Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Interview with Laura Niklason on Entrepreneurial Biotechnology

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

[This is the full interview with Laura Niklason which was published in our Kaizen newsletter.]

Laura Niklason on Entrepreneurial Biotechnology

Dr. Laura Niklason is the Nicholas M. Greene Professor at Yale University in Anesthesia and Biomedical Engineering. She co-founded Humacyte, a company which grows tissue replacements that could provide lifesaving improvements in treatments for vascular conditions.

Kaizen: Here we are here in Chicago. You were born and raised in Chicago?

Niklason: I was born actually in Evanston. I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. I went to college when I was sixteen at the University of Illinois and then I went to graduate school and medical school at the University of Chicago. I’m originally an Illinois girl, for sure.

Kaizen: Before you went to university, how would you characterize your schooling or your education?

Niklason: By and large, I went to public school. I had a couple of years stint at a private school during seventh and eighth grade, but, by and large, it was public school education. I would say it was a fairly good educational experience, with some exceptions, but I generally had enough challenges and enough opportunities to learn the things I wanted to learn. I did finish high school early, after three years because I had run out of stuff to take.

Kaizen: Were you strongly academically-oriented then?

Niklason: Well, there were some times early in high school where I had bad behavior, but we’re glossing over that period of time.

Kaizen: Despite the bad behavior, you learned what you needed to do to get your degree done.

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: Where do you think your academic motivation and focus came from?

Niklason: I think the expectation came from both of my parents. I think the assumption and the expectation was that all of their children, me included, would become very good at something. From the time I was very young, I had really good aptitude for quantitative things and scientific things. Those things were exciting and interesting to me and came easily.

Kaizen: Would you say it was broad-ranging into sciences or some sciences more than others?

Niklason: I would say fairly broad-ranging. Throughout life, I’ve come to be fairly good at biology and physics and math. I’m not as good a chemist, but I can cross across several disciplines, and that’s actually been really helpful and it’s actually been instructive and it’s provided direction actually in the ultimate research areas that I’ve chosen, because I’ve chosen a research area in adulthood that actually relies upon being able to draw inferences from multiple different disciplines.

I decided in college I was probably a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I could do any kind of science pretty well. I sought an area where I could put all that together.

Kaizen: It was back in secondary school when you were focusing on a career area?

Niklason: I always assumed I was going to go to medical school. I always assumed I was going to be a physician, and I always assumed I was going to be a research physician. I didn’t know what kind of physician or research physician I would be, but I always had a sense that I wanted to have impact and change the way the world worked. I felt that from a fairly young age.

Kaizen: You mentioned University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. How did you choose that for your university?

Niklason: I only applied to two schools. I applied to the University of Illinois and University of Chicago. Didn’t get into the University of Chicago, probably in part because of my bad behavior. University of Illinois was a great school and it didn’t cost very much, and so that’s where I went.

Kaizen: Then at the University of Illinois, what did you focus on there?

Niklason: I started off majoring in chemistry. I did that primarily because both of my parents were chemists, and I assumed I would be good at chemistry. I discovered midway through my freshman year that I actually wasn’t terribly good at chemistry, but I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was very good at physics, and I honestly did not know I was good at physics in high school. I’d taken physics, I didn’t feel like I was particularly good at it, but I think something about my brain changed.

All of the neuroscience that people talk about as far as your brain changing in its abilities during teenage years and even during age 20 to 25, I think that’s all actually true. I think that I was intellectually capable of understanding things at age seventeen and eighteen that I simply could not understand at age fifteen and sixteen. It wasn’t just a maturity thing; it was an increase in aptitude.

Kaizen: Because the brain continues to grow and develop too.

Niklason: Right.

Kaizen: Then your interests are shifting more towards physics in university time. Either of interest or as part of university requirements did you take courses in humanities and social sciences and arts and so on?

Niklason: I took several courses in philosophy. I actually tried to do a minor in philosophy, but I couldn’t quite pull all the course work together. I enjoyed philosophy very much. I took one or two literature classes. Those were mostly English requirements. I did not take really many courses in the arts or the social sciences very much. It was mostly philosophy, literature, and then the sciences.

Kaizen: At the graduate level, I know you got a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and then a medical degree at Michigan. In what order did you do those?

Niklason: Well, I was in a combined M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. The way that works is you do two years of medical school and then you step away from the medical school curriculum and you become a graduate student, and you finish your Ph.D. and then you return for the last two years of medical school. I did the first two parts of that, I finished my Ph.D., but then I met a man who later became my husband while I was in graduate school, and he was at Michigan. I then transferred to Michigan after I got my Ph.D. and completed medical school at Michigan. My transcript reads a little funny in terms of time, but it was because of that move in the middle.

Kaizen: Your Ph.D. work—what did it focus on?

Niklason: My Ph.D. work was in biophysics in a very quantitative area. I was interested in developing new methods of X-ray imaging at the time to try to understand the physical dimensions and the degree of disease that’s present in blood vessels, for example, in arteries that supply your brain or supply your heart. I was interested in developing imaging methods and quantitative analysis to tell the physician how sick these blood vessels were.

Kaizen: That was the focus of your Ph.D. work at …

Niklason: Chicago.

Kaizen: Chicago, okay. Then when you transferred to Michigan, you had two more years of medical school there. Is this still general training or does one start to specialize at that point?

Niklason: I didn’t specialize then. This is just general medical training. When I finished my medical training at Michigan, I realized that I was very interested in work that involved taking care of the very ill, very ill patients either in the intensive care unit or in the operating room. I developed a passion for that specialty during medical school.

Kaizen: Could you say what made that so attractive to you and interesting?

Niklason: Very ill patients are always very complicated. They’ve always got a lot going on. There’s no two that are identical. Understanding how to take care of a very sick patient often involves bringing together a lot of information from a lot of different quarters and synthesizing it and then making a plan. That differs from the mental processes that underlie much of the rest of medicine.

For example, I can’t remember if I said this to you before … If I’m repeating myself, please stop me … but for much of medicine, you might walk into the doctor’s office and you have a single symptom. “My symptom is diarrhea or whatever.” The good internist will then automatically generate a list in his head of the top twenty things that might be your problem. Then he will go down and check off that list one by one.

My brain was never very good at that. I could never begin with a single fact and generate a list. What my brain was very good at was taking a bunch of information, some of which was coherent and some of which was conflicting, and synthesizing that and coming up with one or two or three possibilities and directions to go. That’s what I see medicine is. It’s assembling a lot of information in real time and making choices.

Kaizen: That’s a challenge, right?

Niklason: That’s a challenge, and every patient’s different.

Kaizen: Especially with the people who are very sick, as you were saying.

Niklason: Yes, because things change sometimes very rapidly in real time, and you have to respond in real time. Taking information and then modify your plans as necessary.

Kaizen: What year was it when you finished med school at Michigan then?

Niklason: I finished medical school in Michigan in ’91.

Kaizen: You became a professor at Yale in 2006?

Niklason: I went there as an associate professor in 2006 and was promoted to full professor, I don’t know, three years later or something.

Kaizen: Okay, 2009. Between 1991 and 2006, what did you do in those fifteen years?

Niklason: I finished training, my clinical training, at Michigan and then Mass General. I did a year of internship at Michigan in medicine until ’92 then I did residency and fellowship in anesthesia and intensive care unit medicine at Mass General. I finished that up in ’96.

Kaizen: Again, that’s in Boston.

Niklason: In Boston. During that time, I also became interested in my current research area, which is regenerative medicine and using cells to create functional tissues that might be used to help patients. I started that research interest around ’95, and that overlapped with my clinical training. I worked in that area as a post-doc trainee at MIT until ’98. Then in ’98, I went to Duke University, and I was there until ’05.

Kaizen: Your time in Mass General is more practicing internship and then the time at MIT is more research-oriented?

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: Then you went to Duke University in North Carolina for a number of years. What was your position there?

Niklason: I was jointly appointed between the department of anesthesia and the department of biomedical engineering at Duke. I was a tenure-track assistant professor there and was promoted to associate professor with tenure after five or six years. I spent about 30% of my time working in the intensive care unit, taking care of the very ill, and then about two-thirds of my time running a research laboratory in biomedical engineering and teaching courses.

Kaizen: Running a lab side is an expensive operation. How does the funding go? Are you responsible for raising the funding, or is it a joint thing with the university or the department?

Niklason: In general, for most tenure-track professors at research institutions, there’s what’s called a startup package where they might provide you with a certain amount of money in order for you to get your operation running. My startup package was comparatively small, only because I wasn’t smart enough to ask for one that was suitably sized.

Kaizen: A learning experience.

Niklason: It was a learning experience, yes. I started with $50,000 a year for three years, which is actually, by today’s standards, obscenely small. Thereafter, any tenure-track faculty person in the sciences is responsible for getting grant money to support their own salary and also to support the salaries of the people who work for them and their research reagents.

I spent the first three years as an assistant professor working really diligently, desperately to try to get research funding. I probably wrote ten research grants a year without exaggeration for the first three years. I was writing grants, at the time, this very novel area of tissue engineering, this was in the late 1990s, and everybody pretty much thought it was just silly work and couldn’t be taken seriously. I had a very hard time getting funded. I came very, very close to bowing out of academia entirely after about three to three and a half years because I was simply not successful in getting funding.

Kaizen: What kind of organizations are you seeking funding from?

Niklason: Many. National Institute of Health—which is a federal agency, National Science Foundation—another federal agency, private foundations, American Heart Foundation, various anesthesia research societies, societies of aging research. These are private foundations. I managed to get small grants from private foundations that kept me alive, kept me on a minimum oxygen level for a number of years, but typically the large grants that can sustain a laboratory operation for a number of years are provided by federal agencies. It took me three and a half years to really land one or two of those and really have solid financial support.

Kaizen: Right. There’s like an entrepreneurial bootstrapping right here where you’re young and you have a lot of ideas and you’re hopefully working in a new area, but because you’re young you don’t have the track record yet of publications or the big name. If you’re working in a new area it seems speculative. What is the thing that, so to speak, enables you to leverage your way up?

Niklason: There’s a couple of things. I think your perception is exactly right. I think all young people who are trying to fund their research organizations, they’re all viewed as inherently risky because they are, and I was working in a risky area.

For me, in order to finally get some traction, it was dependent on a few things. One, and probably most importantly, was learning to partner with more senior people who were working not in my area, because nobody was working in my area, but who were working in related areas. By teaming up with them, I looked like I was a better bet, that I was a little bit less risky because I was viewed as having somebody more senior upon whom I could rely. In reality, I didn’t rely on these more senior people very much, but it certainly helped with the appearance of the thing.

Kaizen: It’s a seal of approval.

Niklason: Yes. In addition, I finally learned that what I wanted to work on was not necessarily what these research entities wanted to fund. I had to modify my research plans somewhat to be more palatable to my audience. I had to learn to be less of a Don Quixote jousting at the windmills, trying to get exactly what I wanted to do, and instead bend a little bit and understand what the funding agencies thought would be reasonable to support.

Kaizen: Then at about the three-and-a-half-year point you mentioned that’s when you got a big grant.

Niklason: Yes, I got two big grants.

Kaizen: Two big grants. What does big mean in this context?

Niklason: Big means roughly $250,000 a year in direct costs to my laboratory for four or five years. In addition to that, all universities charge what’s called overhead. For example, Duke charged 65% overhead. If I would get $250,000 in a year, Duke would get 65% of that in addition. That would just go to funding the building and the electricity and administration and whatever.

Kaizen: How much administration support would they be giving you?

Niklason: Almost none.

Kaizen: You still had to do all your own books and…

Niklason: Oh, absolutely.

Kaizen: The overhead really is a very high tax.

Niklason: Well, it’s a high tax, but it pays for the laboratories. If the roof-

Kaizen: Oh, all of the fixed capital, they’re providing that? I see.

Niklason: Yes, but the equipment I have to purchase. But, for example, there are facilities with microscopes in them that costs a million dollars. I can go over to that facility and I can use that microscope for $100 an hour. That support is distributed within the institution, but there’s not a lot of direct support that comes to me via that.

Kaizen: Out of that, you’re paying your salary and any research assistance that you hire and then…

Niklason: Pipettes and chemicals.

Kaizen: All of the those things…

Niklason: All those things.

Kaizen: All right, on 45% of the money that you bring in.

Niklason:  I would bring in $250,000.

Kaizen: Or 35%, sorry. 35%.

Niklason: I would bring in $250,000. That’s what I would write the grant for, and NIH would write a check to me for $250,000. They would then also write a check to the university for $170,000.

Kaizen: The overhead will be on top of that?

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: Okay, good. I was going to say you’re getting down below $100,000, and that’s…

Niklason: It doesn’t sound like very much money.

Kaizen: Yes. You have $250,000. You can live on that and get some stuff done.

Niklason: Right.

Kaizen: Then you’re in a position to publish as the research is coming out and going to conferences and build up your name and get some traction that way. Moving to Yale in 2006, you were working on the blood vessels at this point.

Niklason: I’ve been working on engineered blood vessels. When I went to Yale, I’ve been working on engineer blood vessels for a decade, or eleven or twelve years.

Kaizen: How did the idea of that particular engineering blood vessels come to you and what were your main steps, or what hurdles did you have to overcome and new knowledge that you need to acquire?

Niklason: That’s a very, very big question, and I could answer that for a very long time, but I won’t burden you with that.

Kaizen: But the two-minute version?

Niklason: The two-minute version. The two-minute version of where I got the idea was that, well, first of all, I’d been interested in blood vessels and their diseases since my graduate work. My graduate work had been in that area. I had a particular case when I was training in anesthesia where I was taking care of a heart bypass patient who needed a new artery for his heart. Typically, surgeons take a vein out of the leg to do that operation. They take a vein from the patient’s leg and they sew it onto the heart.

In this patient’s case, they opened up both of his legs and looked at his veins and they decided that they didn’t like them, so they sewed up both legs. They then opened up his arm, his whole forearm, looking at his radial artery, because they wanted to take one of the radial arteries, one of the arteries out of his arms and sew it into his heart. They decided that that would lead to complications, and so they sewed his arm back up and didn’t use it.

They then made a third incision and they cut into his abdomen. They peeled an artery off the surface of his stomach and swung it up into his chest to serve as a bypass artery for his heart. This all took many hours and looked really barbaric. In watching all of that, I thought there’s got to be a better way.

This was in the mid-’90s, but even at that time, twenty years ago, we really understood a lot, scientifically, about the cues that go into healing of an artery, growing new arteries, arteries as they develop in the embryo. My decision then was to try to leverage what we knew at the time about how arteries grow, try to bring those lessons into the laboratory and apply them so that we could grow new blood vessels essentially from scratch.

As time went along, I had to leverage other insights about certain biochemicals that we needed to apply that really weren’t appreciated at the time. Our work really clarified the importance of mechanical input. We learned that if we stretch these arteries while they’re growing in a way that mimics the heartbeat, that had a profound impact on how they developed. That wasn’t really very well understood before we did that. There were things that we learned about the basic under workings of how new blood vessels grow and assemble themselves. We had to learn those things along the way so that we could pull that trick off in the lab.

Kaizen: Are there synthetic competitors or alternatives here? I was thinking about some sort of engineered plastic tubes, for example.

Niklason: Sure. There are several types of engineered plastic tubes. There are plastic tubes made out of Teflon, plastic tubes made out of Dacron, and even some tubes made out of materials called polyurethanes. Primarily, Teflon and Dacron tubes are what are used now clinically when a patient needs a new blood vessel, but they don’t have a vein of their own, for example, to use as a replacement.

One of the big drawbacks with all of these forms of plastic is that when you sew a piece of plastic into the body, your body’s immediately aware that it’s not your own tissue. The body reacts by forming scar tissue around the implant, creating a lot of inflammation. Oftentimes, these synthetic blood vessels will clot because blood is running through them, but it’s running through a piece of plastic rather than your own blood vessel. That stimulates clot formation. The failure rates of these plastic tubes are actually quite high.

Kaizen: Was that an additional motivation for you?

Niklason: Yes, that was absolutely a motivation.

Kaizen: From that conception in the middle ’90s, at what point would you say you’ve solved enough of the science and the lab processes to be able to develop blood vessels realistically for medical application?

Niklason: Well, that’s also an interesting question because I believed I could do it after ten years of work.

Kaizen: This was around 2005?

Niklason: Around 2005. Indeed, that’s when I spun out my biotech company, Humacyte, in 2005. It turns out we couldn’t really pull it off for another four or five years after that because I think, as a scientist, you have to be very optimistic about your ability to solve problems and venture into new research areas that have never been done before.

I think I took that inherently optimistic mindset with me when we started up the company. I think that’s necessary. I think if you’re pessimistic you’ll never start a company in the first place. But I optimistically thought that getting the technology to a point, we were very much in a pilot-scale phase after ten years, and I thought that it would take us really only three years to get the technology to a point where it would be ready for first-in-man trials. In fact, we were eight years away.

Kaizen: Oh, okay.

Niklason: I can remember telling people when I started the company in 2005 that I would be able to mostly pull away at around 2008 or 2009, because, frankly, most of the problems would be solved by that time, and it would just be blocking and tackling. I can tell you for sure that twelve years later, most of the problems are still not solved, and it’s not blocking and tackling even yet.

Kaizen: All right. At this stage, 2005 or so, how many people are working in your lab?

Niklason: At my lab at Duke at that time, I had probably twelve or fourteen people. I took three of these people out of my lab when I started the company, and they moved over because they were wanting to. They were excited about it. I took two Ph.D.s and one technician out of my lab and moved them to this little tiny startup space, in a tiny incubator about twenty-minute drive from the university.

These folks started up. I begged some money from my parents and one of my first employees begged some money from her parents. We hung up the shingle. They walked into this room, and there were no pencils. I mean there was nothing.

Kaizen: That was your startup capital?

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: A lot of sweat equity, so to speak, a little bit of startup capital.

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: Was it the same thing then with Humacyte starting to seek venture capital?

Niklason: Yes. Humacyte has sought venture capital at several different points during its development, but we actually have never taken venture capital officially per se. As it turns out, Humacyte was funded by a combination of angel investors, friends and family, and various grants both from the National Institutes of Health, but also from the Defense Department, because the Defense Department is interested in our technology. It was cobbling together angel investors, friends and family, and grants for, frankly, the first nine or ten years of the company’s existence.

