Twins of Different Mothers? College Presidents and Venture Capitalists

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Photo Credit: Warren Photographic

Venture capitalists and college presidents are two groups that, at first blush, do not have anything in common. The VCs are all about deals and money and entrepreneurs. College presidents might say they are all about feasting on the fruits of knowledge and drinking from the fountain of wisdom while raising money from rich alumni. Hold on, they might have more in common than you think.

As a member of the small fraternity with tenure in both roles, I am here to report that there are similarities. There aren’t very many members in each group. And depending on the day, both can be seen as equally unpopular.

Descriptions of venture capitalists can include comparisons to animals and body parts. Description of college presidents are only slightly more favorable and may include the words “out of touch”, wimpy or lousy leaders.

Of course, there are positive descriptors for both too. VCs can be described as the people who see and invest in the future. College presidents shape the leaders and citizens of the future. Both can sit in a lofty perch that can wield real influence.

There are more substantive ways in which VCs and college presidents share a similar perspective on life. These two seemingly disparate professions are both critical to the future and not only do they have traits in common when they work together good things happen.

Take the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The concept began with academics and was quickly embraced and expanded upon by venture capitalists resulting in new companies and free online courses offered around the world.

Other partnerships between VCs and universities include Stanford University and StartX, the University of California and UC Ventures and MIT and the E14 Fund. This is just the beginning. For the benefit of innovation and education, let’s acknowledge the similarities between VCs and college presidents. Here are just a few…

1.) Both must rely on pattern recognition in considering possibilities. Does the entrepreneur show something that signals future success? Did the basketball coach have an overall winning record before? When making decisions about the future, the data is often incomplete. As both VCs and presidents may comment, “It has never been done before.” To create the future both must rely on instincts and judgment, sometimes against the grain.

2. Both must follow investments closely. The model is not to spend some money and hope it works. The model is to allocate resources and then make sure something good comes out the other end. The “end” may be five or ten years in the future and the need to follow never ends.

3. Both need ideas, the more the better. It’s better to consider ten ideas in the hopes that one might be worth the investment, whether it’s a new technology or a new academic program. When the deal flow or the demands on a college budget dry up it’s a warning sign that the ideas aren’t coming.

4.) Both need to be smart about lots of things. Investment considerations can run from autism analysis to video games. Academic decisions can run from athletics to zoology. Renaissance type people are required. It’s not a matter of SAT scores, it’s a matter of being intellectually curious and well-read.

5.) Both can see the future. The VC sees through entrepreneurs and technologies. The college president sees the future through the students and institutional research. Both need to view the future world with optimism.

6.) Both need to show a return on investment. The capital required to be successful in both roles is immense. An ROI needs to be shown for the fund or the college to survive. Both pay a lot of attention to this metric. A lack of an ROI could be a career-shortening event.

7.) Both can benefit disproportionately from a big win. Win an NCAA title and the entire institution will benefit in fund raising, enrollment and branding. See Duke or Gonzaga. Make a tremendous investment and you have the Midas Touch and the fund’s reputation is set for ever. See Google or Twitter and Sequoia and Accel Partners.

8.) Both have many constituents to please. For the VC the list includes investors, partners, entrepreneurs, other investors and the entire tech world. For presidents, the list includes alumni, faculty, students, and the local residents to name a few. Oh, and then there is the family.

9.) Both will sometimes make decisions that don’t make sense. A VC might make the decision to invest in cold fusion, a technology that has never been proven. A college president may decide to build a new sports center in the midst of budget cuts. Only time will tell if the decision makes sense.

10.) Both must rely on the success of teams. Any VC will report that the entrepreneurial team is more important than the technology. Any college president will say that without a great team, success will be elusive. Creating teams is the critical part of each job.

11.) Both have limited resources to spread around. Even the big venture funds are not limitless and monies must be set aside for future investments. No college president has enough money to keep everyone happy. At a time when big funds are being created and tuition is high, both need to overcome the perception of having unlimited resources at hand.

12.) Both must rely on funding sources. Both are always raising money. The well of money always needs to be refreshed in the venture world or in higher education. Effective leaders in both are always raising money.

Good leadership requires so many special traits. Key among them is a unique blend of judgment, risk-taking and keeping lots of people happy. VCs and college presidents are related like twins of different mothers in these unique traits. Both groups are trying to make the world a little better.

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