In his futuristic debut novel, eBay’s first CFO — a polymath steeped in both technology and classical philosophy — merges long-standing passions.
Gary Bengier’s LinkedIn profile doesn’t list much. He attended Harvard Business School four decades ago and, since 2002, has been chairman of the philanthropic Bengier Foundation — which he and wife Cynthia launched with the stated mission of helping “give bright, hard-working young people the chance to be successful” through educational experiences.
What’s missing from his online CV? Plenty. In addition to an Ivy League MBA, Bengier earned a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, in computer science and operations research. He went on to become a Silicon Valley tech executive — notably, eBay’s first CFO and employee number 32 — and a Napa Valley “gentleman farmer,” as he puts it. The self-described lifetime learner also studied astrophysics, mathematics and philosophy. And with last month’s release of Unfettered Journey, Bengier can now add novelist to his wide-ranging achievements.
“There’s always something interesting to learn, right?” he says. Since finishing the futuristic philosophical book that was two and a half years in the making, he has been learning the ins and outs of publishing. Unfettered Journey, available for Kindle as well as in paperback and hardcover, was published by his own imprint, Chiliagon Press.
Bengier was raised in Richmond, Ohio, which, as he fondly remembers it in the 1960s, embodied Norman Rockwell’s small-town America. The first in his family to go to college, he headed 70 miles north to Kent State University for undergrad. He was then offered deferred admission to Harvard Business School, which required spending two years working in the business sector prior to arriving on campus. So he took a job with Bechtel in San Francisco. Cynthia, a year behind him in school, transferred from Kent State to San Francisco State University, where she completed a business marketing degree.
After his graduation from Harvard, the couple remained on the East Coast while Cynthia obtained her MBA from New York University. “We took turns,” says Bengier, who worked as a management consultant while his wife was in school. Once she was done, they had to figure out their next move, literally. Around the time they were deciding where to make their home, Cynthia joined him on a business trip to the Bay Area. “We drove into San Francisco, came up over Hospital Curve [on Highway 101] and there’s the city in front of you,” he recalls. “We said, ‘OK, that’s it. We love this place. We’re coming back.’” That was 37 years ago, and they’ve been San Franciscans ever since.
Bengier has held finance and strategy positions at various companies, including those in the bioscience and semiconductor chip industries. Amid his tenure as CFO of VXtreme, the video-streaming firm was bought by Microsoft. Post-acquisition, some employees relocated to Washington, but Bengier began job hunting. “I turned out the lights [at VXtreme] and took my options, then started at eBay,” he says.
During his four years with the online marketplace, he led its initial and secondary public offerings. Bengier was essentially living the Silicon Valley dream with back-to-back successes. “The secret,” he says, “is lots of at-bats.”
By the time he left eBay in 2001, Cynthia was retired from a career in banking, and their family had expanded to include daughter Brooke and son Blake. In the forthcoming years, the Bengiers started their foundation, traveled extensively, joined the boards of various organizations, and devoted their time and expertise to philanthropic causes.They also purchased a vineyard in Napa, where they grow grapes on six acres. Bengier Family Vineyards — overseen by Steve Matthiasson, who has been nominated multiple times for a James Beard Award — is known for producing the varietal Ribolla Gialla.
In the fall of 2003, Bengier returned to the classroom, enrolling in astrophysics, mathematics and philosophy courses at San Francisco State. “I wanted to fill in the gaps of some things that I’ve always been interested in,” he explains. His passion for astrophysics manifested in the establishment of Tuolumne Skies Observatory — which is located in the Sierra of California and used by students from The Bay School of San Francisco — and he ultimately received his master’s in philosophy.
Bengier forwent the pursuit of an advanced degree in mathematics, but continued to broaden his horizons. “I took creative writing classes on the side, went to a number of writers’ conferences, and have over a hundred craft books sitting here on my credenza,” he says. “I would read five books on writing dialogue and then practice that particular craft. I found some good editors and collaborated with them.”
He characterizes the editing process thusly: “You think it’s looking great, then you have other people ready our work and you realize how horrible it was,” he says with a laugh. “Editing takes five times as long as you imagine.”
Unfettered Journey is set in 2161 with an AI scientist as its protagonist. Among the novel’s concerns are the conscious mind and free will, class divisions, social justice, personal data and privacy, authoritarian governments — topics that have dominated real-life headlines lately. “I think speculative fiction, if written well, makes more of a commentary on the time it’s written than on the future,” says Bengier.
To conceive what the world will look like in 141 years, he tapped into his technology background. “Much of science fiction does a poor job of portraying the future realistically — it’s more of a fantasy,” he says. “I envisioned a futuristic world that engineers could build.”
For example, robots are ubiquitous in Unfettered Journey. “AI is the technology that will have the most fundamental change on our lives,” says Bengier. Despite those viral Boston Dynamics videos that depict Terminator-like innovations, he predicts it will be another century or two before robots are roaming the streets alongside humans. But as we progress toward that day, the impact on the job market will be tremendous, he adds, with labor increasingly automated.
The question, according to Bengier, is: “How do we make the transition from the world today to a future that has much more wealth created by AI robotics, with the corollary to that being we have far fewer jobs? … Think about the continuation of the existing system, which drives people further and further into destitution and despair, and we have an even more bifurcated population. That’s a bad outcome. Let’s figure out how to avoid that.”
Bengier is optimistic, noting that humans are very creative: “If we plan well, we can overcome these things. The future is what we create.”