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In six-foot posters plastered on bus stops in San Francisco, a Jesuit university borrows from the huge cachet of Facebook, and its chief executive, in an attempt to woo new students.
“Our CEO mastered social networking 2,000 years before Mark Zuckerberg was born,” is the slogan printed over a black and white backdrop of the urban campus. The oblique comparison between Jesus and Mr Zuckerberg is unsettling – the mark of a good ad campaign – partly because, in Silicon Valley, where the internet is the dominant religion, the Facebook founder is approaching godlike status.
The 28-year-old multi-billionaire, creator of the most visited website on the internet, is revered by the next generation of technology entrepreneurs and wannabe tech stars. And despite his social quirks and jeans-and-hoodie uniform, even besuited investors who caught their first in-person glimpse of him on Facebook’s IPO roadshow in recent weeks are being converted.
“He’s impressive,” said one potential investor after the executive stop in Palo Alto last week, nodding wide-eyed as though he were surprising himself to say so. “He’s very impressive.”
As Mr Zuckerberg takes to the public stage, albeit begrudgingly, he is beginning to prove to Wall Street that he is competent and has matured. He is coming of age alongside the company he created in his Harvard dorm room, cultivating leadership skills and shedding some geeky traits, while remaining true to who he is and his vision.
“He is committed to the very long term,” said Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark Capital, a venture capital firm. “A lot of young people start companies, but not all turn into Larry Ellison or Bill Gates, people who are still CEOs 20 years later. In order to do that, you have to want to be a great CEO and then you have to go learn how to do it. And he’s doing it.”
Mr Zuckerberg has been methodical in training himself in the ways of an executive. He has spent time with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, quizzing them on how to build a team, and surrounded himself with mentors. “He knows what he knows, he knows what he doesn’t know and he asks questions when he doesn’t know,” Mr Gurley said.
He has also managed to hire a team of seasoned professionals to compensate for his weaknesses, with Sheryl Sandberg his key addition in 2008 as chief operating officer. Mr Zuckerberg gladly left her to answer to journalists and politicians as debates on privacy rose around the company. On several stops of the IPO roadshow, he left Ms Sandberg and David Ebersman, chief financial officer, to answer to investors.
For all his talk of making the world a more open and transparent place, for all his efforts to get people sharing more about themselves, Mr Zuckerberg has remained an intensely private person, at least relative to the status he and his company have garnered. But now that Facebook is a public company, the demands are increasing for him to be a more public figure.
“He’d rather not be out doing interviews or giving speeches,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. “He has no choice but to start doing it. As a public company, Facebook is going to be facing massive public policy and regulatory challenges that only the CEO can address. He’s the one who has to testify at Congress. The world wants to hear from Mark Zuckerberg.”
Mr Zuckerberg grew up in Dobbs Ferry, New York, just north of New York City. He was the second of four children and the only boy. His father is a dentist, his mother a psychologist. After two years at an elite boarding school, he went on to Harvard university, where his second-year dorm room became the site of various internet experiments – including Facebook.
“He was always tinkering with something,” says Joe Green, who shared the suite with Mr Zuckerberg and his co-founders and now runs his own start-up, Nation Builder. The image of an egomaniacal, socially inept dork who couldn’t get a girlfriend, as shown in the movie, The Social Network
, is not the real Mark Zuckerberg, Mr Green says. The real man did stare at the ceiling during conversations in his early 20s, but he has grown out of that. “He nods and makes eye contact now,” Mr Green says, adding: “He always had this puckishness. He was a bit of a prankster.”
In some ways, his online projects were an expression of his mischievous humour. But even more so, Mr Green says, of his extreme self-confidence – his willingness to tackle difficult technical problems and break rules and, later, to build his ideas into a company.
Now Facebook has grown to 901m users and a $104bn valuation, making Mr Zuckerberg himself worth $19bn. Yet, after years living in rented apartments or houses, he only recently bought his first house for $7m, where he lives with his girlfriend, whom he met at a fraternity party at Harvard before the first piece of code for Facebook was ever written.
Last weekend he invited about a dozen friends over for a potluck barbecue in his back yard, Mr Green says, where they grilled a goat and “obscure animal parts” in honour of A Game of Thrones, the fantasy novel and TV series about noble families warring over a mythical land. “He doesn’t seek elite circles, he doesn’t go to the Oscars,” Mr Green says.
That still has not stopped others from making him a celebrity. Kent Alexander, the creative director of Nova, a watch company, and a Facebook investor hopeful, wants to design a Mark Zuckerberg T-shirt. In the image of a popular 1990s “I wanna be like Mike” campaign, built around basketball star Michael Jordan, Mr Alexander’s design will say: “I wanna be like Mark”.
“It used to be that sports and music were the cool things,” he said. “Now it’s cool to be a tech genius.”
The writer is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent