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How the ​​‘Homeless Billionaire’ Became a Philosopher King

Apr 6, 2022

How the ​​‘Homeless Billionaire’ Became a Philosopher King Money can buy influence over nearly anything in the world — including in the world of ideas. Nicolas Berggruen at the Hearst estate.Credit...Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times Supported by Send any friend a story As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share. Give this article “Just close your eyes. We’re almost there. Well, not quite. But soon.” Nicolas Berggruen was trying to be helpful. We were in the Santa Monica Mountains, climbing the aptly named Serpentine Road in a Mercedes S.U.V. being driven by Berggruen’s personal assistant, a cheerful Frenchman named Cyril. I was riding shotgun and furiously scrolling on my iPhone, trying to ignore the fact that we were on a heavily rutted road with few guardrails, hundreds of feet above the 405 freeway. Berggruen, a German American investor and philanthropist, was in the back seat with the acclaimed landscape architect Mia Lehrer, whom he had enlisted to help with the project that had brought us here. The day before, I had confessed my dislike of heights while visiting Berggruen at his condominium, which is on one of the top floors of Sierra Towers, a luxury West Hollywood address. (He owns several units in the building.) Now, as Cyril navigated a switchback, Berggruen, sensing that I was dying up in the front seat, suggested in his softly accented voice that I not look. His concern seemed genuine, and I felt a little guilty that I found myself thinking sourly about rich people and their apparent need to always claim the highest ground. I also couldn’t help wondering why, with his vast fortune — said to be in the low billions — Berggruen didn’t just use a helicopter to get up the mountain. A few moments later, after another sharp turn, we reached our destination, a plateau not far from the Getty Center. Here Berggruen plans to construct what he half-jokingly describes as a “secular monastery,” a campus where scholars affiliated with the think tank that he founded, the Berggruen Institute, will live, work, cogitate. The 450-acre property, known informally to Berggruen and his staff as Monteverdi (they haven’t decided on an official name), will be centered around a building designed by a group that includes the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, famed for the Bird’s Nest Olympic venue in Beijing. According to Berggruen, he purchased the land in 2014 for $15 million. But he has yet to break ground on the project, which has drawn resistance from nearby residents. If completed, this spot overlooking Los Angeles will become the de facto seat of what might be called an empire of the mind. The son of the late Heinz Berggruen, one of postwar Europe’s most celebrated art dealers and collectors, the 60-year-old Berggruen grew up in France and made his fortune in America. For a time, he was known as the “homeless billionaire” because he didn’t have a fixed address and lived out of luxury hotels. In the late 2000s, dissatisfied with his career in finance, Berggruen began privately studying philosophy and political theory with a couple of U.C.L.A. professors. Soon after that, he established the Berggruen Institute. A prolific networker, Berggruen has recruited so many prominent names to the institute’s roster of supporters and advisers — Eric Schmidt, Reid Hoffman, Arianna Huffington and Fareed Zakaria are among those listed on the organization’s website — that it has been described as his own personal Davos. The institute employs around 30 people, has some 40 fellows worldwide and maintains offices in Los Angeles, Beijing and Venice. It publishes a magazine, Noema (ancient Greek for “thinking”), that covers politics, technology, climate change, culture and much else. In addition to the institute, Berggruen recently bought through his charitable trust a palace in Venice that he plans to turn into a center for the arts. His name also appears on the institute’s annual $1 million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. Last year’s recipient was Peter Singer, the moral philosopher and bioethicist. Berggruen says that he wants to “empower ideas,” with an emphasis on “courageous or creative thinking.” Tobias Rees, a German American philosopher whose work has been supported by the Berggruen Institute, suggests that Berggruen might best be thought of as a kind of latter-day Medici. He is, Rees says, a wealthy patron trying to stimulate a “philosophical and artistic renaissance or spring for our times.” Berggruen certainly has thoughts of his own — about geopolitics, economics, the post-pandemic world. He has co-authored two books, one about 21st-century governance, the other about reinvigorating democracy. But the Medici analogy has something to it. The history of Western culture is, to some extent, the story of rich people underwriting artists, musicians and thinkers. Patronage, Edmund Burke declared, is “the tribute which opulence owes to genius.” Yet it’s also a demonstration of the influence that flows from wealth. That was certainly true of the Medicis, and it is no less true of Berggruen: His ability to pull scholars, former statesmen and fellow tycoons into his orbit is testament to the convening power of money. Image The Berggruen Institute at the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles.Credit...Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times Although he holds German and American citizenship, Berggruen was born and raised in Paris. His mother is the German actress Bettina Moissi, who in 1948 starred in “Long Is the Road,” among the very first German feature films about the Holocaust. Heinz Berggruen, his father, was a German Jew who fled in 1936 for the United States. For a time, he was an art critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. After the war, he settled in Europe and opened a gallery in Paris. He was best known for his close relationship with Pablo Picasso — and for his vast collection of Picasso’s works — as well as for his decision, late in life, to transfer much of his art to the German government, a gesture of reconciliation that gave rise to the Berggruen Museum in Berlin. The Berggruen family lived in an apartment on the Left Bank, near the Luxembourg Gardens. Berggruen’s brother Olivier, an art historian in New York, says their parents were somewhat distant and formal; he and Nicolas, who were raised in their mother’s Catholic faith, spent a lot of time with their governess. Still, the household was immersed in art and literature, and the brothers had what Olivier says was an “interesting childhood.” (They have two siblings from Heinz Berggruen’s first marriage.) Art was their father’s passion but also his vocation, and Olivier says that Nicolas inherited his father’s business acumen. He recalls playing bartering games when they were kids: “I always wondered a few hours later, ‘How did my brother end up with all these possessions?’” As an adolescent, Nicolas Berggruen was drawn to politics and philosophy and was “very left-wing,” he says. He was also, by his own account, a “terrible teenager.” He claims that his rebelliousness got him expelled from Institut Le Rosey, the venerable a Swiss boarding school. When he was in his early teens, he visited the United States for the first time, and he later decided to return for college. “I couldn’t wait to get out of France, to get out of Europe,” he says. He graduated from New York University in 1981, and a few years later used a $250,000 trust fund to start his investing career. Berggruen made most of his money in private equity. According to Forbes, he has a current net worth of $2.9 billion. We live in a ‘super result-oriented society,’ Berggruen says, but ‘the one area you cannot measure’ is that of fundamental ideas. Bill Ackman, the well-known hedge-fund manager, met Berggruen in the early 1990s. At the time, Ackman says, Berggruen seemed “mature beyond his years.” The two of them have been partners in a number of deals. He describes Berggruen as “extremely smart and sophisticated” and an excellent investor — patient, in for the long haul, “good in up-and-down situations.” But when I met with Berggruen one afternoon at Sierra Towers, he told me that he had found little fulfillment in his career in finance. He said he was “never that excited about it or proud about it” and that he had greater respect for people “who build something.” We sat in an alcove set back from the floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a commanding view of Los Angeles. It was an unseasonably chilly day, but the sun still cast a warm glow over the city. “Even today, a winter day, you have this light — it’s very energizing,” Berggruen said. As we talked, he nibbled on Swiss chocolate. He said he wished that he’d had the talent to start a business or to be a creator of some kind. Instead, he had just been “skilled at a game.” Berggruen allows that his decision in the mid-2000s to sell his properties in New York and Miami and to become the so-called “homeless billionaire” was perhaps rooted in the discontent he felt professionally. As he hopscotched around the world on his Gulfstream IV — he got rid of his homes but kept his private plane — he found himself spending more and more time in Los Angeles, and he also rediscovered his interest in politics and philosophy. On one of his visits to Los Angeles, he was introduced to Brian Copenhaver, who taught philosophy at U.C.L.A. Berggruen was looking for someone to mentor him in philosophy, and Copenhaver became his teacher and interlocutor. Copenhaver says he wasn’t paid but did ask Berggruen to donate to U.C.L.A. The two would meet on Friday afternoons, in Berggruen’s suite at the Peninsula Hotel, and they focused on three works: Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals” and Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Copenhaver says that the discussions typically lasted three or four hours and that it was “philosophical conversation as it is meant to be.” He told me that Berggruen was eager to engage with the texts but also wanted to understand why some ideas gained traction and others did not. “It’s one thing to have a theory,” Copenhaver says. “It’s another thing to have a theory that might make its way in the world.” For Berggruen, the tutorials were a springboard to a new role and a new life; he now wanted to use his fortune to make a mark in the realm of ideas. The primary goal was not to promote his own thinking but, rather, to provide the money and space for others to ponder the major issues of our time. Colleagues and associates say that to the extent there was any self-interest at play, it was in Berggruen’s desire to surround himself with smart people and to have stimulating conversations. Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn and a member of the Berggruen Institute’s board of directors, says that some ultrawealthy individuals have a tendency to be “in broadcast mode,” as he describes it — they really just want to hear themselves talk and have others validate their opinions. That’s not the case with Berggruen. “Nicolas wants to have a discussion,” Hoffman says. Image Berggruen at the proposed site of the campus for his institute in the Santa Monica Mountains.Credit...Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times If Berggruen is self-effacing about his intellectual endeavors, there is nothing modest about his effort to establish roots in Los Angeles. In addition to Monteverdi and the condominiums in Sierra Towers, Berggruen owns an estate in the Holmby Hills neighborhood. He used to be a fixture on the Los Angeles social scene, but fatherhood — he has two young children — has diminished his interest in the nightlife while deepening his connection to the city. Last September, he made his splashiest acquisition yet, paying $63 million for the Hearst estate in Beverly Hills. (This, like other purchases, was done through a holding company.) Soon thereafter, he bought two neighboring homes; according to Berggruen, both sit on land that was once part of the Hearst property. The day after I visited Berggruen at Sierra Towers, I met him for lunch at one of the two houses. We were joined by Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy at the University of Southern California and the current chair of the Berggruen Prize jury. Although it was another cool day, we ate outside on the terrace. A couple of patio heaters kept us warm, sort of. Lunch started with ricotta-filled ravioli, and when Cyril, who served the dish, announced that Berggruen’s children had helped make the pasta, his face lit up. Berggruen told me the purpose of his prize is to fill a void left by the Nobel Prizes, which include the Peace Prize as well as honors for literature, medicine, chemistry and physics but not philosophy. (Several philosophers, however, have been awarded the Nobel for literature, including Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who turned it down.) Berggruen said his prize is “a signal that philosophy is equally important,” a point underscored by the $1 million given to the winner, approximately the same amount awarded to Nobel recipients. But Damasio, a dapper, soft-spoken scholar originally from Portugal, said that money couldn’t buy prestige and acceptance. Instead, the power of the ideas they celebrate is what gives intellectual prizes their currency. The Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, which debuted in 2016, has honored some prominent contemporary philosophers — Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor. But the “culture” part hints at a broader mandate, and the jury seems to have an ecumenical conception of philosophy. The 2020 winner was Dr. Paul Farmer, the medical anthropologist, humanitarian and author renowned for his work in impoverished communities. (Farmer died in February.) The 2019 recipient was the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Damasio told me that while Ginsburg wasn’t a philosopher, her work revolved around ideas and applying them in the real world. “There’s a lot of commonality,” he said. The aim of the prize, he added, was to honor philosophy in “a broad sense, not the narrow, continental sense,” and to celebrate “love of knowledge, critical knowledge.” Image The Hearst estate.Credit...Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times This expansive definition has drawn some criticism. Brian Leiter, a philosopher who teaches at the University of Chicago Law School, says that awarding the prize to Ginsburg devalued it in the eyes of the philosophy community. He suggests that Berggruen is using a narrow criterion: He wants to recognize work that has had a broad societal impact, but very few ideas emanating from the grottos of academic philosophy achieve that kind of mainstream influence. Leiter says that Berggruen has effectively ruled out “many of the most important living philosophers.” Leiter is unimpressed by Berggruen’s ability to attract eminent scholars; he says it shows that “academics like to be near money.” Edward Hall, the chairman of Harvard University’s philosophy department, agrees that Berggruen seems to have embraced a popular understanding of philosophy that doesn’t entirely reflect how academic philosophy works. He also points out that, in contrast to other disciplines, prizes just don’t seem to have much resonance in his area. “Prizes like this in philosophy are not, at least so far, a big deal to us,” Hall says. On the other hand, if the billionaire wants to use his money to put a spotlight on the humanities, that’s no bad thing. “Right now, the humanities needs help in the public sphere,” Hall says. “The broader culture devalues humanistic inquiry.” Perhaps surprisingly, Berggruen is not a member of the Berggruen Prize jury. “I actually don’t think I’m qualified,” he said over lunch. He wanted the Berggruen to be recognized as a “proper prize” with independent judges. I said that people would surely not object if the guy whose name is on the prize wanted to exert some influence over the selection process or at least have a vote. But Berggruen insisted that the decision-making was best left to Damasio and his colleagues on the jury (which happen to include the magazine’s Ethicist columnist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, the New York University professor). “I have a very philosophical view on this, which is a very Eastern way,” Berggruen said. “I almost feel like we humans are just vessels. I feel that way. I’m just a vessel.” Image At home in West Hollywood.Credit...Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times Most of the major American think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, are headquartered in Washington or at least have a significant presence there, which makes sense: It is home to the federal government and a world capital. But Berggruen thinks that Los Angeles is a better fit for his institute. He says that the city, in addition to having a much more vibrant intellectual scene than it is given credit for, affords “a degree of mental and physical space” that allows for deeper reflection on “key questions for us as humans.” Los Angeles also makes sense because it is the gateway to the Pacific, and Berggruen believes that this is “the Pacific Century.” In addition, the Berggruen Institute stands apart from many other think tanks in that it lacks an explicit ideology and is not necessarily looking to put its own people in government. Nathan Gardels, a veteran California political figure and foreign-affairs commentator who co-founded the institute with Berggruen and serves as Noema’s editor in chief, says the organization is “more sympathetic to the left than the right” but strives to be “post-ideological.” It wants to help make democratic governments more effective and responsive. Gardels, a confidant of the former California governor Jerry Brown, points to the institute’s advocacy of citizen assemblies — groups of voters who deliberate on issues like climate change and make policy recommendations — as an example of the kind of work it does. The aim is to revitalize the democratic process while draining some of the rancor out of politics. But Dawn Nakagawa, the institute’s executive vice president, says its mission has evolved in recent years; the institute is now “a lot more unique and philosophical. The new horizon of our work is really to try to poke our nose into the unknown.” Nakagawa cites something called the Transformations of the Human project, which developed as part of the institute. ToftH, as it is known, was initially conceived by Tobias Rees, who believed that artificial intelligence and biotechnology were redefining what it meant to be human and who wanted to foster conversations among technologists, philosophers and artists about where all of this innovation is taking us as a species. ToftH has facilitated such exchanges at Facebook, Google and other tech companies and also provided assistance on projects. According to Nakagawa, the emphasis these days is on nurturing revolutionary ideas. “If we develop one idea that actually changes and shifts the way the world thinks, that is success,” she says. “But success may not come until long after we’re dead,” she adds, noting that “this work requires patient capital.” Berggruen, the source of that capital, seems to be very patient. He says it can take decades, even centuries, for ideas to catch on and that he is fine waiting. Transformative insights are often not “obvious or popular” at first, and some of the greatest thinkers were persecuted. “Socrates was poisoned,” Berggruen says. “Jesus Christ ended up on a cross, right? Karl Marx was exiled. Spinoza exiled. Confucius, in effect, exiled.” He says the institute needed to show some concrete achievements or otherwise “we won’t be able to engage people.” There are, however, no near-term metrics for gauging the efficacy of what he sees as its most consequential work. We live in a “super result-oriented society,” Berggruen says, but “the one area you cannot measure” is that of fundamental ideas. Given his passion for the really big questions, it seems reasonable to wonder what Berggruen thinks of proposals to rein in the wealthy. Concerns about inequality are “very legitimate and relevant,” he says. In his view, capitalism has proved to be highly effective at raising living standards, but it is a system that gives people an incentive to excel, and a few are always going to prosper to a disproportionate degree. Rather than punishing these “outliers,” a better solution would be to let the rest of society benefit directly from their success. Specifically, he believes that the public, through a sovereign wealth fund, should be given a substantial equity stake in start-up companies. It is a form of “predistribution,” a concept popular among center-left policy wonks, and one that the Berggruen Institute endorses; the idea is to share the wealth up front, rather than trying to redistribute it after the fact. “As opposed to taking away from the outliers,” Berggruen says, “you’re giving everyone else a stake in the success of these outliers.” But Berggruen acknowledges that his wealth makes him an imperfect messenger: People will simply assume that he’s just another plutocrat looking to avoid higher taxes. (He claims he is not opposed to paying more in taxes — he just doesn’t think redistributive policies will do enough to ameliorate economic inequality.) He says that because he is a billionaire, his motives tend to be viewed with suspicion and that it is hard to get his ideas judged solely on their merits. Image At the proposed site of the campus.Credit...Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times I asked if he thought there was a stigma to being so rich. “A hundred percent,” he said. We talked about his fellow billionaire George Soros and his struggle to be accepted as a public intellectual. “He is much weightier than people give him credit” for, Berggruen said. But Soros’s insights were often discounted because of his affluence. “It always bites him back,” Berggruen said, and the same was true for him. “I’ve created my own curse, and it’s my own fault.” He said that while his money had “opened some doors,” it was a liability in other ways. “Maybe it would be better if I did this under an alias,” he joked. “Maybe Joe Smith.” Advertisement

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