Cab-Driving CEO

posted by on 2010.10.17, under Other

I came to Washington DC this weekend for an academic conference about entrepreneurship research.  I expected to learn from scholars – professors, older doctoral students, World Bank analysts, and social scientists.   Little did I know that my weekend education would be supplemented with the wisdom of a taxicab entrepreneur.

This was my first time attending this type of conference.  People came from all around the world to share ideas they had empirically tested in countries like The Netherlands, Nigeria, China, and even Canada.  The depth of statistical analysis that was conducted was overwhelming for a new PhD student just learning the basics of research design, but I was fascinated with the presentations.  I never thought I would see such passion coming from folks debating the use of regression models, significance levels, and sample sizes.

It was also the first time I decided to depend on taxicabs for all transportation.  I once lived in San Francisco for 3 months without a car and still never took a taxi because I loved the BART and Muni system.  DC also has excellent public transportation, however this particular weekend I felt inclined to pay the premium for getting around.  I thought it would be a good way to see as much of the city as possible, but to be honest it was because I tended to be running late on everything this weekend.

It ended up being the best decision I made all weekend.  I learned a tremendous amount at the conference, however the highlight of the weekend was a 20-minute conversation with the enterprising driver I hired to take me from Howard University to George Washington University.  I’ve been gaining a tremendous amount of optimism about our economic future by the experiences I have had in the Louisville community and my research in social entrepreneurship.  Today I learned that this optimism was shared with a Baltimore-based, high school educated, value-driven cab-driving, self-titled CEO.

I knew something was up the moment he picked me up.  He had a woman in the front seat, which I thought was odd, and the cab smelled like delicious breakfast food.  The driver was a black man with a white five-o’clock shadow who wore a genuine smile for most of this Saturday morning.  Soon after he picked me up he pulled over to let the woman out of the front seat.  She didn’t pay for the ride and I carelessly assumed that the driver had gotten lucky the night before and I had intruded on his morning-after.  He clarified the address I had given him, and we were soon off on our way across town.

Before I knew it he had engaged me in a discussion about real estate and strategies for appraising properties.  I wore a suit for the conference, which probably encouraged him to start the conversation about business, but within minutes I found myself asking him for valuation advice.  He was eloquent in explaining three strategies that could be used depending on the situation, and immediately qualified himself as an expert in this field.

He took pride in telling me that he was certified in three states for this business.  It allowed him to diversify.  He explained that he was having some tax problems at the moment, and the reason why he had dropped the woman off earlier.  He was asked by the landlord of the building to help find tenants for the apartment units and he had just closed the deal with her to move in and was dropping her off to meet the landlord.  He explained to me the hassles that landlords have with Craigslist, and had found a way he could help.  He admitted that he had not made too much money off the deal, but the gesture had earned him a long-term relationship with the landlord that would end up being profitable one day.  This type of strategy helped him obtain a 4000 sq foot commercial property that he envisions turning into a neighborhood theatre and facility for music and art teachers to give classes at.   He is worried that in his neighborhood children and families don’t have safe places to enjoy the arts and he wants to change that.

Earlier I mentioned that this cab driver shared the same optimism about our economic future.  We also share the same vision for a business idea to bring back the arts to neighborhoods where they’ve been cut from school programs.  I told him about a business idea I had developed that would use a gym membership business model to create a cool space for kids to go to whenever they wanted to play music, take classes, try out new instruments and technology and just hangout with their friends.  The profits from the venture would be invested into created classes in poor neighborhoods in the community so that underserved kids could get free guitars and lessons from talented teachers.  He loved the idea, and offered some incredible advice about how I could get the funding for it.  He believes that funding, something I struggled for 2 years in my last business venture, would be the least of my problems in this venture.  He shared some insights about our nation’s current economic struggles, suggesting that he was a believer of social entrepreneurship in the same way that I am.

