To celebrate a magazine that has always championed the power of the individual, we have amassed what we believe to be the greatest ever collection of business essayists—100 entrepreneurs, visionaries and prophets of capitalism who have shaped the past century. And we’ve complemented this A-to-Z encyclopedia of ideas with the greatest ever portrait portfolio in business history, all taken by the amazing Martin Schoeller, who literally traveled around the world for it. The result is a visual time capsule and master class in entrepreneurial thinking conveyed in 100 anecdotes, lessons and ideas.
While Forbes prides itself on quantifiable lists – the richest, the biggest, the highest – assembling a list of the 100 greatest business living minds is inherently subjective. More than a dozen editors met dozens of times over two years, winnowing an initial roster more than three times as large. In the end, we opted for doers over theoreticians, disruptive entrepreneurs over those that inherit or CEOs that maintain. We sought people who had either created something with a lasting impact on the world or innovated in a way that transcends their given field. We also required that the honorees actively participate in the project – all these essays are original, wisdom from the sages themselves.
While the advice is tailored to the future, this list reflects, to a large degree, the achievements of the past, for both Forbes and the greater business world. It was the American century, and our roots and readership lean that way. It was also a period that skewed older and whiter and male.
That said, change is coming: Twenty three people on the list are nonwhite. Twenty five are not American, including 11 from Asia, the world’s most dynamic business region. Ten are women, and 11 are under 50. When someone reads the 200th anniversary issue of Forbes, I expect all these numbers will increase substantially.
Such dynamism is the magazine’s lifeblood – it’s what makes Forbes as relevant now as it was in 1917.
- Randall Lane, Editor, Forbes Magazine
IMMIGRANT, RURAL JOBS CREATOR, BILLIONAIRE: FOUNDER, CHOBANI YOGURT
The poet Rumi wrote, “As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” When I started Chobani, I’d never run a company before and there was no plan. But one thing I saw that could be fixed easily was the factory’s old walls: They badly needed a paint job. So I bought some paint, and our first five employees and I all got to work. It was the first and best decision I ever made. There’s something magical in the movement, in the action – it allows you to think, to discover new ideas and to feel like you’re making progress. So don’t sit around waiting – act.
You cannot do everything alone – especially when you get to a certain level. It is impossible. I had to rely on myself and trust my decisions when it came to building Chobani – and today I still do. But we’re a team made up of a lot of people who I’d trust with my life.
PURPOSE-DRIVEN ROCK STAR: LEAD SINGER, U2; CO-FOUNDER, ONE, (RED), ELEVATION PARTNERS, RISE FUND
Capitalism is not immoral, but it is amoral. And it requires our instruction. It’s a wild beast that needs to be tamed, a better servant than master. That’s my philosophy with (RED), which partners with corporations to direct profits to fighting HIV/AIDS. The idea really came about after meeting with former Treasury secretary Bob Rubin, where he said, “You have to tell Americans the scale of the problem and what they can do about it. And you have to go about that like Nike does: They spend $50 million on ad campaigns.” And I said, “Well, where are we going to get that kind of money?” And he said, “You’re clever. You’ll figure it out.”
And we did. I realized that going to big companies and trying to break into their more modest philanthropy funds was a huge missed opportunity. It was their robust marketing and publicity budgets that we needed. Think of the creative minds in those departments – the messaging is the most important thing in keeping an issue “hot”, making it relevant. Fighting HIV is very difficult. Activists often demonize the corporate world. It’s easy to do, but I think it’s just foolishness to not recognize the creativity that you can unlock in the corporate world, together with the entertainment world. (RED) has so far generated nearly $500 million for the fight against AIDS, but the heat (RED) companies have created has also helped pressure governments to do their part – and that’s where the big money is, with donor governments spending $87.5 billion on HIV/AIDS since 2002. That’s the reason we all do this!
Some of the most selfish people I’ve met are artists – I’m one of them – and some of the most selfless people I’ve ever met are in business, people like Warren Buffett. So, I’ve never had that clichéd view of commerce and culture being different. I always remember Björk saying to me that her songs, she feels, are like carpentry. Like her friends in Iceland, one of them designs a chair. Is that more beautiful or useful than a song? Well, it depends on the chair. Or the song. I’ve always seen what I do as an activist, as an artist, as an investor, as coming from the same place.
Great melodies have a lot in common with great ideas. They’re instantly memorable. There’s a certain inevitability. There’s a sort of beautiful arc. Whether it’s a song or business or a solution to a problem facing the world’s poor, I see what I do as the same thing. I look for the topline melody, a clear thought. Now, my friends – and sometimes my bandmates and sometimes my family – would see this as multiple personality disorder. But for me, it’s all the same thing.
Artificial intelligence by…
DORM-ROOM LEGEND: FOUNDER, DELL TECHNOLOGIES
The Computer Age is just beginning. Most companies today have about a thousand times more data than they actually use to make better decisions. When you overlay the latest in computer science – AI, machine learning, deep learning, unsupervised learning – you will create an explosion of opportunity and also a real emergency. Over the next few years, as the cost of making something intelligent approaches zero, companies will succeed and fail based on their ability to translate data, including historical data, into insights and actions and products and services in real time. We like to think of ourselves as a company with big ears: We listen, we learn, we understand – and we create things.
MASTER DEALMAKER: FOUNDER, SOFTBANK
When I was 19 years old, I saw a photo of a microprocessor in a science magazine for the first time. It was just a tiny chip that could fit on a fingertip but represented an entire computer. “Oh my God,” I said to myself, “this is going to change mankind’s life. This is the biggest invention that mankind ever created.” And I start crying on the street. Those microprocessors were compacted into PCs, then linked together to create the internet and later smartphones. Now they are extending our knowledge and intelligence via artificial intelligence.
The industrial revolution transformed people’s lives from the roots. But the information revolution is not just an extension of human capabilities but an extension of our brain cells. In a sense, our brains are more important than our arms and legs. This superintelligence will bring about developments we’ve never seen before and contribute to humanity.
Every morning I wake up and ask, Where am I? I don’t know where I am because I am jumping around the world, but I don’t want to go to sleep. It’s thrilling.
ORACLE ESCAPEE: FOUNDER, SALESFORCE
We are living in the fourth industrial revolution, with advancements in robotics, genetics, stem cells, autonomous vehicles and especially artificial intelligence. All will dramatically change life itself. We need to have a beginner’s mind to think about what is happening. That idea of the beginner’s mind is the core to innovation. When you ask, What do you want and what do you dream, you’re able to ask yourself, What am I beginning? People who lose their relevance get stuck in the past because they’re no longer in the present moment.
AMERICAN TASTEMAKER, EPONYMOUS SEAL OF APPROVAL
There’s no room for sloppiness, inaccuracy or omission when you’re trying to build a relationship with a customer base. I’m very clear that everything I do is authentic, practiced and viable – and the end result is generally beautiful. I’m sure that’s the same way Steve Jobs created his products.
ASIAN CONGLOMERATOR: FOUNDER, THAI BEVERAGE
As a child, I saw my parents making preparations for their hoi tod (crispy pan-fried mussels in egg batter) store from before dawn until midnight every day, yet still made time to teach their 11 children to be diligent, responsible and grateful to those who had helped and cared for us. If I could turn back time, I would like to create a right balance in life. I think I have done better than in the past by dedicating some time to looking after my health and my quality of life. My wife always reminds me of the following truths in life: Health is your own; money belongs to others; power is temporary; and reputation is eternal. That is why I teach my children to find the right balance between working to build up business and maintaining good health.
COFFEE CZAR: EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, FORMER CEO, STARBUCKS
In 1987, we had 11 stores and 100 employees and were already speaking about the need for a business to balance profitability and benevolence. Starbucks was one of the first American companies to give part-time workers comprehensive health insurance and equity in the form of stock options.
Back then our shareholders were very angry and concerned about dilution. I convinced them that we would be more profitable, more productive, by creating these benefits. When we made college tuition free a few years ago, I explained it wasn’t charity because investing in people is how we grow. I’m still trying to build the kind of company that my father never had a chance to work for; he held lots of blue-collar jobs, and I saw firsthand what being disrespected and devalued did to him. He had no loyalty to any employer because they showed no loyalty to him.
T. Boone Pickens
RISK-TAKER: OIL WILDCATTER, HEDGE FUND MANAGER
Over the Christmas holiday, I had several strokes, and in June, I suffered a Texas-size fall that required hospitalization. I am still mentally strong, and I comprehend and process information like I did before the incident, but sometimes find myself literally at a loss for words. That’s been tough for a loudmouth like me, as I’ve always believed you can trace every problem to a lack of communication or lack of clarity in communication. Many of those who face adversity like this at 89 choose to hide it. My life has always been an open book. Some chapters of my life have been great. Others not so much. I clearly am in the fourth quarter, and the clock is ticking, and my health is in decline. Now, don’t for a minute think I’m being morbid. When you’re in the oil business like I’ve been all my life, you drill your fair share of dry holes, but you never lose your optimism. There’s a story I tell about the geologist who fell off a 10-storey building. When he blew past the fifth floor he thought to himself, “So far, so good.” That’s the way to approach life. Be the eternal optimist who is excited to see what the next decade will bring. I thrive on that, and I’m going to stick to it until the game is over.
RUSSIA’S TECH SUCCESS STORY: BILLIONAIRE FOUNDER, DST GLOBAL; INVESTED IN FACEBOOK, AIRBNB, TWITTER, ETC.
On November 21, 1783, Benjamin Franklin watched as the first manned hot-air balloon rose from the ground. A skeptic in the crowd called out, “What is the use of it?” And Franklin is said to have replied, “What is the use of a newborn child?” He had a vision of humanity not as it was but as it could be. And he understood that from each new height a new horizon comes into view. That’s what matters most. When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, my father told me if I wanted to learn about business, I had to start looking beyond my horizon, at least as far as America. Most of the better decisions I’ve made in my career came from trying to look beyond the horizon. The first was in the 90s, betting everything on the internet. I believed it would be one of the most profound advances for civilization since electricity. I built one of the biggest internet startups in Europe, then founded DST Global, an investment firm targeting internet companies worldwide. The key to our investment philosophy is to support founders, enabling progress through technology.
Four years ago, I joined with Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki to found the Breakthrough Prize, the world’s biggest award for fundamental science and mathematics. We believe these are the best tools we have for understanding the universe and advancing our civilization. Then, last year, Mark joined with me and Stephen Hawking to launch Breakthrough Starshot, the first practical attempt to reach another star. As Franklin understood, the higher we go, the wider our horizons become – and the bigger the challenge of looking beyond them. Breakthrough Starshot, if it succeeds, could set our horizon at the interstellar scale.
FINANCIAL ALCHEMIST, JUNK-BOND PRODIGY (DREXEL BURNHAM LAMBERT), WALL STREET POSTER CHILD, PHILANTHROPIST
I came of age and went into business right in the middle of these past 100 years. Two issues of Forbes had a particularly significant influence on me: the 50th anniversary issue, in 1967, and the 60th anniversary issue 10 years later. I carried the latter in a briefcase for years and reread it often.
Both issues really made me think about how financial structures changed over time and how leading companies changed. I often point out that automobiles changed the world, but in 1917, when the majority of a car’s cost was based on raw materials, the country’s largest company by far was U.S. Steel. Other top companies included International Harvester, U.S. Rubber, Anaconda Copper and Phelps Dodge – so you can see how natural resources dominated society. A century later, these resources make up only a tiny fraction of the cost of the dominant product, the microchip, whose primary economic input is the brainpower of engineers.
