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The other side of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

I met Paul Allen only once. It was a few decades ago at yet another tech conference, and to be honest it wasn’t particularly memorable. Allen wasn’t a jump-out-of-your-socks guy. And, by the way, I could tell I didn’t make a big impression on him either. He wasn’t rude; it was just that, unlike so many business leaders who love trafficking in self-promotion, he just wasn’t interested in speaking with a magazine writer.

Allen, who died yesterday at age 65 from complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, will rightfully be remembered first and foremost as the co-founder of Microsoft (MSFT), now the third biggest company in the U.S. by market cap [after Apple (AAPL) and Alphabet (GOOG)], valued at $840 billion. No doubt Bill Gates couldn’t have and wouldn’t have done what he did alone. Just for starters, it was Allen who convinced Gates to drop out of Harvard University to start a business in the first place.

Allen was worth some $20 billion at the time of his death, but there was much more to Allen than coding and business. In fact, for most of his adult life he was committed to his sports teams (Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle Seahawks), music, brain research, and just other stuff. The illness that forced him to leave Microsoft in the 1980s, and eventually took his life, convinced him to change direction and to leave the business world, per se.

Allen never sought the spotlight.

When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014, you saw Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman and Coach Pete Carroll. Allen stayed in the background. Contrast that with the New England Patriots team owner Robert Kraft. There’s a guy who’s out front. Not Allen.

This morning I reminisced with tech investor Roger McNamee, who knew Allen well back in the 1980s and 1990s. McNamee talked about playing rock music with Allen three or four times a year — Allen was an excellent guitar player — and doing covers of Jimi Hendrix songs. “That’s what he liked, playing “Purple Haze … and “All Along the Watchtower,” McNamee said. “When Paul played you could see his passionate side come out,” McNamee said.

Hendrix, like Allen, was a native of Seattle, and Allen founded the Museum of Pop Culture, which has numerous Hendrix artifacts including, as the museum notes, “the most iconic guitar in rock ’n’ roll — the white Stratocaster that Hendrix played at Woodstock.”

Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen joins in with the band and plays electric guitar at an election night victory party in the early morning hours in Seattle in 1997. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

Another story McNamee shared was about women’s tennis star Monica Seles, whom McNamee said Allen reached out to help, when she was stabbed by a fan in 1993. It’s been reported the two were romantically involved. I have no intel there.

Allen also helped build Seattle into a world-class city, which has become home to a slew of best-in-breed companies, not only Microsoft, but also Amazon, Starbucks and CostCo. Did you know that Allen’s real estate company developed much of Amazon’s campus? Probably not. Allen never publicized things like that.

Allen didn’t seek attention. He worked hard and pursued his passions. How many of us can say that?

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance.

Read more about Paul Allen

Roger McNamee: Microsoft wouldn’t have existed without Paul Allen