Kaizen: That would take you through about ’13 or ’14 or ’15?

Niklason: Yes, about 2015. We had our first really substantive external raise of capital in 2015, after the company had been in existence for ten years.

Kaizen: Wow! That’s still research and solving all the blocking and tackling and other science issues that crop up.

Niklason: Well, yes. The way Humacyte was developed is we basically spent the first two or three years developing robust methods to culture human arteries from human cells in the laboratory. The additional twist that we added was that after we cultured the arteries from human cells, we developed a way to treat the tissues and essentially wash the cells out of the tissue that we had grown in the lab. The reason we did that is because by removing the cells, we made the tissue non-immunogenic, which means that we could take the tissue and implant it into person A, B, C, or D.

Kaizen: It’d be a more generic tissue.

Niklason: Yes. It was a generic, universal donor tissue, and we expected that patients would not reject this tissue. It became a tissue that we could generate in the lab and then we could ship anywhere, and it could be implanted into any patient at any time without fear of rejection. That really became our product. We spent three or four years developing that.

Kaizen: At the same you were starting the company, you were making a transition from Duke to Yale University. How did that come about?

Niklason: That was by accident. I spun out the company in January of 2005. A few months later, I was asked to go up to Yale to give a seminar. Professors are asked to give seminars at different universities all the time. I went up to give a seminar and was really struck by the quality of the intellectual environment and the clinical environment. By late 2005, I had signed a contract to move from Duke to Yale. I got wooed away very shortly after I started the company. Note to self: do not start a company and then immediately move away, all you future entrepreneurs. That is not a life lesson that I would repeat.

Kaizen: Well, how portable is your company? It’s based in North Carolina, but you have people working there with families and so forth.

Niklason: About a year or two after I went to Yale, we looked very seriously at moving the company to New Haven, Connecticut. We went so far as to sign a lease on some new space in New Haven.

At that time, the company was only five, six, seven people, and the key people would have moved. The problem was their spouses because their spouses couldn’t find jobs in the New Haven area. I would have lost a high fraction of my key people in my then tiny company, so I decided not to do that. We backed away from that. That means that for the last twelve years now, I’ve been flying from New York to Raleigh almost once a week.

Kaizen: That’s quite a commute.

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: What is the business work when you are a faculty at Yale, but you’re also running a business, and there’s obviously a strong overlap in the research and funding issues and so forth. How is all that sorted out?

Niklason: There are several aspects to that. As a professor, it’s true of Yale and it’s true of many universities, tenure-track professors are allowed to carve out up to 20% of their time to function as consultants with outside entities. My official title at my company is as consultant or founder. I’m not an officer of the company. I have no people at the company directly reporting to me. I consult for the company and advise them.

Kaizen: I see.

Niklason: I do not directly run the company per se. We have a management structure, we have a CEO who runs the company. That said, with respect to inventions and intellectual property and patents, I have to be very, very careful and I have to draw very bright lines between work that’s done at my company and work that’s done at Yale, because Yale is a nonprofit institution. Professors get fired, if it’s discovered that they’re using their NIH-funded laboratory at a nonprofit institution to generate intellectual property, which they then take for their own enrichment in their own company.

I take that very seriously. The work that gets done at my company, at Humacyte, is physically separated. It’s in North Carolina. It’s its own free-standing thing. In my laboratory at Yale, if I invent anything at Yale, by definition, according to my employment contract, Yale owns the intellectual property. Anytime I invent anything, I fill out an invention disclosure and I carry it over to the Office of Technology Transfer and they file a patent and Yale owns that patent. I’m an inventor on that patent and my students might also be inventors, but Yale owns the intellectual property.

Kaizen: Does that hold even if you wrote the grant and brought in the money for that idea?

Niklason: Absolutely.

Kaizen: Okay.

Niklason: Absolutely. Anything I do on university soil is owned by the university and/or with university resources. However, if the invention would be useful to my company, then it’s in everyone’s best interest, including Yale’s best interest, to turn around once the patent is filed, they turn 90 degrees and pick up the phone and call Humacyte and they say, “Do you want to license this patent?” Often Humacyte says yes. When that happens, Humacyte then has to pay to Yale all of the costs of prosecuting the patent, but they also pay royalty fees and milestone fees.

Kaizen: Are there standard percentages that are worked out?

Niklason: There are semi-standard percentages; however, each negotiation is independent and new because the value of different patents can vary.

Kaizen: Sure. Everybody wants as much as they can get depending on the anticipated value of that patent.

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: Around 2015 you said it was another milestone. You got more significant funding.

Niklason: Yes, we got a lot of funding. We started our clinical trials in late 2012, and…

Kaizen: This is clinical trials to work with FDA?

Niklason: We got permission from the FDA in 2012 to begin implanting our engineered blood vessels in patients and to begin testing them in patients. Our first implants into human beings was in December of 2012. We implanted a total of sixty patients in six hospitals in Europe and the US. We followed those patients for several years. It was on the basis of that data that we raised a significant round of funding in 2015.

Kaizen: The patients in Europe, is that with an eye to getting approval to market the blood vessels in Europe?

Niklason: Yes, absolutely. The initial clinical trials that we did in sixty patients were really just to establish initial function and safety, but it was not any sort of comparative trial. We just finished enrolling a large trial, which was funded in part by this $150 million that we raised in 2015. We just completed enrolling a 350-patient trial where we’re comparing our blood vessel against the plastic blood vessel made out of Teflon. This trial has been underway in six countries in thirty-eight different hospitals.

Kaizen: Wow! $150 million in funding.

Niklason: But the trial really costs $20 million or $30 million. The $150 million pays for a lot of things, but part of the $150 million goes to that trial.

Kaizen: Is that from one source or a series of sources?

Niklason: There were multiple investors who came in with the $150 million. In fact, that was from a total of about twenty-five different investors.

Kaizen: Is there a venture capital firm that puts this all together, or how does that work?

Niklason: We work with an investment banking firm who specializes in helping small private companies raise money from wealthy individuals or from hedge funds or private equity funds. With the help of this bank, this bank functioned as a yenta or as a matchmaker, we were introduced to various investors who were interested in investing in this space. The investors were from all over the world.

Kaizen: That’s in 2015. Then what’s the anticipated timeline? Now we’re substantially through 2017 until the next milestone is reached.

Niklason: Yes. Our first milestone … The $150 million actually came in two pieces, in two tranches. We got the first seventy-five in 2015. We had to largely complete enrollment of this phase three clinical trial in order to get the second half. We recently secured the second half of funding based on our enrollment of this large trial.

We now have to follow all of the patients in this large trial for at least a year. In late 2018, we’ll have an initial read on, first of all, whether our product works and whether it’s safe, I fully expect it will be, but also will have the read on whether or not our product works better than a piece of plastic and, if so, by how much.

Kaizen: That’s a year and a bit by a larger number of patients, the initial sixty. How many patients are we talking about now?

Niklason: The total trial that we just completed enrollment in is 350 patients. Half of those patients got plastic that’s already on the market and half of those patients got our blood vessels.

Kaizen: Now this is to satisfy investors and your own personal goals. There’s also the regulatory agencies in the US and Europe. What’s the anticipated timeline for them, supposing you get the results you want by the end of 2018?

Niklason: When you design a trial like this, it’s always in very close cooperation with the FDA, and we also work closely with the European regulators, because you want to get some assurance from the FDA that if you complete the trial and spend the $30 million to do this, once you have your answer two or three years later, you would hope that if the data is good, the FDA would view the data as sufficiently strong so that they could give you approval based on that data. The trial was designed absolutely working in lockstep with the regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

We’ll get results in late 2018. We’ll then have to do some filings with the regulators and hope to get approval in late ’19.

Kaizen: Then that means going into production in ’20?

Niklason: We will be in production in 2019, gearing up for an anticipated approval.

Kaizen: The math almost works perfectly then, if you started around 1995 down this road, twenty-five years later, finally, you have a marketable product.

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: Okay, wonderful.

Niklason: Yes, a big chunk of your adult life.

Kaizen: Yes, that is substantial. Then there are issues of scaling up in mass production, hopefully. It’s one thing to do things in the lab and then with even a few hundred patients working with industrial engineers who specialize in this. What was that process like?

Niklason: The process of scaling and making something very, very rigorous and reproducible and very highly documented is an almost orthogonal skill set compared to the research and discovery and pilot-scale processes that I’ve done as a university researcher. I can tell you that it takes absolutely a team of people who have been working in manufacturing and in pharmaceuticals for many years, and I can tell you that we’ve been working on the science and the engineering of scaling up our process for the last five or six years, and we’ve still got another two years of really intensive work ahead of us to be ready in 2019.

As with all cutting-edge drugs or biologic treatments, or even new complex medical devices, the scale up, and the reliable, consistent scale up, is one of the hardest pieces of the puzzle. It’s always much harder than people anticipate. It just takes a long time to get it right.

Kaizen: You mentioned when you started Humacyte, it was you and a few people who you took out of your lab at Duke.

Niklason: At Duke, yes.

Kaizen: On the Humacyte side, how many people are officially with the company?

Niklason: Ninety-five.

Kaizen: Ninety-five in your labs at Yale?

Niklason: Twenty.

Kaizen: That’s a total of 115 people that you work with?

Niklason: Yes, it’s a lot of people.

Kaizen: It sure is. You’re still back and forth significantly between Raleigh and Yale?

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: This might not be a fair question, but if you’re anticipating, say 2020, things would be in operation, are you thinking about what you will work on next or what you will be doing in those years?

Niklason: Well, I mean the beauty of being able to have one foot in academia and one foot in the private sector is that I’ve been able to maintain my research interests and my new R&D interests in my Yale lab all along. I’ve actually been commenting to several people, in my academic life, my research work is probably as exciting right now as it’s ever been. We have four or five projects that we’re working on in my lab at Yale that I’m very excited about. Only one or two are related to engineered blood vessels, most of them are on completely different topics, but they’re very exciting and compelling to me.

I’m also very fortunate now that I happen to have a really good team working for me. We’ve got great ideas and I’ve got great people. It doesn’t get a lot better than that. We’re working on cell therapies for lung disease, we’re working on cell therapies for diabetes. We’re working on engineering a new trachea, a new wind pipe.

Kaizen: Wow!

Niklason: I even have one project, it’s a crazy project that I’ve been working on for a number of years now, but trying to find molecules that might slow down cellular aging. It’s a very, very exciting time.

Kaizen: Wow!

Niklason: I will have no shortage of things to do.

Kaizen: That’s great.

Niklason: Yes.

Kaizen: We’ll get more philosophical about your career as a scientist. Looking back over the years, obviously a lot of knowledge, a lot of intelligence goes into being a successful scientist, things like perseverance or a question of the courage to be able to ask new questions or a willingness to fail a number of times and come back. Are there character things that stand out for you as essential to becoming successful in the sciences?

Niklason: I think success in the sciences is related to success in entrepreneurship. They’re not the same thing, but they do have some similarities. If I look at the similar qualities that bridge both, I would say they fall into three categories. The first is optimism, and I started with that earlier.

I think if you’re going to start a company or if you’re going to start research in a new area that nobody understands at all, you have to be imbued with some level of optimism that you’re going to find something that works or you’re going to figure out something positive, and it’s not all going to be a failure. One thing that people say about working in scientific research labs is that you have good days and bad months.

Kaizen: That a new one to me.

Niklason: That’s about the ratio. That’s about the ratio. If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t work. The only people who can stick with that ratio are people who are inherently optimistic that they’re going to get to a good outcome eventually. I think optimism is really fundamental.

Kaizen: That drives the perseverance.

Niklason: That drives the perseverance. That’s a part of the perseverance, yes, but going along with that, the optimism and the perseverance have to be coupled with realism, and that’s at least as important as the other two things, because being mindlessly optimistic doesn’t actually get you there. You have to temper your optimism with an unflinching willingness to look at the data in front of you and to interpret that in a clear-eyed fashion and to believe what nature is telling you and not have your optimism or your preconceived notions impinge on that and skew your view of what’s real.

Kaizen: A ruthless objectivity has to work with that optimism.

Niklason: Those two can exist in the same head more easily than one might think, but having them both there all the time is very important.

Kaizen: On that clear-eyed look at the data, we do know there’s a temptation among many scientists, they want to get the publication, they want to get the grant to fudge things or to set things aside, especially if you’ve been having a bad month, so to speak. How do you deal with those moments when they come up?

Niklason: I think it’s more of a temptation for people who are younger and who are more insecure and more desperate. The concept of scientists making up data and falsifying results, I’m sure that happens. I think that doesn’t happen very often.

What happens far, far, far more often is what I was referring to earlier, is a bias or a fervent belief that your theory is what’s operative in the universe. If you do six experiments and five of them “fail” because they didn’t give you the answer you were expecting, mentally you feel comfortable with throwing out those five results and publishing the sixth. Is that forgery and dishonesty and lying? Not quite …

Kaizen: Right.

Niklason: But it’s getting carried away with your own belief system, but what it leads to is the same thing. What it leads to is the fact that a very high fraction of publications out there cannot be repeated by independent laboratories.

Kaizen: You get built-in confirmation bias.

Niklason: Yes, it’s more confirmation bias than it is outright lying.

Kaizen: How about issues of social pressures? In many cases, you have to raise the questions that are new, and sometimes those can challenge existing big names in the field, sometimes it can challenge the general public notions of stem cells or various sorts of things. Did you run into those social pressures?

Niklason: Sure. I mean, interestingly, different scientific fields have different subcultures and different levels of social pressure. It’s remarkable. The social pressure in the vascular engineering space is actually not that high. There’s tremendous competition among scientists, but the social pressure to just conform to one intellectual view of the universe is not that high. In contrast, in some areas of lung biology, the social pressure to conform to a particular view of the universe is incredibly high. It can be incredibly difficult to publish in that area if your results conflict with the current dictum.

Kaizen: That’s by the leading editors or the main researchers in the field or the big names?

Niklason: The big researchers in the field who drive scientific opinion.

Kaizen: Okay.

Niklason: I’ve often had to … Not water down my results. I’ve had to underplay results that conflict with what people want to believe and want to read. I’ve had to take publication in much, much lower quality journals than I would otherwise have chosen or been able to publish because my results don’t conform with what people want to see out there.

Kaizen: Many young people who are interested in the sciences don’t necessarily think of themselves as entrepreneurs or even have a realistic sense of the business end of writing grants and managing people and managing money and so forth. Is there advice you would give to younger people who are in the sciences and they’re attracted to the sciences because they love science, but to be aware that they might very realistically be business professionals and/or entrepreneurs at some point in their career, especially in hot fields like biotech?

Niklason: I think that, again, there’s two parts to the answer to that question. Running any scientific laboratory, whether it’s in the private sector or in the university, involves two things that people don’t think of all the time with science. It involves managing people and getting teams of people to work on the experiments that you want to see done. It also involves writing so that you can tell people about what you did and so that you can raise money to do more of what you’re doing.

Kaizen: That’s a kind of salesmanship there.

Niklason: It’s salesmanship and telling a very clear and compelling story to a diverse audience, even a scientifically diverse audience. Management and writing are two things without which, at a minimum, you must become a compelling writer. If you’re not a compelling writer, you will fail as a scientist no matter where you are, full stop.

Kaizen: That will be a surprise, I think, to many of them.

Niklason: Yes. It takes time to become a compelling writer, and it’s painful. It’s like what Benjamin Franklin used to say about the amount of pain and suffering it took him in order to become a good writer and about how he had to write every day. There was no getting around it.

Kaizen: Yes, he’s right.

Niklason: Young scientists need to learn that even though writing is almost universally painful for them, because if they were verbal, they wouldn’t be in the laboratory. They have to learn that that’s really important, but also managing people is very important, and that’s a soft skill.

I tell people I think there are born leaders. I think it’s possible to be a born leader. There are very few born managers. There’s a few, but not many. Most people learn how to manage. It’s an acquired skill, and watching how other people do it and learning how to speak directly with people, but also to speak with them in a way that’s acknowledging what their motivations are. Being both direct and directive but also sympathetic, that takes time and maturity, but it’s critical to running your own operation.

Kaizen: Looking back on your own college education, is there anything you would have done differently with an eye to the writing skills, the people management skills on top of the science that you needed to learn that’s indirectly …

Niklason: I probably would have written more. I wrote as little as I humanly could in college. I took my one writing course, and I hated it. I got through it. It was fine. I probably would have written more. As far as being a manager, I’m not sure that’s something that a young person at that age should really focus on because, frankly, I think you’re still busy becoming your own person. I think in order to manage well, you have to know who you are first.

Kaizen: That’s nice. A huge amount of it is going to be just having a lot of social interactions. That’s not going to happen until you’re in a professional environment.

Niklason: Until you’re later and older.

Kaizen: Fair enough. Was there any advice from a mentor when you were younger that has stuck with you over the years?

Niklason: One thing is one mentor who really shaped what I’m doing said to me … He said basically all the easy stuff has been done. If you want to have a really satisfying career and if you want to do something that matters, then pick a big, important problem and spend ten or fifteen years and solve it. I took that very much to heart, and that’s exactly how I lived my professional life since that time.

Kaizen: Wonderful. Think big and be ambitious.

Niklason: Yes, and do not expect to be Mark Zuckerberg. Do not expect to become a billionaire in thirty-six months because that’s really not how it works 99.999% of the time.

Kaizen: Right. It might be twenty-five years.

Niklason: Yes, or more.

Kaizen: Yes, absolutely. Why don’t we stop there? Because that’s actually a really good ending point with that.

Niklason: Okay.

Kaizen: Great.That’s a lot of good stuff.

Niklason: Good. I’m glad.


This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks. for more information on Laura Niklason and Humacyte, visit their website.

More Kaizen interviews with leading entrepreneurs are here at our site.

Interview with Krzysztof Jurek on Entrepreneurship in Poland

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

[This is the full interview with Krzysztof Jurek which was published in our Kaizen newsletter.]

Krzysztof Jurek on Entrepreneurship in Poland

Krzysztof Jurek is CEO of Logon SA, Logonet, Ltd. and LED Lighting Poland, as well as the President of the Bydgoszcz IT cluster, an association of IT companies and universities in central Poland. He’s also a board member of Pracodawcy Pomorza i Kujaw, a local employers’ union with 270 entities and is actively involved with Faith and Light.

