September 2008 (16.09) issue
By Daniel Roth
Shai Agassi looks up and down the massive rectangular table in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom and begins to worry. He knows he's out of his league here. For the last day and a half, he's been listening to an elite corps of Israeli and US politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals debate the state of the world. Agassi is just one of 60 sequestered in a Washington, DC, hotel for a conference run by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Among the participants: Bill Clinton, former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, and two past directors of the CIA.
It's December 2006. Scheduled to speak in a few minutes, Agassi gets nudged by the Israeli minister of education: "Be optimistic," she tells him. "We've got to close with an upbeat tone." Agassi thanks her. Optimism won't be a problem.
At 38, Agassi is the youngest invitee. Just after the dotcom boom, SAP, the world's largest maker of enterprise software, paid $400 million for a small-business software company he started with his father; now he's SAP's head of products and widely presumed to be the next CEO. But he's not here this morning to talk about business software. Instead, his topic will be the world's addiction to fossil fuels. It's a recent passion and the organizers invited him to counterbalance the man speaking now, Daniel Yergin, the famed energy consultant and oil industry analyst. Yergin gives them his latest thinking: Energy independence is unattainable. Oil consumption will continue to rise. Iran will get richer. It's not exactly what this audience wants to hear.
Now it's Agassi's turn. He starts off uncharacteristically nervous, stammering a bit. He's got something different, he says. A new approach. He believes it just might be possible to get the entire world off oil. For good. Point by point, gaining speed as he goes, he shares for the first time in public the ideas that will change his future—and possibly the world's. (more)