Q&A: Ray Zinn

Silicon Valley’s longest-serving CEO insists that “anything is possible,” an assertion that his life story helps to prove.

Raymond D. “Ray” Zinn exudes the sort of energy and enthusiasm you’d associate with a young entrepreneur and juggles more projects than many young men could handle. Yet this company founder, investor, and bestselling author—who also happens to be an inventor with more than 20 patents and Silicon Valley’s longest-serving CEO—is 85. 

Born in El Centro, California, in 1937, Zinn grew up on a cattle ranch run by his father. The oldest of 11 children, he moved to San Francisco after college and got a job in a rocket propellant plant. Later, he worked at Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation and as a sales rep at a technology company called TRE Electromask. 

Then, in his late thirties, he figured out how to deliver the capabilities of large mainframe computers to much smaller devices, leading to a revolution in microchip technology. In 1975, he invented the Wafer Stepper, a device used in the manufacture of integrated circuits, and sold four of them to Texas Instruments before it had even been designed. The wafer stepper is now standard in chip manufacturing facilities around the world. As Zinn’s former company wanted nothing to do with the wafer stepper, to get it on the market, in 1978, he founded Micrel, a publicly traded semiconductor devices company that he took public in 1994 and that Microchip Technology acquired in 2015.

A former gymnast, hurdle track star, and long-time pilot, Zinn became legally blind in 1994 due to retinal vein occlusion. Undeterred, he continued to run his company for another 20 years and still manages to co-pilot his Cessna Citation CJ4.

In 2015, Zinn published his first book, Tough Things First, his analysis of his nearly 40 years at the helm of Micrel. The photo on the book’s cover shows Zinn at age 65 doing a handstand in a suit. (At 76, he challenged his 1,000 employees to beat him in one-arm pushups. No one came close.) Three more books on leadership lessons followed: Zen of Zinn, Zen of Zinn II, and Zen of Zinn III. He is currently writing Zen of Zinn IV and The Essentials of Leadership and is the founder of ZinnStarter, a program that mentors American students who want to launch products and companies and provides them with financial aid. 

Zinn—who has four children, 22 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren with two more great-great-grandchildren on the way—lives with his wife, DeLona, in Atherton, California, and at his 500-acre ranch in Helena, Montana, where we spoke with him via a video call.

What advice did your father give you? 

Agriculture is a difficult business but my father never gave up, even with multiple setbacks. He never said, “I give up.” It was always, “What can I do to improve?” That was a mainstay for me. 

I understand you felt bored at Brigham Young University and quit, but your father made you return. 

I was in engineering, and it was really hard. I wanted to take a break, but my dad’s mantra was, “You don't quit, because quitters never win.” He browbeat me into going back to school and I'm grateful for that.

What gave you the idea for inventing the wafer stepper?

Back in the 1970s, we were trying to copy very small images onto the chip. We couldn't with the current technology, so I developed the idea of using photographic imaging. That led to the development of the wafer stepper, which was released in 1976. That’s been the mainstay of our industry since then.

How did you manage to create your own company to introduce the wafer stepper with no outside investors?

Prior to starting Micrel, I invested in real estate, so I had a pretty good nest egg to start the business without having to go out for venture funding. I did take out a bank loan, which I personally guaranteed.

In 1994, days before your company was to go public, you suddenly became legally blind. How did you deal with that?

We tend to worry about things we can't change. As soon as we accept the dilemma we have, whether it be cancer, a divorce, loss of a loved one—whatever we can't change because it's outside our control—we move on. I just took my loss of eyesight in stride. 

Once I lost my vision, my memory improved 10 times and I became more empathetic to other people. I could see the other side because I wasn't so focused on myself. I needed other people to assist me, and they were more willing to jump in and help me because they knew I was limited. I had to put aside the fact that I was legally blind and take my disability as an asset. I think I became a better leader and person by having lost my eyesight.

Long before that happened, you were a pilot. What led you to get your license to fly?

I’ve always been fascinated with flying. As a kid, I loved making and flying model airplanes. In 1981, I bought a Piper Warrior II and then a few years after that, I bought a Bonanza A36 TC. 

After you became blind, you sold your Bonanza. But in May 2021, you bought a Cessna Citation CJ4. Why did you choose that plane?

I started out looking at the CJ2, the smaller one, which I thought was fine. I wanted to have a single-pilot airplane and be able to fly copilot. That limited me to airplanes like the Embraer Phenom 300 or something in the Cessna line. I looked at the CJ2, then the CJ3 and the CJ3+. And then my pilot said, “You really ought to look at the CJ4.”