We had already reached my destination at this point.  The meter had been running for 10 minutes while we were parked, brainstorming how we could bring music education to our communities.  He told me that driving a taxicab was not his job, but he had been doing it all his life because his father did it, and the money helped his other business get started.  It also gave him more chances to talk with different types of people to get a pulse on what was going on in different parts of the city. I found this ironic, because I am also following in my father’s footsteps, and part of the reasons I am becoming a professor is to help me with bigger ideas I hope to someday bring to the world.
The taxi driver told me that he is an entrepreneur, but obviously at this point he didn’t have to.  He currently runs 5 businesses, including publishing a magazine for cabs in DC, a gardening store, commercial real estate consulting, and helping connect landlords to tenants.  He told me that he hadn’t reached the levels of success he wanted in any of the ventures, but sooner or later something was going to hit.  He loves the process of creating enterprises, and is just passionate about all the businesses he is involved in.  But, he believes in value-based businesses.  He told me that he had an opportunity to go into business with foreclosures, because his neighborhood got hit with it really hard last year.  He could have made a ton of money doing it, but while evaluating the opportunity, he realized he would have a tough time sleeping at night.   He couldn’t imagine going into another man’s home and telling them they had to round up his wife and children and leave.  His reputation in the community was far too important to risk with the venture and decided to pass on the job.  The entire time he was explaining his decision-making process, I kept thinking to myself how different our world would be today if the bankers responsible for the financial crisis had evaluated their decisions the same way as this taxi driver.  He told me that short-term thinking was “just stupid.”

He admitted that the past two years had been really tough on him, but couldn’t be happier with where he is in life right now because he is proud of his values and is learning more every day.  He regrets that he never had a chance to go to college and study business.  Instead he has built a strong friendship with his banker and it has really helped him along the way of his entrepreneurial journey.  His banker told him that these experiences were more valuable than any college education would have been, but the cab driver is stubborn on this issue, believing that he would a much better entrepreneur if he could have gone to school.  To compensate for this, he attends as many training courses and free seminars as possible, but the most valuable thing for his education business is reading case studies in the Harvard Business Review.

This was when I realized how surreal this morning had been.  The last thing I expected to hear from a taxi driver taking me to an academic conference was that he was a subscribed reader of the literature that came out of the field I am being trained in.  If there was ever a doubt that academic research was not valuable to entrepreneurs, it was lost this morning.  My desire to write case studies about entrepreneurs and explore research ideas has been validated, and my future papers might be a resource to future entrepreneurs, not just resume building citations that help with tenure.

Our meeting was nearly up but he closed by telling me a story about an epiphany he had recently about not having a college degree.  I could tell that it was something he was insecure about, similar to how I felt about teaching entrepreneurship despite failing at my first business venture.  In his story, he describes a part of the city by the airport where the road he drives on goes directly into the flight path of planes that have just taken off from the runway.  While giving a ride to a passenger who was a pilot, he told him how much admiration he had for the pilots ability to navigate this particular part of the flight because it requires a precise turn right after take off to avoid city obstacles.  The pilot told him that this was all just part of the training, but the real admiration should be for the pilot who was able to land the plane safely in the Hudson River.  The education and training meant nothing in that situation.  The experiences of the pilot, his ability to stay calm and make good judgment allowed him to save hundreds of lives and be a national hero.  The taxi driver said at that point he learned one of the biggest lessons of his life.  He realized that not having a college education didn’t have to limit his ability to be successful.  He hopes to have his Hudson River moment in his life one day, and he is working on developing all the experiences and personal abilities to be prepared for when that moment comes.
We shook hands, saying how much we both enjoyed the conversation.  I offered him money for the trip and he refused to take it.

I left, inspired to someday write a case study that inspires a future entrepreneur like the cab driving CEO.  The man who never had an opportunity to take a college class had just taken the role of a professor, and he didn’t even accept the paycheck for the job.   I arrived at the university where I was supposed to learn about entrepreneurship on this Saturday, but my classroom today had been a taxicab.

The New York Times hired a badass

posted by on 2010.10.01, under Academia, Entrepreneurship, India, Shameless Plug, Travel

It took an evening in Louisville, Kentucky to realize this.  After 8 hours of studying theory, statistics, and banging my head against a library wall, I threw on my finest sports coat and ventured out for my first night on the town in downtown Louisville.