A century ago, the automobile was radically changing transportation and mobility. Ford Motor was the 21st largest company. By the time it went public in 1956 with what was then the largest stock sale in history, it was one of the most valuable companies in the U.S. Today its total market value is less than the annual price variation of Amazon, Facebook, Apple or Google.
Understanding how change occurs is key. By the 1970s, Singer, the sewing machine maker, was known for an unbroken record of paying dividends going back more than 100 years. But that wasn’t as relevant as the emancipation of women, which had been upending its business for years. The company didn’t understand that women were less interested in sewing than in careers.
I was in elementary school in the 1950s when Sputnik went up. That made me think about science, and I later went to Berkeley because it had so many scientific Nobel laureates. Before the 1965 Watts Riot, I thought the American Dream was achievable without regard to race. When I found that it wasn’t, I switched my major from science to business. Twenty two years later, I helped finance Reginald Lewis, the Jackie Robinson of the business world, when he bought Beatrice International Foods from Beatrice Cos. for $985 million. Finance can change the world and create millions of jobs by empowering people with ability.
Today’s growing challenge: create meaningful lives for the world’s population. We’ve accomplished the greatest achievement of mankind, the extension of life. Over 4 million years of evolution, life expectancy of early hominids and then Homo sapiens had only increased from about 20 to 31. But just since 1900, average human life expectancy worldwide has grown from 31 to over 70. Economists estimate that about half of economic growth is tied to the public health and medical research advances that underlie increased longevity.
How do you create meaningful lives for all these people, and the 1 to 2 billion more who will soon be living? What are the jobs of the future in an age of robotics, driverless trucks and other new technologies? At one point, 90% of Americans worked in agriculture, then 40% and now less than 2%. U.S. Steel was the number one company a century ago, but today the American steel industry directly employs fewer than 140,000 workers. It’s a great challenge.
Most people who build businesses are passionate about it. They stand for something. The people who worked with me believed, as I do, in the democratization of capital – an opportunity to empower talent and help job creation in America. My legacy isn’t any one asset class like junk bonds. It’s the understanding of capital structure and how best to finance companies that create jobs and drive change.
INTERNET ENABLER: COFOUNDER, AOL; VENTURE CAPITAL DISPERSER: COFOUNDER, REVOLUTION
The story of American business over the last 100 years is a story about different sectors rising and falling (and often rising again, in unanticipated ways) in different regions of the country. When Detroit was an automobile powerhouse and Pittsburgh was the steel city, Silicon Valley was just fruit orchards. As the industrial revolution peaked and the technology revolution accelerated, the role of those places changed. Today 75% of venture capital still goes to three states (California, New York and Massachusetts); half goes to California alone. As we enter the internet’s third wave, where entrepreneurs will leverage technology to disrupt major real-world sectors – like healthcare, education, financial services – start-ups will increasingly move to cities where industry expertise exists. The opportunity to grow companies that spur job creation and economic growth holds great promise for what I call these “Rise of the Rest” cities. This will lead to a more dispersed innovating economy, where jobs and wealth are created all across the country, not just on the coasts. We need to level the playing field so that everyone, everywhere, has a shot at the American dream.
BUILDER: FOUNDER, QUICKEN LOANS; OWNER, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS; DETROIT’S REVITALIZER
I have never seen anybody create a whole lot of wealth by chasing money. Ironically, those who seem to be motivated by taking a great idea and turning it into reality are the ones who end up acquiring significant wealth.
In the last few years, we have taken this philosophy a step further. We have moved the headquarters and a substantial amount of the other pieces of our flagship business, as well as other businesses we are involved with, to downtown Detroit. An all-in commitment that our mission would not only be to continue to grow our business but also to help lead the transformation and rebuilding of one of America’s most devastated urban centers.
And here is the secret sauce: We are absolutely a more profitable (and better) business because we have a mission beyond the sole pursuit of profits. The investment we make in the community with both our dollars and our team members’ time has created a culture and environment that has motivated our people to be better at their day jobs. The yin feeds the yang, and the yang feeds the yin. You will attract the best and brightest who are motivated by more than a paycheck.
The more you invest in your mission, the more profits your business will produce. We are living proof of this. Not such a bad formula, huh?
Leonardo Del Vecchio
VISION VISIONARY: FOUNDER, LUXOTTICA
One thing that hasn’t changed in my years of doing business – I’m always doing and saying what I really think, acting with clarity and transparency. I prefer to match words with deeds or let the facts speak for me. I try to be what I really am and not what people would like me to be. There is a certain peace that comes with that. My reputation is truly my own.
THE ADULT IN THE ROOM: FORMER CEO, CHAIRMAN, NOVELL; FORMER CEO, GOOGLE
In 2001, my friend and colleague John Doerr called to suggest that I get some coaching. What? I was far along in my career; I didn’t need a coach. I could be a coach. Of course, I was wrong about that. I actually needed the coach.
We all called the late Bill Campbell “Coach,” and it wasn’t because of the 12-41-1 record he compiled as the head coach of the Columbia football team in the late 70s. He knew what was needed to succeed – to win – in Silicon Valley.
Bill wasn’t some far-off guru who didn’t get his hands dirty, but a coach who got on the playing field with me. He participated in board and executive meetings, developing credibility with my management team and helping us make crucial decisions. He would give advice and then make sure I lived by it. I would spend hours in his small office – whiteboards, markers, etc. – going over the “plays.” Without fail, he knew what I needed to do, and he knew how I should do it.
Bill had many tenets of leadership, but one that sticks with me, especially at this moment, is to “maintain a culture of respect.” This was essential for him – and he knew it came from the top of any organization. I worked hard to make sure that the prevailing culture at Google was one of respect above all else, as Larry and Sergey always have, and as Sundar does today. Like much of Coach’s advice, this one continues to resonate. I miss my coach.
KING OF THE HEDGE FUND MANAGERS: FOUNDER, BRIDGEWATER ASSOCIATES (WORLD’S LARGEST HEDGE FUND)
I think that the most important issue that will reshape our lives in the years ahead will be how man-made and artificial intelligence compete and work together.
My views have been colored by experiences with algorithmic decision-making over the last 30 years, which have been fabulous. But it’s a two-edged sword. I have learned that by thinking through my criteria for making decisions, writing them down as principles and then expressing them as algorithms so that the computer thinks in parallel with me, I can make much better decisions than I could make alone. It has also helped us to have an idea meritocracy that produces collective decision-making that’s much better than individual decision-making. But our path to doing this was to work with the computer to gain deep understanding.
PERPETUAL REINVENTOR: FOUNDER, SIRIUS, UNITED THERAPEUTICS; CREATOR OF PANAMSAT
Anything worthwhile in life requires teamwork, and you cannot manage what you don’t understand. My favorite thing to do at work is to walk around and talk to people. Each person is like a library of information. The more I know about a person, the better able I am to connect them to other people with synergistic interests – a leader works for those they lead. Lawrence Bell, the founder of Bell Aircraft, said that anyone unwilling to do small things should not be trusted to do big things. Running a business is a very big thing, because you are having an outsize effect on countless people’s lives. Hence, when I started creating organ-manufacturing technology, I practiced suturing arteries.
I find it awe-inspiring that there are an infinite number of ways to improve the world through business. Providing better products and services, or less expensive ones, or more accessible ones, all makes people happier. That’s what it’s all about.
CORPORATE RAIDER/ACTIVIST INVESTOR: FOUNDER, ICAHN ENTERPRISES
Sometimes the best way to make money is when most people say you are wrong and nuts. It’s not easy to do, but it’s like in the Rudyard Kipling poem: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” If you have the emotional makeup (you can develop it), you don’t care what the experts are saying.
You need to do a lot of work to be contrarian and you need to have the strength – you can’t just be a contrarian to be contrarian. For example, when we had the junk bond crash of 1989, for a few days I was literally almost the only one buying – even though it took a few years, we made a fortune on them. I believed the risk-reward ratio was greatly in my favor because I felt I was buying companies, not bonds.
You are not always right, and it sometimes takes a long time to prove it out. A lot of the time you are early. (I really believe today, for example, that this market is going to have a crisis, some major corrections, so I have been hedged.) People thought I was crazy when I bought the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas out of bankruptcy. It was in the north end of the Strip – at the time, a part of town as bad as a Third World country. Then I bought all the homes around the Stratosphere. Even the people in Las Vegas and at the hotel told me I was crazy. But it was the fact that I bought the shacks and the 24 acres next to the Stratosphere that made the hotel very attractive. Goldman Sachs ended up buying the Stratosphere from me, and we made about $1 billion.
It’s not easy, but something inside you goes click. That’s what I enjoy.
MALL STORE JUGGERNAUT: VISIONARY FOR THE LIMITED (VICTORIA’S SECRET, PINK, BATH & BODY WORKS, ETC.)
Back when I had just a few stores, I made a cold call to the office of John Galbreath, who was probably the most successful guy in Ohio at the time. He was a big international real estate developer, but he also owned the Pittsburgh Pirates and had a private airport outside of Columbus, where the queen of England once flew in to talk to him about Thoroughbred horse breeding.
I introduced myself over the phone, and he invited me to his office. We talked for about an hour. What I really wanted to know was how he had gone from being a kid on a farm to a friend of the queen of England. He told me that the key was just to be curious and pursue various interests. Riding down the elevator, I remember sort of shaking my head and thinking to myself, what a load of crap. Here I had come for wisdom, and he just tells me to be curious.
And yet, I have continued to reflect on that conversation in the 40 years since then. Curiosity led me to see if I could replicate building one successful retail brand into creating several. I ended up building Victoria’s Secret, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch and Bath & Body Works. Curiosity made me wonder if I could have success in picking the right garments for stores. Would I have an eye for picking out artwork? I eventually selected a collection centered on Pablo Picasso. If I was a leader in my business and industry, could I become a leader in my community, too? I now devote 10% to 20% of my time to improving my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Curiosity has kept me young as I have gotten older. Now, nearly a half century after I walked into Galbreath’s office, I’m still curious to see what’s next.
Customer service by…
Sean “Diddy” Combs
HIP-HOP MOGUL (BAD BOY); FASHION MOGUL (SEAN JOHN); LIQUOR MOGUL (CIROC)
I started my business career at age 12, delivering newspapers. I had a lot of elderly customers, so I would always put the newspaper in between the screen door and the door – that caring made me different, made me better than the last paperboy. Since then, I’ve always understood that if I give the customers my best and service them differently, whether music, clothing or vodka, I’ll get a return on my hard work.
THE MONEYBALL MAN: OAKLAND A’S EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT
In sports, you’re not allowed to just survive. People cheer for teams that win. And it’s a zero-sum game. You don’t get partial credit for losing. I never doubted the Moneyball approach. We had two choices – intuition or data. Before, it seemed like we were making decisions on a roulette wheel, and when we were correct we celebrated the good guesses and applied some sort of clairvoyance to it, as opposed to just pure luck and random outcome.
So instead, we were very rational, logical and fact-based. What was interesting was the resistance. When we applied data to decision making and relied on objective reasoning, it was held to a perfect standard. If it was not correct 100% of the time, the response was “I told you that number s–t doesn’t work.” But it did work. And then we had to evolve again. As soon as you think you’ve completely figured it out, you’re probably in trouble. Every business is a living document, an algorithm that needs to be improved.