Kaizen: Where were you raised?

Jurek: I was born in Bydgoszcz, Poland in the 1960s. When I was in school, it became pretty clear to my family that I had a thing for science, mathematics, physics, and playing chess with my grandmother’s brother who would reminisce about the war. These were the things I enjoyed. I would also dismantle things and put them back together.

I studied electronics in high school. It was also at that time that I learned to really be with people and became more open. It was mainly related to youth religious communities (the Oasis Movement).

In the years 1980-1986, I studied engineering at the University of Gdańsk. I was engaged in charity work at the same time. After my graduation I decided that I would like to do something that would combine my interests and allow me to do some good. This is why I applied to medical university.

Kaizen: When you were a child did you expect to be an entrepreneur?

Jurek: Definitely not. I didn’t think about entrepreneurship during my childhood, and I didn’t think about it even after I started working as an employee. I thought about finding an interesting job and devoting myself to other social activities.

Besides, there weren’t many private companies in Poland at that time. Small farmers, gardeners, and craftsman were the only entrepreneurs. I didn’t even think that I could become some kind of manager. My idea of a career was to work as an engineer on the technical side of things. However, everyday reality in communist Poland was, to some extent, a preparation course for being an entrepreneur. People had to make so many things on their own with very limited access to materials. It allowed them to develop creativity and independence.

I spent my childhood in communist Poland. What it meant for us was that our country remained under the Soviet Union’s control, and because of that freedom, private property, and enterprise were virtually nonexistent. There was no free speech, and you weren’t allowed to say what you thought. However, 1980, which is when I was in college, brought about some big changes. It was a big spring in Poland with the great Solidarity movement and the victory without violence. There were strikes, but there was no talk about free enterprise yet. Civil rights and freedom were often mentioned during these protests. Unfortunately, martial law was introduced in 1981, and the Communist regime stopped all of that. The Polish economy really struggled until 1989. In 1988, the government had introduced “Wilczek’s law,” which included business-friendly regulation. The Polish Round Table talks and negotiations between the Communists and the opposition, which had the support of the nation’s population, radically changed everything. That year Poland got to partially free elections.

Kaizen: Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur instead of working in an already established company?

Jurek: I like challenges, and entrepreneurship allows me to be creative and independent. Also, I find it easier to devote more of my time to work when I know that I work for myself.

On the other hand, I have to deal with high risk and responsibility, and you can’t just quit when things go wrong.

Kaizen: When did you start?

Jurek: We founded our company in 1991.

Kaizen: How did you make your first steps?

Jurek: After I graduated from college I went to a medical university, and I was able to organize a little IT cell there. In the meantime, Poland had changed and people were finally able to found their own companies. My friends from university had an idea, and they talked me into going into business with them. What convinced me was that I knew this industry very well. They just wanted to try this new thing, but I really got into it and tried to solve problems as well as I could. After a while I quit my job at the university.

My partners decided to keep their jobs, so I bought their shares.

Kaizen: What is the importance of business planning?

Jurek: When we were starting out we didn’t have any specific plans. We just knew that we would do something related to IT. We thought, let’s try to do something, and we will see how things go. After all, there is little risk here.

Even after all this time I am still a bad role model when it comes to planning things out. I am self-taught, which means that over time I developed a certain system that allows me to verify my plans and adapt to the current situation. I think it might result from the nature of the IT industry, as it is changing all the time. Very often, I use simple cost-and-risk planning as a substitute for more comprehensive blueprints. It is close to agile project management.

Kaizen: How much research and planning did you do?

Jurek: There was no need for research and planning when we were starting out. We didn’t even know what an entrepreneur really does, so we had to learn everything from the scratch; bureaucracy, law—we were finding out about these things step by step. Our first tax audit was very enlightening.

That being said, so many things are based on intuition and using common sense to create new rules. Even these days I try to make some kind of first step or a test before every major project.

Kaizen: How did you raise the initial money?

Jurek: It was all bootstrapped from the start. I had a job at my university that paid a modest salary and supported us for a short while.

We saved as much capital as we could, and after some time banks introduced reasonably priced loans.

There were a few merger or buyout proposals in the meantime, but none of them materialized. I have always been very cautious about going public, as it would mean taking responsibility for investors’ money.

Kaizen: How important is belief in yourself and your product?

Jurek: It really helps. Customers and business partners want to work with someone who is convinced about his or her product. But when this conviction is not real and made up just for marketing purposes, it might have an opposite outcome.

Kaizen: About salesmanship—how do you get past the awkwardness?

Jurek: Not everyone is a salesman, but it is a very useful skillset. Putting yourself in the customers’ shoes and putting in a genuine effort to solve their problems might be really helpful. You have to understand their needs, and when you are competitive and have fun solving these problems it is even better.

There are so many things that you just can’t learn from a lecture. Some corporations undergo sales training where salesman are taught that it is good to be honest, fair, and to respect your customer, but at the same time people who clean their offices are treated like objects. In my company, both my employees and I say good morning to cleaning ladies.

Kaizen: What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

Jurek: Finding a balance between my professional and private life. Passion requires great commitments, and it is important not to ignore uneasiness that arises when you neglect your family. It is in these moments when you have to fix things and compensate for it.

Kaizen: How do you recover from setbacks?

Jurek: This is touching a little bit on psychology and psychological resistance. What works for me is to distance myself from the materialistic side of things and to try to patch things up when I have done something wrong. Sometimes you just have to let things happen their own way. That being said, I found that often setbacks are what motivates me and helps me focus on my work.

Kaizen: How do you maintain your optimism when times are tough or you’re facing disappointments?

Jurek: You need something apart from your company. Something that gives you a strong foundation in these changing times. For me this is my family and my faith. Moreover, I am fortunate to have people in my company that I can depend on. Also, going to work on a bicycle throughout the year, in all weather, has been one of my small pleasures.

Kaizen: How important is the value of perseverance?

Jurek: Perseverance is very important. Every project is bound to encounter problems, and only by tackling them are we able to move forward. My colleagues often come to me with different ideas. Regardless of whether are we pursuing them or not they just keep coming in with new ideas. This is when I tell them, “Let’s do something; let’s focus on execution. We won’t achieve anything by simply thinking about new ideas. We need to take action and be persistent.”

Kaizen: Not all successful entrepreneurs are also able to manage larger businesses. What additional or supplemental skills do you see as necessary?

Jurek: It is very common among small business owners to treat a company as if it was their wallet. It is important to distinguish between your assets and your company’s assets. Even when you own your business, you need to set some boundaries.

Of course, you also need the ability to delegate work, cooperate, and define rules that are clear for everyone.

Kaizen: What about the temptation to compromise?

Jurek: I am not a guy who sets tough goals and tries to achieve them at any cost. I like to have fun doing what I do. It is style that is more important to me. This approach also provides challenges. It would be a compromise to give someone a bribe. It would be taking an easy way, doing something I do not enjoy. I think it is far better to be uncompromising.

Kaizen: How do you think about your role as a leader?

Jurek: Even when, in theory, you decide to take a teamwork route, it is easier when there are leaders around. Sometimes I would prefer to avoid it, but there is a need for a certain hierarchy. On the other hand, mature leadership means pulling back at the right moment and letting others develop.

You can build your authority in many different ways, from a position of strength, your competence, or relationships.

Leadership should be natural. What I mean by that is working together with your team, not running away from problems, and being an example of commitment. When it comes to me, I try to understand most of the processes that go on in my company, all the way from accounting to technical solutions.

Kaizen: What is your greatest reward your business accomplishments have brought you?

Jurek: You can perceive my company as a kind of tangible creation, which you can either be happy about or be dissatisfied that it has not developed more.

In 2016, a regional newspaper chose me as the manager of the year in the voivodeship. I really like what I do even though I have to deal with very serious problems. On the one hand I appreciate huge independence, but on the other hand I must deal with the consequences.

Kaizen: How have you managed to fit or balance your career goals with other life goals, e.g., relationships and family?

Jurek: Eventually I managed to find a balance, although it was not always easy. I regret a lot of moments, especially when the children were little and I was consumed by the company. There were times when I had to send a replacement to school when the parents’ presence was required because I was busy with a meeting or an official trip.

We have five children. I feel happy about them, and I am also connected with my family. My wife was at the same time understanding and fighting for my time for the family. She was not giving up. For a long time we were leading a support group for mentally ill. Someone could say that it was just a waste of time, but for us it was a source of experiences which gave us perspective on ourselves and the work. It can be said that those experiences helped us to get through.

Kaizen: Are there special challenges for entrepreneurship in Poland?

Jurek: In a lot of industries, the domestic market is so big that we don’t have to think about exports even though we should. We manufacture many products which are sold under foreign brands. We could really use more Polish brands. The location of Poland gives us a lot of opportunities. We also have well-educated youth. What is more, people are hard-working.

Kaizen: Now that Poland is much more open, how has its relation to western Europe changed?

Jurek: Many years ago, when Poles went to Germany they admired the houses in small towns—so tidy and trim. Today we have more beautiful ones in our country. We do not need anything but more freedom and equal opportunities. Poles, in the majority, are hard working and very flexible. We can adapt to a new environment very quickly.

Our first governments in the nineties got excited about the idea of a liberal market but opened the unprepared market too fast. Thus, our banks were quickly taken over by foreign banks. Foreign supermarkets were opened, where foreign products are warmly welcomed while our regional products were not. Freeing Polish enterprises from our government’s influence came with selling our national telecommunications monopolist to co-partnership France Telecom, controlled by the French Government.

Our apparent free market isn’t entirely free. When selling Polish products to Germany or France one encounters many difficulties. In the industries that we are very good at there are many restrictions. In other industrial branches, we are colonized.

Despite having a common market, western markets are more protected than ours.

Kaizen: Is it overall a positive?

Jurek: There are more advantages of this opening than drawbacks, but it could have been done better.

Nevertheless, we are happy to be a part of Europe, as we have many relationships and economic connections. Finally, we have a normal, humane relationship with the Germans! We can travel freely. In winter, on Italian or Austrian slopes, Poles are often the most numerous foreign group.

Also, Poland is the sixth largest European country by population and has the fourth largest number of students (after Germany, France, and Italy), so we have much potential.

Kaizen: What do you think of Poland’s relation to Russia and the east, given the long, complicated history there?

Jurek: Many people from Ukraine live, work, or study in my city. Poland supported the independence of Ukraine, and we paid for that through the nose. We produce excellent food, but in Russia its harmfulness was immediately descried. As a result, we were forbidden to export. We suffered huge losses but we can handle it. For example, colleagues who produce apples found new trade areas in Arabic countries.

When on the 9th of June, 2006, Poles bought a refinery in Lithuania, Russians, who also felt inclined to buy it, were trying to make us back out of it. On the 26th of July they announced a failure of a pipeline delivering the raw material, and for ten years nothing can be fixed. In the meantime, they have built a new pipeline with Germany through the Baltic Sea, and that enabled the attack on Ukraine.

Personally, I don’t have much experience with Russia. My colleagues are trading with them. Lately on a congress I engaged myself in a conversation with a Russian. At the beginning it was quite interesting, but when we were discussing freedom of speech and information in Russia he started to divagate about different countenances of truth.

In contacts with Russians, Poles are torn. We do understand Russia and their history. We have a lot in common, and we also like them. But at the same time, we regret their attitude towards hypocrisy and obvious propaganda, which they acknowledge as their own opinion. Such phenomena are present all over the world, even in Poland, but in Russia they seem to be escalated. Thus, we have ups and downs, but we also are able to do business with each other independently from the governments’ help. The development of contacts with Belarus is also noticeable.

Kaizen: Does increasing globalization present more opportunities or more challenges for Poland?

Jurek: Globalization means that we use the same technology, watch the same movies, and we have similar knowledge and opportunities.

Once I was going by ferry from Sweden to Estonia. I looked at a window, and I saw the letters “Bohamet.” It turns out my client, who is almost a neighbor, is the world’s leader in ship’s window production. There is a well-developed industry of plastics in my city. Many plastic elements in cars all over the world are manufactured here. These are examples of taking advantage of the opportunities. There are a lot of such examples of taking part in global technologies.

Friends of my children work in the big Intel development center in Gdańsk. Here in Bydgoszcz, almost one thousand people work for Nokia (formerly Lucent).

At the same time, the quick access to all information provided by globalization can also paralyze development. Whenever you create something or figure something out, you check on the internet and find that somebody has already done it. You lose your motivation to try and to gain new experiences.

Kaizen: What projects are you working on next?

Jurek: In my city, Bydgoszcz, IT companies ensure about seven thousand workplaces. We succeeded in creating a cluster of companies, that is, an association of companies cooperating with each other of which I am the chairman. Lately, we boosted our cooperation with universities to increase IT specialists’ education. The project is based on the cooperation of two universities and businesses.

Kaizen: What do you think is the role of passion and dreams in entrepreneurship?

Jurek: Creating anything requires a lot of work and energy from the creator. Passion and dreams are very good sources of energy. These factors let us accomplish more than it could be expected during the phase of creation. However, passion is not only assigned to entrepreneurs. Earlier, when I was designing computer programs, I was equally engaged.

Kaizen: What is the best advice you’ve been given?

In the first years of my company, during a bad economic situation, a partner from China visited us. He pointed out that the economic situation will not last eternally and that it is the natural sine wave; sometimes it is better and sometimes it is not. Here is his advice: Even if the business goes perfectly, get ready for worse times.

Kaizen: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to new entrepreneurs?

Jurek: Other people’s advice can be heard but is rarely taken, especially when you become independent. For fresh entrepreneurs, maybe this: Adjust consumption not to one’s needs and whims but to the possibilities of making money. If I see a new entrepreneur who starts his or her activity with buying a luxury car on account, I keep a great distance. I encourage young people to collect various life experiences and to be active both professionally and extra-professionally.


This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks. For more information about Mr. Jurek and Logon, please visit the company’s website© 2017.

More Kaizen interviews with leading entrepreneurs are here at our site.

Interview with Tom Tropp on Business Ethics and Corporate Culture

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

[This is the full interview with Tom Tropp which was published in our Kaizen newsletter.]

Tom Tropp on Business Ethics and Corporate Culture

Tom Tropp is the Vice President for Ethics and Corporate Culture at the AJ Gallagher Corporation based in Chicago, an international insurance firm with over $5 billion in revenue annually.

Kaizen: Thanks for being here to talk about how you do ethics and corporate culture at Gallagher.

Tropp: You’re welcome.

Kaizen: Insurance provides a valuable service to people, but is an industry that sometimes has a shady public reputation. What steps do you take at Gallagher to counteract that notion?

Tropp: The insurance industry has that image. There’s a joke about how solitary confinement for a month is punishment, but worse than that is to be locked in the cell with a life insurance salesman for a month.

Kaizen: It would feel like eternal punishment?

Tropp: Right. The business does have that impression because people don’t like to buy insurance, but they know they have to. And a huge percentage of people that buy insurance never claim, so they look at that money as going out the door and of no value.

The actual fact is no business in existence can operate without insurance. It’s not a matter of if you’ll have a claim, it’s when you’ll have a claim. Businesses simply always have claims of various types, whether it’s worker’s compensation or fire damage or liability suits.

One thing you assume in our business is that you will have some negative feelings toward what you do, but then it’s offset when the claim happens. If you have good coverage, and the broker has done a good job, and you’re brought back to whole again, then you appreciate it.

Kaizen: Absolutely. You work for AJ Gallagher, the third largest insurance brokerage firm in the world. Tell me about the company.

Tropp: The company is publicly traded, New York Stock Exchange. 25,000 employees in 34 countries. We have four divisions in the company. One division does property casualty insurance. One does employee benefits insurance, health insurance, life insurance. One does surplus lines insurance, which is a term that means secondary market, so insuring a dynamite factory. Normal insurance companies don’t do that. Surplus lines carriers do. Then, that group moves into things like Lloyd’s Coverage, Lloyd’s Brokers in London. We have about a thousand people in our London office doing nothing but Lloyd’s Brokerage throughout the world.

Then, the fourth division is a claim handling division called Gallagher Basset. Gallagher Bassett handles claims for captive insurance programs, for self-insured programs, very large companies that actually form their own insurance company and then hire Gallagher Bassett to do the claims. Structured in that fashion, 90 years old. Started in 1927 and still going strong.

Kaizen: About $5.6 billion in revenue?

Tropp: We’ll be five billion in revenue this year.

Kaizen: You threw out a market capitalization number.

Tropp: $9.9 billion market cap as of 3:00 this afternoon.

Kaizen: Moving into 10 billion.

Tropp: It’s going to need a couple more points and we’ll be there.

Kaizen: A couple of interesting things about Gallagher. One is Gallagher is unique in how it handles ethics within the corporate context. Another is that you are a unique individual. You came to Gallagher through the insurance business but you also have the formal ethics background. Tell me your insurance story. How did you get your start in the business?

Tropp: After college I taught school for four years and then went to work for an insurance brokerage firm for seven years.

Kaizen: In Illinois?

Tropp: Yes, Chicago.

Kaizen: You went to Loras?

Tropp: I went to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, as an undergraduate.

Kaizen: What was your major?

Tropp: Speech and Drama.

Kaizen: Ah, a natural fit.

Tropp: Yes. Works perfectly for the insurance business.

Kaizen: You can be a sales guy.

Tropp: Right. After teaching, I went to work for an insurance brokerage firm in Evanston, Illinois. I worked there for about seven years and then left in 1981 to start my own company from zero.

Kaizen: You were in your 30s?

Tropp: Thirty-five, I guess. I was at that company for 26 years and built it up. In 2007, I sold the company to  Gallagher, but five years before that, in 2002, I went back to school at the University of Chicago.

Kaizen: This is the ethics side.

Tropp: Yeah. I worked on a Masters of Religious Ethics from the Divinity School. I think it’s important studying ethics that you study theologians as well as philosophers because for so many years, in the Middle Ages, there were no philosophers. There were only theologians writing about thinking and values. I spent five years, part-time, at Chicago. I finished that degree in June of 2007 and, at that same time, sold the company to Gallagher. Pat Gallagher, our CEO and Chairman of the Board, and I had been friends for many years. We grew up in the business together. He knew the work I was doing, the writing and the speaking I was doing on corporate ethics, the work I was doing at the university.

