Confession: I love Uber. Check out my op-ed on Uber’s awkward / stormy adolescence published yesterday by Fox: Uber exits the unicorn years and awkwardly steps into adolescence. Can it survive and thrive?


I’m not sure what my favorite part of the Elizabeth Holmes story actually is.  It is tempting to focus on the welizabeth holmes fortunehole “self-made billionaire” bit, or the “billionaire before the age of 30“, or that she has 84 patents to her name while also running a hyper-growth company.  There is also the fact that she recognized that her age would be an obstacle for investors, so she assembled what some have called the most impressive board of directors ever. Of course there is also the “female version of Steve Jobs” angle, as he is apparently also her idol, and she is doing a killer impersonation.

But no.  Instead, my favorite thing about Elizabeth Holmes is that she and I share something important – we are both wusses. According to Inc., Holmes has a deep seated “aversion to needles“, which helped inspire her to approach the blood testing market from a new angle. The focus of most business model innovation is identifying unmet value that can be created for customers, and she used a well-established fear as a starting point. From there she has guided her ideas into some pretty awesome directions, guided by cutting edge science, to destroy the typical business model for the $73 billion diagnostic-lab industry with extremely inexpensive blood tests that can be conducted with no-pain blood draws of tiny samples that allow a huge range of tests from a single sample. All of this is then implemented in tiny labs, outside of the typical doctor’s office setting. Now she and her company (Theranos) are racking up FDA approvals to bring this all to market, starting with a huge partnership with Walgreens.

Starting with a clear value proposition, and then driving that insight into transformative new directions guided by research-driven science, Elizabeth Holmes has the world at her fingertips.  She has her sights set on creating a new market and ecosystem that does not yet exist – one that focuses on a more democratic approach to medicine with an empowered and informed patient that better monitors their own health throughout their life at a reasonable cost. I’ll bet this is just the beginning.

I have always been interested in what the most powerful / smart / successful people in the world do after they create their great work or leave their high-profile positions.  Where is the afterparty?  Do they move to the background and pull the strings that control the puppets that run the rest of the world?  Do they just retire into the freedom of the caribbean?  Do they make symbolic gestures or motivate big changes in the world? Do they work harder than ever?  Surely, some do each of these things.

Upon first reflection, several names come to mind.  JD Salinger.  Al Gore.  Eli Broad.  Bill Clinton.  Nathan Myhrvold (see previous post). Several recent names have highlighted this issue.  Take Sandra Day O’Connor or Evan Bayh.  For O’Connor, she was a supreme court justice for 25 years and the first woman to ever reach the high court.  There is not much room to go up from there.  For Evan Bayh, he was a political scion / heir-apparent (his dad was a US senator) who lived up to his famiy reputation to become a 2-term state governor and then a 2-term US senator.  Of these, Evan Bayh is a bit more interesting, as it is much more intriguing to see what happens when someone is still young after their notable work than if they are more retirement-age.  Sandra Day O’Connor (age 79) has taken up a position as a social commentator and paid speaker, essentially doing a well-earned victory lap.  Evan Bayh just turned 54.  He has mentioned everything from becoming a CEO to a university president, but is “leaving his options open.”

That’s it, I’m checking out.  JD Salinger never wanted to be famous are avoided it at all costs.  He wrote in “The Catcher in the Rye” of his main character Holden Caulfield hating “phonies” and wanting to go live in a cabin alone where he wouldn’t have to talk with anyone. In a sense, that is exactly what JD Salinger did, moving out of New York after achieving some success to a secluded existence on 90 acres in Cornish, New Hampshire. He is reported to have written extensively for the rest of his life – in more than 50 years of isolation – without publishing much of anything.  What did he write?  Will any of us ‘phonies’ ever see any of it?  One of the greatest American writers in history, but he doesn’t think anyone deserves to share his work.  How many other Howard Hughes /  JD Salinger / or other scientific or literary or mathematical genius types through history have just checked out and simply cut themselves off?  I’m sure historians could put together a pretty high-powered list.

Power brokers.  Bill Clinton was a US governor at 32 years old, president by 46.  After two terms as the most powerful man on Earth he was done by the time he was 54.  Then what?  He became the pre-eminent power broker in the democratic party and has invested his time heavily in the Clinton Global Initiative, a high-powered group designed to bring powerful business leaders, former heads of state, nobel prize winners, and other influential people together in a call-to-action to help improve the global condition.  In this role he has been able to continue his hold on influence and has enormous sway as a world-wide power broker.

Save the World.  Bill Gates holds mythical status in modern society for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his title as the “richest man in the world.” He is a well-respected techie and business leader. In 2009 he mostly checked out of the company that had created him to do something bigger.  With the Gates Foundation (see previous post) he has created an organization that is already the world-leader in making philanthropy more like a business with clear goals and huge impact.  By managing his foundation more closely, he can write a letter to stakeholders like the one he recently released, talking about the 250 million children he is saving with one new vaccine, and the 500 million starving people he is helping to feeed with new drought resistance crops.  I exaggerate, but only a little.  Gates has traded in making money for saving and improving lives.  In a sense, Al Gore has done the same, but more focused on a single cause (climate change). Gore now has an Oscar and a Nobel prize to console him as he curses the hanging chads in Florida’s election ballots.