In my fourth year at the University of Southern California, the teacher from my professional practice class came up to me in the courtyard one day and said, “Frank, I’ve been watching you, and I think you’re a talented guy who’s going to go somewhere. I just want to give you one word of advice: No matter how small a project you work on, and no matter what it is, put your heart and soul and sense of responsibility into it, and don’t dismiss anything.” He said it very clearly and lovingly, and I never forgot it and I’ve lived by it.
Due diligence by…
RAGS TO (BILLION-DOLLAR) RICHES: FOUNDER, CEO, SPANX
In the early days of Spanx, I didn’t vet the manufacturer helping me make our first product, footless pantyhose. They went out of business and gave me one week’s notice. It almost put Spanx under. Had I done any kind of financial due diligence on them, I would have been able to prevent that. Early-stage entrepreneurs shouldn’t forget about that layer. It almost stopped everything for me.
TECH TRAILBLAZER: WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP CHAMPION; COO, FACEBOOK
Driving to work on my first day back after maternity leave, I cried the entire way there. I wanted to work, but leaving my son at home was hard. To be able to see him, I started finding ways to come in later and leave earlier.
Years later I mentioned in an interview that I left work at 5:30. The response was overwhelmingly positive. That’s when I realized that we are better employees when we stop trying to be two people and bring our whole selves to work. That doesn’t mean working around the clock. It means sharing what you are going through so that other people can empathize and help you.
When I lost my husband Dave two years ago, I learned this lesson even more deeply. Dave was a true partner at home and at work and taught me the value of peer mentorship. When I was talking to Mark about joining Facebook, Dave told me not to work out the substance in advance but rather to agree on the process. His point was that the substance would change but our working relationship was the single most important thing to get right. We agreed to sit together, giving each other feedback every week one-on-one. Nine years later, I often smile when I remember how Dave’s advice set us up for success.
So bringing my full self to work meant being openly sad. The way colleagues supported me drove home the need for better policies for bereavement and sick leave. Taking care of people when they need it most is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.
THE DECODER: FOUNDER, CELERA GENOMICS; HUMAN GENOME SEQUENCER; CHAIRMAN, HUMAN LONGEVITY INC. AND SYNTHETIC GENOMICS INC.
Timing is everything in science, like it is in most things in life. In 1944 Oswald Avery did the experiment proving DNA was how traits are inherited. But he didn’t get the Nobel Prize because everybody wanted to believe proteins were the genetic material. I’ve been lucky. I nearly flunked out of high school, and I decided not to go to college even though I had a swimming scholarship. I ended up in Vietnam. After, I had to start my education over from scratch. I had this English teacher, Bruce Cameron. We became lifelong friends. If it weren’t for him, I would not have survived the first semester of community college. He taught me to ignore the assignment and write what I wanted. I ended up getting my Ph.D. in just three years. I learned that most people fail in science because they talk themselves out of doing the experiment. Ideas are a dime a dozen. What makes the difference is the execution of the idea. That taught me to recognize when it was time to adopt new technologies to understand genetics and then even to sequence the human genome. Once, I was too early: I started trying to create synthetic life a decade before the world was ready for it. But it’s ready now.
ULTIMATE TASTEMAKER: FOUNDER, LUXURY-GOODS CONGLOMERATE LVMH
The success of LVMH is built on creativity, quality, entrepreneurship and, most importantly, long-term vision. For instance, I remember the first time I visited China, in 1991. I arrived in Beijing – I saw no cars, only bicycles, no tall buildings. The GDP was 4% of what it is today. Nonetheless, we decided to open our first Louis Vuitton store in China. Today Louis Vuitton is the number one luxury brand in the country and across the world. We have been seeing for the past 25 years a growing desire for high-quality products and an acceleration of buying power. Nowadays, the internet makes the planet much smaller. Product launches now need to be global in order to be successful. When you start something today, you usually have to start it all over the world at the same time to be successful, and you can see what’s going on anywhere, instantly. That requires higher investment – which gives us an advantage. Creating increasingly desirable new products and selling them worldwide is what LVMH does best.
HEDGE FUND GODFATHER: FOUNDER, TIGER MANAGEMENT
Do you know what the most desirable job was at the beginning of my career, in the 1950s? Advertising. All the hotshots went into advertising. Investment banks? They were begging for people. I was interested in stocks from an early age, so I really wanted to go into investment banking. The fancy way in was to go to business school and then get into the investment banking department of one of the firms, but I started as a stockbroker. Today, people wonder why hedge funds aren’t doing better – I think it is from increasing competition from other hedge funds. If I were starting out now, I would look at what the competition is like in various fields – and then consider some that aren’t so popular.
WORLD BUILDER: CHAIRMAN, CEO, ARCELORMITTAL, THE LARGEST STEELMAKER ON EARTH
Steel is one of the most used materials in the world today, but that doesn’t mean in the future there won’t be a different way of making steel or that other, new materials won’t be developed that challenge steel’s position. The pace of technological change is significantly faster than historically – every industry today has to fight complacency, prepare to see the disruption coming and then be flexible enough to adapt swiftly.
IRON MAN: ALPHA ENTREPRENEUR; COFOUNDER, PAYPAL, TESLA, SPACEX
Artificial intelligence will provide many societal benefits, including self-driving cars and improved medical diagnostics. However, with AI we may be summoning the demon and could create an existential risk to humanity. If a digital superintelligence were inadvertently optimized to do something detrimental to humanity, this could have catastrophic consequences. It could be something like directing the AI to get rid of spam, and it concludes the best way to get rid of spam is to get rid of humans. Or a financial program decides the best way to make money is to increase the value of defense stocks by starting a war. We’re the first species capable of self-annihilation, and it’s extremely likely, given enough time. The question: Can we get ahead of it? We need to learn as much as possible and should create a government agency to regulate AI. Ultimately the private sector will have to take the lead in building safe and useful technology that benefits humanity.
THE WORLD OVERNIGHT: FOUNDER, FEDEX
Everything was going as planned in the early days of FedEx, until the Arab oil embargo hit in 1973. Suddenly our costs spiked and our cash evaporated. Right around then I went out to Vegas with this high roller I knew. We went to the casino and he got me a line of credit.
I knew how to play blackjack from my days in Vietnam. It was a horrible war with a bad strategy and terrible consequences, but I met some great people and played a lot of cards. The odds in blackjack actually aren’t that bad if you know how to bet. The problem is most people get chicken and pull their money off the table exactly when they ought to be doubling down. I didn’t have that problem. I won $27,000 and wired it back to the company.
The myth says that money alone saved FedEx. The truth is that we owed so much damn money, $27,000 didn’t make much of a difference on the balance sheet. But it lifted our confidence at a time that we needed it. No business school graduate would recommend gambling as a financial strategy, but sometimes it pays to be a little crazy early in your career.
Golden rule by…
John Paul DeJoria
SELF-MADE BILLIONAIRE—TWICE: CO-FOUNDER, JOHN PAUL MITCHELL SYSTEMS; COFOUNDER, PATRÓN TEQUILA
There’s turnover of staff and then there’s efficiency of staff. Companies sometimes hire 10 people to do the job of three. What’s the answer to it all? It’s a basic thing that goes back to the law to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Treat and pay your staff exactly the way you’d want to be treated if you were in their place.
Now, how does this work? John Paul Mitchell Systems is in almost 100 countries. We’ve been around for 37 years. My turnover is less than 100 people. Only two people have even retired from our company. They don’t want to. They’re having such a good time.
Someone once asked Francisco Alcaraz, the genius distiller creating all of our formulas for Patrón, “What is the secret? Why is Patrón so good? Why do people keep coming back?” He says, “The secret’s very easy. It’s called love. We are all treated so well, we love what we’re doing. We never want to leave. We want every bottle to be reflective of us.”
With Patrón, 53 people touch every single bottle; that’s a lot of hands-on work, and they’re all loved. If you work for me during the day shift, you get a free lunch by chefs. If you work for me at night during the night shift, you get a free lunch and dinner by chefs. You want to pray during the day? We built a chapel right in the middle of the 17th-century Spanish-French hacienda.
In all the businesses we’re involved in it’s the exact same way. If you love your people and let them know you’re giving back, not just hoarding all the money for yourself, they want to join in.
David M. Rubenstein
WASHINGTON’S FINANCIER: COFOUNDER, CO-CEO, THE CARLYLE GROUP
Thomas Jefferson famously said that the country is, to some extent, about the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, over the next 50 years of his life he never defined what happiness was. Personal happiness might be the most elusive thing in life. In my own case, personal happiness came about much more from giving away my money than from earning it. I use what I call the “mother test.” If your mother calls you and tells you that she is proud of what you are doing, that’s probably a good indication that you are on the road to happiness. My mother used to call much more when I was giving away my money than when I was making it.
SURVIVOR: COFOUNDER, MICROSOFT; INVESTOR AND PHILANTHROPIST (VULCAN); SPORTS TEAM OWNER; BRAIN SCIENCE BENEFACTOR
We are about to enter the era of deep medicine, where we understand cell pathways and how to change them. I’m a two-time cancer survivor. First I had Hodgkin’s, a young person’s cancer. And then non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Right now they just hit you with everything they’ve got, like carpet bombing. And then my mother passed away of Alzheimer’s. Those things are motivating experiences that make you want to understand things better and then make a difference. In maybe 20 or 30 years, we will use things like stem cells to change disease outcomes – your own immune system, designed by evolution, to attack sick cells and things like that. It seems inconceivable now – we have thousands of types of cells, so there are trillions of combinations – but healthcare would be much more personal. And the costs will potentially decline.
COMPUTER INSIDER: FOUNDER, TAIWAN SEMICONDUCTOR
My values are: integrity, commitment, innovation and trust from customers. Integrity means honesty and willingness to fulfill a promise, even at high cost. Commitment means dedication and loyalty to a task or an organization. Innovation means change. Trust from customers of course has to be earned, and I try to earn it by integrity and commitment.
J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr.
AMERICA’S HOTELIER: CHAIRMAN, MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL
I learned what may be the single biggest factor in our success the hard way, when I was in the Navy. I was assigned to be the wardroom officer on an aircraft carrier, and I had a bunch of stewards doing the food preparation. They were enlisted men who were World War II veterans because this was back in the early 1950s. I had new recipe cards that I thought would improve the quality of the food. I gave them an order to follow the cards. And they just gave me this glassy stare and said, “We ain’t following them,” and I didn’t know what to do, so I let them do their own thing. I realized that I didn’t get their buy-in. I didn’t sit down with them and say, I think we can improve the quality of the food if you follow these recipes.
The four most important words in business are “What do you think?” And that’s why I would visit over 200 hotels a year to meet with our associates. You can talk about all the technology, distribution and other things that are taking place. If you take good care of your associates, they’ll take good care of the customers and the customers will come back. We’re in the people business. We don’t manufacture anything. We just take care of our guests.
BUILDER: COFOUNDER, HOME DEPOT; OWNER, ATLANTA FALCONS
When I was running Home Depot, I’d always stop the customers who walked out of our stores with nothing. They were the ones who taught us the most. Odds were, they didn’t come to Home Depot just to walk around. They came because they wanted to buy something. And somehow, we had let them down. Wrong stuff, wrong price, bad service – something. They would tell us what the issue was, and then we would just go in and fix the problem.
