As a young person coming of age in the 1960s, I learned a smattering of black history in school. We studied, however briefly, black icons like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, and George Washington Carver. Though clearly important, these people often seemed frozen in amber, because my contemporaries and I were witnessing new history being made in the black struggle every year. The tumultuous 1960s inspired us to believe that we could make history, not merely study it. This year we find ourselves celebrating some heretofore unknown history makers: the women whose story is told in the movie Hidden Figures. We examine anew the themes of the 20th century black liberation struggle expressed by James Baldwin and retold in the movie I am Not your Negro. These stories inspire us, but they also challenge us to add our own chapters to the black history narrative.
More than forty-five years ago, I began my college education at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, Michigan. This was back in Flint’s glory days, when world-class industrial production as well as ground-breaking research took place right in the midst of the city. My co-op sponsor was the AC Spark Plug Division of General Motors. My first assignment at AC was in the Engineering Research Center, which was located at the corner of Averill Avenue and Davison Road. I felt lucky and excited to have what seemed like a plum first assignment.
2016: Another Year in the Can
It is hard to find the words to describe all that has transpired in 2016. I have so much to say, but where shall I begin? In many ways, for me and my family, 2016 brought many new accomplishments and blessings, but as we exit the year, I feel an enormous sense of foreboding and concern. I’ll have more to say about that later, in a different post.
I admire my friends who have written eloquent essays and family updates at the end of each year. I can’t match what they have done, so I’ve decided to share some pictures and just a few words to capture some of the highlights of my life in 2016. If you were connected to any of these happenings in any way, I thank you for sharing the journey. Here we go…
Earlier this year, I had the distinct honor of presenting a lecture to honors program students at Albany State University (ASURAMS) in Albany, Georgia. It was especially satisfying to lecture there because my family hails from that area, and because my mother and some local family members attended. The folks at Albany State were nice enough to produce a really good video of the lecture, which they kept in their archives and made available to local television stations.
Check out the video (below) and let me know what you think! This video is part of the new ProvingGroundVideo channel on YouTube. Please try out the channel and subscribe — it’s FREE!
When people discuss entrepreneurship, they often focus on process steps such as idea generation, opportunity validation, planning, company formation, and company growth. However, this analysis usually overlooks all the activities a person engages in to prepare for a successful entrepreneurship experience. These activities include education, work experience and something I consider supremely important: play.
What is play? A dictionary definition of is: “activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation, rather than a serious or practical purpose.” If you examine the bios of most entrepreneurs, especially those engaged in technical fields, you will find few who didn’t play in their chosen technology field long before they engaged in a business venture. Technical play deepens experience and knowledge without the pressure of finances and deadlines. It allows the would-be entrepreneur to develop a strong affinity for her field prior to the start of any formal business practice. In this sense, play can be considered “step zero” of the entrepreneurial process.
Consider Bill Gates, the now legendary co-founder of Microsoft. It is well known that Gates started programming computers in grade school, purely for enjoyment and to satisfy his technical curiosity. Consider Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who, long before getting rich at Apple, played with “blue boxes” that allowed them to make free long-distance telephone calls, and with computer boards they could show off to their friends at the Homebrew Computer Club. Consider me: long before I thought of starting my own electronics company, I was building robots and listening devices and ham radio stuff in the basement of our Flint, Michigan home.
When I was in college at University of Michigan, I spent most of my spare time designing and building a digital electronic music synthesizer. Microcomputers and digital signal processing devices were new then, and I felt excited to apply those technologies to the field of music. I also thought I might one day start a business manufacturing and selling synthesizers. As it turned out, my music synthesizer idea never became a business, because I had not engaged in the marketing or team development or financing necessary to make it happen. As it turned out, I was just playing. However, the years of effort did ultimately pay off. The business I later started, Telecom Analysis Systems, used many of the same technologies I had developed for my music synthesizer, and the experience I gained on that project made me much more familiar and comfortable with those technologies.
The importance of play should come as no surprise, and that importance is not exclusive to business pursuits. We would consider it an anomaly if a professional athlete hadn’t started playing as a kid, purely for love of the game. Ditto for a professional musician. Why should an entrepreneur be different? Love of “the game” and nearly lifelong experience are, I think, strong predictors of success in most fields.
The notion of technical play was a strong feature of the environment at Bell Laboratories, the legendary company responsible for many of the most important twentieth century innovations in electronics, computing, telecommunications, and computer science. Bell Labs researcher Claude Shannon, widely regarded as the father of modern communication theory, famously also spent many hours concocting devices such as an electromechanical mouse that could find its way through a maze (http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2010/3/16/In-Their-Own-Words-Claude-Shannon-Demonstrates-Machine-Learning). Long before his Bell Labs career, as a child in Petosky, Michigan, he constructed a telegraph system between his house and a friend’s. Clearly Shannon had long enjoyed playing with computing and communication technologies.