This weekend is Idea Festival.  It has been one of the best surprises this town has afforded me in my first two months here.  I was looking forward to the event after the kickoff event – Thrivals 3.0 – featuring Jackie Robinson’s son (David), Janelle Monae and her “motown meets silicon valley” label Wondaland Arts Society, Howard Bloom, who spoke passionately about public relations work with Prince and Michael Jackson and several other inspirational speakers who were handpicked by U of L’s Professor Nat Irvin.

I entered the theater with very little background information of the speaker who was scheduled to talk today.  I saw something about “Gandhi” on the flyer, and made an assumption that it was an Indian, perhaps someone talking about philosophy or yoga, or something I was half interested in.  Within 5 minutes I lost any buyers remorse for purchasing tickets for this event, and realized I was meant to be in this very room, in Louisville, Kentucky, at this exact moment.

Anand Girid­haradas was able to articulate everything I experienced in my short tenure in Hyderabad, while enlightening hundreds of us on insightful observations he had made as a journalist in Mumbai (Bombay) India over 6 years.  He spoke with charisma, poise, and conviction, and intentionally paused, keeping listeners in check with the realization that we might never get this education ever again in our midwestern/southern lives, before revealing a new idea that kept us asking for more.  None of his propositions were left undefended, but there was very little that was academic about his tone.

He clearly ordered his thoughts into a presentation that alluded to things his audience could understand.   It felt like I was learning with him – which is a quality I have attributed to some of my best professors and mentors.

I understand that up until this point, I haven’t said anything about his  actual message.  I am not sure how well I can share the perspective he donated to us tonight, but I will try to summarize what stood out to me.  I urge the reader to purchase this man’s book, that will be coming out in 2011.  He too has experienced the frustration of not being really an American or an Indian.  Referencing a comment made by someone in the audience tonight, Indian’s don’t know whether to charge us 100 rupees for entrance (US prices) or 50 rupees (indian price) so they charge 75.  Before I get to his presentation, I need to preface it with a list of the similarities between us, which is absurd.

1.  We were born in Cleveland, Ohio to parents who grew up in Bombay, India and visited India every 2 years as children.

2. We attended college in Michigan.

3. Shortly after college we worked in India.

4. We are both the son of a professor

5. This year, we both started Ph.D programs.

Anand described his fears of the future in America, while optimistically proposing what we should do to avoid them.  Giving examples of TATA cars that cost under $2000, he suggested we stop limiting innovation to luxury items like ipads and smartphones.  He gave a staggering statistic about how there are more people in the world with access to mobile phones (mostly “dumb phones”) than toilets. (6 billion)  Manufacturing jobs should be focused to serve the markets that demand products based on need instead of desire.   Instead of redesigning existing products by stripping away features to lower costs, we should start from scratch, building a lower cost and useful product designed specifically for the market it is intended for.  Not everyone in the US owns an iPhone.  Damnit.

The US has always exported culture to the developing world, but Anand argues that the world no longer sees our way of life as an end-goal, but simply as a “means to an end.”  Just like our movies, basketball shoes, and Yankees hats are knocked off, so is the culture, and Americans do not see a dime in return.

The brilliance of this speaker is exposed as he concludes his talk.  By this time, I have gotten over the fact that he might be a better dresser than me, and has found a more distinguished hairstyle.  I start thanking my stars that the New York Times selected him to share these pearls of wisdom with a much larger audience than the Hyderabadass could ever hope to talk to.  He talks about community, about culture, and changes in geography that is impacting them.  He proposes that our generation is becoming more and more ‘placeless’ transplanting to new places for work and losing identities.  We have less in common with each other because technology gives more options.  Tivo restricts watercooler conversation because we no longer watch the same tv shows on the same nights.  For the first time in the history of the world more people live in urban cities than rural communities.  We are desperately longing for communities, which is why our search tools focus on this (Yelp)  but we’ve lost a connection from this old way of life, and it will be difficult to recover.

It was a great speech, and I was overall impressed that this went down in Louisville.  The timing was perfect, with the controversial premier of NBC’s Outsourced, which was discussed briefly, but also a subject of Anand’s latest piece in the times.  A badass, indeed.