Making friends and dating as billionaire Steve Ballmer’s son

Making friends and dating as billionaire Steve Ballmer’s son
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Hand holding iPhone displaying received text messages: 'How's your dad doing?' and 'What's up with the clippers?

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with 29-year-old Pete Ballmer, a standup comedian living in San Francisco and one of the sons of billionaire and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When I meet people, they usually don’t know that my dad is Steve Ballmer.

It’s a funny thing — my dad’s at a very interesting level of famous where some people immediately make the connection while most people have no idea. I have some friends for whom it took a really long time — like many months — before they realized the link.

Some kids were actively mean about who my dad was

I don’t think there was an exact moment when I realized just how rich we were, but at some point as a kid, I went from knowing that we were rich to realizing that it was something people brought up when they met me and knew about ahead of time.

There were a couple of kids who were actively mean to me about who my dad was. I was on a field trip once, and my mom packed my lunch in a to-go bag from an Italian restaurant. And this kid was like, “You got Pallino Pastaria for lunch??” I responded, “No, it’s just a sandwich. It’s just in the bag.” It’s not even an especially fancy restaurant, but he was looking to give me grief. Some kids tried to “get” me on stuff like that, like, “Oh, you’re so spoiled.”

I started noticing people treat me differently in college

When I was a kid, no one was nicer to me because of who my dad was. But in college, I noticed that some people were definitely nicer; they were more intently focused on me when I talked, and there was just a certain air of people treating me like we were better friends than we actually were.

Sometimes it was explicit; I remember this guy in my dorm (whom I didn’t know very well) telling me, “It’s pretty cool — I tell my family back home that I get to party with Steve Ballmer’s son at school.” I was thinking, what’s the point of telling me this? The interaction made me uncomfortable and felt weird.

I didn’t like that people would know about my family and how much money we had before meeting me, or how they would bring it up to me in a way that made my own identity seem secondary to what they saw me as: a kid from a wealthy family.

During Family Weekend my freshman year, my three suitemates and I had our dads come in and play beer pong with us and some of our other friends. Stanford used to have an unofficial “open-door policy” allowing students to drink freely as long as we left our doors open. So we set up a beer pong table in our dorm room and had a father-son game going on.

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I was just having fun, but then I noticed people in the dorm coming up one at a time, just to peek in to look at my dad playing beer pong. That was kind of annoying, but I get it — it’s a spectacle, whatever.

To some people, I’m only seen as an asset or connection

I can tell when some people consider me only as an asset, someone it’d be good to stay connected with.

A couple of people text me about the Clippers, which my dad owns, and those are the only text messages I receive from them. Those aren’t the kinds of people I’m interested in being friends with at all.

There was this guy I used to be friends with who went out of his way to talk to me. I liked him at first and held off on assuming anything too soon, but his actions over time showed that he clearly just saw me as an asset.

I’ve made an active effort to kind of cut him out, although he still texts me sometimes. He’s a venture capital douchebag — for lack of a better description — so I know he’s thinking about how he can leverage his relationship with me because he wants to be close to tech money. He wants to have me be on display so that his friends can see that I’m a connection of his, and that sucks.

Of course, it feels weird to assume that someone has impure motives. But I feel like there have been enough times where it’s like a sixth sense by now. I don’t actively avoid people, but I’m mindful to keep at arm’s length those who I think may have some kind of ulterior motive for being connected to me.

With my real friends, my dad’s identity fades into the background

I think having good friendships is important, and I trust my read on the people I’ve gotten to know and become close with — I feel extremely lucky about my friends in general. I have a close-knit group here in San Francisco, and we have a lot of fun together. I’m also very fortunate to have a tight college friend group and close friends from high school. My comedy friends are also awesome, and my newest group of friends, my girlfriend’s friends, are really cool.

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You see articles about how people have fewer friends than they used to and that friendships are on the decline, but that’s not been my experience at all (although I’m generally pretty gregarious and easy to get along with, which helps when you’re trying to make friends!).

Over the course of my closest friendships, my dad’s identity has faded into the background. It’s not something to really talk about on a day-to-day basis, in the same way that most people don’t talk a ton about their parents with their friends.

I never experienced anyone dating me for my money

Everybody thinks that my family background would have a massive impact on my dating life, but it really didn’t. From an anonymity standpoint, dating apps were honestly pretty great because profiles only included a first name and sometimes a last initial.

I wouldn’t talk about my dad or my financial situation during my dates, but at a certain point, it felt like I was lying by omission if I didn’t bring it up.

I would only have the conversation once I felt like I had a sense of the person and a decent idea that I wanted to spend more time with them — usually on the second or third date. By that point, I felt like I knew they already liked me, so I wouldn’t see a complete shift in how they approached me.

I actually never had the experience of someone trying to date me for my money or anything. I feel like it’s kind of a two-way street. If someone is looking to date someone with a lot of money, they’re most likely looking for someone who spends a lot of it. Since I’m not a big spender, I don’t think anybody eyed me and thought, “I can probably get a ton of money out of him.”

For me, I never focused on the other person’s job or financial background. I had the privilege of not needing to consider someone’s financial situation in either direction because I knew that I would be fine, and I don’t think that a person’s work defines them.

I was mainly concerned with how I felt hanging out with this person — do I feel comfortable? Am I having a nice time? Do I like talking to them?

My girlfriend and I have very similar approaches to money

I think that how someone approaches money is a byproduct of their general life philosophy. If you encounter someone who’s very pragmatic, reasonable, grounded, and down-to-earth, it’s unlikely that they’d randomly have a completely different approach to money than how they approach everything else.

So that’s what I looked for: someone with a life philosophy that jived with mine and, usually, that extended to finances. For my girlfriend, it certainly did. We’ve been together for almost two years, and I feel very lucky we’re aligned in our approach to money.

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We live together in an apartment that’s perfect for our purposes. It’s a two bed, one bath — no bigger than it has to be. We’re both pretty practical — we will occasionally do the late-night UberEats order even if we have food at home, but neither of us spends excessively.

I would be uncomfortable not splitting bills evenly

My girlfriend has worked hard in her career — she has a good job in tech — and worked hard on being responsible with money and wants to be financially independent.

While we’re quite confident that we’ll remain together indefinitely, neither of us wants to merge financially yet. One day, though, my money will become our shared money.

For now, we approach our finances pretty independently; house expenses, groceries, and everything else we share are evenly split. We never considered splitting bills and expenses proportionally. If I were dating someone who proposed proportional spending, I would feel a little miffed and feel that perhaps they saw part of the deal with dating me as a benefit to their lifestyle.

I’ve learned that my family background doesn’t define me

As much as I’ve been cognizant of some people wanting something from me over the years, that has been a very small percentage of my experiences.

I’m still pretty open when meeting new people. I used to be concerned that once I left school, I’d be met with less empathy or grace because of all of the (rightful) negative rhetoric around rich kids. I understand why some people are pissed that people like me exist in this economic system, and I agree that there’s a tragedy to that fact.

But while some people have questions, I’ve found the overwhelming majority of people don’t seem to treat me differently than they do anyone else.

When you hang out with people, your presuppositions fall into the background pretty quickly, and instead, you just experience how it feels to spend time with them.

I’ve learned that my identity doesn’t define me. I thought that I would have to work through more bias against the type of person I am or people’s presuppositions about me to earn their favor, but at the end of the day, most people just want to get along with other people.

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