He did not have an ethics officer. He had a legal officer and that’s where ethics was handled. He and I really experimented with this. We created the job that I have, but we didn’t know what it was going to do. I started out by just going around visiting some offices and talking to people about ethics and listening.

Kaizen: This is around 2007?

Tropp: Yes. By 2008 we were pretty much in full swing. What happened was when I would sit people in a room and ask them about ethics and are we an ethical company and then talk a little bit about what that means. All kinds of other issues were coming up. Things that don’t fall into the area of ethics.

Problems about our computer system: “You know what? The computer system, they didn’t give us good training on it so we don’t know how to use it,” or, “We don’t have good vacation,” or, “Our vacation packages are confusing. They’re difficult to deal with,” or, “My supervisor is incredibly rude to the other employees and that shouldn’t be.” These things were surfacing in these meetings in the offices. I would go back and sit down with Pat and say, “Here’s what’s going on out there.” It was intriguing because communication in a big company—vertical communication—is not good. There are roadblocks.

Here was an opportunity for someone representing the CEO to come and sit in the office and have people talk to me. The thing that tipped it over more than anything else was, at about that same time, we began a small backroom service operation in India to do backroom processing for various different parts of the company. That had just gotten started, and I began hearing in probably 50 to 70% of the offices people say to me, “I think it’s unethical that you’re sending jobs to India.” That’s not what we were doing. We weren’t sending jobs to India. We were enhancing the work that folks could do to raise the level of what they were doing, taking that processing stuff off their hands. As I would come back and share that with Pat, he would say, “Really? Unethical?” Yeah. What that told us was that it wasn’t being communicated properly.

Kaizen: It’s an optics issue.

Tropp: Yeah. All of a sudden, the things I was hearing in the field went way beyond what we originally thought they would.

Kaizen: May I interrupt you? In 2007 and 2008, you’re feeling your way around what the position might be, and what you’re doing is a lot of listening.  You don’t have a top-down agenda for how you’re going to do ethics. You’re exploring the territory, seeing what kinds of issues there are.

Tropp: Yeah.

Kaizen: That’s interesting.

Tropp: The job began to form itself. The first thing we realized was that people would talk to me when I went out. There are several reasons why they would. Number one, I’m not a hired person to talk to. Number two, I was coming from the Chairman’s office, so people figured this is a guy you better talk to because it’s getting straight to the top of the company. We determined this is valuable to have someone out there, and not just some person buried in the HR Department. Someone from the Chairman’s Office coming in and saying to people, “I want to hear what we’re doing well but I also want to hear what we’re doing poorly.” An interesting thing began to happen. The company was half the size of what it is now.

Word spreads quickly in companies no matter how big they are. I would go to an office in the early years and people would say, “Well, this is a real problem for us. Is there any way we can get this fixed?” I would say, “Let me look into it.” Two weeks later, it was fixed.

Kaizen: You’re an expediter.

Tropp: That’s right. Now, I’m scheduled to go to an office in Oklahoma City. Someone in Oklahoma City talks to someone in Boston who will say, “He’s coming out? Hey, when he was here, he fixed that problem for us in two weeks.” “Really?” Now, all of a sudden, credibility begins to build. Then you get a little bit of a backlash from certain managers who say, “Wait a minute. He’s coming in here and stirring up dust.”

Kaizen: A turf issue.

Tropp: Yes. As a matter of fact, I am coming in to disturb dust. If you don’t like it, call Pat. It began to build on its own.

The next thing we did was to try to see what other companies were doing. I started looking out to see what’s out there, resources that are out there, and began to find different organizations that were studying and publishing in the subject of corporate ethics. Your own Kaizen here, good example—Boston College for Corporate Citizenship, big resource—the Ethisphere Institute.

As I found these other outside organizations and began listening to them and reading their material, it did became obvious that we could do more in the business community than we were doing to reinforce what we were doing in-house.

Kaizen: The position was evolving. Initially you said that a lot of the stuff wasn’t necessarily ethics-related. It was computer system training, the vacation package, and so forth. The position you ended up creating was partly business ethics but also sounds a bit like cultural builder or troubleshooter.

Tropp: It’s an ombudsman. One of the questions on the Ethisphere survey that we complete every year, asks is: Do you have a corporate ombudsman? They always answer that “No, but yes” because we don’t use that title but it’s basically what I do.

I’ll give an example of this still moving forward from 10 years ago. We have an 800 number that employees can call and make anonymous ethics reports. We got about half-a-dozen calls a year in the beginning. After 10 years of doing this, I get somewhere between 20 to 30 contacts from people around the world every week.

Kaizen: Email?

Tropp: Emails from somebody. Emails that say, “Tom, you were here six months ago. You said if we have an issue, we could contact you. Here’s something I’m dealing with and I don’t think it’s fair the way I’m being treated.” When I’m in offices, I always tell people, “Anybody can contact me at anytime on any subject, and there’d be no political fallout. If you want it to be confidential, it will remain confidential.”

Maybe half of the contacts I am asked to please keep this confidential. Don’t tell anybody I talked to you but this particular manager is being rude to his employees. That’s something that then we need to look into. Someone says, “I have a very specific complaint about this, and it’s me and I don’t think I’m being treated fairly.” That’s something that I will go back to the person and say, “May I carry this further for you with your name on it?” They’ll typically say yeah, and then we get involved. If there’s something illegal going on, I bring in the compliance people. If it’s not an illegal thing, I may talk to the HR people in that area and try to orchestrate a solution to the thing.

Kaizen: Maybe a natural question here would be to say why is it not then just already handled through, say, the legal department if it’s a compliance issue or through the HR department if it’s a culture issue and so forth? They also get stuff directly?

Tropp: Very often it comes to me because the people don’t know who else to go to, and they know me because they’ve met me in their office and I’ve invited them to contact me. They will contact me and say, “This is a problem we’re having.” I’ll go back to them and say, “Look that particular issue, we need to talk to HR about this. May I have permission to bring this to them?” I will then bring it to the HR people and then step out.

If it’s a legal issue, we’ve had several examples just recently of something going on in the field that an employee or an outside third party will contact me. I had a contact from a competitive broker not long ago who said to me, “You’re the Chief Ethics Officer for Gallagher and your sales people here are selling a product that I invented, and they’re infringing on my rights there. They shouldn’t be doing that because it’s my product.” That’s clearly a legal issue so, in that particular case, I brought in our general council or head council, but I also then brought in the legal counsel from the country where that was taking place and monitored it as they dealt with it. When it was resolved, I stepped out of it obviously. It’s almost like being an air traffic controller in many ways, bringing concerns and sending them to the right department.

Kaizen: Routing and re-routing and so forth. It sounds like after a couple of years of exploring and lots of conversations and travel and meeting with people, you then formalized what is your current position. Explain to me the organizational structure at Gallagher and why you decided to have your position be positioned where it is.

Tropp: Well, one of the problems that I perceived in dealing with these outside organizations and how they handle ethics is the confusion between thinking that ethics and compliance are the same thing, and they’re not. They’re different. Compliance tells us what we must to. Ethics tells us what we should do. Very often, every complaint that would come in would go to the legal department in companies. It’s not that way in our company now, but I’m sure at some point in time it was because they assume that’s how it should be. If there is nothing illegal going on, the legal department should step back and say, “That’s okay. There’s nothing illegal about that.”

Kaizen: Discretion.

Tropp: Yes, or refer it over to the HR Department. The most popular thing and most consistent thing that becomes the crossover is a difficult manager—a manager who’s being difficult with people, rude to employees, insulting to employees, or those types of things. Is that a sexual harassment claim, in which case goes to legal department? Or is this someone who just needs some counseling as to how to be a better manager? That’s HR.

All those things in these other companies were going to the legal department and maybe to HR. No one exclusively looked at the concept of culture and values and the atmosphere at our company. What is our reputation in the market place? What do our competitors think about us? Do they respect us? That’s ethics. That’s a cultural thing. It’s a different layer.

Kaizen: We distinguish ethics from compliance. Compliance is just the law. It’s the things that you have to do. Ethics is broader and you are forming it into culture. Is there a distinction between ethics and culture?

Tropp: I think your culture demonstrates your ethics.

Kaizen: Culture is the embodiment of your ethics and your values?

Tropp: I think so. The type of company you are comes from your ethical stance. It’s demonstrated to people when they see your culture. What’s the feel when you walk into an office? What’s the feel when you work there? Is it a place that has a positive feel or a negative feel?

Kaizen: Companies make a commitment or not to follow the law, but you also want to create your own particular company with your goals, your values, and your kind of corporate culture. You mentioned, I think, a 25-point list for the Gallagher Way that identifies the key values of Gallagher. What is unique about that?

Tropp: You know, a lot of companies have these statements of values. If you look on their website, they all have statements of value. The thing that’s unique about the Gallagher Way, first of all, is that it’s specific. There are 25 items or tenets in the Gallagher Way, and it’s not all based on what we would call ethical issues. Number one in the Gallagher Way is we are a sales and marketing company. That’s what we do for a living. Number two is respect for each other.

Kaizen: Purpose or mission statement.

Tropp: Yeah. One of the tenets talks about giving absolute, great value to our customer. The customer is important, the person we must serve with excellence. They’re business goals and cultural goals. Empathy for the other person is not a weakness. That’s a cultural thing. That’s got nothing to do with the correct way to do business but certainly enhances business. The unique thing about the Gallagher Way is, first of all, it’s been around since 1984. Not one word has changed in the document since it was written … I take that back. One word was changed.

It was written in 1984. Somewhere in 1989 or ’90, Bob Gallagher, who was the son of one of the founders of the company, had a very smart executive assistant who walked into his office one day and said, “Bob, number seven in the Gallagher Way says ‘Empathy for the other guy is not a weakness.’ It’s better to say person.” That word changed. That was the only one, but it’s been around in its exact form since 1984.

The second thing is that it’s so broad. It covers many different things, not just what we would call basic values. Then, another other thing is it so successfully permeates the company. It hangs around every office everywhere in the world and, literally, every one of our 25,000 employees knows about it and could probably quote four or five of them. We use it all the time. We actually use it to run the company so that makes it a little different.

Kaizen: Of the 25, if you set aside the ones that are about business purpose and general mission statement. In your judgment, what would be, say, the top three ethical values?

Tropp: I think, number two, which talks about respecting each other and respecting each other’s capability is critically important.

Kaizen: “Each other” means what?

Tropp: Internally.

Kaizen: Internal organization.

Tropp: Yeah. Then, the one that I just mentioned, empathy for the other person is not a weakness, is critically important. Our people know that they can worry about each other. They know that we will reinforce that. If an employee has an issue, personal issue, other people will worry about that person and will care for that person, and we will reinforce that and support it. There’s another one that says ‘Never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.’ I think it’s a simple statement but it says a great deal.

Kaizen: An integrity point.

Tropp: Yeah. If you read it, first of all, the grammar isn’t perfect. It was written by a guy who was a relatively simple man, who was pouring out his heart about the company that he and his brother created taking over from their father. When you read it, it reads that way. It’s just real. You know a journalist didn’t write it. There are grammar errors. The spelling is all correct, although my understanding is that initially there were a lot of misspelled words that they fixed.

Kaizen: Sure. An issue that sometimes comes up is corporate ethics statements can be ineffective. Even if they are not just meant to be pretty words on a web page but taken seriously, there’s a challenge of actually making a working donkey but making it a part of the culture. How, at Gallagher, do you take the words on a page and make it heart of the fabric of the culture?

Tropp: Well, it’s interesting. I like to say we use it to run the company, and we do. People chuckle at that. Sometimes they’ll say, “Well, it’s a cute document to hang on the wall, but you can’t run a five-billion dollar, publicly-traded, global corporation on that basis.” They’re wrong. We do. Actually, there’s not a decision that’s made by our executive team in that company unless that document is lying on the table. When people are told to execute a project, they are told to not violate that document.

I will get emails from employees who say, “Listen, number such and such in the Gallagher Way says this. I’m here to tell you we’re not doing that in this office.” Whoa! That’s a big deal. We jump about that. When people are arguing their position on something, if there’s a disagreement on whether to go this way or that way, you will hear them quoting the Gallagher Way.

They’ll say, “You can’t do that because number 17 says … ”

Kaizen: Also, when you have the arguments, the respect principle will then say we will argue respectfully.

Tropp: Yeah.

Kaizen: That will solve some problems. The empathy issue, that’s hard. Do you have examples of how you would, from a top-down document, get out to thousands of people around the world that empathy is a value and this is what it means?

Tropp: You have to work at that. You can’t just assume people are going to understand. First of all, top management has to buy into it, and there’s a selection process for top management. Most of the people that are running the company we promote from within the company. We generally don’t go outside to bring someone in unless it’s a very unique skill that we need, an attorney or IT people, that type of thing. But general management is usually promoted from within, so we know these people.

They get promoted because they buy into the culture and that field, but it’s very difficult. Empathy is a classic example of that. Just because we are all in the senior management and just because we all are conscious of being empathetic, doesn’t mean other people will understand it so you must reinforce it and demonstrate it. For example, we’re not always able to find this out but when we know that an employee’s spouse has passed away, the way we find out typically is they will make a claim under the Life Insurance with the Human Resource Department. HR Department is instructed whenever you hear of an employee who loses an immediate family member, a child or a spouse or whatever, to notify me that that has happened. Typically, I’ll send a letter or an email to the employee saying, “So sorry to hear about this. What can we do for you?” Pat Gallagher, our Chairman and CEO, sends a letter to the person, and in some cases, will call. We don’t always hear about this until sometimes three or four weeks later or a month later. If it’s later we’ll call. You don’t want to call the day after the lady’s husband died but a month later, we’ll call and say, “Hey, this is Tom Tropp calling from the headquarters. I know your husband passed away last month. How are you doing? Is there anything we can do for you? Is everything processing through okay?” The word spreads quickly when that happens. Now people get the idea. These people really care about me. It takes work to find this stuff out, but when an employee has a serious illness, same thing.

Kaizen: You mentioned to me one special case.

Tropp: Yeah. We had an employee, a 35-year old single mom with two children who was diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment was going to be every other Monday. She would have to go in for chemotherapy and radiation. She would recover on Tuesday and then be back at work Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. She could not afford to go on disability and had to get her full salary, so she sat down with our branch manager and said, “Is there anything we can do here?”

The branch manager didn’t know what to do so he made another appointment with her. In the meanwhile, he called up to the home office and talked to the HR people. The response he got was, “Why are you calling me with this? Can’t you work this out yourself there to help her?” He said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” The answer was, “Treat her whatever way you would treat her if she were your sister.” They worked it out. He sat down with her and worked out an arrangement.

Kaizen: Like she’s your sister.

Tropp: Yes. Assume she’s like your sister. They worked out an arrangement. She was going to work Saturdays to keep herself on schedule and a little shorter lunch hour and catch up. They agreed.

Kaizen: She was very proactive.

Tropp: Yeah, she was looking for solution. It turned out, during first week she was out she was out on Monday, and on Tuesday she stayed home recovered. Wednesday morning she came in, sat down at her desk, and all of her work was done. Her inbox was empty. All of her suspense list was finished. There was just one pink rose lying across her desk. Her fellow employees had come in early, stayed late, skipped lunch, and gotten all of her work done. That went on for six months. Every other week when she did that there was a pink rose, and no one would tell her who did it. It was obviously the whole office who’ was pitching in and helping her. That’s empathy, and it was supported and celebrated by us.

Kaizen: That story spreads around the culture.

Tropp: Absolutely.

Kaizen: That’s how you build a culture.

Tropp: Yes. When I tell that story in a branch office, almost without exception, the people will say, “Oh, that happened here. So and so had this happen to him. Yeah, we all just pitched in and helped.” When a top executive says, “That’s good. I’m glad you did that.” That means it’s okay to do it and you can keep doing it. If someday, someone wants to do that and a branch manager says, “Well, you can’t do that.” “Wait a minute! They did it here. They did it there. Besides, Tom Tropp said you could do that.” It just reinforces it.

Kaizen: Gallagher has grown significantly in the last ten years. You mentioned a lot of mergers and acquisitions. When you’re doing your due diligence ahead of time, you said you only acquire firms that you think you can change or make fit your sense of ethics and culture? How does that go?

Tropp: We’re very, very cautious. We very cautiously guard our culture. We walk away from five or six deals every month and not because the numbers aren’t good. We don’t even look at them if the numbers are good but the culture doesn’t fit. When our folks in the due diligence teams go in there, they pick up anything at all that they feel would be a problem.

Kaizen: What would be a problem?

Tropp: Well, the attitude in the office, a surly manager, employees who are obviously unhappy and complaining about things, certainly any sort of favoritism being shown to certain people and others. You don’t always see this in the due diligence, but if it’s prevalent you will pick it up in the due diligence. When that happens they put a hold on things, and they will ask a senior person in the region or beyond to come in and spend time in the office. They’ll go to dinner with the manager or with the owners, and spend a little time in the office, and, if they feel like this is not working, they’ll walk away.

Now, the other thing that happens is reputation in the field. The merger people, they bring us a new merger, say this is the one that we’re interested in and they are interested in talking to us. One of the first things we do is research that firm. It’s not hard to do. You call a few of the insurance companies and ask questions about that particular brokerage firm. You start to hear things about their reputation. If their reputation is negative, we’ll say no, we’re not interested.

If we do walk away from one after we’ve gotten into due diligence, which we’ve done, we tell them why we’re walking away. We say, “Look, we’re looking at your employee absentee. Your employee turnover is huge. You got 35% turnover in your staff. We see that as a potential problem.” There may be three or four things like that, say, “Because of these things, we really are not interested in proceeding at this point. However, if you can fix those, come on back to us and then we’ll see if we can talk about it.” From time to time, we get people to come back to us. They’ll say, “Hey, we talked to you guys three years ago. We had this, this, and this problem. We think we fixed them.”

Kaizen: It’s cultural consulting for them.

Tropp: Exactly, or you see things like their sales expense is way high off the charts. Well, what’s that mean? That means they’re probably taking people to the beach or to play golf, and they’re spending money on things that we don’t value. If we see those signals, we’re going to walk away or at least going to question them.

