May 28, 2001

Tech mogul sharing his know-how with Africa
By T.T. Nhu

Craig Johnson is one of the heaviest hitters in Silicon Valley, but he still has a Peace Corps spirit in his soul.

Nearly four years ago, the man who helped Yahoo, Hotmail, and WebTV get off the ground traveled back to Eritrea for the first time since he taught there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960's.

Accompanied by Teclu Tesfazghi, an Eritrean-born Silicon Valley consultant, Johnson met with Eritrean President Isaisa Afwerki to discuss how the Internet could help the second-poorest country in the world.

Afwerki signed a memorandum of understanding with NetAfrica, the non-profit company Johnson founded to develop a high-tech classroom that will give students hands-on experience with the Internet. Johnson hopes the program will help transform Eritrea, a country of 3.6 million where the average household live on $100 a year.

Tech-poor Eritrea couldn't be farther from Johnson's career as one of the major players in Silicon Valley.

As the chairman and co-founder of Venture Law Group in Menlo Park, Johnson has served as the midwife to hundreds of new companies including Yahoo, Cerent, Lightera, Hotmail, and WebTV.

Acorns festoon Johnson's office, and the company motto is: "From small acorns do mighty oaks grow."

"I'm a very patient person," said Johnson, who lives in Portola Valley. "I plant the seed and watch things grow, and I am ready to wait 10 or 20 years."

While teaching in Eritrea more than 30 years ago, Johnson was struck by his students' intelligence and drive. "They were very, very smart, but lacked resources and opportunities."

He also felt their bitterness in knowing they were talented but did not have the opportunity to prove themselves.

"Human resourcefulness is the principal asset in Eritrea, and the knowledge industry is perfect for it," Johnson said. The country has little vegetation or natural resources. "They will have to do it with their minds."

Amanuel Zerit, and Eritrean who lives in Oakland, agreed with Johnson.

"Our intelligence is our most valuable asset," Zerit said. "But most educated Eritreans live abroad, so this project would be a great way to bring us back home."

To implement the $135,000 project, Tesfazghi recruited Joyce Blueford, founder of the Math/Science Nucleus in Fremont, a non-profit company dedicated to developing and increasing science and technology education in schools.

Blueford left Wednesday for Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, where she will set up a classroom with high-tech equipment, including a pen-based computer, LCD projector, Internet access and hands-on material to accompany the presentations. For most Eritrean students, it will be their first chance to use a computer.

"It's a little different from what I usually do," said Blueford, a former U.S. Geological Survey scientist. "But to use the Internet as an electronic textbook has great potential. It's going to be a lot of work, but I'm really looking forward to it."

Johnson is thrilled about the possibility of introducing software to students who thirst for knowledge.

"They'll get the idea, and I'm hoping that somebody exposed to the power of something different will become Horatio Alger or Bill Gates," he said.

Later this summer, and Eritrean will come to the United States for training. That person in turn will train others back home.

"Using brainpower, Eritrea can develop a software economy like Taiwan and India, whose engineers came to the U.S. in the 1960's and went back to develop the Internet in their countries," Johnson said. "We need to find a way to create a base of engineering talent so the Bay Area companies can tap into that expertise."

The country was devastated by a 30-year war with Ethiopia, and Johnson admires the tenacity of revolutionary government.

"It's very idealistic and intensely self-reliant and wants to make it on its own terms," he said. He compared President Afwerki to Fidel Castro, who was seasoned by guerilla tactics. "The Eritrean leader ended up renouncing Marxism after the former Soviet Union supported Ethiopia during the war.

"They're simply trying to find a way," he said.

Eritrea's infrastructure is in disrepair - one-third of the schools have been destroyed - but Johnson isn't deterred.

"We can do something tangible; it doesn't take a lot of money to make it happen," he said. "I would love to do more. I've been talking with foundations around here but most don't have the charter to help little countries. But I'm not worried about the money. There's a ton of it around here."

The man who's been described as a second only to John Doerr as a power broker and networker in Silicon Valley reflected on his Peace Corps experiences that influence him today.

"I still have that residual idealism and a desire to help," Johnson said. "It's a good cause and it's going to be fun."

Contact T.T. Nhu at or (510) 790-7317.