I took the same approach after buying the Atlanta Falcons. At the time, 40% of our stadium was empty. Our players needed a full house of our fans, but half of the people who came to games were rooting for the other team. So I went around the city asking people why they weren’t buying tickets. I didn’t ask Falcons employees – they had been trying to get people into the stadium since 1966, and they hadn’t figured it out yet. I asked everyone else I met. Why don’t you come to the Georgia Dome? They always had some explanation. We made a list of the problems and then fixed them. This is my 15th year as an owner, and we’ve sold out every game except for two.
Business isn’t all that complicated. If someone is out in the desert walking around, they’re going to be thirsty. You just have to ask them what they want to drink. If you have the humility to listen to other people rather than just hawking stuff, you’re going to have a lot of customers. Too many businesspeople have big egos and aren’t willing to ask.
VISIONARY: FOUNDER, ARMANI
I always try to maintain a sense of reality and ensure that I surround myself with the right people, who understand the times in which we live. In this line of work, my team is crucial. I’m the one who decides, but I like having lots of other people with whom I can discuss ideas, as this helps with the creative process. In the world of fashion, five years is already a hundred, so going forward, the challenge will be to capture the attention of a public that is increasingly stimulated by countless offers and new forms of communication.
Industry shifts by…
CONNECTOR: RAILROADS, QWEST, ENTERTAINMENT
I’ve always been intellectually curious. I like to research how and why things are, and imagine how they might change. Specifically, I look for industries in transition and try to anticipate opportunities that could arise from changes in underlying fundamentals. So far I’ve had decent timing when it comes to certain businesses, such as energy, railroads and telecom. Deregulation changed the railroad and telephone industries. When I was running Southern Pacific, we realized that railroad rights-of-way were perfect paths to lay fiber-optic cables. So we started Qwest to lay important portions of the early backbone of the internet. I got a little nervous when Qwest had over $1 billion of fiber in the ground and no customers, but it wasn’t long before we went from selling voice by the minute to selling data by the gigabyte. With the rise of the digital world, I believed demand would grow for live analog entertainment like sports and music, so we started building and acquiring more than 100 unique venues, like the L.A. Staples Center and the O2 London, along with music, entertainment and teams to play in them like the Kings, Lakers and Galaxy. While the underlying concept was developing well-located real estate, the critical strategy was content.
A sector about to undergo transformational change is the power industry, driven in part by the rise of renewable clean energy, which has the potential to drive change, much like the advent of fiber optics drove change within the telephone business. I’m currently building what could be America’s biggest wind farm.
Not everything of course always works as anticipated, but it helps to get into the habit of being curious and developing a willingness to accept the concept of risk.
AGENT OF DISRUPTION: NAPSTER COFOUNDER, FACEBOOK’S FIRST PRESIDENT, SPOTIFY EVANGELIST
I’ve been involved in the start of many innovative ideas and companies, not because they were fashionable at the time but because they appealed to my sense of intellectual curiosity. Just as experts in the record industry couldn’t accept that music on the internet would ever go mainstream, or that social media would ever be used by adults rather than college kids, I have always chosen to ignore the conventional wisdom in favor of the ideas that interested me. Inventing the future starts with intellectual curiosity – along with a healthy dose of skepticism. You need enough curiosity to “deep dive” into the ideas that interest you. And enough skepticism to second-guess everything you think you know and everything the so-called experts want you to believe.
We’re living at a unique moment in history, where everyone on the internet who has a knack for Googling can access more information than any university could ever teach. About a decade ago I became interested in the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy. The data was compelling, even though the field had been written off by famous oncologists. But with little more than the internet at my disposal, I was able to learn enough about the field to be dangerous. I got involved in funding clinical trials for drugs that would ultimately treat blood cancers and melanoma. In a few short years the field of immunotherapy had produced several billion-dollar companies, FDA approved drugs and breakthroughs that helped patients where conventional treatments had failed. I launched a non-profit institute dedicated to the field, assembling a dream team of scientists around a $250 million bet that the next generation of immunotherapy treatments would treat an even larger number of patients. While engineering T cells to fight cancer may seem very different from writing software to give away free music, the instincts that led me to each of these projects haven’t changed a bit.
SHOWMAN: BILLIONAIRE COFOUNDER, CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
I came up in Montreal as a street performer – a fire-breather, literally. I lived in the streets for almost 10 years, by choice. And the streets have their own rules. Sometimes, you have a fraction of a second to evaluate, when you first meet somebody, whether they might stab you or become your friend. The things I learned in the street about reading and feeling people and believing my intuition proved very important in my business life. If I was entering a meeting, I was able to stand and scan people and feel them immediately as what they were, instead of discovering weeks later, when it was too late.
AMERICA’S MONEY MANAGER: FORMER PORTFOLIO MANAGER, MAGELLAN FUND
My biggest mistake was that I always sold stocks way too early. In fact, I got a call from Warren Buffett in 1989. My daughter picks up the phone and says, “It’s Mr. Buffett on the line.” And I thought some of my buddies are kidding me because she was only six. And I pick up the phone, and I hear, “This is Warren Buffett from Omaha, Nebraska.” You know, he talks so fast. “And I love your book, One Up on Wall Street, and I want to use a line from it in my year-end report. I have to have it. Can I please use it?” I said, “Sure. What’s the line?” He says, “Selling your winners and holding your losers is like cutting the flowers and watering the weeds.”
That one line that he picked in my whole book has been my greatest mistake. I visited the first four Home Depots ever built. I sold that stock after it tripled, and then it went up another fiftyfold. If you’re great in this business you’re right six times out of ten. But the times you’re right, if you make a triple or ten-bagger, it overcomes your mistakes. So you have to find the big winners. I sold way too early on Home Depot. I sold too early on Dunkin’ Donuts. Why did I do that? I was dumb. With great companies the passage of time is a major positive.
THE ORACLE: CEO, BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY; ARGUABLY THE GREATEST INVESTOR AND BIGGEST PHILANTHROPIST OF ALL TIME
When I was 7 or 8 years old, I was lucky in that I found a subject that really interested me – investing. I read every book on that topic in the Omaha Public Library by the time I was 11. Some of them more than once. My dad happened to be in the investment business, so when I would go down to have lunch with him on Saturdays, or whenever it might be, I would pick up the books around his office and start reading. (If he’d been a shoe salesman, I might be a shoe salesman now.)
I bought the book that became the largest influence on my investing life by accident, while I was at the University of Nebraska. I read and reread The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham, about half a dozen times – it’s incredibly sound philosophically, very well written and easy to understand. And it gave me an investment philosophy that I’m still using today.
That strategy is to find a good business – and one that I can understand why it’s good – with a durable, competitive advantage, run by able and honest people, and available at a price that makes sense. Because we’re not going to sell the business, we don’t need something with earnings that go up the next month or the next quarter; we need something that will earn more money 10 and 20 and 30 years from now. And then we want a management team we admire and trust.
My favorite investment, one that embodies this philosophy, is Geico, which I learned about when I was 20 years old, because I got on a train and went down to Washington and banged on the door on a Saturday until Lorimer Davidson, who would later become CEO, responded. He answered my questions, taught me the insurance business and explained to me the competitive advantage that Geico had. That afternoon changed my life.
Here’s a product that now costs, on average, about $1,800 a year. People don’t want to buy it – but they do want to drive. And they hope they never use it, because they don’t want to have an accident. And Geico was a way to deliver that product for less money than people had been paying. When Berkshire bought control of it in 1995, it had about a 2% market share; now it has a 12% market share, and we are saving the American public perhaps $4 billion a year against what they would be paying if they had bought insurance the way they had before. A simple idea when Leo Goodwin founded the company in 1936. The same simple idea now.
Ben Franklin said it a long time ago: “Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee.” The quaint language aside, it means don’t just satisfy your customers – delight them. They’re gonna talk to other people. They’re going to come back. Anybody who has happy customers is likely to have a pretty good future.
But ultimately, there’s one investment that supersedes all others: Invest in yourself. Address whatever you feel your weaknesses are, and do it now. I was terrified of public speaking when I was young. I couldn’t do it. It cost me $100 to take a Dale Carnegie course, and it changed my life. I got so confident about my new ability, I proposed to my wife during the middle of the course. It also helped me sell stocks in Omaha, despite being 21 and looking even younger. Nobody can take away what you’ve got in yourself – and everybody has potential they haven’t used yet. If you can increase your potential 10%, 20% or 30% by enhancing your talents, they can’t tax it away. Inflation can’t take it from you. You have it the rest of your life.
DATA PIONEER (EDS, PEROT SYSTEMS); ORIGINAL POPULIST-BUSINESSMAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
Believe in big ideas. In 1962 I was IBM’s biggest salesman for those giant mainframe computers. I tried to convince IBM we were missing an opportunity, that in addition to selling the computers, we ought to sell services, too – as in help our customers learn how to use their new machines. But IBM wasn’t interested, and my big idea nearly died right there. That week I went to get my hair cut, and while flipping through a Reader’s Digest I came across a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That wasn’t for me. It was at that moment that I decided to go it alone, to start my own company, Electronic Data Systems. After 70 sales calls I finally landed my first customer. Two decades later, after I had sold EDS to General Motors, I got into the business of backing the next generation of entrepreneurs. I recognized a little bit of myself in 1986 when I put up $20 million to seed Steve Jobs at NeXT Computer, which he eventually sold to Apple Computer. He believed in big ideas, too.
Keep ‘em honest by…
THE PICASSO OF ART DEALERS
There was a painting that Si Newhouse wanted to buy in the early 1980s – “Aloha” by Roy Lichtenstein. I had sold several paintings from that collection to him, and this Lichtenstein was $1 million. Only a handful of paintings had sold for $1 million at that time. So I said, “Let’s write them a check.” And Si, who is a billionaire, said, “No, I’m not going to write a check for $1 million. Let’s pay them $100,000 a month.” And when I asked him why, he said, “I don’t want them to think that money comes that easily.” If he were willing to write a check right away, he explained, it would influence the negotiation. It was a shrewd lesson, especially since “Aloha” would later become worth well over $100 million.
CHINA’S PREEMINENT VENTURE CAPITALIST
Our business changes so quickly that one must continuously go through learning curves to stay relevant. A part of learning is done through reading, and the other part, which is likely more important, is talking with bright minds from different fields – scientists, writers, policymakers, philosophers, etc. Such engagement helps you get many new perspectives on life and the world.
We are in the business of helping entrepreneurs build the very best companies in the world, mostly in the technology space. I do not think we will be replaced by AI. This business oftentimes is more like art than science.
We might have to live with an easy monetary policy environment on a global basis for a very long period of time to come. How to consistently create value and generate alpha, with this backdrop, is the real challenge.
TALK SHOW MASTER; SYNDICATION SUPERSTAR; BRANDING JUGGERNAUT; FOUNDER, OPRAH WINFREY NETWORK
I was invited by Nelson Mandela to stay at his home for 10 days. At first, I was very intimidated. I’d said to my partner Stedman, “What am I going to talk about for 10 days and 10 nights at Nelson Mandela’s house?” And Stedman said, “Why don’t you try listening?” So when I was there, halfway through my visit with him, I got comfortable sitting and being with him. First of all, when you go to Nelson Mandela’s house, what do you take? You can’t bring a candle. What I wanted to do really was leave something that would be of value. When we were talking one day, we started a conversation about what was in the newspaper: poverty and how to change it. And I said, “The only way to change poverty is through education, and one day I would like to build a school in South Africa.” And he said, “You want to build a school?” He got up and called the minister of education. By that afternoon I was in a meeting, talking about building a school.