Kaizen: The way you do ethics at Gallagher, with your position reporting directly to CEO and the Chairman of the Board and no one reports to you and the autonomy that you have, to what extent is that unique to you as an individual, Tom Tropp, and to Pat Gallagher, who’s the Chairman? If, for example, you were to try to convince other organizations that they should do things this way, what things would you say? It’s not just your personal values that works for you, that this really is a valuable way to do ethics in any business.

Tropp: We’re in business to make a profit, and all companies, unless you’re a 501(c)(3), are in business to make a profit. That’s critically important. We believe that our margin has to be at a very specific point. If our margin gets too low our stock price goes down, and we could be gobbled up by somebody. If our margin gets too high, if we’re making too much profit, it means we’re squeezing somewhere in area that we shouldn’t be squeezing. The right margin for us to be at is somewhere between 25 to 28 points. That’s about where we should be. If, all of a sudden, we see ourselves at 35 to 40 points, something’s going on that isn’t right.

We’re in business to make a profit within that range. We believe that part of the reason that our stock price is as high as it is relative to earnings is the fact that we have a unique culture. Our culture didn’t start because of the arrangement we have with ethics but it is certainly reinforced, and it’s recognized outside the company as being a company of high integrity. The system we have clearly enhances that.

The fact that we’ve got someone who is completely independent of all departments and all divisions and yet reports to the highest authority of the company and has the ability to draw resources from any of those sources, puts us in a whole different position for transparency, for looking for issues and solving issues. It’s just a very effective way to do it. As I speak and interact with other companies on this, more and more companies are starting to say, “Well, that seems to make sense.” We know that because in many cases they’ve called and said, “Hey, Tom. I know you’re doing this. We’d like to, at least, look into setting up this way. Could you give us some time for that?”

Kaizen: Nice. I’ve got two more questions, one for you personally. Out of that long, successful business career, you mentioned you sold your business 10 years ago. Presumably you could have retired and done whatever it is that you like to do, but you are now, 10 years later, still working hard and circumnavigating the globe a couple of times a year. I know you enjoy the travel right up to a certain point and you enjoy the insurance business, but what’s motivating you to work so hard on this?

Tropp: I don’t look at it as work in the sense that I’m not building a career. I’m not building a business. I’m doing something that I enjoy doing, and I love doing it, and I believe I’m making a contribution. When I sold the company to Gallagher 10 years ago, it I hadn’t moved into the role that I’m doing working for Pat, I probably would have stayed a couple of years and then would have retired and done something else. My thinking initially was that, after I finished the Masters in ’07, I was going to then finish the couple of years with Gallagher and then go back to Chicago and do my Ph.D. and teach. That would’ve been fine; I would’ve enjoyed that. I would’ve loved it, but this is so rewarding and so satisfying.

I just came back from Australia as I mentioned to you, and I received an email. I get a lot of emails after I’ve been at offices, but this was one was just so sweet. This is from a manager in an office. “Hi, Tom. Again, it was great to spend quality time with you last week. I would like to thank you for leaving such a positive vibe in the office. Post your meeting, I sat down with each section of the business to seek feedback on your visit and to encourage any concerns to be raised. I got 100% amazing feedback on how normal and approachable and natural you are in the way you interacted and spoke with the team, et cetera.” I get these all the time.

Once in a while, I forward it to Pat Gallagher and say, “Hey, man, look at this. It was fun.” He actually saves them in a file and, every once in a while at a board meeting, he’ll bring a couple of these in. He’ll say, “Alright, let me just read you a few … ” Because the board says, “You spend a lot of money on this project. Are you really getting results?” He says, “Let me read you a few of these emails.” They’re just very, very sweet emails. That was a manager of an office. Someone sitting in a work station talking to insurance companies all day will say, “I’ve never felt as good about our company as I do now after you were here.” When you get that type of feedback on a regular basis, that’s a nice stroke. It makes it worthwhile.

Kaizen: Last question. We focus a lot here on students, undergraduate and graduate as well. Soon they’ll be starting out in their business career. You’ve just spoken about what has made your work in the last 10 years meaningful or worthwhile to you. To younger people who are just starting out, who don’t have a sense for what’s going to happen over the next 30, 40, 50 years for them but they want their business career to be significant, what advice would you give to them on how to approach that?

Tropp: My advice is completely out of date with what people are doing now, but I’m still absolutely convinced that it’s the right way to approach a career. I believe you should find a company that you … First of all, you should do something that you love if you possibly can. Then, people say, “Well, I don’t know. I love to play golf, but I’m not going to make it in the PGA.” That’s fine.

I give young people a couple pieces of advice because we have big intern program, and these kids ask me these questions. I say, “The first thing I want you to do is I want you to take a little notebook and a pen, and I want you to put it on the nightstand next to your bed. Every morning for ten days when you wake up think, if I could have any job at all today, what would it be—any job at all? I don’t care what the education requirement is. It could be a brain surgeon or a space pilot or whatever it is. If you could have any job at all what would it be? When you’ve made that decision, get up and write it down in the notebook. Close the notebook. Forget about it. Do that for ten days in a row. Then, go back and read the notebook and think about every day. Was there any consistency? Find something that, even if you don’t have a passion for it, you can develop a passion for it.”

When I was in that position, I had Vietnam to worry about. I didn’t have any option but to go get a job. Then, pick a company whose values you can trust. And how do you find that out? Well, two ways. The first thing you do is research the company before you go to the interview. If you’ve gotten an interview with a company, get on the internet and research that company. Look at Glassdoor. Find out what the employees are saying. Now, that’s going to be all be negative, so you got to be careful with that, but find out what the things are.

Look on their website. Read their corporate governance page. Do they talk about ethics? Do they talk about values? Do they say people are important to us? Then, in the interview, ask more questions than they do. Ask them about those things say, “I read on your website that people are your most important asset. What does that mean?” Listen to their answer and then when you pick a good company, and you will know this quickly after you go to work for them, and you have confidence in them, work for them for the rest of your life. Don’t move. Stay there. Grow in the company.

This moving from company to company, it changes your approach to your job. It makes you more important than the job because what you’re saying is it doesn’t matter what I built up here. I could go over there and I could move a step up. I’m there for a couple of years, and then I can move over to this company. Be consistent. Stay with a good company and work for it. We are retiring people today from our company. We retired not long ago a woman who had worked for us for 40 years as a receptionist.

Now, receptionists don’t make a lot of money, right? She worked for us for over 40 years as a receptionist. I won’t tell you the city she was in, but it was in the Midwest. She retired with well over a million dollars in savings between her 401(k) and company stock. She got into our stock-buying program through the years, she retired with over a million dollars, and she had never made more than $40,000 a year. She was long-term and consistent. She’s the sweetest lady. About twice a year I get a postcard from this lady. Nobody sends postcards anymore. She does.

She’s 70-some years old. I used to get postcards from her. She’s a widow, her sister’s also a widow, and they’re traveling the world. I get a postcard saying, “Dear Mr. Tropp,” she won’t call me Tom. “Dear Mr. Tropp, I’m having a wonderful time in Paris.” Then, the second sentence is always the same. “Still have a whole bunch of money left.” She signs it.

Kaizen: Charming.

Tropp: Yeah. Have long-term loyalty to a company if it’s good company. That’s the way to go.

Kaizen: That fits your values.

Tropp: Yeah. I really believe that.

Kaizen: Alright, thanks.

Tropp: Thank you. This was fun.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.

Interview with Roberto Salinas-León on Entrepreneurship in Mexico

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

[This is the full interview with Roberto Salinas-León which was published in our Kaizen newsletter.]

Roberto Salinas-León on Entrepreneurship in Mexico

Kaizen: To start, tell us about your schooling, please. Did you grow up in Mexico City?

Roberto Salinas-León: Yes, in Mexico City. I went to high school here and studied under a British system at a school called Green Gates, which still exists. It’s a very fine school.

Kaizen: What do you mean by the British system?

Salinas-León: Very challenging from an academic standpoint, with great teachers. O-levels and A-levels. When I graduated I was uncertain as to what I wanted to do. In my junior year my father interested me in the philosophy of freedom. The first book he gave me was The Epistemological Problems of Economics by Ludwig von Mises, and to this day I have yet to understand most of it.

Kaizen: Is there a business background in your family?

Salinas-León: Strong business background. We’re from Monterrey originally. My grandfather became a very important figure in Mexican business. He was basically the man who introduced popular retail here in Mexico through a chain store called Salinas y Rocha, with the Salinas and Rocha families.

He also happened to be interested in Austrian economics and philosophy, and he financed a center that was copied straight from Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education. My father also became involved, as did my uncle, and they were able to discover an intellectual called Agustin Navarro Vasquez who was the equivalent of Manuel Ayau from Guatemala. He was close friends with Manuel Ayau and had the dream of establishing a university of freedom here in Mexico.

He was a very brave man—he ran a series of almost-secret seminars, because it was very unpopular in the late 70s and early 80s to be talking about these ideas when the banks were nationalized.

Kaizen: How repressed was the political environment then?

Salinas-León: It was the perfect dictatorship, because it was repression without seeming to be so—an indirect and sophisticated form of repression. If you said anything against the president or something they didn’t like, it could be anything from a tax audit—to being kidnapped for three days without knowing why—to outright violence.

Kaizen: So the political “Keep quiet” message would be sent.

You said your family was originally in Monterrey but you’re now located in Mexico City.

Salinas-León: My grandfather came to close one of the stores that was not doing well in Mexico City. Instead of closing it, he started opening a bunch more. He had  an out-of-the-box entrepreneurial spirit. Like I said, the idea of selling household goods to the popular levels of society seemed counterintuitive, but he was able to discover an important niche.

Kaizen: Let’s return to you. As a teenager, you had come from a family that was very intellectual and had a business background as well. Was your idea to go into the business?

Salinas-León: I had no idea. Originally I wanted to study Geography or History. My education was then geared toward the liberal arts. I didn’t want to leave Mexico, but I also wanted to enjoy the opportunities the USA afforded, or perhaps stay one more year and apply to a university in Britain. I didn’t do badly in my advanced level examinations.

I ended up applying only to two places, one of them because of my father’s  insistence. One was Hillsdale College in Michigan and the other was Colorado College in Boulder, and I got accepted to both. I wanted to go to Colorado, which was an outstanding school. My father wanted me to go to Hillsdale. He said to give Hillsdale one year, and if you don’t like it you can go to Colorado or come back to Mexico.

So I went to Hillsdale in 1979, wanting to study Austrian economics and political economy. Actually at that time Hillsdale was going through a slump in the economics department. A lot of turnaround but the lecture series was unbelievable. The only time I ever heard Tom Sowell speak was at Hillsdale. I was two weeks into my freshman year when I heard Bill Buckley debate Jesse Jackson on the Palestinian issue.

Kaizen: Wow, so it was a happening place in many respects.

Salinas-León: Oh my goodness. I got to see and meet Leonard Read. I stayed at Hillsdale not because of the Economics program but because their liberal arts program back then was spectacular. Their History program and Political Science program was taught by former students of Leo Strauss, so we learned politics through literature. Instead of James Q. Wilson’s American Government it was reading Shakespeare and Plato at the freshman level. Very challenging. And of course the teacher-to-student ratio was terrific. I was very much into studying and academic performance.

By my sophomore year the cultural shock had waned, and I became very fond of the institution. In my junior year I applied to the Washington Hillsdale Internship program. So in the winter of 1982 I went to work in Washington for six months as a part of my college credit with none other than Ron Paul, who back then was a freshman congressman. I met Rand Paul when he was just a teenager. It was a small office so it was terrific. I met Roger Ream, who was my actual boss. And I remember listening to Ron Paul having conversation with Friedrich Hayek and Henry Hazlitt and with the people at FEE. And for me this was a tremendous eye-opener.

This was the time of the Gold Commission in Washington, so I got to meet people involved in monetary policy when the Cato Institute first started its monetary policy seminars. It was an unbelievable experience to become involved with all of these institutions and the networking. This was during the Reagan years, which was a very exciting time to be in Washington. And I graduated in 1983.

Kaizen: So you had a solid liberal arts background, but you kept up your interest in monetary economics and broader economic policy?

Salinas-León: It was a degree in Political Economy and History. In my senior year I became very involved in Philosophy. I had the benefit of having a very good teacher.

Kaizen: You got your Ph.D. in Philosophy from Purdue University, Indiana.

Salinas-León: That was also an unusual episode. I wanted to go to law school, but I was never good at standardized testing. And despite having an excellent academic record, some of my targets did not accept me or put me on a waiting list. I thought I would give myself a chance since I was already involved in Philosophy. I got a scholarship at Vanderbilt and a scholarship at Purdue, which had a very unusual faculty. Purdue also had the benefit of being close to Hillsdale. I thought I would be able to still come back and forth during the weekends, but I later found out that was impossible with the academic load that they gave me.

Purdue then, and I believe still now, was a very unusual place because they had a young and upcoming faculty and they had outstanding Analytical philosophers and outstanding Continental philosophers. And the best part was that they actually got together. There was a camaraderie and a spirit of exchange. I ended up writing papers on Quine and Gadamer on the indeterminacy of translation. So it was a lovely place to be in. I had a professor that was a professed Sartraen Marxist, who gave a seminar on Rawls, Nozick, and Rorty. Rawls was accused of being a horrendous, ultra-right, capitalist pig, so I couldn’t imagine what I would do if I defended Mill  again. I just kept quiet. But people knew about my classical liberal background and my strong libertarian leanings back then, and I guess they were tolerated.

Purdue also had the great benefit that part of your training was not just to be a teaching assistant. After the first year, they assigned you an outright class. You were an instructor and part of the faculty, and you got paid as a part of the faculty as a graduate instructor. And my supervisors could walk into my class unannounced, so they kept us in check and I couldn’t just drivel my way out of a class.

Kaizen: So you were working hard on your teaching skills and getting a first-rate philosophy education?

Salinas-León: Yes. I had some phenomenal teachers.

Kaizen: Was your motivation just an interest in philosophy?

Salinas-León: I wanted to get a Masters and go back to law school. I was pursuing an interest. This was the time that Kripke had just shocked the world with Naming and Necessity, and there were these new theories and breakthroughs in semantics and philosophy of language. I became immersed and obsessed with these topics. And then later when I had to take Continental philosophy, my biases were quickly stripped away because I had such remarkable teachers who taught Heidegger and Sartre and Gadamer. And so it was a tremendous eye-opener. And I became obsessed with the topics. I wasn’t specializing though. I would go from one topic to another and sort of dance around. One semester it was the ontological arguments, another semester is was Rorty and Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and another semester it was postmodernism and its impact.

Kaizen: So you wound up getting a comprehensive education?

Salinas-León: It was like a liberal arts education. I applied to law school. I was accepted to Georgetown and George Mason, but I wanted to go to Texas because my family and my buddies were in Texas. After my Masters I was burned out. This was 1985.

Kaizen: So you had a Masters from Purdue at this point?

Salinas-León: Yes. At Purdue they were not happy that I had left. I went to law school in Texas. I was going to do one year at St. Mary’s Law School and then transfer to the University of Texas Law School, but my heart was not in it.

By a very unfortunate coincidence, this was the year of the Mexican earthquake in 1985. I went back home. I missed two weeks of law school, and I thought I might as well get my tuition back because there’s no way I was going to recover from missing two weeks. And so I took a year off and worked for my father. Purdue found out and called and said to come back. You’ll be 27 by the time you finish your Ph.D. You can still go to law school after that. I didn’t want to go back, and my parents actually sat me down and told me to go back and finish. And so I did, and again I did the same thing. I got involved in liberalism versus communitarianism, and I ended up staying only two years. I was offered an extra year, but by this time I was already published in journals.

Kaizen: What happens after the Ph.D.? Did you return to Mexico?

Salinas-León: When I finished I had not written my thesis, and I was offered another year to stay 1988-89 at Purdue and continue teaching. I would get help polishing some of my papers to try and get them published. I was given the red-carpet treatment.

At that time I was teaching critical thinking—basically logic—and the one class I had tremendous difficulty with was advanced symbolic logic. It’s curious that I had troubles taking the LSAT, and I wound up giving classes on how to take the LSAT because of the background in critical thinking. At that point I used to talk to my father about this idea that everyone would say there is nothing you can do with a Philosophy degree. Well, first of all, I would do what I wanted with it. I wanted to write papers on Kant and Hume and Rorty and naturalized epistemology or whatever. And I bet you that I could find a job in Mexico as a teacher in a Philosophy department.

And at that time Luis Pazos, probably the most important classical liberal in Mexico, had become a superstar because of his predictions about what would happen if you nationalized the banks and controlled the exchange rate and printed money. All of those catastrophes came true, and he became a source of wisdom. And he was an absolutely incredible communicator. He was the envy of many professional economists. The called him a supermarket economist because he is. That’s a title that I’m very honored to be known as. His retailing skills were amazing and still are. He had a think tank in Mexico, the Center for Free Enterprise Research, and he desperately needed someone to take the academic program and revamp and renew it and begin to do new things. So my grandfather and my father called me and asked me to come home. I hadn’t finished my thesis yet, but they said I should finish it in here in Mexico. So I went back just at the time that the Salinas de Gortari administration is coming into power, and instead of talking about nationalizing industries they were talking about privatizing industries. And instead of talking about regulating industries, they were talking about deregulation. And instead of protectionism, they were talking about NAFTA and free trade. I wasn’t prepared in economics at the time. I was a quick study, and I had to reread some of the stuff I read before and read all of the ideas on liberty and Friedman and all of the literature that was out there. But because the tide in Mexico turned, I quickly became very involved with the global think tank community—with the Universidad Francisco Marroquín, the Heritage Foundation in the United States, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Council for the Americas in New York.

But you won’t believe that what marked my difference was that I grew up bilingual. I was the only one at the institute with command of the English language. So NAFTA comes along and CNN and Time wanted interviews, and I was the guy. So my name started getting quoted in all these places, and I started getting all these interesting invitations to lecture in Dallas and Washington. It was a steep learning curve. With Cato I developed a phenomenal relationship with my dear friend Ed Crane, who has been an unbelievable supporter throughout the years. When Ian Vasquez came to work at the Cato Institute his very first job was to coordinate a massive conference that Cato and our center was putting together in Mexico City, and this was the last time Milton Friedman spoke in Mexico City. It was Friedman and fifty-three other outstanding scholars. The conference was called Liberty in the Americas.

