In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting on my parents’ bed, watching them stuff envelopes promoting my father’s home-inspection business. That was his part-time enterprise, just launching; he had recently moved in his day job from a high school science post to a community-college gig teaching electrical technology. I think that’s where my own inclination toward entrepreneurship began, and where I learned the lesson that academia and business are not necessarily at cross purposes.
Today I run the Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations, also called the ILO Institute – an idea-driven business that looks a lot like a traveling graduate seminar. About thirty-five organizations, mostly multi-billion-dollar corporations but also a handful of government agencies and large not-for-profits, pay an annual fee to have access to our frequent gatherings of innovation leaders, and for research services my small team of colleagues and I provide.
Our events take place in cities around the U.S. and Europe, typically run from 9.30 in the morning till 2.30 in the afternoon, are capped at 20 participants each, and center around a seminar table (though I’ve learned to tell our host hotels and clubs that the set-up is “boardroom style”; sadly, the reference to seminars tends to confuse people).
I lead these gatherings, and try blending a bit of lecture with a lot of seminar-style facilitation. We always have a notable guest speaker – frequently academics, including recent Nobel Prize-winners in economics and the occasional university president or business-school dean; recently the past Prime Minister of the Netherlands was our speaker in Amsterdam – and we end every meeting with the sharing of a nice bottle of wine, a signature ILO tradition.
I also pitch companies on membership, conduct some of our research and oversee all the rest, and run mundane business operations like making sure our finances are steady and well-documented, and making lots and lots of photocopies (often in the middle of the night in a hotel after a long flight).
I loved graduate school at Columbia, but always felt like an outsider – coming from a solid but not notable state university as an undergrad; working to support my small family all the time; often being impressed by the huge brain power of many faculty and fellow student who seemed to come from a different world. And I proved impolitic and tin-eared when it came to department politics. I shifted away from the areas my key faculty advisors recommended for my comprehensive oral exams, sent out papers to journals that my teachers said were not ready (with great success in more than a couple of cases), and chose a dissertation topic widely far off the mark for smart careerism in an English department. All these decisions – none of which I regret now, two decades later – reflected my habit of impatience and my poor skills at following advice, pretty common traits among business-starters.
I was at least a year away from being “ready” for the job market when I saw a position open at Harvard teaching writing on a series of full-time, one-year appointments and applied anyway. Everyone I knew – including me – was shocked when I got it.
And after three years there – though the ticking clock would have allowed me to stay for five – I left. With two small children in our house, my wife and I were struggling to get by on my academic income and hers as a freelance journalist. I was also frankly impatient with the slow pace of life inside a university, and wanted to shake things up.
I hung out a shingle as a corporate communications consultant, and – a happy accident – found myself in 1995 one of the very few people working with big companies who knew much about the internet at the time, because at Harvard I’d used the pre-web ‘net for research and teaching. (Who remembers the text-only search tools Archie, Veronica and Gopher that would take you via Nysernet to the University of Pisa’s unrestricted databases?).
After a few years as an independent consultant, I was offered a wonderful job as the president of the Great Books Foundation, and then came an offer to be the president of the Antioch New England Graduate School – both opportunities a direct result of the consulting work I’d done, which added an entrepreneurial and modern-technology sheen to my academic profile.
Nevertheless I remained the same impatient person I’d always been, and started ILO in 2005. Our launch was fantastic, but the economic collapse of 2008 hit us hard and threatened to squash the entire enterprise. Only in late 2012 did we really return to the fairly confident operating rhythm we’re enjoying again now.
I’ve been very fortunate to be able to combine my academic background with a business life among very smart and engaging people that lets me constantly learn, travel, and teach in all kinds of ways. It’s still a lot of fun and full of surprises, and I’m betting that it’ll keep going for a while.