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Goldman Sachs Builders and Innovators Summit – It’s About the People

I wear a lot of hats these days and they all represent something about entrepreneurship. The thing I love about this is that these hats are often passports to meet and learn from great people. Last week was an exceptional experience in my ongoing entrepreneurial exploration – it was the first Goldman Sachs Builders and Innovators Summit. I was invited by virtue of my Babson assignment as the National Academic Director for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses (10KSB) initiative. The summit was a gathering of about 100 entrepreneurs identified as “most intriguing” along with an astounding line-up of speakers from the worlds of practice, policy, and creative thinking. We heard from people such as the innovative and disruptive founders of Oracle, AOL, Netflix, and JetBlue, the wise and amazing voices of President Bill Clinton and Secretary Condoleezza Rice, and the thoughtful and engaging impressions of Deepak Chopra and Malcolm Gladwell.

Picture the opening session of the summit held on an outdoor patio, set slightly below the main hotel building, with a pair of curved staircases flanking the stage. It was one of those amazing California days when everything just seems to sparkle. At this point with everyone still figuring out what the whole summit was about, Lloyd Blankfein kicked off the first session with Larry Ellison. The actual adventure begins! Now, when I reflect back across all the sessions, several strong themes appeared that stood out. First and second, it is all about the team. I’ll explain, so let’s focus on building the team, creating its culture and the “who” in the process.

Looking at building, two main things struck me. First, the detailed discussions almost never focused on capital, at least not financial capital. Everyone was tremendously centered on people – human capital, driven by the need to find and keep talent. Larry Ellison spoke of being consumed by recruiting. Getting the very best people, then staying involved personally in every hire, every person, for as long as possible, only stopping when, ” I was fairly confident that I had shaped the culture.” The culture theme traveled across subsequent sessions. On Tuesday Reed Hastings shared, “If you set out to maintain culture – you will fail. You have to set out to improve it” and later Dick Kramlich remarked that “improving the culture as you grow is one of the hardest things to do.” It felt like they were all in the same conversation, even when physically separate. But here is the main point, it wasn’t just about any old culture. It was building the right culture. When it comes to that, Kevin Plank was concerned with scaling trust, while Reed Hastings’ emphasis was on scaling innovation. The speakers all made it clear that our job for scaling our own organizations is to figure out what is important about a culture that fits our mission and then pay a lot of attention to developing, sustaining and advancing it.

So here is the “who.” The jobs for founders came up in several ways . In his session Steve Case described the role of the CEO as the “shock absorber” while during a talk after lunch, Mike Hayes, Seal Team 2 Leader, called himself a “stress sponge.” These are people we can really respect. So when you start hearing statements like this, you really do think about your own way of building and leading your teams. Another part of the “who” affects the entrepreneurial mindset. This came up repeatedly in terms of curiosity and passion. Ellison suggested that once you start growing, curiosity and persistence take over. That’s when you start asking yourself, “Just how far can I take this?” It’s really about both how far do you WANT to take it, and how far CAN you take it. Passion was interwoven in almost every session. Jeffrey Katzenberg kicked off his panel by asking the panelists, “What does passion in your world mean?” Kramlich took the question very literally and provided the dictionary definition of passion as “where emotion overcomes reason.” However, he then moved laterally into an area I hear all the time from entrepreneurs, saying that the word work doesn’t enter into his lexicon. It has to be fun. It was readily evident that the man enjoys what he does. Ryan Seacrest (yes, that Ryan Seacrest, a star personality who came across as a smart and thoughtful business person) basically said he was allergic to downtime and thrives off the back-to-back pace. When Katenzberg asked Seacrest about what he was most proud, Seacrest immediately responded that he was most proud of his work with his foundation.

Innovation Summit Discussion Poster

The summit ended with a panel on passion – making a difference. Throughout the summit I was wondering about the mix of for-profit businesses and not for profit organizations thrown together at the same growth oriented conference. Not surprisingly, it’s a question we ask ourselves in the 10KSB program about whether folks of these different ilks belong in the same classroom. I came away more convinced than ever that not only CAN they be in the same room, they NEED to be in the same room. I asked one of the other attendees, Kathy Fettke of Real Wealth Network, what she thought of the combination. Kathy shared that she was incredibly moved by the final panel with Dina Powell of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, Barbara Bush for Global Health Corps, Charles Best for, and Eric Greitens for The Mission Continues. Kathy later wrote to me, “My husband asked me what I hoped to achieve from the conference. I told him that I would like to be a speaker at a future event, showing others how I had learned to successfully align our company with a non-profit, helping us both achieve higher success. I would like to show others how corporations can attain much higher profits by aligning with a non-profit they believe in. “ Overall, that is a great takeaway.

In closing, I’ve attached one of the posters created by a set of artists who were brought in to illustrate the ongoing discussions. I’ve seen this approach several times recently (one with a student business in Madrid) and do like it – and yet think the artistic interpretation can be even more meaningful than just an on-site activity. It was fun to look at while it was being created, so now we have to put it somewhere to see and remind us of what we hear. Most importantly, now what do with all of this? Build and Innovate.

P.S. I apologize for the deluge of hyperlinks. If you think this is overwhelming – you should have been drinking at the fire hose at the Summit!