Dr. Sass Somekh recently took the time to share with me insights gathered during his phenomenal career. After some initial work with Bell Labs and Intel, he spent 23 years with Applied Materials prior to becoming the President of Novellus. At Applied, he perfected a process of enabling innovation to coexist in a large company environment. And today, upon his retirement from Novellus, Sass is engaged in leading his social entrepreneurship cause: reducing US dependence on foreign oil. In this series, we explore the various chapters of his illustrious career.
SM: Thank you for taking the time, I am really looking forward to this conversation. What I would like to start with is to discuss your background, going as far back as possible so we can build up a story of how you grew up and what were the influences in your upbringing. From there we can discuss your professional life and come to your social entrepreneurship and the open letter you have written and how you are leading Silicon Valley into action. SS: I was born in Iraq. I am a Jewish refugee from Iraq. In 1948, when the state of Israel was established, my father was thrown into prison. I was two at the time. My mother had to take my sister and myself and escape from Iraq into Iran. We were robbed on the way, but eventually we arrived and lived in a refugee camp.
My father was released from prison five years after he was arrested, so we lived in the refugee camp until we were reunited as a family. The reason he was imprisoned, was that he was falsely charged. It was a way at taking revenge on the Jews who lived in Iraq, for losing the war in Israel. We were reunited in 1953 and started our life in Israel.
SM: Do you have memories of that time and the trauma of leaving Iraq and your father being captured and so forth? SS: I have very little memories. I remember crossing the river into Iran, and I remember the shots in the air when we were being robbed. Everything else was blocked out. My first memory of my father is in 1953 when I was already a boy in Israel. I had forgotten Arabic, I only knew Hebrew. He came from Iraq, and after five years in prison he only spoke Arabic. When I met my father for the first time, my mother was the translator for us. It was very interesting.
That was a little bit of the background which explains the desire my father had that I be successful. In the US, we refer to it as the Jewish mother who always pushes the children. I had a Jewish father, so to speak.
I was a pretty good student in elementary school, and when it was time to decide on High School we decided to go to one that was different. In addition to a diploma, you also learned a profession, which for me was electronics. When I graduated, I received a diploma and I was also a certified electronics technician. These technical studies at a young age were outstanding. Those are formative years, and whatever you learn are ingrained and it becomes second nature. I attribute a great deal of my accomplishments to this technical education I received in High School. I have a bachelors and a Masters and a PhD, but I really believe what I studied in High School was a major benefit in my career. It developed mastery and intuition.