Lee Shau Kee
HONG KONG’S LANDLORD; STOCK-PICKING SAVANT
There’s a Chinese saying: “Explore what’s best in the others and follow.” Among my friends, I always learn the best from them.
HIP-HOP PIONEER; SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR; YOGA GURU
The self is the greatest teacher: The more you dig, the more you learn. So the self-discovery is your journey. Yogis refer to the state of yoga, which is the same as heaven on Earth. If you’re present and awake, you become this great thinker, this great worker. You become a fine-tuned machine.
Diane von Furstenberg
FASHION ICON, ENTREPRENEUR, TASTEMAKER; INVENTOR OF THE WRAP DRESS
My mother, a Holocaust survivor, taught me that fear is not an option and that has been my guideline. I came to America in 1970 as a young European bride, with a dream and a suitcase full of Italian printed jersey dresses that I had designed. They were simple, easy, sexy little dresses that could be worn anywhere and did not wrinkle. My guardian angel mentor was Angelo Ferretti, the Italian man who owned the factory those dresses were made in. He believed in me, and I believed in his printed jersey fabric.
In New York I met my second mentor, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Diana Vreeland. Although I had shown my dresses to other editors, she saw something special in them, something modern and fresh. She helped me with exposure and introducing me to stores. With the help of a salesman, I took a showroom. Soon after, I designed the first wrap dress. Overnight that dress became a huge commercial success and a symbol of women’s liberation. Soon we were making 25,000 dresses a week. I was living the American Dream and established my brand.
After that I had many ups and downs, but what allowed me to survive is that I was always honest and I truly believed in what I did. With my dress, I was selling confidence and, with its success, I was getting more and more confident. Confidence in what you do is crucial, but that does not mean being delusional. You must always face the truth and the combat the obstacles as they appear.
SALESMAN AND RINGMASTER EXTRAORDINAIRE: OWNER, TRUMP ORGANIZATION; 45TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
The greatest business lesson I’ve learned in life is the same message I have for young people across America: Never give up. Even in the most difficult circumstances, have faith in yourself, confidence in your abilities and the conviction that you will be able to win for your family, for your business and for your country. But you have to relish the fight – you have to enjoy coming in to work each day and going to battle for what you believe in, and for the people who you believe in. And if you do that, if you keep moving forward, then each victory along the way will feed into another victory, and another opportunity, and another chance for a breakthrough. By building this momentum, by pushing, by never backing down and by refusing to allow other people to define your limits, you will bring your goals into closer range, and you will accomplish them. America is a land of dreams, and if we chase those dreams with all of our hearts, then our country will be greater than ever before.
THE CEO OF CEOS: FORMER CEO, GE
My biggest mistake was explosive – literally. In 1963, three years into my GE career, I was a chemical engineer, eager and ambitious and trying like hell to build a plastics business in an electrical company. In the process, my pilot plant blew up. Yes, blew up – roof collapsed, windows shattered, clouds of smoke, the works. I thank God no one was hurt, to this day. But I was certain my career was over, especially when my boss in Pittsfield suddenly didn’t know me, and I got a call to go see the big boss in New York. His name was Charlie Reed, and I didn’t know him at all. What I did know was that I was terrified – I was sure I was going to be yelled at, humiliated and then unceremoniously fired. After all, it was my plant and my fault.
But Charlie Reed taught me a huge lesson about leadership and life that day. He was calm. He was kind. He was thoughtful. He spent several hours with me, employing the Socratic method of questioning, to help me understand why the explosion occurred and what I could have – and should have – done differently. And then, after it was all over, he gave me a second chance.
I learned to never kick someone when they’re down. Everyone makes mistakes, and some are real whoppers. But that makes them whopping opportunities, too – for growth. In the years after my encounter with Charlie, I followed his example with my own employees, and saw it help more people for the better. I also learned that the time to “kick” people – and by kick I mean “challenge” – is when they’re on the way up, to remind them that when you’re growing, make sure your head isn’t swelling, too!
THE MOUSE THAT MIKE BUILT: FORMER CEO, DISNEY
In 1998, Disney bought Infoseek, then one of the largest search engines, behind Yahoo. Shortly thereafter, I was convinced in the men’s room by a consultant at McKinsey that Infoseek shouldn’t do advertised search because it wasn’t the Disney way. I wasn’t in my office, I wasn’t thinking, and I said, “Oh, yeah. My job is to protect the Disney brand. We won’t have advertised search, that’s not clean.” Google came around and did AdWords, and Infoseek didn’t. It was probably a $200 billion mistake. After that, we made a rule: No more meetings in the bathroom.
MULTITASKING CEO: TWITTER, SQUARE
My biggest mistake was thinking I shouldn’t show my mistakes – I learned I should.
GLOBAL CONNECTOR: COFOUNDER, FACEBOOK
My hope was never to build a company. I was driven by a sense of purpose to connect people and bring us closer together.
A couple years after starting Facebook, some big companies wanted to buy us. Nearly everyone else wanted to sell, but I didn’t. I wanted to see if we could connect more people. It tore our company apart, fraying relationships until, within a year or so, every single person on the management team was gone.
That was my hardest time leading Facebook. I believed in what we were doing, but I felt alone. And worse, it was my fault. It taught me that it’s not enough to have purpose yourself. You have to create a sense of purpose for others. And I hadn’t explained what I hoped to build.
That sense of purpose creates motivation and meaning for people beyond just surviving or making money. It attracts other people who are interested in the right things. People here build products because they want to do something meaningful and play an important part in how people use Facebook. The company has to be successful for us to keep going, but the real motivation is creating positive social change in the world.
I think that’s true for most good businesses. Building something like Facebook and running a community like ours requires some inspiration. A lot of our leadership team is wired that way. Our compass as a company is all about making our services available to the most people possible so we can give everyone around the world a voice.
People often ask me for advice about starting a company, and I always tell them your goal should never be starting a company. Focus on the change you want to make, find people who share your same purpose, and eventually you may have an opportunity to build something that helps create purpose for others and has a positive impact on the world.
ENTREPRENEURIAL ICON: AFRICA’S FIRST BLACK BILLIONAIRE
After I completed my first significant transaction, buying mines that were closed or about to close, with a demotivated workforce of 8,000, who for years had been told, “Guys, you’re not cutting it,” people asked if I was mad. But we ran our business differently and it worked – we paid our workers based on profitability, with bonuses based on aspirational targets that, if achieved, created money for the mineworkers, the company and its shareholders alike.
CEILING BREAKER, COMPANY BUILDER: FORMER CEO, EBAY; CEO, HEWLETT PACKARD ENTERPRISE
There is a myth (at least I believe it’s a myth) that being successful demands that we give up on decent, commonsense values: honesty, family, community, integrity, generosity, courage, empathy, etc. As we advance in our careers, there is this belief that winning at all costs is winning nonetheless. I never bought into that myth. I respect ambition, but not ruthless ambition.
We have the opportunity today to use our values to help us reinvent our future during a time of great stress and economic anxiety. There are those who see a focus on values as a luxury for prosperous times, when we can “afford” to think about making the world a kinder or nobler place. I want to make a different argument: It is precisely during difficult times that we need to align our priorities and actions with the fundamental principles that ultimately create stability, efficiency, energy and even prosperity. Navigating by essential values can have a force-multiplying effect.
VISIONARY: INVENTOR, WORLD WIDE WEB
I published my proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989. From the outset, I imagined it as an open, universal space, where anyone, anywhere could take their ideas and bring them to life without having to ask for permission or pay royalties. I hardwired these factors into the Web’s design and made a conscious decision not to try to copyright or patent it. In 1993, CERN, my employers at the time, agreed to make the code available to anyone, royalty-free, forever.
This openness is at the core of what makes the Web powerful. It has underpinned the decades of creativity and innovation, opening up access to information, letting us communicate and collaborate across borders, and creating new industries. But now, as the Web matures, this openness is under threat.
Some governments have stepped up censorship of information they feel threatened by, using Web-based technologies to monitor citizens or even shutting down the internet in their jurisdiction. And some companies are also trying to limit openness for financial gain by challenging the principle that all internet traffic is treated equally – net neutrality. The internet is both a market for bandwidth and a market enabler (content, social networks, etc.). Strong net neutrality rules separating these markets are key. Otherwise, one set of interests can control the other – a disaster for innovation.
The open Web has been fertile ground for entrepreneurs to build successful companies –without having to ask permission from internet providers to allow their idea to take off. You break that “permissionless” space, and you establish substantial barriers for the Web’s next big thing.
The open Web, like all open markets, demands rules to ensure it stays fair and competitive. For the economic, social and political benefit of all, the Web must be recognized as a public good and locked open through appropriate corporate and government action – including the preservation of net neutrality. No single individual can control the future of the Web, but together we can keep it open and build the Web we want.
Operating lean by…
SCRAMBLER: OIL WILDCATTER, FOOTBALL REVOLUTIONARY; OWNER, DALLAS COWBOYS
In my mid-30s, I would have annual visits with Sam Walton. At that time I was primarily in the oil and gas business and some real estate. I asked him very early in our acquaintance if he had one rule that he practiced, what would it be, and I have applied it ever since. “If you are not undermanned, you’re overstaffed, and you’ll never see your heroes.” What he meant: Keep your labor or your expense down and maximize the responsibility you extend to fewer people. When you do that you will see the people who have the ability and motivation to do the work.
When I bought the Cowboys in 1989, Tex Schramm had done a marvelous job creating visibility. What was lacking was the ability to monetize the visibility – to bring back home juice. When we first met, he said that football would be a hell of business if you didn’t have to play those games. With Sam Walton in mind, I set out to have a franchise that could have financial viability, win or lose. I call it bringing the ten-pound bass in on the one-pound test line.
The ineffective people take care of themselves. Someone has to produce or it becomes apparent where they are. We need people with across-the-board knowledge in terms of what we are trying to do. One of the real plusses of oil and gas exploration is you can do it with a relatively small staff. We probably have only a dozen involved in running the Cowboys and related businesses. I am my own president and GM; if you eliminate my family you probably have only two or three people involved. You can do a lot of things with fewer people if you are willing to take a lot of risk. There is definitely a correlation.
FACE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM: OWNER, FLEX-N-GATE; OWNER, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
When I showed up in America at 16, I wasn’t trying to make billions – I was just trying to survive. I had come from Pakistan with 500 bucks in my pocket and not much else. The bus dropped me off at a place that cost $8 a night. I asked if there was anything cheaper, and they told me to go to the YMCA. So I trudged down the street in the middle of one of the worst snowstorms in Illinois history. I had never seen snow before, and my shoes were falling apart. The YMCA cost $2 a night, and after a meal, I was already down $3 or $4. That was big money back in Pakistan.
But the next morning, I found an opportunity to make even bigger money. All I had to do was wash dishes and I could earn $1.20 an hour. That was more than 99% of the people back home in Pakistan. I realized right then that this was the land of opportunity and I could control my own fate. Less than 24 hours after arriving, I had already discovered the American Dream.
VOICE OF A GENERATION: BEATLE, ARTIST, SONGWRITER, COPYRIGHT OWNER
In the mid-1980s, Michael Jackson and I were hanging out, and he asked me for career advice. I said, “Okay, three things: First of all, get yourself a really good manager. You’re really hot now, there’s going to be a lot of money coming in, and you really need someone to help you manage it. Second, think about getting into videos.” (Shortly after that, he did “Thriller,” so I thought that was cool, he took my advice.) Then I said, “And finally, be careful about your songs – own your work – and get into song publishing.” And he said, “Oh, I’m going to get yours!” I kind of laughed; I didn’t think he was serious. But he was.