I went from a couple of million to a seven- or eight-million-dollar airplane in just a month. I don't regret it at all. I mean, I’d get a CJ4+ when they come out with it or the Phenom 300E. But right now, my CJ4 is the best that Cessna has to offer in the single-pilot airplane, so I'm sticking with it. 

Is it for personal or business use?

Only personal. My main route is Helena, Montana, to San Jose [from one of his homes to the other]. That's 90 percent of my flights, but I do fly to other places for personal use.

Why do you like the CJ4?

I don't like it. I love it. It's very fast. I can get to 45,000 feet in 20 minutes. It does Mach 0.77, it's comfortable, it's economical. And the value of the airplane has gone up 40 percent since I bought it. Even if it cost me twice as much, I’d still own it.

How many hours do you fly in a typical year?

I’d say north of 100 hours.

And how does a legally blind person copilot a jet? 

I see everything; it’s just blurry. I can't read the instruments. When I got my instrument rating, my instructor covered all the instruments. You had to learn to fly without being able to read them. I can still fly. I just have to have a little more intuition. I can still see out of the plane as long as it's not in the clouds or in IFR conditions. 

I’ve flown the SID [standard instrument departure] and did it quite well. And I worked the radios, but I haven't actually landed the plane. But I will. In my mind I'm going to land that darn airplane within the next 12 months. My pilot will have to help me line myself up because I’ve got to be able to see the runway, but if I get within about three or four miles, I can see the runway and he'll tell me if I'm on the glide slope or not and then we'll see what I can do. He hasn't agreed to let me do it, but that's my goal.

If money were no object, what would your dream plane be?

My ideal plane would still be a single-pilot plane, but I would like a Mach 0.8 or better airplane with Garmin avionics. 

You wrote in Tough Things First that nothing was impossible once you understood the objectives and employed the discipline. What did you mean?

Discipline is doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well. Learning to do the tough things first. If you eat that frog first thing every morning, then everything else is easy. If you start out doing all the things you don't like first thing, you'll improve your efficiency by 20 percent. I learned to love the things I hate so I ended up not hating anything. Now, to me, nothing's impossible.

I understand that 70 percent of the world's most advanced chips are manufactured in Taiwan, from which the U.S. has purchased $300 billion worth of chips in the past 20 years. Why can't we make them ourselves?

We can. Sometime in the eighties, the semiconductor companies began to move out of Silicon Valley because it was just too costly. This is probably the most important technology in the world today because semiconductors are in everything. It's almost like the government was doing its best to get rid of us, which is why we produce most other semiconductors outside the U.S. We need to protect that valuable resource that we have, and we can do it, because the technology changes every five years. As long as we don't sell important equipment like the wafer stepper [to other countries], we can control the technology within five years. 

You've been married for 61 years. Why do you think your marriage has lasted so long?

Because I worry more about her than I do myself and she worries more about me than she does herself. She's putting herself second and I'm putting myself second. 

Is it hard for your children to have to compete with someone so successful?

They're not trying to keep up with me at all. My children are living their life the way they want to. As long as they do the best they can in whatever path of life they choose, that’s what's important to me. They all are working very hard to be successful parents, and that to me is the goal—not how rich or wealthy you become, but how well you live your life, how you contribute to mankind.

What's the biggest mistake you ever made?

We all make mistakes—that's how you learn. If you're not willing to make a mistake, you're not willing to take a risk. If you don't look at a mistake as an error, then you don't have any regrets. I have no regrets because I correct all my mistakes. That's how you grow. My biggest challenge was losing my eyesight, but I don't call it a mistake. It was just a challenge, the biggest challenge in my life. 

What would be your advice to young CEOs and entrepreneurs?

Learn to do the tough things first. If you focus on helping other people become better, you'll become better. The key to success is your willingness to give. Love people and contribute as much as you can to the welfare of mankind as opposed to focusing on what you're gonna get out of life.

Where does your life philosophy come from? 

From my willingness to learn from others. I have a strong moral background. I never drank, never smoked, never used drugs. I avoid doing stupid things. I told my employees, I'm not here to make you rich. I'm here to help you become a better person. 

What do you want your legacy to be? 

I think people who know me well know that I'm not so much concerned with what I've accomplished, but more with how I've influenced and helped others.

And your next goal?

I have to convince my pilot to let me land a large business jet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.