Kaizen: What year was that?

Salinas-León: It was 1992. People still remember that conference.

Kaizen: So let’s pause at this moment. You had a number of strains in your upbringing and choices that you made that came together beautifully to position you for what you wound up doing after your Ph.D. What would you advise young people when they’re thinking about their education experience?

Salinas-León: I would strongly advise them not to predefine interests and to let the course of trial and error take place and learn what you like.

Kaizen: You gave us sort of a combination of advice from your parents, knowing people, following your own interests.

Salinas-León: It was very paternalistic advice. I didn’t have much choice. It was good advice, but if they were going to pay for it they wanted me to try what they wanted me to do for at least one year. And they were right. It was very good advice. But the reason for me going to Hillsdale was to learn Austrian Economics and the whole movement and the literature and what not. And actually what happened was that to me the great benefit of Hillsdale was that it had a very strong classical liberal arts program. At least two history professors were outstanding teachers. My English teacher, James King, is the best teacher I ever had.

Kaizen: The one who you learned Shakespeare from?

Salinas-León: Yes. That was the hardest class I ever took—and also the most fun class I ever took. An absolutely amazing intellectual experience. My philosophy professor was fabulous, an expert on the Parmenides of Plato. But the whole atmosphere was great. Even our accounting teacher was not mechanical. It was fun. I was very lucky to have these phenomenal teachers, and I was a very devoted student.

So my recommendation would be to try to broaden your horizons. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or be a professional economist, schools are going to take notice more of your broad-based background than they are of pre-law or pre-med. Broaden your horizons as much as possible. And enjoy the college experience. That’s something that perhaps I didn’t do.

I very much believe in the ancient lore that sports is an important part of your education. I told my kids that they need to engage in a sport. That’s part of their formation and their discipline.

Kaizen: Our center’s emphasis is on entrepreneurship. Is it fair to say that your advice is to have students think of their education as entrepreneurs?

Salinas-León: I would say that to be a successful entrepreneur today, you do have to have a broad scope. I have a son studying entrepreneurial science at Babson, and his focus is on managerial accounting and operations management and financial accounting and foundations of entrepreneurial sciences.

But I’ve got to say that a course on Shakespeare’s political plays can also teach you a great deal. A course on the philosophy of Lao Tzu can also teach you a great deal. Learning how to read Hume, whether or not you are a sympathizer, can also teach you a great deal because it broadens your mind.

Today’s entrepreneurial spirit has to be very out of the box and innovative. Think of the impossible. Think of the heroes of today, whether it’s Steve Jobs and the magic he created, or Elon Musk wanting to travel to Mars and everyone laughing at him. Those are the people who today are changing the world. And that requires not just an open mind but also an understanding, in my opinion, of the nature of an open society.

For instance, when studying Karl Popper at first I was adamantly opposed to his approach of scientific methodology and whatnot, but his whole idea of falsifiability that he talks about in The Logic of Scientific Discovery fits with, let’s say, Google’s fail forward philosophy. Many people think of philosophy as something that’s abstract and that you’re in another world.

Kaizen: For Popper’s abstract theory of scientific methodology, how would you summarize the falsifiability point for students who haven’t read it and connect it to the fail-forward philosophy?

Salinas-León: Well, you have an idea and the first thing you have to do is to refute it. It’s not confirm, confirm, confirm. It’s refute, refute, refute. The more I refute it, the more I learn that there was something that was flawed in my original idea, and I begin to polish it. And I refute it again, and how does it resist refutation? A business model is very much based on that philosophy.

Kaizen: Going out of your way to find a problem or flaw or weakness.

Salinas-León: It’s a problem-finding spirit. It will enhance your credibility.

Kaizen: Is this just a heuristic issue? Because we tend to come up with an idea and tend to follow up with our own ideas and then put the blinders on.

Salinas-León: I don’t think it’s just a heuristic issue. It’s both heuristic and substantive.

Kaizen: Is it about the limitations of knowledge, the fact that we don’t know very much?

Salinas-León: You have to be very humble. One speech I greatly admire was given by J.K. Rowling as a commencement address at Harvard in 2008, just before the financial crisis. It was called The Fringe Benefits of Failure. It was about failure and imagination. I think that’s what defines not just the entrepreneurial spirit, but a good part of the core of classical liberal philosophy: learning how to listen, keeping an open mind despite the idiocies and fallacies that surround us and day by day having to refute them and repeat the same old things over again—things that household mothers know better than any Ph.D. from MIT about the benefits of fiscal discipline and stability.

Kaizen: In formal education you unlearn some very good lessons.

Salinas-León: Yes, unfortunately, sometimes that happens. It’s the Keynesian pretense or the pretense of knowledge. I think Hayek’s Nobel lecture is one of the most magnificent pieces of classical liberal thought. Despite the zealotry of his other writings, I think he really caught onto something important that many classical liberals have underappreciated—the importance of a spontaneous order, little bits of knowledge lying all over the place and how they coordinate themselves. Sure you need the institutions and sure you may need the occasional helping hand and it’s good to have those debates, but the fact that there is no single mind that can amass all those bits of knowledge. I think the fatal conceit perhaps comes as too generous a characterization of that phenomenon that is so common in our politicians, whether it be Obamacare or our finance minister here in Mexico or Hugo Chavez who thinks he can erase history and start anew.

Kaizen: This highlights a difference between the way business leaders and political leaders run their organizations. Do you think it’s primarily a pretense of knowledge or a desire to control? Because if you want to control people you might pretend you know more than you do, or it might be that you actually think you do know and reluctantly think that you need to be in control.

Salinas-León: The character of a very successful businessman or businesswoman is difficult to appreciate. I think it’s a curious sociological phenomenon. Clearly you cannot contest their success. Despite the fact here in Mexico that Carlos Slim has been accused of running a monopoly, you have to appreciate his entrepreneurial genius. And he responded beautifully to incentives. The incentives of a fragile institutional framework were there, and he took advantage of them. So yeah it’s his fault, but it’s also the fault of our institutions. There’s a vicious circle here. But that doesn’t mean that being successful as a businessman or businesswoman entitles you to be the source of all wisdom and truth.

I’ve noticed this other sociological phenomenon in business leaders, and Donald Trump is the perfect example of this. All of a sudden they can talk about trade or the balance of payments or fiscal policy or even how to interpret Heidegger. There is a very strong element of hubris. You see this in Davos every year. It’s so pretentious.

Kaizen: The fatal conceit.

Salinas-León: That is the fatal conceit. You see these programs and they’re so pretentious. “We’re also experts in music and in the philosophy of life and how to take a yoga class.” Come on. The original was a semi-off-the-record exchange between leaders to contemplate what happens with the world and how we move forward.

Kaizen: What kind of conceit is it? Do you think it’s a pretense or genuinely held?

Salinas-León: Maybe a combination of the two. I think some people really believe it. Curiously enough, and you won’t believe this, but one person who denounced this was Paul Krugman. He wrote a book called Pop Internationalism before he became famous, a rock star, and was given a Nobel laureate for something he preaches against today. But in that book he even tells us that the end of trade is to import, not to export. So this whole nonsense with competitiveness he calls a dangerous obsession. And I completely agree with that. He even cited Frédéric Bastiat. If you really want to export the hell out of your nation, the easiest thing to do would be to generate a huge depression, and he has an article where he says that it’s a sorry state of affairs that businessmen think that because they can read a balance sheet, that means that entitles them to read a balance of payments or national income.

So many, like Trump today, tell us that America has a trade deficit and that’s automatically bad. Krugman himself plays with a nice idea. New York city imports everything and exports what? Entertainment, tourism, and financial services, for the sake of argument. That’s what New York does. Because of its special circumstances as a global city, if we take it out of the calculation of the balance of payments, our macroeconomics would look beautiful. People would feel a lot better even though nothing changes in the real economy. People would continue to trade the way they do every single day. I thought that was a very insightful example of how to demonstrate the miserable understanding that some business leaders show in terms of economics.

Kaizen: Even more so the politicians.

Salinas-León: Yes. And that’s not pretense. That can be genuine hubris. Even some free-market economists, Chicago trained or MIT trained. And I’m not an economist, but I do a lot of economic policy. Most people think I’m an economist here in Mexico. But in exchanges or debates I’ve been told that you can’t speak of this because you’re not an economist. My response is that I was a logic professor, and if you took a 101 logic class with me you’d get a zero for such a blatant ad hominem fallacy. Credentialism is the cheapest way to win an argument. And there’s a lot of credentialism among economists.

Kaizen: Let’s go back to the pretense of knowledge and motivation. In many cases people who express an interest in politics, and they recognize that they don’t necessarily know much about science or economics and so forth, but what attracts them is the idea of being a politician, which for them means being in control of things that are important. Do you find this also in the business sector?

Salinas-León: Yes, it happens. It’s what you may can an imperial design, wanting to micromanage every part. My grandfather was a little bit like that.

Kaizen: But he had the entrepreneurial chops to back it up to a large extent it sounds like.

Salinas-León: He did. And you didn’t have the right to question him because of his success. But there are also many others, especially younger generations of entrepreneurs in Mexico, where some of the people in the states at local levels, you would marvel at what they were able to achieve.

I almost think that Leonard Read was wrong in describing I, Pencil as a miracle because of the spontaneous order. I, Pencil continues to survive in spite of the worst institutional settings. I wrote an article about this saying that I, Pencil continues to thrive despite our labor and tax laws and our regulations that were made to extort.

You practically cannot survive in the business world today without falling prey to some form of corruption. Corruption becomes the price you pay to simply get ahead. It’s a tax.

Kaizen: Let me use that to transition to the Mexico Business Forum. You were president of that organization. What’s its function?

Salinas-León: The Mexico Business Forum was part of the Economist corporate network.

Kaizen: This is affiliated with the magazine?

Salinas-León: Yes, and the Economist Intelligence Union. I worked very closely with the Economist Intelligence Union. For thirteen years I ran their conference program here in Mexico. And the vehicle through which I ran it was the Mexico Business Forum. The corporate network before had the Estonia Business Forum, the Argentina Business Forum, and the Brazil Business Forum. In Latin America they all started dying down for different reasons. The business model was outdated. It was sort of like a corporate club. I was in television at the time doing a lot of media journalism. What I tried to do was use, let’s say, a powerful brand to open doors and plant the seed of classical liberal ideas all over the place. With the conferences we held, the president always came and the finance minister and central bank governor and all the business leaders. We got a tremendous amount of exposure. I had a chance to develop a session on simple rules for a complex world and a session on the benefits of free exchange.

Kaizen: So a certain amount of a healthy business culture has to do with political economy. It sounds like a large part of what you were doing was political economy.

Salinas-León: Back then it was political economy. Later I left the Economist. I got tired, basically.

Kaizen: So part of it is working toward a healthy political and economic environment.

Salinas-León: That was the idea, to basically use this as a vehicle to transmit ideas that would consolidate or fortify messages and themes that we wanted to permeate policy action, whether it was a flat tax being a good idea or a sound currency or central bank independence or a flexible or fixed exchange rates. We had these healthy debates and a tremendous amount of exposure.

Now, a lot of people mistakenly think that if you’re an economist that you’re a financial analyst. That’s one of the great fallacies. Many economists should learn a lot more about what traders actually do, and traders should learn more about economics. But I quietly started getting into being an investment advisor, and I found that I had a certain knack for it, especially in putting together the right team and dealing with the deal breakers. And you know what, that comes from philosophical training.  And today eight percent of my time is devoted to that. My policy and my engagement in the Association of Private Enterprise and Education and Liberty Fund and so on are very good public relations vehicles to be able to expand business opportunities. I’ve had to be a quick study and learn about finance and corporate law and tax law.

Kaizen: So you’re a Renaissance man.

Salinas-León: I don’t pretend to be, but it’s been fun. Some operations have been very successful, and some have been a disaster. There is a very steep learning curve. I can’t think that because the first three or four things I did were successful that everything I would do would turn into gold. The lesson in humility was strong, and it was not intellectual. It was financial. Ouch. You have to be a quick study.

Kaizen: So you go from high philosophical and political and economic theory to dealing with political and economic infrastructure in Mexico and abroad and then down to particular high-level financial investments, and so on.

What about grassroots entrepreneurship? Does the Business Forum talk about developing the entrepreneurial culture?

Salinas-León: Very much so. We talked about this much more in the past, especially the small-sized entrepreneur. One project I have for the future is to develop a whole series of cases and show anecdotally, not with a big theorem or whatever, why Mexico does not grow at the rate that it has the capacity to do so. We are a country that should be growing at seven or eight or nine percent a year on a sustained basis. We have that potential.

So part of the vitriol that we get from Trump and his supporters today is probably a little deserved because we haven’t done the full homework and we haven’t gone full circle. We started a program of structural reforms, but we didn’t do the second wave of reforms. You need to go back to the local property registry and make sure those titles are clear and easily available, because that’s what makes the difference between trading your property and not being able to trade it or it being caught in legal limbo.

So a deep capital market very much depends on the transparency and the reliability of your institutional framework that is governing. With banks today that is happening. Why? Because we’ve imported our laws. It’s an international banking system. We have HSBC, and this beautiful new building we’re in right now is a Spanish bank. It’s not a Mexican bank.

Kaizen: So you’re importing everything, but what about the homegrown?

Salinas-León: The homegrown still needs a lot of work. It’s gotten better, but in some places its gotten worse. I believe that Hernando de Soto with his work touched the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper and pervasive phenomenon in Mexico and in Latin America. I worked with him on the project that he launched here in Mexico ten years ago. Many of the young men and women here that go out into the streets and sell you entertainment, or if it’s raining sell you an umbrella, or if it’s September, the month that we celebrate our independence, they’ll sell you flags. Right now it’s Halloween so they’ll sell you masks of Donald Trump or Dracula or Batman or whatever. They’re extremely innovative and inventive, and they do it at the margin of the law. Even cars that park here and sell taquitos and cerveza, and in instead of going to the Four Seasons restaurant you want to come here and have a beer and a paper plate of taquitos.

But those people need light and water and police protection. The police protect them. The agent from the federal electricity commission will come and illegally make sure they have the electricity that they need. And, of course, everything is based on bribing those people. What are you doing? You’re taxing. And it’s an efficient form of taxing because you are getting the service that you’re expecting.

Now, the tragedy of an informal economy is that it’s incredibly innovative and has a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s necessarily local. It will never expand from that immediate universe. You can’t capture economies of scale. And if you get into a dispute, you can’t have access to contracts or to the legal system. You’re always going to remain in that circle. There’s a real need, as Hume would say, for a system of justice.

Kaizen: So you say the entrepreneurial spirit and the ingenuity and the energy is there at the grassroots level, but what you need is reforms at the local political level—access to the legal system, accesses to the utilities.

Salinas-León: Something as simple as, for instance, why are the 3,800 local municipalities in Mexico the ones that have the right to issue construction permits? That’s become a medium of extortion. All of the stories that you’ve heard about Wal-Mart engaging in bribes here in Mexico are absolutely true. And it wasn’t just one, it was every single one of them. Otherwise you cannot get ahead. It’s pervasive.

Kaizen: It’s systemic corruption at the local level.

Salinas-León: It’s systemic. Construction permits should be issued by an independent and credible decentralized or non-profit organization with very specific tracking mechanisms. I know in the United States there are cities in Georgia today where you can go online and track permits like you can track a package being shipped. We need that technology in Mexico. And that’s just one example of countless examples.

There’s this program in the United States called American Horror Story. One day I’d like to publish Mexican Horror Story. And I can tell you from a real life point of view that I’ve been a victim of this in my business engagements. Time and time again the number one problem is the regulatory exchange with the powers that be.

Today I’m trying to broker deals with people wanting to come into the energy sector in Mexico because of the very ambitious, market-oriented transformation opening of the energy sector at long last. It will take many years, but the number one problem whether it’s a fund or a company or group of investors is the regulatory environment. They’re sick of it. They’re absolutely sick of it. You need to hire a first-class lawyer or somebody who is respected as a godfather-like figure that you won’t want to mess with. And, of course, he or she will charge you a large amount. That transaction cost inhibits Mexican growth.

Kaizen: It’s a lot higher than in places that have cleaned up the corruption.

Salinas-León: Like Chile, for instance.

KaizenOr Uruguay.

Salinas-León: Or Uruguay.

Argentina is another sad case in point. A friend of mine used to be the representative of a company that sells billboard advertisement. He would say that it’s amazing that there’s nothing that can get done here without a kickback or a bribe.

Kaizen: This is in Argentina?

Salinas-León: No, here in Mexico. And then he goes and lives in Argentina and he says that it’s worse here. It’s almost like it’s permeated in the system. So one policy challenge is: How do you get rid of that corruption? It’s not by pointing the finger.

Kaizen: You need case studies about how other countries have dealt with this.

Salinas-León: Not case studies but anecdotal examples. It’s happened to me, and I’d like to describe it.

Kaizen: So corruption certainly is an issue, and the regulatory environment goes hand in hand.

About Mexico’s ties to the United States: From our perspective we get a lot of entrepreneurial Mexicans who are ambitious and work hard and have good ideas. From the Mexican perspective, is that a brain drain problem?

Salinas-León: No question about it. A former partner of mine and former candidate to the presidency, Josefina Vásquez Mota, recently published twenty-four interviews with Mexicans who have crossed the border. It’s something similar to what I’d like to do with my Mexican horror stories, but hers are more positive.

Despite the odds and the hostilities and having to cross the border illegally and swim across the river and having to go through the coyote industry, which is extremely dangerous like the mafia that cross you over the border. You have the danger of suffocating in the 120-degree heat in the Arizona desert because you’re left alone inside of a truck when the coyote escapes to save his own skin. Despite all of this, there are these case studies of twenty-four Mexicans, and what would you want? You would want those people back home.

One of them took himself and the lore of his mother and grandmother’s recipes into the United States and he ended up in Chicago. I forget the details of the story, but he started off as a dishwasher. Chicago has a huge Mexican population.  Mexico City and then L.A. and then Guadalajara, and then the fourth largest Mexican populated city is Chicago. So he started off as a dishwasher and later on became a cook and discovered he has a flare for it. Years later he gets a group of investors and starts his own restaurant called Mexique, and it’s the only Mexican restaurant in the world with a one-star Michelin.