It all goes back to the very beginning of the Beatles, when we signed the music publishing contract. We didn’t care what it was: We were just like any other writers; we wanted to get published. It turned out to be basically a slave contract; no matter how successful we made the company, we didn’t get a raise. After John died, I talked to Sir Lew Grade, who owned Northern Songs, the company that held our publishing rights. I said, “Lew, if you’re ever going to sell Northern Songs, you’ve got to come to me first.” He said, “I’m never going to sell.” And I said, “Fair enough. But if you do, come to me first.” He later came to me and said, “Yeah, I am selling it – for $20 million.” I said, “Okay, I think that’s a fair valuation.”
But I didn’t want to be the guy who bought John out. So I went to John’s people, and I said, “We’ve got this opportunity to buy Northern Songs, finally. It’s $20 million. And so that’s $10 million from me, $10 million from you. And we should do this, what do you think?” The response: “Oh, no, we can get it for $4 million.” I said, “I’m not sure about that.” It ended up falling through, and Michael later ended up buying it off this Australian guy Robert Holmes à Court for $47.5 million. I wasn’t willing to pay that much for my own songs. It’s difficult, when you’ve written them for nothing, to pay $50 million to get them back.
It’s so important to have good people around you. That’s why I’m anywhere near this list. My lawyers, John and Lee Eastman, are really smart, both great guys, and I listen to them. In recent years, they’ve helped me recover my copyrights. (There’s a U.S. law that allows me to get them back.) If I’m wheeling and dealing, life becomes very difficult for me. I’ve got to reserve a portion of my brain for writing songs.
ORIGINAL BARBARIAN: PRIVATE EQUITY PIONEER, COFOUNDER, KOHLBERG KRAVIS ROBERTS (KKR)
George Roberts and I are first cousins; we met at age 2 and we grew up together. We both went to Claremont McKenna College, and we roomed together in New York during summers, while I was working at Goldman Sachs and he at Bear Stearns. On our road trips from California to New York, we would quiz each other in the car: “What is yield? What’s P/E?” We didn’t know anything.
People often ask, “You must fight a lot?” The last fight we had was when we were 7 years old. He wanted to ride my new bike and I didn’t want him to. He chased me in the house in Tulsa, and I ran into the corner of a wall, cracked my head open. I had 23 stitches and thought, “Well, there has to be a better way than this.” So we don’t fight. We’ve never fought. We talk about things. He doesn’t agree with everything I think, and I don’t agree with everything he thinks, nor should we. It’s healthy. But we know each other so well I can finish his sentences, he can finish mine. Next to my wife, he is my best friend and confidant, and I trust him with my life, my family.
If you have the same values and are focused on the same goals, which is to build a firm that will be here long after we have retired, you can go a long way.
IMPACT MAN: EBAY BILLIONAIRE; SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP KINGPIN
We are on the cusp of a clean-energy economy, where energy is essentially costless, abundant and safe, with no externalities, no health costs, no Deepwater Horizons. Around the world, solar has done what looks like Moore’s Law. Wind has done somewhat the same, coming down to a competitive place. And to finish the trifecta, there’s a step change in batteries about to hit the world next year. I would liken the clean-energy revolution to the industrial revolution, just happening faster. The numbers are staggering.
Having clean, inexpensive, sufficient energy that’s not controlled in some government’s hands or some big business’ hands helps solve a couple of the giant threats coming down the pike. Climate change, obviously, is a biggie – this stuff doesn’t solve it, but it mitigates it. In terms of water issues, if you have enough clean energy and you have access to an ocean, you can desalinate and then pipe that desalinated water where you need it, and grow food in deserts that previously couldn’t sustain agriculture. In the Middle East, there’s a lot of conflict over water as well as refugees and displacement. Clean tech may also cover some of the issues with nuclear proliferation. There’s no need to build new nuclear plants, so why would anyone build one except for weapons? On the pandemics side, people living in better living conditions with more plentiful health and food options are less likely to be struck with diseases that become epidemics that become pandemics.
The clean-energy economy can happen in the next 10 years. So when I think out 100 years, we’re either going to be in a world of extreme abundance and peace and prosperity where people live these glorious lives, or we’re going to be toast. It’s one or the other.
LITERATURE AT SCALE: RECORD-SETTING AUTHOR (87 NO. 1 BESTSELLERS); FORMER CEO, J. WALTER THOMPSON
Don’t take “no” when your gut tells you “yes.” Just before Little, Brown published Along Came a Spider, the first of my Alex Cross books, I said I wanted to do a TV commercial. They said, “We don’t do TV commercials.” So I just went and did one for nothing – $1,500. And then I brought it to them, and they went, “Ooh, we like this.” I said, “Let’s run it.” That started things going. The book and me went on the bestsellers list.
Once I got out of the advertising business, I had a lot more time. I remember going to my publisher, saying, “I want to do more than one book a year.” I told them one was at a beach house, and it was a mystery. And the other one was Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas. The fellow who ran Time Warner said, “We want to do The Beach House, but we don’t want to do Suzanne’s Diary because it’s not your brand.” And I went, “I don’t think of myself as a brand. But if I did, I think the brand is when you pick up a James Patterson book, the pages are really going to fly for you.” It was a big moment in my career because it was the point at which I went from publishing one book a year, to ultimately 20. And in multiple genres.
I faced the same resistance when I started writing children’s books. People have a tendency to stay within their comfort zone, and many thought I could only do adult thrillers. I knew I could write great kids’ books, though, and launched my own children’s imprint, JIMMY Patterson. Now I publish nearly as many kids’ bestsellers as I do adult titles.
ASIA’S SUPERMAN: CHAIRMAN, CK HUTCHISON AND CHEUNG KONG PROPERTY; RESPECTED PHILANTHROPIST
My experience in manufacturing taught me cash flow is the lifeblood of a company and one of the best safeguards for a company’s future. Between 1999 and 2000, when everyone saw the 3G development in Europe as a gold mine, it was overhyped. All through the spectrum auction, I directed our team to adhere to our cash flow projection and only advance with cautious deliberation. I knew everyone thought I was too conservative and challenged this mandate. But in retrospect our telecom businesses remain competitive while several of those companies that won the bid were stuck. Writing a check to invest $100 is easy; returning the same to shareholders is harder. That’s why I am a strong believer in advancing with cautious deliberation. Prudence and agility, creativity and innovation will give you the edge to thrive in uncertain times.
PRIVATE EQUITY BILLIONAIRE: FOUNDER, VISTA EQUITY PARTNERS
My training as a chemical engineer sharpened my passion for complex systems – for understanding them, deconstructing them and finding their equilibrium. But while I found beauty in the absolute truth of machines in the classroom, I found purpose in the messiness of human interactions in the real world. Whatever drives us, we all derive happiness from finding purpose. We find joy in thinking, doing and discovering – in improving people’s lives and catalyzing positive change in the world. And in this age of intellectual capital, where brainpower is the world’s most valued currency, the opportunity to find purpose – and create value that aligns with our values – has never been greater.
TURNAROUND SPECIALIST: FORMER CHAIRMAN AND CEO, IBM
When I arrived at IBM in 1993, I discovered that I had a number of businesses that were losing massive amounts of money, including one software product losing as much as $1 billion a year. I asked the question: What is the market share of this product? What are the customers saying? The answer: Our main competitor had 96% of the market; we had only 2%. But my technical people came back to me and said we had a better product, and my salespeople came back to me and said we had important customers that rely on this product. I was early in my tenure, so I waited. But the fact was that the product was not being accepted by enough customers to be viable, and we eventually killed it. There are always reasons to go slow, many of them good ones. Yet, when the decision is finally made, I’ve found my reaction is always the same: I should have done this a long time ago!
UPWARD MOBILITY: FROM TRADE SHOWS (COMDEX) TO CASINOS (SANDS: LAS VEGAS, MACAU, SINGAPORE) TO POLITICAL POWER (GOP)
You don’t always have to be the guy that comes up with a new idea from scratch. If you can take an old concept, like vending or gambling, and just put a new spin on it, e.g open new online casino success will follow you like a shadow.
When I was 16, I bought a bunch of vending machines. At the time, they were set up inside factories, which meant people only bought snacks during the 40-hour workweek. So I moved the machines into gas stations, where cab drivers were lining up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Money came rolling in.
Years later I did a similar thing with casinos. Las Vegas had been successful in the United States, but China had a billion more people in it. Why not rebuild the Las Vegas Strip there? Everyone else in the gambling industry thought it was the dumbest idea ever. I charged ahead in Macau anyways. Now all the naysayers would cut off their right arm to get a piece of land there. I’ve got a warehouse full of right arms, and a couple of left ones, too.
INDEX FUND POPULARIZER: FOUNDER, VANGUARD, WORLD’S LARGEST MUTUAL FUND COMPANY
In 1965, my mentor, Walter L. Morgan, the founder of Wellington Management Co., called me into his office. It was the go-go era, and we only had a conventional, balanced mutual fund. “I want you to do whatever it takes to fix the company. You’re in charge now.” I was 35. So I merged with a very aggressive equity fund out of Boston with managers younger than I was. It seemed like an act of genius, until it wasn’t. The go-go era fell apart, and they turned out to be terrible money managers. In January 1974, the board of Wellington Management, controlled by that Boston group, fired me.
Except that the mutual funds themselves had a separate board controlled by independent directors, and I persuaded that board not to fire me. So there was a big fight, and it was resolved with a terrible deal: I would continue as chairman and CEO of the funds, which would be responsible for their own legal, compliance, administration and record keeping. (And I had to come up with a new name – that was the start of Vanguard Group.) My rivals, the people who fired me, would continue to oversee distribution, marketing and investment management. The scheme was totally irrational.
I had to find a way for Vanguard to take on the investment management and distribution of our funds. I had done some work on index funds in my senior thesis at Princeton in 1951. I had experienced the failure of active management firsthand. And I had just read an article by Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson, saying, in essence, “Somebody, somewhere, please start an index fund.” I took the idea to the board and they said “You can’t get into investment management,” and I said, “This fund has no investment management.” They bought it, and there’s where the index revolution began. Then I decided we couldn’t allow Wellington and its sales force to continue to distribute the funds – so we eliminated all sales commissions and went no-load overnight. The directors said “You’re not allowed to take over distribution,” and I said “We’re not taking it over; we’re eliminating it.” They bought it, again.
When a door closes, if you look long enough and hard enough, if you’re strong enough, you’ll find a window that opens.
People assume they are most creative at a certain age. But if you look at truly great artists, they always get better. Matisse got better. Picasso got better. Da Vinci got better. I think it’s the same in all areas of creativity.
INDIA’S INDUSTRIALIST: FORMER CHAIRMAN, TATA MOTORS, TATA STEEL, TATA CONSULTING SERVICES, ETC.
Be passionate in areas relevant to you, and be a voice that is respected and abreast of developments. I have also tried not to express a view on matters which I am not fully involved with or qualified to comment upon.
VENTURE CAPITAL MIDAS
Here’s how I stay relevant: I read. I listen. I try to surround myself with smart people of all ages and backgrounds. Most Wednesday nights, my wife, Ann, and I host a group of college students for dinner to share their worldviews and the work they are doing. They inspire me with their potential and passion to change the world.