Bell Labs was my first employer after college, and the environment there gave me time and space to work (and play) with the technologies I would later apply in my own business venture. Later, when my cofounders and I had to make hiring decisions for our own business, we looked for people who, aside from being “book smart,” demonstrated that they had enjoyed playing in their chosen field.
Malcolm Gladwell famously posits in his book “Outliers” that world-class expertise in any field requires 10,000 hours of relevant experience. Given this, it is no wonder that Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) was writing computer software while in middle school, or that a young Magic Johnson spent countless hours shooting baskets in a Lansing, Michigan park, or that Oprah Winfrey was delivering local television news while still in high school.
So what does this emphasis on play mean? For the aspiring tech entrepreneur, it means that your chances of success are greater if you have enjoyed “playing” in your field for a long time. This is a variation on the old saw: “Do what you know.” Your familiarity with the technology and deep expertise will separate you from the pack and prepare you to deal with the inevitable onslaught of competition, and your love of the game will inspire and motivate others. For the parent who wants to prepare a child for entrepreneurship, it means giving that child the opportunity to create and innovate as early as possible. When you observe your child developing love for a particular field, encourage and nurture that love. The successful tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow are the kids who are today exercising their creativity by engaging in technical play: designing things; writing software; organizing “kid businesses.” When you observe your child exhibiting these behaviors, definitely support and encourage them. You may be helping them complete “step zero” on the path to a successful career in entrepreneurship.
On Friday, April 12, 2013, I had the distinct honor of giving the keynote address at the Ohio State University Minority Engineering Awards Program banquet. It was an impressive affair, attended by a few hundred people. I was seated next to David Williams, the Dean of Engineering, along with several other distinguished guests. I was impressed to see the number, diversity, and quality of students in the program. Ohio State is clearly devoted to enhancing both the diversity and quality of its engineering programs, due in no small measure to the work of Dean Minnie McGee, who for years has overseen the Minority Engineering Program.
My visit to Ohio State was hosted by Dean McGee and facilitated by friend, supporter, and fellow Flintite Norma Richards. She herself has done an outstanding job nurturing her own kids, and the children of others, toward careers in engineering. She is someone other parents can learn much from. Norma’s son Jonathan is already an engineer. Her daughter Victoria will be graduating from OSU Engineering this spring, and daughter Nyla will enter this fall. Quite a track record, wouldn’t you say? Talk about a Tiger Mom – Norma is a lioness!
Thanks to everyone who said such nice things about my speech, and to all those folks who stayed around and purchased books after the event. I enjoyed every minute of my visit, from the dinner that night right through to the picnic session with students the next morning. OSU and Michigan are bitter rivals on the football field, and that is well and good. I’d like to see that kind of fierce competition extend to excellence at recruiting, educating, and graduating the future leaders in engineering and technology.
On April 12, 2013, I have the honor of being the keynote speaker at the Ohio State University Minority Engineering Program Awards Banquet. As a dyed-in-the-maize-and-blue U-M alum, I know I’ll be in hostile territory, but it will definitely be worth the trip. Ohio State has for years been doing a splendid job of identifying and preparing young people of color to participate in the engineering disciplines. Now THAT’s the kind of Wolverine vs. Buckeye competition I like to see!
The subject of my talk at OSU will be the question: “What’s your hypothesis?” I will challenge the students to think of their career not as a series of pass/fail events, but as a series of experiments, each of which will yield greater understanding, and each of which will prepare them for even greater future accomplishments. I’m looking forward to the event!
Note to self: drive the RED car to Ohio.
Have you heard of Hult International University? I hadn’t either, but on March 7 I had the privilege of addressing a group of talented master’s-level business students there. One of those students, Pearl Budu, was in-country tour coordinator when Aaron and I visited Ghana in 2011. Now she is at Hult University San Francisco studying for a master’s degree in international business. Pearl invited me to the school to discuss my experiences in entrepreneurship and international business, so how could I refuse? Since I was in SF anyway for the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship West Coast Startup Trek (a.k.a Weather Underground Startup Trek 2013), I made the time to visit Hult and address a group of very motivated, very talented, very international students.
By way of information, Hult University bills itself as the world’s most international business school. Hult has campuses in five cities: Boston, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, and Dubai. For more information, see www. Hult.edu.
I enjoyed very much talking with the Hult SF students. After the lecture, I retreated with several of them to Il Fornaio restaurant for a relaxed dinner and discussion. All in all, a productive, fun, and enlightening evening.