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That guy is Mike Bezos, a Cuban refugee who moved to the U.S. by himself when he was 15 years old, with nothing more than two shirts and a pair of pants. Taken under wing by a Catholic mission, Mike learned English, toiled at many odd jobs and made his way to the University of Albuquerque. While working the night shift as a clerk at a bank, he met Jackie, who was also employed there, and fell in love. They married when Jeff was four.
Jeff was an exceptionally smart child. Fed up with sleeping in a crib, the toddler found a screwdriver and reduced his jail to its component parts. He constantly built models, worked a Radio Shack electronics kit that Pop bought him down to the nubs and endlessly tinkered with stuff. When he was six, his sister Christina was born; a year later, his brother Mark arrived. When the siblings were old enough to get into Jeff's bedroom, he rigged a buzzer to his door that would go off like a burglar alarm. Later, in what his family has come to think of as the "solar-cooker era"--named after a solar microwave he concocted out of an umbrella and aluminum foil--the garage became his laboratory.
In high school in Miami--his father, an engineer with Exxon, moved the family several times--Jeff became the valedictorian. He didn't drink, do drugs or even swear. People liked him anyway. And almost every summer, he headed for his grandfather's ranch in Cotulla. It was the perfect antidote to the brainy world he inhabited the rest of the year. On the ranch he'd ride horses, brand cattle with a LAZY G, fix windmills and tool around in a 1962 International Harvester Scout. He helped his grandpa fix a D6 Caterpillar tractor using nothing but a 3-ft.-high stack of mail-order manuals. "You have to have a lot of patience on a ranch in the middle of nowhere," he says.
If you ask him today who his heroes were, he names two: Thomas Edison and Walt Disney. The former was a brilliant innovator and a horrid businessman, the latter a good innovator and a great businessman. It wasn't Disney's movies that impressed Bezos but his theme parks. He went to Disney World six times. "The thing that always amazed me was how powerful his vision was," Bezos says. "He knew exactly what he wanted to build and teamed up with a bunch of really smart people and built it. Everyone thought it wouldn't work, and he had to persuade the banks to lend him $400 million. But he did it."
If you had to pick a single eureka! moment, a time when suddenly everything became clear about what the future had in mind for Jeff Bezos, it was on a May day in 1994. The 30-year-old was sitting at the computer in his 39th-floor office in midtown Manhattan, exploring the still immature Internet, and he found a site that purported to measure Net usage. Bezos couldn't believe it: the Internet was growing at a rate of 2,300% a year. "It was a wake-up call," he says. "I started thinking, O.K., what kind of business opportunity might there be here?"