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Speaking With Len Schlesinger, The President of Babson College
I had the pleasure of interviewing Len Schlesinger, the current President of Babson College and former COO of Limited Brands and Au Bon Pain. It was honestly the most fun I’ve ever had interviewing someone – the man is incredibly engaging and I found his thoughts on the education and practice of entrepreneurship really inspiring. Below is a summary of some segments with links to different spots in the video. But I really would encourage folks to walk the whole thing. Some sound bites to tease you:
- On whether school is a waste and entrepreneurs are better off just dropping out? “That’s complete nonsense”
- On how Babson competes against Harvard, Stanford, and MIT: “Our strategy comes from Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead”
- On what makes Babson unique: “we have a ‘method”
- On what gets him going every day: “We are all entrepreneurs but too few people live to practice it. I believe in my heart of hearts, I wake up every morning seeing a straight line between what I do and the possibilities of a better world by engaging in the broad scale democratization of entrepreneurship rather than keeping it an exclusive club.”
I kicked off with a question posed by Jason Jacobs at Runkeeper (a Babson alum). He asked whether it makes sense to teach entrepreneurship, and whether one is simply better off just starting something or joining an entrepreneurial endeavor. Len largely disagreed with this sentiment and pointed out a very helpful analogy. He compared entrepreneurs to artists. Some, like Andy Worhol, were immensely successful out of the gates. But others are more like Monet. Visit an exhibit of Monet’s early work, Len challenged, and you’ll agree that “it’s not that good”. But by the time you get to the end of his career, his work is extraordinary. The point is not that all entrepreneurs are of one school or the other. But his goal is to help the latter. Whether you agree or not, I was inspired by his rationale. His view was that there is a portrayal of entrepreneurship as a highly intrinsic, high-risk, all-or-nothing endeavor that actually discourages many from pursuing the entrepreneurial path. That may be true for some subset of entrepreneurs, but with the goal of promoting much more new enterprise creation and entrepreneurial behavior, the school is dedicated to promoting a very different paradigm.
This was the one question I was dying to ask. You rarely get to ask a president of a school about how they compete against flagship institutions, and I was eager to hear Len’s point of view. In my mind, it was akin to asking a startup how they compete against Facebook and Google. What he gave me was excellent advice for any entrepreneur. In short, he described their goal as not being “the best” but aspring to be “the only“. He describes coming to the institution and finding that many there were very proud of their #1 ranking in entrepreneurship, but also terrified of what happens if they fall to #2. The reality is that being #1 is not a strategy, but an outcome. But it was something that was a little lost at the time of his arrival.
As a result, he led the school to pursue a strategy taken from Jerry Garcia, who said “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do”. The story is that the Grateful Dead were successful not because because they were the best musicians. But they were the only band that took our fans seriously. This meant allowing fans to have free reign to record and photograph their concerts. And the best seats in the house were reserved for those folks, although no other band allowed that behavior. In the same way, Len articulates Babson based on the things that only they do. Namely: They are the only school that articulates entrepreneurship as a method. They are the only school that applies that method to broad contexts startups, high-growth enterprises, family enterprise, and large corporations They are the only school that teaches entrepreneurship and social outcomes as one and the same. Len also turned me on to this cartoonist that does really cool work in the startup world that he works with to communicate the school’s strategy and vision.
I closed by asking Len to talk about some of the things students say to him are the most valuable lessons they learn at Babson or as entrepreneurs in the field. The number one lesson that he hears is to stop over-thinking a problem. This goes for both the entrepreneurial process as well as for personal career decisions. As Len puts in, the goal of Babson’s method is to encourage entrepreneurs to “use action to create the evidence to allow the scientific method to work”. In many ways, the school has, for years, been advocating for an entrepreneurial process with similar inspiration as that popularized by the Lean Startup movement. Related to this, the other, more personal lesson learned by students is to stop obsessing about what one will do 5 years in the future. But instead to focus on making the right next step.
There is a lot of other great meat to this interview, and the summaries don’t really do it justice. Check the interview out – Len is remarkably engaging and charismatic. And even if you don’t buy into everything, the results are pretty compelling. If you think about some of the more interesting companies in Boston, many are led by Babson alum – Jason Jacobs, Matt Lauzon, David Hauser and Siamek Taghaddos, etc. And Mike Salguero and Sean Black are two CEOs in the NextView portfolio that are also Babson alum and terrific founders.