Columbus native and former Brookstone graduate, Jim Whitehurst, is the Chief Executive Officer and President of Red Hat, Inc. the world’s first billion dollar open source software company.
By Roberto Caligaris
You were one of the youngest COOs at Delta Air Lines, how was that experience for you? Looking back on it, I’m amazed they let me do it. I was 35 years old and the company was heading toward bankruptcy. However, working through that crisis has proven to be one of the most rewarding professional experiences I’ve ever had. I had the opportunity to learn what it takes to be a leader, to really guide and influence a company in a difficult time. But more than that, to watch people ban together during such a trying time to save an important institution in the South, to be a part of that, was something I’ll never forget. We refused to let Delta fail on our watch. Even today, I’m so proud of how all of us handled that situation. It really showed me what’s possible when people rally behind a common purpose and goal.
You are currently the President and CEO of Red Hat, the world’s first billion-dollar open source company. How did you start up the company, and who are some of the companies who use your product? Bob Young and Marc Ewing originally founded Red Hat in 1993. When I joined in 2008, annual revenue was around $400 million. And if all goes according to plan, we will surpass the two billion dollar mark next year. Not everyone has heard of Red Hat, but you’re most likely using our technology every day. Our products power airline systems, banking networks, and underlie the majority of stock market equity trades. We count more than 90 percent of the Fortune 500 as customers as well as influential organizations such as Dream- Works, Sprint, and the New York Stock Exchange. We’re apart of the S&P 500, have close to 8,000 associates world, and were named one of the most innovative companies in the world by Forbes in 2015.
You have given many talks, including a TED talk, about the tech future and economic side. How important is this issue for those working in building new technology or investing? It’s hard to predict exactly how technology will impact business and society. But those that figure it out have an opportunity to build extraordinary businesses. For me, I already lead an extraordinary business. I am interested in this issue because I think technology has the potential to make the world a much better place. But that requires that leaders in many areas like business, government, and academia to carefully consider its impacts and steward their own organizations appropriately. My interest is more about making the world a better place for my kids and those who come after us. It’s a great privilege to be in a position to have at least a tiny bit of influence over that.
Is America still the land of opportunity? Absolutely. I have an opportunity to travel around the world every year. And while many other countries are building their own economic structures that create opportunities, I still believe the combination of the best legal system in the world, the strongest capital markets, fantastic universities, and a culture that tolerates – and even celebrates – risk-taking still makes America the best place for anyone to get ahead. That said, I do worry that too much money in politics, a tax system full of loopholes, and poor performing CEOs getting paid millions makes many people think the system is “rigged.” In some ways it is. That’s a major issue we need to address.
What’s something you miss about the South the most? Since I live in North Carolina, I think I still live in the South! It’s a little different. The North Carolina BBQ can’t compare, and the accent is a little off. Seriously, I think I benefited greatly from growing up in a town the size of Columbus. I think, or at least I hope, that I’m still a grounded person with strong values that I came from growing up in a community like Columbus. Durham, NC, where my family and I now live, is a bit bigger, but not much. And I am very happy to be able to raise my kids in a small city like that. svm
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