No. 4

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for Burda Media

No. 4

Esther Dyson, 58
Investor

No. of Angel Investments: 60
Companies funded (a sampling): 23andMe, GridPoint, del.icio.us, Flickr, Meetup

Esther Dyson started investing in early-stage tech companies about as far away from Silicon Valley as you can get—Russia and Eastern Europe—circa 1995. The owner and editor of the influential Release 1.0 newsletter, Dyson had been publishing a separate newsletter covering emerging technology trends in Eastern Europe when investor Lee Keet of Vanguard Atlantic asked why she didn’t invest in that market herself. He offered Dyson $1 million to invest for him in the region. In an e-mail, Dyson recalled telling Keet: "I'm a journalist. I couldn't … uh, how much did you say?"

That was the end of the Rel-East newsletter, which wasn't making money anyway. Dyson started investing in Eastern European companies "where $10,000 was equivalent to $100,000 in Silicon Valley." She added a few hundred thousand of her money, plus some money from her business partner Daphne Kis and from entrepreneur Doug Carlston (Broderbund), for a total of $15 million. One of the early investments was Scala, a Hungarian-Russian software company, which was sold to Epicor for "a nice profit."

Before Scala, Dyson’s first "return" was ParaGraph, which wrote the software for the Apple Newton, a famously failed attempt by Apple to build one of the industry’s first handheld computers. Dyson didn’t invest money but did introduce the entrepreneur, Stepan Pachikov, to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. "One day Stepan called me up and said, ‘A lawyer is going to call you. Please take the call and sign the documents. We want to give you 1% of the company.’" A few years later ParaGraph was sold to Silicon Graphics for about $50 million. Now Dyson sits on the board of Pachikov’s current venture, Evernote, "which is doing very well," she added.