Almost 200 high school students visited Nichols Hall on Oct. 22 for the first ever, independently organized TEDx Harker School event, put together by grade 11 students Neeraj Baid and Neel Bhoopalam. Headlined by keynote speaker Guy Kawasaki, the event featured five top entrepreneurs, each offering unique perspectives and advice to the young audience.
As chief evangelist at Apple in the ’80s, Kawasaki helped bring developers to Apple’s Macintosh platform. During his introduction, he asked how many members of the audience used Macs. Upon seeing the vast majority of the attendees raise their hands, he grinned and remarked, “I love to see that.”
With Steve Jobs still in headlines due to his recent passing, Kawasaki’s presentation focused on key lessons he learned from the late celebrity businessman and inventor. “I’m one of the few people who survived working for him twice,” he joked.
The first such lesson was, “Experts are clueless.” “If there’s anything that Apple has proven,” he said, “it’s that experts are often wrong.” He encouraged the audience to “learn to ignore experts.
“This may be contrary to what you’ve been taught, but experts usually define things within established limits, and I think you should break those limits,” he said.
He followed up with several prophetic quotes from influential business leaders that in retrospect seemed downright foolish, including one by Thomas Watson of Western Union, who in 1876 famously said, “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
Other lessons he learned from Jobs included the value of design, realizing that customers often don’t know what they need, and the concept that changing one’s mind is a sign of intelligence.
The conference was kicked off by Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Energy, who observed that the United States is “no longer number one in much of anything,” a far cry from when the U.S. “took over” the industrial revolution in the 1850s. Rising carbon dioxide levels present an opportunity for America to once again be a leading innovator, he said, “and the opportunity is to correct it.”
After identifying the various ways in which the world uses energy, Surace said there a number of things American businesses can now reinvent. “Whether it’s motors or pumps or washing machines or lighting or the way we operate buildings or all the supply side dynamics, we get to reinvent today, and this, in fact, is what America has always done best,” he said.
Although there is competition, particularly from China, America is good at what Surace called disruptive innovation, using none other than Steve Jobs as a shining example. Under his leadership, products such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad “completely disrupted an industry, like no industry has ever been disrupted before,” he said.
However, being disruptively innovative means “we have to be absolutely empowered to take the risks,” and come up with ideas that are unconventional and possibly looked down upon.
Karl Mehta, founder and CEO of PlaySpan, a micropayment company acquired by Visa in March, talked about what he called the “building blocks of entrepreneurship,” covering key principles that helped him in his business ventures. “Wealth creation is not just about money,” he said, but also about giving back to the people who enabled them to become entrepreneurs in the first place. “We want to keep in mind that we stay grounded, that it’s not about money but about creating the wealth so that we can help society. We can give it back to the community,” he said.
Mehta is passionate about using technology and entrepreneurship as “two big tools” to help the people at the “bottom of the pyramid,” who are living on less than $10 a day. He is currently a board member of Simpa Networks, which seeks to make energy available to people in poor and remote areas by allowing them to purchase credits for clean energy with an affordable “pay-as-you-go” model.
When founding a company, Mehta said, one of the most important steps is “to hire people who are smarter than you.” Forming an effective team means being able to find people who are strong in areas where others are not. “Seldom you’ll find individuals who are well-rounded, but generally only teams are well-rounded,” he said.
Following Mehta was Sramana Mitra, who has built three companies since 1994, two of which she has successfully sold. Instead of a presentation, she opted to “have a conversation” with the audience, recapping her journey as an entrepreneur and talking about some of the opportunities that await future generations. “By 2020, there are going to be five billion people on the Internet … So the potential for value creation, the potential for entrepreneurship, the potential for wealth creation ahead of your generation is immense,” she said.
She also talked about her “1 Million by 1 Million” initiative, which aims to help one million entrepreneurs reach $1 million in revenue by 2020, which would create a worldwide GDP of $1 trillion and create 10 million jobs. “We have entrepreneurs from all over the world, at all different stages of their lives and careers doing one million by one million right now,” she said. Those who wish to take part in the initiative can gain access to lectures, case studies and coaching via the website http://1m1m.sramanamitra.com.
During the question and answer session, Mitra said that one way to help solve problems stemming from the current economic crisis is to “empower a lot more entrepreneurs … with the skills and knowledge of how to be successful entrepreneurs,” and she is seeking to create a “Capitalism 2.0, a distributed, democratic capitalism. We need to democratize capitalism the same way Steve Jobs democratized personal computing, the same that Henry Ford democratized the automobile.”
One of the more popular speakers of the day was Rahim Fazal, who sold his first company during his senior year of high school. He was spurred into entrepreneurship, funnily enough, after being fired from McDonald’s for working “too slow.” “I might be the only entrepreneur who’s ever been fired from McDonald’s,” he joked. He went on to start an online business with his friend, which resulted in him cutting several classes and taking far too many bathroom breaks.
The pair made local headlines after selling the business for more than $1 million. Feeling confident, he stridently ignored his parents’ advice to go to college and started another business. “I thought I was on the top of the world,” he said. “That business ended up falling flat on its face, and lost almost all of this money that I made.” He then decided to listen to his parents and acquired an MBA.
Fazal’s current business is Involver, a social marketing company that helps companies leverage social networks to reach customers. Involver’s clients include Nike, Facebook and the National Football League. One of the lessons he learned in his journey so far was that having a good relationship with his parents was more important than he originally thought, mentioning his “incredibly successful” sister, who “had an awesome relationship with my parents, and that was I think one of the things I regret that I didn’t have.”
He also recommended that entrepreneurs build a group of people around them who can answer questions and solve problems for them that are outside their expertise, such as lawyers and accountants. Another point close to Fazal’s heart was getting a life. “If you’re not having a good time, if you’re not out there doing the things that regular kids do, then you’re going to completely regret it,” he said. “Make sure you’re actually doing stuff that’s fun, and that matters.”