Get Richer.  More than a few people upon exiting their high-profile situations just turn their genius-power, public service history, or other notariety into bigger bucks. Names that might get mentioned here include anyone from Nathan Myhrvold (his “Intellectual Ventures” is not exactly a non-profit) to Elon Musk (PayPal to SpaceX andTesla Motors) and other serial-entrepreneurs. Given the other ambitions on this list (saving the world or enhancing the arts) this may seem like a selfish play with one’s talents, and maybe it is, but we can’t fault talented people from creating companies, creating new jobs, and creating wealth.  It is no less than the American way.

Enhance the Arts.  Eli Broad has had wild success, building two Fortune 500 companies (KB Homes and SunAmerica Financial). In a sense, he gets the title of “get richer” together with his fascination with the arts for going back after making his fortune to try to do it again with company #2.  He currently is a noted philanthropist, focusing his efforts on a variety of efforts from improving K-12 education to supporting stem cell research and his named business school. However, a huge focus for Broad has been on the arts.  In addition to holding one of the greatest private art collections in the world, he has given endlessly to support museums and to protect and provide access to the arts.

On and On…. This list could go on and on. In coming years it will be interesting to see what Obama, Bayh, and others do with their new-found freedom.

Malcolm Gladwell is clever.  Anyone who has read his books can quickly deduce this.  However, perhaps what is most clever about Malcolm Gladwell is that he recognizes that cleverness is not necessarily all about being smart.  In fact, most of the truly great things that people get credit for were not really invented by them.  Henry Ford did not invent much truly new, he just was exceptional at making it work together.  Andrew Hargadon had a recent post on his blog about this issue as well, but for every great invention / business / whatever you can name, I can find three people who could probably lay claim at the idea first. It’s not that ideas are not precious, or necessary, it’s just that they are not enough.  Malcolm Gladwell is best known for several books (Tipping Point, Blink, etc.) that take well established ideas from many domains, repackage and add new insights, and make him into an icon.  The fact that most of these ideas are not original Gladwell creations does not diminish his contribution, and he’d be the first to tell you it was not all him.  It’s about putting things together in the right context, with the right people, and sometimes the right business model.

This simple insight could be pretty influential for those who seek big ideas.  Be an idea harvester, not just an idea creator.

I’m always interested in the guy-behind-the-guy.  Despite our tendency to lionize the individuals who do great things in this world, often those who reach great heights are propelled in part by some interesting people who stay behind the curtains.  Sometimes these people are spouses with great support, ideas, or encouragement. Sometimes they are mentors who have seen their day come and go and later find their greatest fulfillment in pressing a new hero into service or greater heights. Sometimes the ‘man behind the curtain’ is a benefactor.

Dr. Paul Farmer is a truly great man.  Even among those who have a life’s ambition to help the poor or serve the vulnerable, Dr. Farmer sets a high bar. His work, now known as Partners in Health, embodies the essence of transformational service and is rooted in a service to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on Earth, in rural Haiti.  Much has been written about the greatness of Paul Farmer, most notably in the incredibly well reviewed book “Mountains beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder. This work and others attest to the great story of how a kid from Florida who was about to start at Harvard Medical School begged, borrowed, and stole whatever he could to help a people who the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten about. He built clinics, brought resources, directed the attention of institutions (the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School among others), and changed the way modern medicine was delivered to those he served. By learning about the people he served and the lives they lived, not just their medical problems, Dr. Farmer achieved incredible results and changed medicine.

However, to me a layer beyond the Paul Farmer story is the story of a friendship and a man behind the curtain who in no small part made it all possible. Tom White was an exceptional man in just how unexceptionally he saw the world. Yet it was his humble vision and vigorous benefaction that made the Paul Farmer story possible. He seemed to have a simple way of approaching life, focused on core values of integrity and honest work, but embodied in exceptional generosity of heart and money. He was a successful businessman in his family’s construction business (J.F. White), but saw his role in this world as much more than just to be in business. In a moving eulogy reflecting on the life of his friend and chief benefactor, Paul Farmer noted that Tom saw a world in need and responded with generosity, compassion, and service. He did not accept simple answers to tough problems, and saw the needs of the poor as urgent rather than just a long-term problem. He focused on building an ‘inclusive world’ recognizing that the basic humanity of all people is the same. He rejected the idea that the poor had made bad choices, arguing that a great deal of each person’s life is determined by the circumstances into which they are born. This, in part, motivated a profound urgency to act to bring the hope of prosperity and health to those who deserved it but had little access to it. The depth of Tom’s compassion drove him to give away nearly all of his wealth toward these goals, with the Boston Globe joking that Tom White’s bumper sticker should read: “He who gives it all away wins.”

