DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Over the past several days, NPR has been exploring various aspects of wealth and inequality. No exploration would be complete without at least a passing nod to the role of luck. The high-tech explosion over the last two decades has minted stock option millionaires by the thousands. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports from Seattle on workers like those at Microsoft who simply found themselves at the right place at the right time.
WENDY KAUFMAN: At 31, Grace Starr is an independent multimedia producer. She's talented, attractive, friendly and tech savvy. A wide smile crosses her face as she recalls being introduced to technology during her sophomore year at the University of Texas.
Ms. GRACE STARR (Independent Multimedia Producer): A friend asked me for my e-mail address, and I was like, oh, I don't have one. I don't have time for that. You know, and he's like, what, are you insane?
KAUFMAN: He came to her house and armed with a modem set up an e-mail account and hooked her up to the university's computer system.
Ms. STARR: And he's like, get over here. He makes me sit down. He's like, we're going to surf the Web, and he downloads a 007 movie trailer, and like that's all it took, like watching this little movie trailer play on my machine. I was like oh my God. And the next day I went and added management information systems on top of all my other majors.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAUFMAN: When corporate recruiters came to campus, she was ready. She recalls Microsoft's recruiter telling the students that the company's stock had been rising 25 percent a year.
Ms. STARR: We're like, sure, I'll take it, you know, 25 percent growth a year. Yeah, I can deal with that, I can deal with that, and I'll get more every year when you do a review? Oh my gosh.
KAUFMAN: Her first year at Microsoft didn't disappoint financially. Though her salary was modest, the stock options she'd been given were already worth about $150,000, at least on paper. She didn't have access to the money yet, but her prospects were glorious. The year was 1999. The year will turn out to be significant.
A friend, Jeff Reifman, had started his career at Microsoft eight years earlier. A new computer science graduate, he chose the little-known Seattle-area company over a higher-paying but temporary job with IBM. He celebrated his 21st birthday his first week on the job.
Mr. REIFMAN (Former Microsoft Employee): At Microsoft, there was a little application that showed the stock price on people's computers, and everybody would follow it during the day, and it was sort of part of the cult of the company, and I very clear remember sitting across from my hall-mate that day that we noticed that our options were worth over $100,000, and we just were sort of laughing and calling across to each other about how unreal that was.
KAUFMAN: But while he was laughing, others who worked at the company were not.
Mr. RICHARD PAULI (Former Microsoft Contract Worker): I always said I worked at Microsoft, but I could never say that I worked for Microsoft
KAUFMAN: Richard Pauli worked closely with Microsoft employees who wore blue badges. Pauli wore an orange one, signifying a contract worker. Contractors didn't get company benefits, and that meant no stock grants or stock options.
Mr. PAULI: That was what was kind of tough, because I worked with people who were working for Microsoft and who may be retired now.
KAUFMAN: When you were working there, were you aware that people around you were vesting and socking away at least the prospect of wealth?
Mr. PAULI: That's a good - that's such a funny question because it's true. I would hear blue badges walk down the hall and overhear things like, Can you believe it, I made $5,000 today. and I just had to shrug and keep working. It's all right. But it was painful.
KAUFMAN: Microsoft was eventually sued for its employment practices involving contractors like Pauli. As part of the settlement, Pauli got a chunk of money, enough, he says, to buy a new car, but nowhere near what it might have been. While no one knows the exact number of Microsoft millionaires, Seattle economist Richard Conway has estimated that approximately 10,000 were created by the year 2000.
Jeff Reifman was one of them. When he left Microsoft in 1999, he had about $6 million worth of stock. He feels extremely fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time, but he says he was lucky long before that.
Mr. JEFF REIFMAN (Former Microsoft Employee): I grew up in an upper-middle-class environment. I went to a private elementary school. I was well prepared to capitalize on the opportunities that I came across. The truth is, our outcomes have a lot more to do with how lucky we are at the beginning of our lives than we care to admit.
KAUFMAN: Today, he volunteers his time as a technology expert, and hoping to foster more independent voices in the media, he has begun a collaborative news-networking site called Newscloud. But back at Microsoft, Grace Starr, whom we met earlier in the story, and who had been wooed to Microsoft with stock options, was watching her fortune fade.
Ms. STARR: I felt like I came in kind like at the end of the ride.
KAUFMAN: In the 18 months before she joined the company in mid-1998, the stock rose from 13 to 21. As an employee, she watched it soar to 30, 40, up to $51 a share. Then the dotcoms imploded, and Microsoft stock plummeted. In a relatively short period of time, it lost half its value and languished for years.
Because of the way the stock options work, Grace Starr couldn't sell at the high. Instead, she sold most of her stock at $26 a share, just $5 more than it was when she started at the company seven years earlier.
Ms. STARR: It wasn't a guarantee. It's gambling. That's all stocks are is gambling.
KAUFMAN: Grace Starr left Microsoft two years ago. She had arrived at the company in time to garner a small nest egg, about $30,000, but she was a few years too late to derive enormous wealth. Looking back, she's reflective and happy to be out of an environment where, as she put it, you begin to think you need wealth to pursue your goals and your dreams.
Ms. STARR: By letting go, it has forced me to look beyond the security that wealth can give and to find it in other places.
KAUFMAN: Today she lives frugally, trying to build her multimedia company, which, by the way, has not yet turned a profit. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.