My Admission Statement: I have been involved in entrepreneurial activities throughout my career, including a decade as CEO of Sensitech, a venture-backed start-up acquired by United Technologies (UTC). Sensitech monitors the global cold chain, insuring that in-transit perishables such as fresh produce reach their destinations safely and with minimum loss. This focus on reducing food waste led to my co-authoring Food Foolish, a book that explores why human beings waste one-third of everything we produce and recommends solutions. Most recently, I have put my entrepreneurial experience (along with my degree in history) to work, authoring Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship From the Cotton Gin to Broadway’s Hamilton. This new book gathers 25 entrepreneurs, living and departed, around an imaginary bar where they tell their stories—providing fascinating, fun, and profitable reading for modern entrepreneurs.
What was your inspiration for the book?
It all started in a bar, or at least a makeshift bar in the lobby of a venture capital firm in Boston. I had been invited to an after-work presentation featuring a group of start-up CEOs. After their uniformly glowing presentations, we were standing together sipping drinks when the real truth emerged. One CEO was running out of money. Another was threatened by a competitor that had appeared from nowhere three months earlier. Around that time, I happened to be reading a biography of Eli Whitney (1765–1825), who had survived a shipwreck, malaria, a factory fire, and years of patent litigation as he brought his cotton gin to market. Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, if Whitney could have joined us that evening—and maybe other interesting entrepreneurs from various eras of American history?
That get-together was my inspiration for the book. And as I researched and visited with dozens of entrepreneurs, I grew especially interested in learning if there might be a handful of characteristics that would prove to be uncommonly common among successful entrepreneurs, regardless of their backgrounds, personalities, industries, or eras.
And were there?
Yes, and they fell in line with one of my favorite management techniques, simple rules. When things get complicated, rely on simple rules. For example, when Michael Pollan looked around at a million diet books, he recommended that we 1. Eat (real) food, 2. Not too much, 3. Mostly plants. In Innovation on Tap, the stories of our 25 entrepreneurs across three-hundred years come down to three simple rules for success: 1. Build community, 2. Focus relentlessly on the business model, and 3. Think expansively. That last one is especially important for young people; no aspiring entrepreneur should be discouraged if he or doesn’t “look like” one of the day’s heroic successes. Innovation is pervasive and unbounded.
Are there any entrepreneurs you studied or met who were especially inspirational to you?
Eli Whitney was one of America’s first serial entrepreneurs, and his launch of the cotton gin and later musket factory holds all kinds of inspirational lessons for today’s entrepreneurs. Generally, all of the women and people of color featured in Innovation on Tap required courage and tenacity in a world that often threw obstacles in their paths. And, since the book is set in a barroom, I also chose a barroom-style debate: Who is the most successful entrepreneur in American history? Rockefeller? Gates? Jobs? Of course, there is no right answer, but I make the case in Innovation on Tap for General Motors’s Alfred Sloan, who nearly bankrupted Henry Ford on GM’s way to global automobile dominance.
Did you manage to talk about food waste in Innovation on Tap?
Not exactly, but one of the important sections in the book is about sustainability. I feature entrepreneurs doing clean water, renewable energy, and urban gardening. There’s also an important section on digitization, which captures the work of a number of modern entrepreneurs
Any career advice for entrepreneurs?
Don’t overlook history as a source of knowledge and inspiration. Henry Ford once called history “bunk” and then went on to build one of the largest museums in America. He became a believer. If you are STEM major, you might think of history as an enormous laboratory where we have been running decades of experiments on our favorite topic: us! When these experiments take the shape of compelling stories, they can provide genuine wisdom and, at a critical moment, the guidance needed to make the right decision. Steve Jobs said creativity is just connecting things; think of history as an endless source of “things” to connect.
What is your current passion?
Making the case, through books like Innovation on Tap, that liberal arts majors can and should have a seat around the entrepreneurial bar. We all love STEM majors, but it’s the history, English, and philosophy majors who sometimes need to be reminded that innovation doesn’t have a degree. And innovation may take the shape of a new app or software platform, but it also might be a Broadway show such as Hamilton.
Author William Gibson once wrote, “It’s harder to imagine a past that went away than it is to imagine the future.” Spending time reading and understanding what came before us is essential to understanding what might lie in our future. And when it’s set in a barroom, it can be a lot of fun, too.