Micron’s CEO says a Cal-Stanford game taught him a about tenacity


  • Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra is a UC Berkeley alumnus who was there when the school scored a stunning upset football victory over rival Stanford in 1982.
  • The legendary game, featuring what is still referred to as “The Play,” was one of the early high points of his journey as an immigrant from India — and his rise as a pioneering Silicon Valley chip industry technologist and executive.
  • Mehrotra sat down with Business Insider for a look back on his career, starting with the game that he said taught him the importance of being able to “move fast, adapt fast.”
  • It’s an important lesson for a pioneering executive who now leads the fourth-largest semiconductor company in the world.
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In college football lore, it is known simply as “The Play.” 

And Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra still remembers it with passion, the dramatic finish of the 1982 game between Stanford and UC Berkeley, his alma mater, which he said helped define his Silicon Valley journey.

Mehrotra’s eyes still light up when he recalls the dramatic final play, which you can watch in this 2012 Bay Area TV broadcast marking its 30th anniversary. “I was there, and it still gives me goosebumps,” he told Business Insider. “It was extremely exciting, an unbelievable finish.”

The Golden Bears were on the verge of defeat with only 4 seconds left in the game, when Cal pulled off a miraculous win with a kickoff return which they managed to keep alive with five lateral passes before scoring a touchdown.

The thrilling finish ended up setting the tone for the 61-year-old Silicon Valley veteran’s journey, which has also featured quick and decisive pivots amid major market changes.

The most jolting shift hit during the Great Recession in 2008-2009 which he recalls as “a time of chaos for many businesses.” That included SanDisk, which he was then leading as CEO, and which reeled from slumping demand amid severe market uncertainty.

“We needed to scramble,” Mehrotra said. “Our ability to quickly adapt and find a path forward was a major shift that ultimately transformed SanDisk.”

Now, Mehrotra is leading a chip giant with its own history of surviving and thriving during times of crisis. Eight years ago, Micron, which began in a dentist’s office in Boise, Idaho in 1978, suffered a serious blow when it’s well-regarded CEO Steve Appleton in a plane crash.

“Micron weathered the storms for decades,” Mehrotra said.

‘Move fast, adapt fast’

“It absolutely takes the entire team to be able to move fast, to think fast to adapt fast,” he said. “This happens in business as well. It takes many turns that are not planned, that you are not prepared for, but you have to be able to adapt and respond.”

That’s been an important lesson for Mehrotra, a pioneer of the semiconductor industry who has led two important memory chip companies. 

Mehrotra was a cofounder and CEO of SanDisk, which blazed the trail for a type of memory chip called NAND, which made it possible for data to be stored in devices even when they are turned off. 

SanDisk, which had been a major competitor of Micron, was acquired by Western Digital in 2016.  The following year, Micron hired Mehtortra as its new CEO.

He now leads the fourth-largest chipmaker in the world at a time when the semiconductor market is going through rough times. Chipmakers have been reeling from sudden demand shifts that have led to sudden drops in average selling prices.

World’s 4th largest chipmaker 

Total annual semiconductor revenue fell 12% in 2019, with memory chip makers posting the biggest drops, according to Gartner. Micron saw its sales plunge 33% to $20 billion.

But things have been looking up for the company lately. Micron was upgraded to buy by UBS analyst Timothy Acuri, who said the company “is in a much stronger position in a structurally better industry.”

Despite the cyclical nature of the chip market, Mehrotra is upbeat about the opportunities ahead. “It has actually been a great opportunity for memory,” Mehrotra said. 

That’s because new tech trends, led by the cloud, AI and Internet of Things, are based on the generation and processing of huge amounts of data. And this in turn has sparked enormous demand for data storage systems and memory.

“I think the market opportunities are so huge,” he said. 

Having Mehrotra at the helm gives Micron an advantage since he’s lived through the major upheavals in tech since graduating from Berkeley about 40 years ago.

A father’s tenacity

What’s ironic is that he would not have been able to go to Berkeley, where watching a dramatic football match underscored for him the importance of perseverance,  had it not been for another person’s tenacity, his father.

Mehrotra was accepted at Berkeley in 1976 but he faced a problem: the US Embassy in New Delhi denied his visa application — thrice. But his father refused to give up. 

He and Mehrotra waited in the embassy lobby for the consul to show up, and pressed relentlessly for a visa for his son. 

“My dad for 20 minutes, pretty much nonstop, with much love, much emotion, much passion” argued that “there was no logic to denying my applications,” Mehrotra recalled.

The consul eventually was convinced, and Mehrotra got his visa. “It absolutely changed the course of my life,” he recalled.

(Mehrotra said he has tried to find the consul “just to thank him.” But he’s been unsuccessful.)

Mehrotra had just turned 18 when he arrived in Berkeley. It was not an easy transition — he didn’t have a permanent place to stay and had to lobby hard to get a room in the campus dorm for international students.

“And I have to tell you that that is another example of tenacity,” he said. “I used to be in that residence office every day, asking, ‘Please, give me space.'”

“My early days were hard,” Mehrotra said. “I was very excited to be there. It was a tremendous opportunity.” But “learning to adapt, both academically as well as socially, in a foreign land, in a very different community was challenging.”

One of the things he had to adjust to was football, which was an unfamiliar game for Mehrotra. 

“When I came to Berkeley, I had zero idea about American football,” he said. But his dorm was next to the stadium where the games were held. He could hear the cheers and the noise during the games.

“I wondered: what is that all about? And I decided that I want to see it too,” he said. Mehrotra became a regular Cal Bears fan, even after finishing his studies.

He had already finished his graduate studies when he joined an old roommate to watch his first Big Game, as the annual football showdown between Berkeley and Stanford is known, in 1982.

“I was in the student rooter section, the best place to watch,” he said. “You shout, you scream, you yell and cheer for the team. It’s a wonderful atmosphere.”

Got a tip about Micron or another tech company? Contact this reporter via email at bpimentel@businessinsider.com, message him on Twitter @benpimentel or send him a secure message through Signal at (510) 731-8429. You can also contact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.





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