John ’79 and Susan Ocampo Make Game-Changing Donation to Innovation at Santa Clara
By Tracy Seipel and Deborah Lohse
Tech leader’s history of ‘right place, right time’ defines career that began at Santa Clara. Gift of $25 million will fund interdisciplinary space in north wing of Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation.
From the day John Ocampo ’79 first chanced upon Santa Clara University—during a drivers education class, no less—to the engineering degree he earned at SCU, to his steady rise in the field of radio frequency and microwave technologies, the tech CEO has proved that a little luck and a lot of hard work can pave a path to success.
Looking back at his career, Ocampo wants to thank his alma mater, the place he says kick-started his future, with his most generous gift.
Together with Susan Ocampo, his wife and lifelong business partner, the couple is donating $25 million to enhance STEM education at SCU’s new Sobrato Campus for Innovation and Discovery.
“It’s going to be amazing,” says the electrical engineering major of the new 270,000-square-foot campus-within-a-campus, scheduled to open this fall. “What I’m envisioning from the STEM center is that you can put (in) other disciplines besides just engineering, and spark creativity, and get that cross-pollination from other disciplines.”
Along with math and science majors, he views the campus as a place for all students: “Maybe someone from the economics department will come down and do a project with any of the STEM folks. That’s more real-world today.”
Building an SCU Legacy
John and Susan Ocampo’s magnanimous investment promises to foster all of these things, and more, as it funds completion of dynamic work space in the north wing of the STEM center.
The area—which will be dedicated and named after the couple—is the location of innovative interdisciplinary programs and initiatives, including a 3,000-square-foot, 30-feet high, glass-enclosed Innovation Zone and adjacent Innovation Lounge. The wing will also house eight research labs; two student project spaces; five teaching and experiential shops, and a laser suite.
“Having some background in STEM is a differentiator, both in business and life,” Ocampo says. “I believe STEM gives you a path to be creative. If you’re an entrepreneur, it can help with creative ideas for start-ups, for example.”
Even for Santa Clara students who aren’t STEM majors, the new campus will generate excitement and, the serial tech executive hopes, lots of interest.
“Everything you touch today has technology, every time you touch a phone, every time you turn on any gadget, and now every time you start your car, there’s technology,” says Ocampo. “So for me, it would just make sense to take a STEM class, and see what that might be able to fuel or ignite.”
Providing a Level Playing Field
Not only do the benefactors believe their gift will amplify SCU’s undergraduate STEM education, but the couple—both born in the Philippines—hope the donation also will serve to attract and retain more diverse professors and students.
“Technology is the great equalizer,” says Ocampo. “It doesn't care what your background is, or the color of your skin. It can provide a level playing field, and help SCU achieve its goals to be a more inclusive and diverse institution.”
Like many immigrant stories that have become America’s stories, John Ocampo’s includes a series of remarkable coincidences, what he succinctly calls “right place, right time.”
The youngest of six children, Ocampo spent his early years in Manila, where he attended Catholic elementary school. His father, Francisco, had been a teacher and then dean of commerce and accounting at a university. But everything changed when the patriarch died in 1970, and by 1972, Ocampo’s mother Rosa was moving the family to the Bay Area in search of a better life for her children.
“My mom was the ultimate entrepreneur. She packed everybody up, and off we go to this distant land, not knowing what the outcome was going to be,” recalls Ocampo, who was 13 at the time. “That was a bigger risk than any risk I’ve taken.” The family settled first in Pacifica, then San Jose, still mostly a bedroom community dotted with fruit orchards. As luck would have it, he says, of all the places in the world she could have chosen, his mother decided on the area that would become Silicon Valley, the lifeline to his career.
Over the years, Ocampo’s siblings began pursuing careers in accounting, while he was more a natural-born tinkerer. He assumed accounting would be his destiny too—until his mother dissuaded her son, urging him to use his creativity and pursue engineering instead.
“I didn’t know it was engineering,” he relates of his favorite pastime of pulling gadgets apart, and re-assembling them. “I thought it was just having fun.”
A Stroke of Good Fortune
Not long after, by some quirk of fate, his driver’s ed class instructor directed him down The Alameda, which at the time intersected Santa Clara University. Ocampo looked up and marveled at the campus, and its Catholic Mission Church, neither of which he’d known existed.
“I said, ‘Wow. That looks like a really cool school. Maybe I’ll go there to college,’’’ remembers Ocampo, who had done well at Piedmont Hills High. He applied for and received a four-year scholarship to Santa Clara, a stroke of good fortune he still can’t fathom. He was just 16 when he started at SCU.
“To give me a free ride my whole four years, and give me the education, not just the academics but the values of a Jesuit education—that, for me, was very important,” says the CEO. “It was a very humbling experience.”
With the support of professors who helped him through some of the hardest core courses, he prevailed. “I was not the most gifted student, so it would take me multiple times to go through the materials at school,” Ocampo recalls. “But I knew there was no question I was going to go through with it.”
In the summer after his sophomore year, he landed an internship at Addington Labs in Sunnyvale, which would help set the course of his career.
By Ocampo’s junior year, Santa Clara had begun offering microwave theory classes. “There wasn’t a lot,” he remembers, “but I took every one that I could.” The lab equipment that he worked with at school happened to be the same equipment he was using at Addington Labs. “It was theory at Santa Clara, but it was application at work, so that was perfect,” Ocampo recalls. “It was like all the planets were aligning.”
Another blessing out of the blue: He’d met Susan during spring break of 1978, starting a relationship that would lead to marriage in 1982, and three children, including Ashley who earned a B.S. in chemistry from SCU in 2009. (Her father says he’s absolutely thrilled he can bond with his daughter over their Bronco memories, including The Hut.)
Graduating in 1979, John Ocampo went on to learn the ropes at various radio frequency and microwave companies in the Bay Area, until deciding to create a business with Susan in 1984.
“It was a risk-reward thing,” Ocampo says of rolling the dice. “I was thinking, ‘This probably won’t work. But what if it does?’”
The company that eventually became Sirenza Microdevices would go public in 2000. Susan served as its CFO for 15 years and treasurer until its eventual sale to RF Microdevices (now Qorvo) in 2007. In 2008, the couple launched GaAsLabs, a private investment fund targeting the communications semiconductor market.
Three Big Believers
“I tell the story that there are only three parties that believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Ocampo says. “My parents, because they were obligated to, my wife—and to this day I don’t know why she had all this confidence in me—and Santa Clara.”
The veteran CEO has maintained strong ties to his alma mater, serving on Santa Clara’s board of trustees, and on the industry advisory board for the School of Engineering. In 2012, he was one of 12 recipients of the School of Engineering Centennial Awards.
The couple’s generous contributions to Santa Clara had begun almost two decades ago, when they donated the foundational $1.3 million to establish SCU’s Center for Nanostructures (CNS) in the School of Engineering. Their largesse also extended to the University’s TENT Gift Fund, which supports the thermal and electrical nanoscale transport (TENT) project.
But it is their $25 million gift that will create John and Susan Ocampo’s most enduring SCU legacy.
“You know, I get the question: ‘Why did I choose Santa Clara?’ Well, they chose me,” says Ocampo matter-of-factly. “I’m just giving back. I’ll never be able to pay back what I got from Santa Clara. But hopefully, this is a start.”