Craig Unger started out living in a humble NYC garage turned apartment. He has since worked with Bill Gates and Satya Nadella. He has raised millions of dollars to build two startups. One already sold for over $50 million.
In our interview on the Dealmakers Podcast, Unger shared the full cycle journey from finding ideas and cofounders to raising funds, building a company and exiting. We talked about the lessons he’s learned, and what you need to be successful as an entrepreneur.
Craig Unger was born in a lower-middle-class area of Brooklyn, NY. He went to a local public high school.
It wasn’t the trendy Brooklyn we know today. Walking to school meant navigating empty lots, and gangs. An environment in which both his grandfather and best friend were murdered. His high school was closed down for being one of the most dangerous in the city.
Local landlords often converted their two-family row-houses into three family homes by converting half of the garage into a tiny illegal living space. That’s where he lived as a child. Unger’s grandfather and grandmother were holocaust survivors. They met at a displaced person camp after the war. His grandmother was able to go to the US with his mother.
But it took his grandfather years of struggle to rejoin his family. When he finally arrived in the US, he had no money in his pocket. He stood just 5 foot, 3 inches tall due to malnutrition. Yet, years of work and physical labor delivering furniture made him very strong.
His grandfather would get up extremely early in the morning, head out to work, and make it home in just enough time to eat and sleep so that he could do it all over again the next day. He ensured his family had somewhere to stay and the basics of what they needed. He gave them a foundation from which they could thrive and succeed and a great example of work ethic.
Craig saw this, and it has definitely been an asset in starting his own ventures. As an entrepreneur, you must have persistence, resilience, and often it is just about survival. He says he also took away the importance of laser focus, spending your time wisely, investing resources carefully, and living up to the opportunity that was created by your grandparents and parents, through their sacrifice.
Unger was always a fan of math. He was captain of the math team, which competed around the country. A talent he learned from his accountant and insurance adjuster father who would constantly put him to the test. His dad trained him to be faster at solving math problems in his head than others could solve on a calculator. By 13 years old it was a great party trick to show off. Then he realized it like a real talent he should maybe pursue.
Despite not having much money, his mother finally gave in and got Craig and his brother a home computer. He started into programming right away. He used it for school projects, winning the Brooklyn Science Fair, which got him in the local newspaper, and the New York Math Fair.
He was invited to apply to Harvard and leaped at the opportunity. There he majored in math and computer science. He earned straight A’s and was asked to teach Math at Harvard as a course assistant for three years.
Working With Bill Gates & Satya Nadella
Upon running into his own former teaching assistant at Harvard, he was invited to go interview at Microsoft on the West Coast.
Craig had never been west of the Mississippi.
He was hired as a program manager and continued to thrive and move up the ranks. He worked on Microsoft Excel designing the famous Pivot Tables feature, he then was chosen to lead the Microsoft Access Team and later became the General Manager of Dynamics CRM.
During his time there he had the huge privilege to meet directly with Bill Gates in his offices and the boardroom. He found Gates to be an extremely motivational leader. Someone with an incredible ability to absorb and process data. Often at a pace, others couldn’t keep up with.
Despite being known for being tough, Craig says he found him fair, and willing to change his stance when the data suggested a better choice.
In contrast, he also got to work with the current CEO, Satya Nadella. A leader who he says shares many of Bill’s traits, but perhaps in a “more user-friendly package.”
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