Larry Birenbaum was born in Sweden to Polish immigrants who moved to Coney Island when he was two. During his childhood, his Dad moved the family around New York and New Jersey 10 times in search of better work. What his Dad most wanted for his children was a better life.
“Education was a big deal in my family, and academic achievement was a message I internalized,” says Birenbaum, who along with his wife, Jan, recently pledged to MIT $500,000 to support the Jan and Larry Birenbaum Scholarship Fund, which supports immigrant students at MIT who become U.S. citizens. “One reason we made the gift is because a scholarship made it possible for me to go to MIT. And also,” he says, “my heart goes out to immigrants.”
Birenbaum earned an MIT degree in electrical engineering in 1969. Then he headed for SiliconValley, where he worked at Hewlett-Packard for 12 years in engineering, marketing, and management. In 1981, he was among the founding group of 3Com Corporation, where he was vice president of engineering until he left for one year to do venture capital consulting. Soon he began brainstorming with other MIT alumni about launching another company, and in 1992, they co-founded Grand Junction Networks, a pioneering designer and developer of Fast Ethernet products. Three years later, the company was acquired by Cisco Systems, eventually becoming a $4 billion business. Birenbaum was senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Ethernet Access group, until recently when he retired.
“I have this fundamental belief that the immigrant tides that come into our country ultimately make the country great. Immigrants and their children have great educational aspirations when they enter the country, and it raises the bar for kids in school.
“There is an inexorable imperative in the world toward peaceful intermingling of different peoples. We can’t stay as separate enclaves with overt animosities toward each other. Globally, we have to change. This scholarship is a way not only to encourage this trend but also to help kids across the world.”