Kaizen: Wow. Nice.

Salinas-León: We have restaurants here that have one or two stars in Mexico City, but they’re not necessarily Mexican. This is the only Mexican restaurant with a Michelin star.

Another example is a man they call Dr. Q. He was basically a tomato picker who went from Mexico where he picked tomatoes to California where he picked tomatoes. Turns out that this man had an enormous knowledge of neuroscience and medicine, and today he is a globally famous expert at a hospital in San Diego where those same hands that used to pick tomatoes are now going into brains to operate and take out cancer.

Tell me, do I want that human capital in my country? We don’t need a wall. We need incentives to bring them back.

Kaizen: So the incentives go the other way. We get many of the best Mexicans.

Salinas-León: You go to New York on lower Park Avenue where a lot of the big banks are and a lot of the up and coming bankers there are Mexicans—extremely well trained, extremely hard working.

Kaizen: So they need the incentives to come back to Mexico or to not leave in the first place. That’s going to mean less crime, less corruption, and a healthier regulatory environment.

Salinas-León: Yes. I would emphasize a healthier regulatory environment. What we call derecho facilitador, derecho as in law. We need a more facilitating environment.

I love Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World. I think he hit it right on the mark. We tend to think of very complicated rules to try and make our lives more simple. That’s the hubris of a politician or an economist who wants to mold you and determine the future in accordance with the law. All you do is you end up making our lives miserable.

Now, crime is a different phenomenon. It definitely affects business decisions. A dear friend of mine has been very successful exploiting trade between Mexico and Canada, which by the way has gone up exponentially in the past twenty years. Canadians don’t know it, but the mangos and the flowers they buy come from ranches in Mexico. My friend has gone to all theses states that have basically been abandoned by the federal government and are fragile and have been taken over by either the cartels or by paramilitary groups that devote their lives to extorting you. Of course, all the municipal president does is steal the money from the coffers or use the permits to extort you, so their popularity is not great. So these people think of themselves as Robin Hoods.

Now, they come and they tax my friend. That’s money that could have been used for other things, but you know what, he’s still prosperous. That’s what’s so amazing about these stories. These people are still able to find a way to get ahead. At the end of the day it’s real cost reduction. You need entrepreneurial inventiveness and new technology for real cost reduction, but you also need the help of the government for real cost reduction. These people are able to do real cost reduction and remain competitive despite the setbacks of a very fragile and sometimes nonexistent institutional framework.

Kaizen: You talked about Mexicans going to the United States and Canada for business opportunities. What about business opportunities for young American and Canadian entrepreneurs coming to Mexico looking for opportunities? Do you recommend finding a local partner?

Salinas-León: Most definitely. I would say two things. Don’t listen to what you hear, and study the facts. Mexico is the second largest trading partner of the United States. Mexico is the number one supplier of auto parts to the United States in the world. Mexico trades more with the United States than Germany, Britain, and Japan put together. You can’t treat your second largest trading partner the way that Donald Trump wants to treat us. That’s just bad business. Probably the NFL would have to be abolished because NFL helmets are produced here in Mexico.

And instead of thinking of North America as three different countries, think of it as one integrated zone. That’s what NAFTA was supposed to be like. We could have an integrated energy corridor that today could supply the rest of the world energy for the next 150 years. Mexico is not just in oil. We have vast potential in shale gas. We don’t have the technology and we don’t have the resources and investment, but at least now we have the open regime that can invite that type of investment. Ford has this remarkable establishment in Mexico, one of the best Ford plants in the world. They depend on the intellectual knowledge that they get from Detroit and even from Windsor, Canada, so it’s going to affect the entire supply chain. You’re going to kill the entire supply chain.

So that mentality of integration eventually has to expand to all factors of production. It would be much more intelligent than calling us rapists and wanting to build a wall to think of a legal framework and forge cultural partnerships. We need leadership for that.

Now, you need to understand that there is this very close tie between the United States and Mexico vis-à-vis trade. It’s a vast amount of trade. Mexico exports one billion dollars of manufactured goods to the United States per day.  That’s more than China. And that involves a lot of transportation. So instead of having all of these bottlenecks at the border we should be thinking of bridges and technologies that could supervise and track the trucks and whether they are misbehaving or not.

Kaizen: So, in addition to all the market entrepreneurs, we need some healthy political entrepreneurs.

Salinas-León: Leadership and political entrepreneurs, but it’s difficult in this political environment.

If you want to come to Mexico, there are wonderful opportunities. There are opportunities in the service sectors, in technology, and tremendous opportunities in retail. The purchasing power here because of the stabilization of the currency is far better than it used to be. There’s been a decoupling of the exchange rate and the inflation rate, so despite volatility to the exchange rate people here still command very much of a dollar mentality.

But in some of the business ventures that I’ve done, I’ve known some very smart people who have come into Mexico without a local partner. That is a potential for suicide. I know of some of these horror stories where someone comes in and buys a lot of land and wants to develop it. It turns out that the same notary public that notarized that land in your name also notarized it in the name of his compadre. And his compadre is the compadre of the local state judge. So unless you have a local partner that can strong arm and get you out of messes like that, you’re going to lose.

Kaizen: So don’t be an idiot.

Salinas-León: It’s very unfortunate that in Mexico you have to do that, but you do need a strong advisor and especially a strong local partner.

Kaizen: So the transaction costs are going to be higher than you think.

Salinas-León: They could. You’re running an unnecessary risk. So why not share the wealth with your local partner? You can still retain a majority but you have someone here with the skills and the PR network. We call it the tropicalization of your business model because it really is a jungle. You need to know the ins and outs.

Kaizen: So you need the local knowledge.

Salinas-León: The local knowledge.

Kaizen: To bring things to a close, you’ve been working in the intellectual world, business world, and political world for many years now. Is there anything that has really stuck with you from your education time? Is there a lesson that you learned that has been useful to you over the course of the years?

Salinas-León: I guess I would come back to first principles. The mental clarity about economic principles, for instance, has been incredibly useful. Excuse my French, but it really sharpens your nose for bullshit, and you can detect immediately if this is wrong or right. Sticking to first principles, but not because I know more than everyone else. On the contrary.

Kaizen: It keeps you reality oriented.

Salinas-León: I like to say that taxi drivers, housemothers, and people from the informal economy know more about economics than the most highbrow, enlightened bureaucrat.

Kaizen:  In most cases it’s tacit for them.

Salinas-León: In most cases it is tacit but it is very responsive. It’s almost automatic. So that’s one. And then the value of trial and error and with it learning the limits of knowledge. And humility doesn’t mean silence. You can be very active and very engaged, but learning how to listen is key.

And I would say this to some of my dear classical liberal friends as well that sometimes do not want to listen to other points of view because it’s not 100% Austrian or 100% Chicago. Learn to listen to other disciplines, and recognize the fact that we don’t have a monopoly on truth. My father and I used to talk about this day in and day out. It was a common theme and not just a theme in academia or the policy world, but a theme in the real world as well.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.

Coffee entrepreneur Phyllis Johnson — video interview transcript

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Interview conducted at Rockford University by Stephen Hicks and sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

Part I

Hicks: I’m Stephen Hicks. My guest today is Phyllis Johnson, who spoke in the Business and Economics Ethics class today on the theme of Coffee, Entrepreneurship, and Women in Africa. Ms. Johnson is the founder and president coffee-women-2of BD Imports, a Rockford-based entrepreneurial firm. They do wholesaling and retailing coffee all over the world.

I like your story about how you came to entrepreneurship. You got a university degree and a very nice-sounding job, but it wasn’t enough for you. Why did you become an entrepreneur?

Johnson: It’s funny because you always want to leave where you come from and what I realized after getting an university degree in microbiology, I realized that it was my family upbringing, working together on a farm in Arkansas as a family doing odd jobs, you know, throughout different seasons, that really made me want to start my own business. It created something inside me that said, you know, it’s okay to work for someone else, you can do that, but it’s also an opportunity to do something on your own, you can be a bit more creative.

Hicks: At the same time, you mentioned it was quite scary, the first steps. What was scary about it, and how did you handle that?

Johnson: Oh, gosh. It was scary for a lot of reasons. It took a long time, it was a process. I remember looking for a message, either in church or in conversations with friends that would help to persuade me to take the steps that I really wanted to take but I was afraid to take. I was afraid that my livelihood would be threatened. I was afraid of failure. I think I was afraid that what if I failed? What if it didn’t work? What if I lost financial income? And some people say we are afraid of success and I think that there could be some truth in that that we don’t quite understand. What if I could work beyond what I think is possible for me? And it’s safe to stay in a space where other people are and you don’t fit in quite so much anymore because you step outside of that realm of where you think you fit in. You spent your whole life developing friendships, relationships with people who have things in common with you, so your family know you to be who you are, so stepping into entrepreneurship really creates a different person that you might be afraid of.

Hicks: You could’ve gone on to a lot of things, but you ended putting yourself into the coffee business. There might be a connection to the family farm, something in agriculture. Why coffee in particular?

Johnson: It’s interesting because, as soon as I thought about coffee, I knew that was where I was supposed to be.

Hicks: Even though you hadn’t been a big coffee drinker up to that point.

Johnson: Even though I hadn’t been a big coffee drinker. You know, I rely a lot on intuition. I know for some business people it can sound really strange, but a lot of it is gut feeling. What feels right is what I like to go with. And, for me, I am very comfortable being on a farm. I can really appreciate the open air, the hard work, the attitude of people who work on a farm. The attitude of people who work on a farm is pretty simple. It’s not very complex a lot of times. It gives joy to see a woman carrying materials on her head, straw, whatever, to go build her house. She is not bound with ‘I do this to make a living’. She is physically making a home for herself. And so, there is a true connection sometimes with people who work on farms that keep them grounded and why they do what they do, and I think that’s very attractive for me.

Hicks: Now, when you’re getting into the coffee business as an importer-exporter, this is a worldwide business, very complicated, many major players. So you are embarking in a process of self-education to learn the business. You also mentioned you got some literature from one of the coffee organizations, in effect, warning you off: ‘Don’t try to do this.’

Johnson: Right, exactly.

Hicks: What were the obstacles they were pointing out to you and that you did have to grapple with?

Johnson: Yeah, you know, there were very realistic obstacles. I am the eighth CoffeeVillagechild of eight children, and I chose to study microbiology in college, which you don’t find women traditionally studying science and math courses. For some strange reason, I always saw myself as doing the hard stuff. Not because it was easy, but because I wanted to do the hard stuff. Why do I have to do the mamsy-pamsy stuff just because I am a girl? That has been my attitude through life. I love coffee shops. I love coffee shop owners. I just thought that I want to go a bit deeper; I want to get a bit closer to where all this comes together and be able to make impact. And, of course, you can make some sort of impact locally or nationally, but I wanted to get close to the place where it all began because I felt the intuition that I could make a difference on large scale.

But the organization that made this wonderful article when I asked about information on becoming an importer, and they sent me an article on why you should never become an importer. I became a member of the organization, I sat in the board of directors for the organization, and I still volunteer my time with the organization. I think the information was valuable, but it was also a motivator. So, it’s up to me to determine how I took that information and what it has taken to survive 12 years in this business, living through probably one of the most economic downturns in our history, for certain. It took having that sort of information about what I was embarking on to get through it.

Hicks: You mentioned that part of your drive is that you wanted to be closer to the action and you like the agricultural rootedness of coffee, so that took you to Africa. And there you found that the majority of the work in raising the coffee is done by women. But, to put it mildly, that is very challenging in a number of fronts. What were the major problems or things that bothered you when you got close to how the coffee was actually produced in Africa?

Johnson: Yeah, years ago, probably on my first trip, it was bothersome to watch a group of women sorting coffee cherries, which is what you do with part of the processing. And then, to take them to be weighed. And I remember I asked the person who was recording the weights, how, just to see this one lady’s tally sheet of what the coffee cherries she had been bringing in for weight. And so he showed it to me and he showed me about a 1,000 pounds of coffee that she had brought over a period of three, four, five months and I asked, What is her pay going to be? And he said “20 dollars” or something equivalent to 20 dollars. And I just thought about the amount of physically backbreaking labor involved in picking 1,000 pounds of coffee cherries for 20 dollars. I literally walked away in tears thinking, “I’ve got 20 dollars in my purse right now, why don’t I just give it to her?” But that would not have been the thing to do. And that was back in 2003. Luckily, today, I work with the United Nations International Trade Center to do things in a global level, in several African countries, to work with national leaders and organizations and women of all levels to make a difference. And that was the way to do it.

Part II

Hicks: One of the problems is that women are doing enormous amounts of backbreaking work, but also they are getting very little pay for it. You also mentioned that typically it is women who are doing this kind of work and men don’t do that work. Why is that?

Johnson: Well, for a couple of reasons. Women are more meticulous and they are very good at doing things that are more, you know, hand sort of work: picking stuff. But, again, a lot of time, culturally, it is the women who will go out and do a lot of the labor. So, it can be, culturally, just the way things are. But they are not in decision-making roles. And they are not comfortable in decision-making roles. They don’t feel qualified, they don’t have a history, they don’t have role models that had been in that position in the past. So, working with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance provides the network of women globally, so that women in Africa will get a chance to work with women in El Salvador and Costa Rica and Guatemala to see how these women have reason throughout the supply chain and be encouraged by that and be able to create roadmaps within their own country as how they can move up to higher levels.

Hicks: Part of the solution, then, is business education for the women. They are forming co-ops or learning how to put business structures together so that they feel comfortable in assuming the leadership roles.

Johnson: Part of the solution in the women in coffee program that I am working on with the International Trade Center we see as leadership training. We have a leadership training program that we will be working with the woman leaders, the women who had been a part of this program from the start. And they are women who are concerned about helping other women; they are community-builders. So we are having a leadership training program that will expand throughout a year for these women. We are also investigating this idea of “branding” and putting a mark on a product potentially that signifies women’s empowerment in coffee. For some corporations, having a brand or a mark isn’t so important, but it is important that women are being compensated fairly in the supply chain. So finding ways to figure out how we may approach the market with such a product is interesting, but, you know, Walmart.com just announced mid-September that they will be introducing coffee that shows empowerment for women for one of the groups of women that we work with in Costa Rica, so we are excited to see how that relationship might work.

Hicks: So, one element is the compensation level for the work that is done. The coffee-women-3other is the decision-making and the empowering so that they have the knowledge and confidence to take on leadership roles. I believe you also mentioned the issue of landownership, that, in many cases, women don’t own the land that they are working. They are not in a position to share in the profits or to grow or to mortgage the property to do various things. Why are women traditionally not owning any of land or why is that difficult for them?

Johnson: Well, you know, there has always been gender discrimination. And, in a lot of cultures, it’s better to have a male child than a female child. If you are going to educate a child, you educate the son not the daughter. So, women have just not been held in high regard. Few opportunities are given to women, but I feel that with several initiatives, global initiatives, things are changing. Women are being pushed more into the forefront. And it’s not just because women need to be women, but it’s for economic reasons. The UN global compact recently signed on to the Women Empowered principles and this is the first piece of information that allows women to be considered from an economic standpoint. We always talk about women when it comes to health and education, but, economically, how in business are women fairing? How in ownership? I don’t know the numbers off of the top of my head, but less than one percent of land ownership globally belongs to women. So we, as women, are way behind economically. As I said, of the world’s 1 billion poor, 78 percent are women. So, until the world considers women as being a part of this economic engine, we won’t get ahead. Women are working hard for less pay. They are putting up long hours, and they really need to be compensated because what they are doing with the dollars will make a difference globally. They are taking care of their children, they are educating their children, and that’s a benefit globally. So there is great value.

Hicks: So, the additional business knowledge and the changing attitude so women can own land, that will help them get a leg up the economic ladder. There are also traditional, cultural reasons, family reasons, praising boys more than praising girls. Are there also religious obstacles to be overcome or legal obstacles that just say “Women are not allowed to own property”? Do those also have to be dealt with?

Johnson: Yeah, it’s funny. When I was in Uganda, one lady — she was a Muslim lady from far region where her family worked in coffee. And she said, for religious reasons, you know, that we don’t own land from where I am from. And the laws are very confusing, you know. And we had some great discussions around that. But, what was interesting was her perspective on all of that and the lack of land-ownership, which is what is perceived to be the number 1 problem for women if you talk to them when it comes to agriculture. They don’t own land, they don’t own what’s produced in the lands, and they are just, you know, peasant workers on the land. She said, “My attitude is, while I am here,” and I kept asking what does that mean, and she said, “while I am here, I am not going to fight the things that I can’t change, but I am going to work as hard as I can to make a difference in what I do have control over.” So, you know, women are creative and they know that if change is going to happen they have to lead it. I can say that leaders of countries, leaders of industries start to pay attention when issues have been raised by different organizations, people in power. So bringing recognition and light to organizations is critical. The East African fine coffee organization, a trade support organization in East Africa that makes up several different countries that work in coffee, they have never had an indigenous women on their board in their 10-year history. They now have a gender program that they’ve developed in the last year since this program has started to bring women on board, to give them a seat at the table in all the countries where they operate. Up until now, they never considered it.

Hicks: So they are now part of the decision-making issues.

Johnson: So things are changing.

Hicks: You mentioned various organizations that you volunteer for and work for, and the United Nation’s initiative in at least five countries in Africa. Where can people go for more information about this, to follow the progress of these initiatives?

Johnson: You can go to the International Trade Center website, which is www.intracen.org or you can visit the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, just womenincoffe.org, or our website, bdimports.com, which talks about the work we do.

Hicks: Thanks for being with us today.

Johnson: Thank you, my pleasure.

[The video interview with Phyllis Johnson follows.]

Interview with Lall Singh on Entrepreneurial Finance in England

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

[This is the full interview with Lall Singh which was published in our Kaizen newsletter.]

Lall Singh on Entrepreneurial Finance in England

Introduction 

Lall Singh is CEO of Capital Instruments based in London, England. Capital Instruments is an investment consulting firm that provides finance, management, and marketing expertise in several European companies as well as projects in Canada and Dubai.  

