Tribute to My Mentor

In honor of Gerry Davis, April 2018

My mentor passed away earlier this month. I have had the benefit of numerous mentors over my long career, but Gerry Davis was The Mentor. We worked together for over 35 years, from the very beginnings of my Silicon Valley career. Gerry’s incredible advice guided me along my entire path, and so many crucial turning points went well because of Gerry’s invaluable insight and guidance.

Gerry was one of the earliest computer software attorneys, and even wrote one of the first books on the subject. I could always count on Gerry to come up with a breakthrough idea that made something I dreamed about doing become a reality. He considered himself a “problem-solving lawyer” and warned me against getting involved with “problem-creating lawyers!” I am incredibly indebted to Gerry for so many reasons but want to highlight three in particular.

First, Gerry turned me from a geek into a businessperson and entrepreneur. When I cofounded my first (successful) Silicon Valley startup, Calera, I was really young and clueless. I was ten years younger than my two cofounders, and they stuck me with being the chief financial officer. And stuck was the operative word: I stayed in that role for seven years. I needed help with business negotiations and software licensing and Gerry jumped in teaching me everything I know about doing business. He taught me that 95% of the time I didn’t need help from him or another attorney. Most importantly, he walked me through how to frame the goal of any agreement with another organization, and to think through scenarios of how it might go sour. He called these “imaginary horribles.” Thanks to Gerry, I never ended up in court with a legal contract, because he taught me to think through the angles before ever signing anything.

Second, Gerry was instrumental in the founding of Benetech. When Calera’s board vetoed my idea of a new product: a reading machine for the blind, I was distraught. I was in love with this idea, and Gerry knew it. When I explained that our board just didn’t see manufacturing reading machines for the blind making financial sense for a for-profit company, Gerry said “How about you set up a deliberately nonprofit tech company?” I laughed, because at the time Calera was an accidentally nonprofit tech company: it was organized as a for-profit but was still losing (a lot of) money.

Gerry patiently explained that he would volunteer his time on a pro bono basis to incorporate and get IRS approval for my new company to make reading machines for the blind, one that was set up as a nonprofit charity.

This seemed exceptionally clever: even if we lost money, we’d be successful by definition as a deliberately nonprofit tech company! That was how the organization we now know of as Benetech was created and how I became a social entrepreneur (this was more than a decade before we had heard the term). Gerry served on Benetech’s board of directors for 29 years, always there for advice and tackling the next big opportunity. As the prototypical technology social enterprise, Benetech became one of the first organizations  using technology to solve social problems rather than seeking to make maximum financial returns.

Third, there would be no Bookshare if it had not been for Gerry. I was always coming up with new, crazy ideas of social ventures, and Gerry was a great sounding board. In late 1999, I had just seen the original Napster product, and I knew we had thousands of families scanning the same Harry Potter book on our reading machines for people who were blind or dyslexic. What if we could scan once, proofread the resulting scan, and share that ebook with tens of thousands of eager readers? I went to Gerry with the idea for Bookster.

Gerry quickly did the legal research and came back to explain that my idea, which seemed like it should be illegal, was 100% permitted under an obscure provision of the copyright law! He also firmly suggested that I needed to change the name. I had already grabbed the domain, but Gerry patiently explained that the publishers had far more lawyers than we had books at that point, and that my chosen name would needlessly antagonize the publishers. We quickly came up with Bookshare as a better and more descriptive name.

He took the idea one step further. Using his incredible connections in the legal field, he obtained a chance for the two of us to present to the Copyright Committee of the Association of American Publishers. This group was the cream of the publishing industry’s legal talent, the general counsels of all the major publishers. More than a year before launching Bookshare, we shared our plans with this skeptical committee. One of the first reactions was “no one has ever come to tell us of their plans to steal our content in advance before!” Gerry’s strategy worked like a charm: by consulting well in advance, we were able to come to some compromises to make the publishers more comfortable that we were indeed operating within the copyright law and actually helping bona fide people with disabilities. When we launched Bookshare, the head of the publishers’ association sent around an email reassuring their members that we were good guys, and to please not sue Bookshare!

Bookshare has gone on to become the world’s largest library for people with disabilities, serving more than half a million kids with disabilities in the U.S. alone.

Gerry was like a father to me. He had graduated from Georgetown Law School just a couple of years after my dad. I was actually born at Georgetown University Hospital just one year after Gerry launched his legal career from there! I know how big and wide his legal career was, and I was just  one of the many clients to benefit from his legal brilliance and ability to see to the very heart of any problem. Not only that, Gerry also turned me and a bunch of the Benetech team onto digital photography. Gerry enabled my life’s work in so many ways!

Gerry stayed on Benetech’s board until early this year, because he prized the mental stimulation of doing good with technology. Just last month, he helped me solve a knotty trademark and web domain challenge. I hope that Gerry’s family knows how much his contributions were appreciated by the Benetech team, and the millions of lives our work has touched. None of it would have been possible without the brilliant heart and mind of my mentor, G. Gervaise Davis III, Esq.


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