BUILDER: COFOUNDER, HOME DEPOT
Age is just a number for me – I haven’t thought about it in years. I go by the motto that I learn something new every single day. From reading and asking questions, you broaden your knowledge, your thinking, every aspect of your life. By the end of the day, I’ve learned something that shows how dumb I was yesterday.
COFOUNDER, FORMER CEO, SUN MICROSYSTEMS; VENTURE CAPITALIST (KLEINER PERKINS, KHOSLA VENTURES)
I explicitly don’t build or guard my reputation. I believe in telling it like it is and not worrying about it.
INFLUENTIAL DESIGNER: CO-CEO, PRADA
I’m not really interested in building a reputation for myself. But I do care for what the company stands for. I believe in work and being connected to the world we live in. You need to be curious and never stop studying. You have to challenge yourself to think every day to understand and react to what is happening.
Carlos Slim Helú
MEXICO’S ONE-MAN ECONOMY; ONETIME RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD
At the end we leave with nothing. Entrepreneurs are only temporary managers of wealth. So do right by your customers, your employees, your backers.
SOCIAL CAPITALIST: FOUNDER, ACUMEN FUND
In our connected era, word spreads. People know when you are being true to your values. Don’t worry about reputation but about character. You build character by practicing empathy, practicing moral courage, practicing determination. Those traits are like muscles. When you are known for that, you don’t have to worry about guarding your reputation – others will do it for you.
ENTERTAINMENT ENTREPRENEUR: FOUNDER, ASYLUM RECORDS, GEFFEN RECORDS; COFOUNDER, DREAMWORKS
Being in business by yourself, you’re responsible, one way or the other, and I had a lot of success that way. In 1994, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and I started DreamWorks. We had to borrow a billion dollars, and raise a billion dollars in equity, which created a huge responsibility for me. I never had any debt before that. I did it because I wanted to help Jeffrey, who had been fired at the Walt Disney Company. But it wasn’t something I was passionate about. Partners have shared goals but also divergent ones. It was a commitment over 15 years, because I wanted to stay until the investors got their money back. That was very important to me. Starting a new studio was a thrilling challenge, but it was more stressful than fun. I never took a salary, a bonus or expenses. I learned never to do anything you’re not passionate about. I gave all the money I earned from the $3.8 billion sale of the company to charity.
Retire smart by…
WALL STREET CONGLOMERATOR: SHEARSON, TRAVELERS, CITIGROUP
I retired as CEO of Citigroup in 2003 and retired as chairman in 2006 because I was afraid of making an abrupt change in my life. That turned out to be a mistake, as I should have retired from both positions at the same time. When you’ve been the CEO of something for a long time and you retire, you should really retire. As chairman I spoke to directors about various issues and things that I thought were wrong, and I felt I was sometimes getting a response that they thought I wanted my old job as CEO back. I stress the importance of having another life outside of business so that when it does come time to retire, the transition is easier. For me that other life has been in philanthropy for the last four decades.
TECH TITAN (COFOUNDER, MICROSOFT); GLOBAL PHILANTHROPIST (BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION); RICHEST PERSON IN THE WORLD (FOR NOW)
In early 1975, when I was in college, my friend Paul Allen showed me an issue of Popular Electronics featuring the Altair 8800 computer, the first commercially successful personal computer. We both had the same thought: “The revolution is going to happen without us!” We were sure that software was going to change the world, and we worried that if we didn’t join the digital revolution soon, it would pass us by. That conversation marked the end of my college career and the beginning of Microsoft.
The next 100 years will create even more opportunities like that. Because it’s so easy for someone with a great idea to share it with the world in an instant, the pace of innovation is accelerating – and that opens up more areas than ever for exploration. We’ve just begun to tap artificial intelligence’s ability to help people be more productive and creative. The biosciences are filled with prospects for helping people live longer, healthier lives. Big advances in clean energy will make it more affordable and available, which will fight poverty and help us avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The potential for these advances is thrilling – they could save and improve the lives of millions – but they’re not inevitable. They will happen only if people are willing to bet on a lot of crazy notions, knowing that while some won’t work out, one breakthrough can change the world. Over the next 100 years, we need people to keep believing in the power of innovation and to take a risk on a few revolutionary ideas.
THRILLIONAIRE: CONSUMMATE ENTREPRENEUR; FOUNDER, VIRGIN GROUP
I suppose that out of all the businesspeople in this issue, I’ve done a few more mad, zany things to get my companies on the map. Sometimes these stunts work, sometimes they don’t. When Virgin America launched its Las Vegas route, my staff took me to the top of the Palms Hotel there and told me that I had to jump off the top floor into the party on the bottom floor on a bungee. I was very sceptical – the wind was blowing 50 miles an hour. But I jumped and hit the side of the building on the way down, completely ripping my trousers off. Blood poured down my legs as I arrived to the party. The Virgin brand is quite intricately linked with me personally, so I have to be careful not to go and damage the brand myself.
But that doesn’t mean not taking risks. As the Virgin Group has gotten much bigger and much stronger, we can afford to take bigger, bolder risks in lots and lots of different sectors. One of our biggest investments has been the space companies, which we have already invested $1 billion to set up. We take tons of risks in life, whether personal risks or business risks. We sometimes fall flat on our face. But people don’t mind people who try things and fail.
Risk management by…
PRIVATE EQUITY KINGPIN: COFOUNDER, BLACKSTONE
When Pete Peterson and I launched Blackstone in 1985, we wanted to create a place where people would enjoy coming to work and be rewarded for internal collaboration. The firm we came from was known for its internal rivalries, with partners often at odds, plotting against and one-upping each other.
Creating this environment became important early in Blackstone’s history, as we moved from M&A into private equity. We had no organization then. People would just come into my office and ask me to make decisions. One deal, a steel distribution company in Philadelphia called Edgcomb Steel, didn’t turn out the way we hoped because we failed to solicit multiple points of view from all of our partners. I had a special tombstone made for that deal, which was black and in the shape of an actual tombstone to remind myself every day of what I learned. I realized that we needed to set up rigorous processes to review deals together and help avoid risks, even if that meant challenging an idea I was putting forward. Nobody’s job was to say, “I think it’s wonderful.” Instead, I insisted on everyone coming together to analyze potential problems that could lose investor money.
Today we’ve institutionalized this approach across the firm and have our deal teams meet every Monday to review each potential transaction. We’ve replicated this process across each of our business groups. Without this process, I’m not sure we would have evolved into a successful business.
DOER: FINTECH AND MEDIA PIONEER; SOLUTIONS-ORIENTED MAYOR; PHILANTHROPIST
I was fired from Salomon Brothers in 1981 in part because no one at the firm thought much of my idea for computerizing financial data and analysis and presenting it in real time. Back then, most financial professionals didn’t know how to use a computer, much less have one on their desk.
Organizations resist innovation – and those that do inevitably fail – because people are more comfortable with what they know than with what they don’t. Looking beyond the horizon and taking risks have always been a core part of our company’s culture, which we brought to New York’s city hall and worked hard to spread throughout city government.
In both the public and private sectors, innovation requires hiring smart, creative and driven people, empowering them to take risks and standing behind them – in a public way – when things don’t go as hoped. The biggest management failures in both business and government are not missed targets but missed opportunities.
MEDIA MOGUL: BOSS AT ABC, PARAMOUNT, 20TH CENTURY FOX; FOUNDER, IAC
Don’t think of a specific job, so to speak, or a specific career, like “I’d like to be this” or “I’d like to be that.” You should find an area that interests you and just get on the highway, and it will lead you wherever you lead it. For me, I’ve only really worked for three companies: ABC was eight years, Paramount was 10 years, and Fox was eight years. That’s my entire working-in-a-company life, so to speak. I got to a point where I wanted to work for myself. If you can, do it – which is more than just the word “can”; there’s a lot cooked up in there – you should. You can control your own destiny, whatever that is, good or bad.
KING OF THE STRIP: SAVIOR, GOLDEN NUGGET; FOUNDER, MIRAGE RESORTS, WYNN RESORTS, ETC.
I’m in the service business, where 10% of the franchise is the stuff and 90% is the guest experience. So the big question for me: How do you motivate employees? With 13,000 of them at the Wynn and Encore, you can’t have 6,500 supervisors watching 6,500 people. You need to have a culture instead of a payroll, so that people watch themselves. What does this? Not money, but enhanced self-esteem.
Spotlight programs, such as Employee of the Month, are great, but there’s honest prejudice built into them, as well as luck. So we retrained 1,300 supervisors to become something of a psychologist and learn how to evoke a story. Every day they hold 15-minute preshift meetings that start out like this: Who can tell us about something that happened yesterday with a guest? Then when staffers tell the story, we reinforce it. We thank them. The supervisor calls a storytelling hotline. We then put the story on the in-house internet and plaster it on the walls. We make the storyteller a hero and do this hundreds of times a week. Now I have 13,000 people looking for a story – it’s the thing that brings them all together. Since the employees get to nominate themselves, they control their own enhanced self-esteem. That’s the key to paradise.
FATHER OF MICROLENDING: FOUNDER, GRAMEEN BANK; WINNER, NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
Capitalism has been interpreted to be based on greed. But while human beings are selfish, they’re also selfless. Why is the latter part discarded from the interpretation? We’re increasingly seeing social businesses, or nondividend businesses, whose entire objective is to solve problems rather than make money, being born in many parts of the world. In social businesses, profits are recycled inside the company itself to continue work on a problem. Investors get to recoup their money but nothing more, other than the enjoyment of what they’ve done. Making money is a happiness; making other people happy is a super-happiness.
An example: We’ve started Grameen Shakti, or “Grameen Energy,” to bring electricity to rural Bangladesh. We tell people, “Whatever money you spend on kerosene every month, give that money to us, and we’ll give you electricity.” And we use their money to finance their solar home system – and after three years, they get to keep it without any other payments. We’ve created 2 million solar-powered rural homes, the world’s largest off-grid system, and customers can’t believe it – they can now have television and charge mobile phones. It’s so successful, many competitors have sprung up – which we welcome, because we are a social business, and those competitors help solve the problem.
In Bangladesh, for the last three years, we have been asking unemployed young people to come up with their own moneymaking business ideas, and we invest in them. We become the social business venture capital fund for them. We assure them that none of them will be rejected, only the implementation-ready ones will get funded. Now we fund 1,500 new entrepreneurs each month. This number keeps growing every month. Nineteen thousand businesses have already been funded. Success rate is 99.5%. We believe all human beings are born as entrepreneurs. They are not born to work for somebody else. Their early history is about being hunters, gatherers and problem-solvers. It remained as an essential part of our DNA; we are not job-seekers, we are job creators. Jobseeking is a wrong turn in our history.
REVLON RON; BUYOUT SPECIALIST
The world is changing so fast that you cannot bask in any sort of passivity, because it doesn’t exist anymore. You have to be on top of your game at all times. Two kids can develop Google in their garage, and 15 years later, it’s the most powerful company in the world. It’s like the Henry Ford days on steroids. Everything today is speed, and there is always somebody else working on something better. One of our companies, Deluxe, was the largest supplier of prints to the film industry. We knew that prints was declining but didn’t know it was about to go off a cliff.
Luckily, we were already supplying a digital solution for the same service, but a transition that we thought would take years only took a matter of weeks.