By most accounts, Tom White seemed to shy away from individual acclaim, despite his immense generosity. He preferred to be the embodied example of the man from the Wizard of Oz, who despite controlling all of the sparkle and power of the emerald city, declared, “please pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” 

I wonder who else is back there, behind all those curtains.

There are a lot of stereotypes about smart people.  Most of these stereotypes are well supported with the geeks and freaks that occupy the top of the intellectual spectrum.  However, a few of the absolute intellectual elite break the mold.  Nathan Myhrvold is one of these.  He is as one-of-a-kind as people come, and he is amazing.

Let’s start with some of his geek cred.  It’s pretty good.  He started college at age 14 (ala Doogie Howser).  He graduated from UCLA having studied math and physics with bachelors and masters degrees.  Then on to Princeton, where he recieved his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by age 23 (now I’m thinking of the “Charlie” character from the TV show Numbers).  What does a wunderkind do with a Princeton PhD by 23?  He went to study cosmology and quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge.  Like most super-geniuses this was just the beginning.  He left Hawking to start a computer start-up in California, which was soon snapped up by Microsoft.  He then worked at Microsoft for 13 years, launching many of their best selling products, the Microsoft research division, and running a bunch of the company as the Chief Technology Officer (also getting filthy rich).  After leaving Microsoft he has broadened into a variety of scientific and technical ventures, and is currently wrapped up in running an ‘invention company’ called Intellectual Ventures that is shaking some of the foundations of invention with its approach to brainstorming the future of everything from semiconductors to lasers that shoot mosquitos out of the air and biotechnology (there will be a future post on their methods). He holds many patents and has published widely in the top echelons of science.

That is the geek cred, which is pretty A+ stuff.  Along the way, however, he has demonstrated an amazingly diverse and rounded taste for life.  He is a master French chef (once an assistant chef in a top Seattle French restaurant).  He is a paleontologist.  Not just a museum-dwelling paleontologist, but a get-your-hands-in-the-dirt digging up dinosaur bones in Montana every year paleotologist.  He has a complete t-rex skeleton in his living room.  He is a world champion barbecue master (winning 1st and 2nd in Memphis, TN world championships).  He is an award winning nature and wildlife  photographer.  He is an avid searcher for alien life with SETI.  He is a dad, husband, and family man.

Malcolm Gladwell once famously described him as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  I agree.

A few years ago, when my daughter was getting ready for her heart surgery her Yale-educated doctor and I were talking about everything from obscure rock bands to the latest in medical innovations with sonic technology.  When I commented on his broad knowledge base, he laughed and said that you never want a doctor whose brain power is fully maxed out with the medical knowledge, instead opting for the doc with enough bandwidth for other pursuits as well.  Nathan Myhrvold is an example of breadth on steroids.

What is he doing now?  In addition to shooting mosquitos out of the sky to help with the malaria crisis and solving global warming (by building a shield of sulfer in the atmosphere), he has another project he is hot and passionate about.  What, you might ask?   Working on a cookbook, of course.

Ok, so maybe that headline is a little ridiculous.bethShapiro2

Nonetheless, I’m a huge fan of the MacArthur Foundationgenius grants” and I particularly love it when young people recieve them.  In fact, young people recieve these grants all the time (see the past fellows list), but this year I couldn’t help but wonder what Beth (Beth Shapiro) and Becky’s (Rebecca Onie) friends must have thought about their friend recieving this honor.  Beth is 33 and Rebecca is 32.  I can just see Beth’s friends from the University of Georgia (where she graduated as an undergrad in 1999) posting something like this OMG statement on Facebook.  Sure, she left Georgia as a Rhodes Scholar, but still, it wasn’t that long ago.

Per their website, the MacArthur Foundation awards their unrestricted $500,000 fellowships  to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The basic idea is that the foundation quietly identifies these extraordinary people (see the mysterious identification process) and makes an ‘investment’ in them to pursue whatever they want with ‘no strings attached.’  The fellowships pay out the 500k fellowship money in 100k installments for 5 years, plus they cover other things like health insurance, etc. to really give their fellows a chance to pursue whatever they want.  Most keep doing what they have already been doing, some drop everything and try something new.  For a country built on the shoulders of very creative people and innovations, this program seems like a fantastic way to push forward America’s creative spirit into the next millenium very strategically.

As for Beth and Becky, they are each involved with some pretty cool stuff.  Beth’s work focuses on the use of biostatistics to understand population dynamics in recently extinct or endangered species.  She worked with some of the best people in the world at the University of Oxford, and has done interesting work on species as diverse as the dodo bird and T-Rex. Rebecca was recognized for her work with Project Health, an organization that pairs college kids with hospitals and health clinics to meet the unmet needs of the poor and sick. The work evolved out of her experience as a sophomore at Harvard, and now she is the CEO of the organization leading its national and international expansion.  Their goal is to better reach out to those in poverty to overcome the obstacles that prevent people from getting decent health care.

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