict with my newsletter'. Then I said: 'How much did you say?' At the time a million dollars was a big chunk. Anyway, I said I would figure it out and ultimately I closed the newsletter."

Along with $300,000 of her life savings, Ms Dyson traded careers and invested in Eastern Europe and then Russia.

A million dollar advance she later got for a book about the impact of the wired world was also put into start-ups.

"I don't want to make it sound too easy, but at the same time I wasn't really focused on it. I have now discovered if you invest wisely you get more money and you can invest again and that's pretty cool."

Ms Dyson has taken her money and invested early and often in companies such as Google, Orbtiz, 23andMe, Flickr,, Dopplr and Powerset to name but a few.

"I try and invest in stuff before other people notice because its cheap and there are not 18 of them doing the same thing.

"At the same time, tempting though it is, you cannot invest in a strategy or a market. You have to invest in individuals."

Money and work

Ms Dyson said she was not really interested in money and had no idea what she is worth.

"My parents were European. Mum was a mathematician and dad a physicist. We travelled a lot and knew about the world. I actually thought salesmen were the scum of the earth. I have certainly changed my opinion on that," she said.

shots of computer keyboards
Ms Dyson has said technology can help empower individuals

"We grew up in a very academic family. We didn't have a TV. We read a lot. I was 13 when I went to London to live with another family. When I was 17 I left college and spent the summer hitch-hiking in Europe and then went to live in Morocco with my boyfriend."

While money might not matter today, the young Ms Dyson certainly knew its value.

"I was a good saver and I got 25 cents an hour babysitting if the kids were awake and 12.5 cents if they were asleep. That was how I made money until I got a job in a library when I was 14.

"I've been working for money ever since."

Zero gravity

Ms Dyson acknowledged that her wealth has bought her freedom and that she probably could not work for anyone else anyway.

In quite a few cases, she takes an active role in the start-ups she invests in. They range from personal genetics to online travel and from photo sharing to a natural language search engine.

"Yes I want to make money so that I can reinvest it and keep doing this. But I'm not thinking how rich I'm going to get, I'm thinking what exciting new things am I going to help make happen?"

So what sectors does this serial investor have her beady eye on at the moment?

Esther Dyson tries a drink of water at zero gravity
Ms Dyson is hoping her ambition of getting to space will soon be a reality

"Where I am excited now is in health care genomics and the internet's infrastructure. This is going to continue to grow and they are making wonderful new discoveries, scaling up, and finding better security techniques."

Ms Dyson's other great love is space, though it's about more than profit and loss.

As a two time weightless flyer, Ms Dyson is presently living in Russia's Starcity training to be a cosmonaut. She is a back-up to Charles Simonyi, who formerly worked at Microsoft and is getting ready to go on his second space mission this spring.

"Zero gravity is just so amazing, but when you are in it it feels completely natural. I think the chances of me going into space are now 50/50 which is better than my chances of getting Alzheimer's," she joked.

And how would she like to be remembered?

"I want my tombstone to read: She wasn't done yet."

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