THE WORLD’S ELECTRONICS MAKER: FOUNDER, FOXCONN
In the first 20 years of my career, I worked hard to make money. It was necessary, because without it, accomplishing my ideals would not be possible.
In the second 20 years of my career, I worked for my ideals. Guided by those ideals and a purposeful life, I developed a good working spirit and self-confidence to withstand any challenge.
In the next 20 years, I will work for issues that are my passion. My interests and my priorities are using my life experience and what I have been able to achieve to nurture the next generation so they can make their own contributions to building a better world.
I believe that the most fortunate professionals in the world are those who can successfully carry out those three phases throughout their working life.
TELEVISIONARY: HOLLYWOOD’S TOP SHOWRUNNER
Storytelling has become ubiquitous, across so many mediums, creating an audience that’s ever more sophisticated. But it doesn’t matter how many people tell stories or how many platforms they go on. Storytelling remains basic: It’s a just a campfire, the human connection that says you’re not alone. New mediums like VR will go so far as to put you inside, but there’s going to be a lot of dissatisfaction there. If you decide the ending, there’s no adventure. In a world of unlimited voices and choices, those who can bring people together and tell a good story have power.
THE SAM WALTON OF THE 21ST CENTURY: FOUNDER, AMAZON
We’re in the midst of a gigantic transition, where customers have incredible power as a result of transparency and word of mouth. It used to be that if you made a customer happy, they would tell five friends. Now with the megaphone of the internet, whether online customer reviews or social media, they can tell 5,000 friends. In the old days, an inferior product could prevail in the marketplace with superior marketing. Today customers can tell whether product and service is good because there’s so much transparency. They can compare it to others very easily, and then they can tell all their friends – the customers will do part of the heavy lifting, marketing-wise. Rather than inferior products shouting louder, we have sort of a product meritocracy. It’s very good for customers, it’s very good for the companies that embrace it – and it’s very good for society.
GENRE CREATOR: FOUNDER, MOTOWN RECORDS
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to see me in Detroit at the peak of the civil rights era. And I was, of course, honored. He said, “What I’m trying to do politically and intellectually, you’re doing with your music. I love the feeling people get when they hear your music. And so maybe we can make a deal.” That was the biggest compliment that I could think of. And we put out three albums covering his greatest speeches. It just goes to show that if you do the right thing, the right thing will come to you.
SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR (KB HOME, SUNAMERICA); MAJOR PHILANTHROPIST
If you look at all the companies in the new economy, whether it’s Amazon, Uber, Facebook or Google, reasonable people wouldn’t have done that. George Bernard Shaw said the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable person doesn’t; therefore all progress comes from unreasonable people. I think my wife gave me a plaque that said that shortly after we were married. Being unreasonable allowed me to do things: Leaving the profession of accounting to start a homebuilding company; to take a traditional life insurance company and change it into a retirement-savings company, which we then sold to AIG for $18 billion, which then allowed me to become a fulltime philanthropist.
I think the best thing to do is follow the advice that reasonable people maintain the status quo – those who are unreasonable make changes. I have yet to meet a scientist who wants to maintain the status quo. I hope philanthropists will do things that government can’t or won’t do. If you’re a government bureaucrat, if you make a mistake, you’re going to be out. A lot of things that have started with philanthropy then became of interest to government. In philanthropy we don’t worry about getting fired. There’s a lot of work to be done.
LAST OF THE NEWSPAPER MOGULS, SHREWDEST OF THE POWER BROKERS: EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, NEWS CORP., 21ST CENTURY FOX
As a relatively shy and inexperienced young newspaper owner at the Adelaide News in Australia, I was lucky enough to work alongside top-notch reporters, editors, compositors who put together the paper in metal form ahead of its printing. Hardy souls who had no time for elitism or airs and graces, and even less time for incompetence.
My outlook, energy, self-assurance and sense of social purpose were fashioned in the slightly mad meritocracy that is the newsroom, where you start each day with a blank canvas and relentlessly strive to capture as much original news as possible and present it in a manner that is coherent, compelling and valuable. The urgency, daily drive, that constant self-questioning integral in editing a paper, the ceaseless curiosity, are what I have stood upon every day of my career, taking me and our businesses further than my young self ever imagined. Those experiences, those principles, helped me build a business in television and films and digital media, where drive and creativity are essential and working as part of a team, regardless of your title, is imperative.
To those early colleagues, who tolerated my inexperience and guided me with their earthy wisdom, I am and will always be grateful.
CONSULTANT, AUTHOR: GOOD TO GREAT AND BUILT TO LAST
Peter Drucker made the biggest impact upon me in a personal moment when he hit me with a challenge, like a Zen master thwacking the table with a bamboo stick to get the attention of a wayward student. “It seems to me you spend a lot of time worrying about how you will survive,” he said in his resonant Austrian accent, referring to my anxiety in leaving my comfortable faculty teaching post at Stanford to carve a self-directed intellectual path at age 36. “And you seem to spend a lot of energy on the question on how to be successful. But that is the wrong question!” Then, pausing for effect, “The question is, how to be useful.”
THE POWER BROKER: INDUSTRIAL AND POLITICAL KINGPIN; CEO, KOCH INDUSTRIES
I expect all our employees to live up to the set of values that we started codifying for Koch Industries decades ago. Among our 10 guiding principles: having integrity and humility, treating others with respect, proactively sharing knowledge and focusing on creating the greatest long-term value. The biggest mistake I’ve made in business is hiring and promoting executives who only paid lip service to them. That got us into several bad deals – and drove out people who shared our values. (It took several years to restructure our management teams and divest those deals.) When hiring, if forced to choose between virtue and talent, choose virtue. Talented people with bad values will do far more damage than virtuous people with lesser talents.
FOUNDER, FAST RETAILING (UNIQLO)
I come from a small mining town in Yamaguchi Prefecture. My lifestyle is based on doing the right thing and on being correct in my actions. In my daily life I try my best to practice what is known as Shin Zen Bi, which translates to Truth, Goodness, Beauty. By continuing with these values, I believe I can live my life in a reputable way.
BROKERAGE DEMOCRATIZER: FOUNDER, CHARLES SCHWAB
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were growing by leaps and bounds. Everybody wanted to trade stocks. Then came the dot-com bust, and all of a sudden, business collapsed. I came back as CEO in 2004. We realized success had covered over mistakes, and we had begun to lose our compass. The only path forward was to go back to our core values – helping individual investors with lower costs, less complexity and great service. We cut expenses, we trimmed back staff, we sold off businesses, and ultimately we turned things around.
MAVERICK: CABLE TELEVISION PIONEER; FOUNDER, CNN; HOLLYWOOD STUDIO DABBLER; U.N. SAVIOR
Growing up, my father hired a man named Jimmy Brown to work for our family, and he became one of my dearest friends. Jimmy taught me things my own father couldn’t teach me, like how to sail. We were living in Savannah during segregation and Jimmy and I couldn’t have been a more unlikely pair – a privileged white kid and a grown black man. But Jimmy provided more wisdom and understanding than anyone else ever did. I don’t think I would be the person I am today if it weren’t for him.
AMALGAMATOR: SENIOR CHAIRMAN, CP GROUP
Each industrial age is different. We are now in an era when the younger generation is redefining the market with startups, technology and innovation. In this new world, everything happens and changes very quickly. Successful people today are both innovators and disruptors – they create something that was not there before. Most importantly, we need to appreciate that the success we have today can be taken away tomorrow and that there are more capable people with better technology that we need to keep up with. If we are complacent and not open to change, we will soon lose our place. The best way to stay ahead is to learn from the younger generation. The knowledge and thought processes among people who grew up in Industry 3.0, when computers were new concepts, compared to Industry 4.0, when robots and AI are revolutionizing production processes, are very different. The new generation will always lead us to new innovations and ways of doing things we could never have imagined before.
THE GRAVE DANCER: VULTURE LEGEND, REIT COLLECTOR
There were many times in my life when I would have liked to follow the herd. Instead, I have always followed my gut – and sometimes it’s been really lonely. In 1991, I was standing in the lobby of a bank, and they had agreed to sell me an office building at 50 cents on the dollar. I kept looking over my shoulder and wondering why there were not all sorts of people waiting in line behind me. After all, this was an incredible opportunity. Maybe I was wrong? But I thought it through again and decided that I knew what I was doing, so I kept going. By 1994 all those people were there in line, but the bulk of the opportunity had passed. When you look at The Forbes 400 list and take off everybody who inherited money, what’s left are people who went right when everyone else went left. Conventional wisdom leads to mediocrity.
HOTEL DISRUPTOR, SHARING-ECONOMY POINT PERSON: COFOUNDER AIRBNB
Pablo Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I think you must always live and think like a child. Or have that childlike curiosity and wonder. That’s probably the most important trait you can have, especially as an entrepreneur. And even though I’m still young, I try to always look at what people significantly younger than me are doing. What’s the next thing? I like to imagine the world five years from now. Or imagine what I want the world to look like five years from now. And when I think back to when we started Airbnb, we were trying to challenge the status quo. Now we’re trying to challenge ourselves.
Contributors: Susan Adams, Dan Alexander, George Anders, Madeline Berg, Steven Bertoni, Abram Brown, Kathleen Chaykowski, Kerry A. Dolan, Matt Drange, Antoine Gara, Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Miguel Helft, Chris Helman, Matthew Herper, Alex Konrad, Luisa Kroll, Michael Noer, Janet Novack, Randall Lane, Clare O’Connor, Michael Ozanian, Natalie Robehmed, Matt Schifrin, Michael Solomon, Halah Touryalai, Nathan Vardi, Alexandra Wilson.
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.
In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.
On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.
In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).
Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.
“I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra.
That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.
The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.
The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”
He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.
“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.
“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”
Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.
It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.
But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”
And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.
The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.
Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.
“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”
Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.
Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died
The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.
It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.
READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.
That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.
She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.
One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.
Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.
-Jill De Villiers
Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.
On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.
Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.
Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.
This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.
In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.
And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.
Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing
As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.
Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.
Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”
As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.
“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”
Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.
“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.
It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.
“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”
Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.
While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.
The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).
“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.
She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).
Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on.
“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”
Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.
In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.
Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.
“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.
She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”.
So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.
At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”
The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”
She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.
“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”
Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.
“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.
This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.
“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.
“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”
She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.
She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.”
Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.
Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.
The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.
She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.
From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.
Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.
The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.
She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.
Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?
There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together. A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left.
In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.
Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff.
“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”
When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.
Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.
“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”
She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.
“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”
Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.
“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”
Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.
Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’
What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?
“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.
“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.
“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.
“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”
Subscribe to Forbes
Why The High Number Of Employees Quitting Reveals A Strong Job Market
No Seat At The Global Table For Indigenous African Cuisine
Xenophobia: Time For Cool Heads To Prevail In Nigeria And South Africa
The Laws Of Impactful Banking
Side Hustles: The Entrepreneur Employees
Arts4 weeks ago
Trevor Noah Is Laughing All The Way To The Bank
Cover Story3 weeks ago
Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died
Travel4 weeks ago
Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester
Cover Story2 weeks ago
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
Technology3 weeks ago
Africa Takes Quantum Leap In Computing
Brand Voice3 weeks ago
How The Cradle Of Mankind Is Fearlessly Leading By Example
Arts4 weeks ago
Mr Eazi On A Global Campaign To Mentor And Fund African Artists
Arts4 weeks ago
The Highest-Paid Actors 2019: Dwayne Johnson, Bradley Cooper And Chris Hemsworth