Education and early career

Kaizen: Where were you born?Singh-Lall-8

Singh: I was born in England in a little town called Solihull back in 1969. That makes me 44 this year.

Kaizen: Where is Solihull?

Singh: It’s near Birmingham, which is the second largest city after London. It’s between there and Manchester  —  there is always a competition Birmingham and Manchester about which is the second largest city. But both are growing cities. Solihull is just on the outskirts of Birmingham, which is located in the west midlands. We aren’t too far from Meriden, which marks the center of England.

Kaizen: Your parents came from India?

Singh: That’s right. They emigrated back in 1960 from Punjab, which is north India, from a little town called Jalandhar.

Kaizen: What brought them here?

Singh: Partly it was the farming communities and partly the attraction of increased income, the ability to work and make a living. And with the prospect of returning to India after retiring, which was the case. My parents did indeed decide to retire early and head back to India. You know, you always heard the old record that once you come here, you’re stuck here. This isn’t the case, of course. There’s nothing stopping them from going back. We suggested that they take an early retirement and go back to India. The funny thing is that they stayed there for about nine months and decided that “home” is where the heart is. They decided that they would spend most of their time here in England and perhaps two or three months a year in India.

Kaizen: What was your schooling like?

Singh: My schooling was predominantly here in England — in and around Birmingham, the major city. You start with nursery here, equivalent to your kindergarten; then junior school, and then secondary education.

Kaizen: By the time you were into secondary education,, did you have some career ideas? Or were your parents nudging you in a direction?

Singh: At that stage, I would say about the age of 11, I wasn’t probably thinking about any career or definite decisions about them. But business in general or some money-making aspect were attracting me. We came from a very poor family here in England — general working class. And, obviously, with my parents being immigrants and starting off on the first rung of the ladder, so to speak. My father worked as a dress welder, as it’s called, for one of the aerospace companies here in England. It was really economizing and watching the pennies. So in those days, I suppose, I was attracted more toward business as a means of making good money and living a lifestyle most people cherish.

Kaizen: Were particular types of businesses attractive?

Singh: Originally I was interested in economics. It was essentially looking at current affairs and looking at the micro and macro perspectives.

Kaizen: This would have been when you were a little older?

Singh: A little older, from age 12 and into my teenage years  —  when you are really trying to decide what it is you really want to do. I suppose the people around me were more interested in the sciences. I was a bit different. I remember that of most of the options that you have when you are about 14, the ones I leaned toward were more of the mathematical type, probably at that stage heading more toward a career in accounting.

Kaizen: You were good at math from a young age?

Singh: That’s right. Yes.

Kaizen: You went to King Edward VI grammar school in Birmingham. What kind of school was that?

Singh: It’s referred to as a select education. So it is endowed with quite generous funds. However, they tend to restrict the number of entrants, and they have an entrance test. In those days, it attracted about 2,000 people, but they could only offer 200 places. So if you were in the top 200, you would get in.

Kaizen: Did you get a good, basic education?

Singh: I was very privileged to have made the place. It was rated something like fourth-top in the U.K. It is still, I believe, one of the top schools in the country.

Kaizen: You went through A-levels, which the equivalent of high school in the U.S.?

Singh: It’s actually the continuation of secondary education, which is referred to here as sixth form college.

Kaizen: College prep years.

Singh: That’s right.

Kaizen: Then you went to Birmingham University. How old were you when you started university?

Singh: About 18.

Kaizen: You mentioned an interest in business and economics in your teens. Did you go in with a firm major in mind?

Singh: I had done economics and accounting at A-level, so at that stage I opted for a broad major in accounting and finance. With the view to perhaps combining with economics at a later stage. But my major was essentially in finance.

Kaizen: Accounting and finance?

Singh: That’s correct.

birmingham university campusKaizen: What was the attraction of accounting?

Singh: At that stage, it was one way to get into looking at businesses from an accounting perspective. It gives you an appreciation for how businesses function. My attraction was more toward management accounting as opposed to accounting in practice. The difference being that accountants in practice tend to compile numbers in order to fulfill statutory obligations of compliance; whereas management accounting has more to do with management decisions, where you are looking at investments, ways to reduce costs, and it is essentially looking at a business and how better it can function in terms of productivity, operations, how it can utilize its own funds better.

Kaizen: So using the accounting as a set of tools for management decisions?

Singh: Accounting as a feedback tool as well as looking at what options are available given to you given the financial restrictions.

Kaizen: The other side was finance. What was the attraction of finance as a major?

Singh: I was interested in capital markets, looking at ways of leveraging different types of gearing ratios, and how businesses can function and grow through the use of finance.

Kaizen: Is “gearing ratio” a technical term?

Singh: It’s the debt-to-equity ratio. You look at your own capital you are putting into the business, or shareholders are putting in, in proportion to what sort of debts the businesses are taking on. And over the years, you find different gearing ratios tend to be better given high interest rates — you want to have high debt with low equity; given low economic times, such as now, you tend to have a high gearing ratio, which is easily at one or two percent.

Kaizen: At university, did you take courses in the science, arts, or humanities? Or was it a more narrow education?

Singh: When you are in England, up until the age of about 14, you take a very broad range of subjects, which tend to cover what is called O-levels, which is the precursor to A-levels. Across those, in fact, I took a lot of the sciences: chemistry, physics, math, English, of course, and geography. After that, with the A-levels you can start specializing. So at A-level I went for more of a math, accounting, economics route. But we also do a general studies course as well at that stage. So that was my combination. I suppose it gave me the platform to look towards specializing further in accounting and finance. At that stage, I chose accounting and finance, but later on I decided to undertake an MBA where I got more interested on the marketing side. And that’s once you actually work for companies, you get an appreciation for it.

Kaizen: What was your first job after graduating from Birmingham?

Singh: My first job was actually for a publishing company. In fact, before then, I did work for an accountancy practice, Coopers and Lybrand, which is now part of PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers). I had shied away from that, knowing that practice accounting would meant laborious three-year contract, looking at mainly statute reporting. Instead, I looked to publishing as a training accountant, and I specialized in management accounting as opposed to practice accounting.

Kaizen: Then you decided to go for an MBA?

Singh: That’s correct. I worked for a few years and then I opted to go for an MBA at Aston Business School. Given that I had already experienced accounting and finance, I decided — I was self-funding at this stage — I was going to make the most of the whole course and decided to specialize in marketing, which was something I didn’t have that much exposure to. I became particularly interested in market segmentation.

Kaizen: What was interesting about marketing to you?

Singh: I have always felt that accountants are shielded from looking at ways to moving business forward in terms of how to innovate and how to generate more business. Yet they’re more in-tune with costs and how to reduce costs. And I think accountants sometimes get blinkered, but combine it with a marketing approach, where you know it is essential for a company to breathe and grow by looking at different markets, how to nurture them, how to grow them, how to invest money in order to get returns on your capital. I think that’s a skill where you find that any company with corporate governors you have a board, you find that the accountants and the marketers are always at loggerheads given that accountants want to reduce costs and keep everything contained and marketers want to spend more and have a marketing campaign in order to generate business. I think what that gave me was a unique insight into both areas where you could actually have a cross between knowing the accounting function as well as the marketing function.

Kaizen: At this point, still in your twenties, were you thinking that you would be working independently or within existing firms?

Singh: I couldn’t imagine myself, at least at that stage, working independently. I was really trying to build a career and to align myself with better qualifications so I could offer that little bit more in general management for some of the larger corporations.

After my MBA, I ended up working for a conglomerate, which was looking to create companies from the old East European block where, for instance, in Romania they were privatizing a lot of the state-owned assets. Some of them were quite large: pharmaceutical companies, aviation companies, engineering companies, etc. We looked to acquire these companies and put Western-style management in there. For instance, we looked to bring a pharmaceuticals company we bought up to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) status. That allowed us to subcontract to some of the majors like SmithKline Beecham, producing some drugs in a very cost-effective way.

Kaizen: What years were you working in Romania?

Singh: That was from about 1998 onward. I worked for a company called Litchfield Continental. Eventually it was reversed into a shell company on NASDAQ, and we floated the whole structure. That gave us access to capital markets and a shareholder structure with institutional investors, which allowed us to expand and continue to the next stage.

Kaizen: At the poSingh-Lall-20int that you were working for the conglomerate, what was your function, in particular in the Romanian operation?

Singh: I originally was the head of finance, but then it became more of a strategic role as the Chief Financial Officer. I oversaw all of the subsidiaries and I was responsible for raising the financing in order to continue to acquire other companies. Also, we were restructuring a lot of those companies in terms of making them more efficient and making sure that we could produce goods, such as aircraft, at a price that was quite competitive.

Kaizen: That requires a number of skills, including finance and management. How did you acquire the management skills?

Singh: With Energy Publishing, once I qualified, I moved as an accountant to general management. That’s when I felt that I needed to sort of prop up my skills with an MBA to get more broad experience in operations. It was after the exposure to a lot of the conglomerates and looking at turning around some of those companies that I actually learned some general management. In fact, I also studied a qualification we have here in England, which is an economic chartered director, which is mainly corporate governance. It was quite a new qualification in those days, but now it is quite popular here in the U.K. as a means of showing that you have the corporate governance skills that is required to govern from a private to a public company. I was one of the first handful of chartered directors in the U.K.

Kaizen: What is a chartered director?

Singh: It’s a qualification. Anyone can start their own company as director of the company; but to standardize the qualification, they put together the program. We have a well-established institution here in the U.K. called the Institute of Directors. They decided to produce a qualification very much like being a chartered accountant or chartered engineer. To be chartered means you have your own set of by-laws.

Kaizen: This would be like a managing director’s position — acquiring the skills and knowledge to do that?

Singh: Yes. It gives you the whole breadth of skills. There is also a panel interview where they assess whether you have the skills.

Kaizen: How does that compare to being a company president in the United States? Or a CEO?

Singh: A company president or CEO would give you the basic skills in corporate governance required for people management, managing a board, finance, operations, and marketing. This would bring them together in coordinating activities.

Kaizen: To go back to the Romanian operation — in addition to the management and finance skills, there were also cultural issues.

Singh: Yes. Also language barriers.

Kaizen: Also political issues: dealing with people who have been trained under a communist regime and trying to change their culture to be more market-friendly. How did you handle that?

Singh: In fact, we had nuclear scientists who were working on the shop floor because hard currency was hard to get in those days in Romania. We had a surplus of skilled labor. To manage that, we had our own operations people. Most were from London and some of our own people in Bucharest. We had translators to assist with the cultural differences.

In terms of dealing with the politicians, at that stage, Romania wanted to become part of the EU, so it was obligated to privatize a number of their industries. In fact, that is one time where the state was actually trying to help us. [Laughs] They helped us with introducing Western-style management and practices, making the companies competitive, and embracing Europe as an open-market. It was really introducing a capitalistic extension into Romania, which helped the economic circumstances by employing a lot of people.

One of the engineering companies we took over had something like 4,000 employees. It was almost a town in itself with its own little railway station. They made clutch parts for Mercedes-Benz and, obviously, Mercedes-Benz controlled the quality. They rubber-stamped them as Mercedes parts, but they were actually manufactured in Romania. So we were quite impressed with the quality they were bringing out.

It was essentially turning that from a communist regime to where they have the normal more profit-oriented objectives: generating profits, keeping business goals in sight, having a vision of the company in terms of quality, where they position themselves in the market, and looking at values that they deliver and how they are going to deliver that. The people are a huge aspect, and for them it was quite a privilege working for a Western company — and one of the forefront companies, especially in the pharmaceutical buyer’s market. It was one of the more prestigious pharmaceuticals that had been long-established. We also bought Romero, which is part of the aerospace company and that was part of Bucharest Airport at that time. That brought in a lot of joint-ventures. For instance, we had an Israeli company that was interested in importing MiGs from the Russians, putting in an electronic platform, and then selling them off to the Romanian Air Force.

Kaizen: Did you say Russian MiG airplanes?

Singh: Yes. Obviously, putting in a lot more technology. And they sort of bought in to Bucharest Airport and some of the hangars there in order to process the orders.

Kaizen: So the British conglomerate that you are working for is running a number of operations in Romania: pharmaceuticals, some biological enterprises, Mercedes parts, and so forth.

Singh: That’s correct. It was also a U.K. operation that was mainly insurance-oriented. Lloyd’s of London, a subsidiary we bought called McCall’s, and also biotechnology, which was more in Manchester and included looking at different ways to use innovative biotechnology.

Kaizen: And the overall company was Litchfield?

Singh: It was originally Litchfield that bought the assets; but once it was floated, we used a NASDAQ shell, which essentially is a company that was called — in those days — Global. You can buy a shell on NASDAQ where you can actually clean up and then you can get that to take over your company, which was Litchfield. And what Litchfield would do in exchange is to have a convertible debentures over the stock of the company and eventually it buys out. The debenture is converted into stock. So we had a controlling stake in the shell company, which is a little easier to list on NASDAQ than having to go to the traditional IPO structure, which means you have extensive up-front costs in terms of producing the prospectives and complying with all of that.

Kaizen: How many years were you with this organization?

Singh: A good four years.

Kaizen: In the late 1990s?

Singh: That’s correct. Into 2000.

Kaizen: At some point you left there. Is that because the Romanian operations were finished? Did other opportunities come along?

Entrepreneurship  

Singh: There were a lot of opportunities that I was faced with, and a lot of them were smaller projects that got me really interested. Many of my colleagues left to look at financing different projects, and I saw their success mushroom. I thought that I should try a hand at it. So I left that company to move on to Capital Instruments.

Kaizen: In 2001?

Singh: That’s correct.

Kaizen: Is this an entrepreneurial firm?

Singh: Yes. We specialized in raising funds for small-to-medium size companies looking to grow. We have a number of investors that we have who are looking for investing into small-to-medium size enterprises with the prospect of growth. We essentially marry the two.

Kaizen: Who is the “we” early on?

Singh: A network of financiers I work with. They all have their specific expertises. If there is a project, for instance, a biofuel plant or a harbor project or an aviation project, we can assemble a team and relative expertise and look to champion either raising finance or find certain investments.

For example, one of my earlier projects when I started off as a financier was to look at insurance assessors. This was a small-size English company, which had insurance assessors up and down the country who would go out and value your vehicle after you’ve had an accident. This was very early on when we had in England the third party loss-recovery market beginning to take hold. What we did was develop that company and combine it with in-house assessors that the insurance company was wanting to off-load to reduce their costs. So we created a national, insurance assessing business, which in itself was quite innovative in those days.

We could quite easily use IT and technology. Our team had a certain number of people who were more IT-literate. The way we grew the company was the insurance assessors had in those days what would probably be equivalent to an iPad. A gadget with its own cradle in his car. They would do off their report when they would see a vehicle. It was similar to the internet in that the cradle sent a signal through the phone back to the mainframe; it would turn around the reports quite quickly. We combined that for what we called the litigation departments and with the insurance companies as well; so we could actually cover both markets. Before it was bought out, it became a key player in the British insurance market.

Kaizen: At Capital Instruments, you came in as CEO in 2001 and put together financing for small-to-medium size companies. Your value-added is your network of people who have the financing available and how to structure finance for these organizations. In some cases, you implemented the management practices — putting together a team of people to make the company better-financed and better-operated.

Singh: That’s correct.

Kaizen: So it’s actually a combination of financial and management consulting.

Singh-Lall-22Singh: Yes. And the marketing aspect as well because in order to attract investment, investors are really looking to companies that are in the growth phase; they are looking to grow. So it is essentially marrying the two. You have a very good project; you have management in place; you’re overseeing their investment; they are looking to grow their investment. So it was quite a mutually-beneficial relationship that we were brokering.

Kaizen: How would the compensation work? Would it be a percentage of the overall financing deal? Or are you taking investment positions yourself?

Singh: Sometimes a combination. Sometimes we could negotiate a private placement ourselves and sometimes we would get paid in equity as well as cash compensation. And sometimes it was a case that we would see two or three companies in the same field and see ways that we could create synergy by combining the companies. So we would look to approach venture capitalists and banking relationships ourselves to put together a financing package to buy two or three companies. Then we would be the nominees to the board to oversee the company. Once it was where we wanted it, we would spin it off for sale or continue having some sort of a stake in it.

Kaizen: A small-to-medium size company — can you put some numbers to that?

Singh: Anything from a £2 million turnover to £10-15 million.

Those were the initial-sized companies; later on the numbers got a lot bigger. We had hotel developments, such as the Brussels Sheraton. That was getting the investors to finance a purpose-built structure for the likes of Sheraton or the CORE Group, which do InterContinental Hotels, and then lease it back.

Kaizen: How do deals come along? You did insurance-adjusting in Britain and then a hotel in Belgium. How do you find projects as diverse as that?

Singh: Essentially, we built up good relationships with lawyers, bankers, venture capitalists, and private equity. And there were a lot of opportunities — like one of the key developments in Brussels in the Prince Royal area, which was essentially a strategic plot of land; it was a sale on a bankruptcy where we identified the site. It was in the right location where we thought this could actually be built. It was a case of us putting together the deal. This came to us by way of one of the bankers looking to refinance the site because they were struggling. We took the problem away from the bank and made it profitable ourselves.

Kaizen: So through the grapevine?

Singh: Yes. Through the bankers who made the referral to us. In early 2000 a lot of companies had over-expanded and the banks were looking to foreclose; so it gave us opportunities to go in with our management and successful track record. That was quite unusual because while the banks were willing to foreclose on existing proprietors, they were willing to lend to you to make that a success operation. It was really quite interesting in that a lot of deals could be picked up like that.

Kaizen: So the banks are making a judgment about your management and business skills. They don’t think that the existing people can pull it off. Fresh ideas and so on.

Singh: That’s right.

Kaizen: So even though you have no hotel experience per se, it’s the general business experience that is important.

Singh: Yes. Absolutely. Also, certain expertise can be brought in. Like in this case with the hotel experience.

Kaizen: That can be a commodity that you bring in.

Singh: There was a colleague I worked for who was part of a property development company that had already done small-size hotels, so he had the mechanics already in place as an expertise. Once we brought him onto the property, he was looking to create a purpose-built hotel, but the problem was financing. In fact, we got Kuwaiti funds. They were willing to finance the structure of the hotels, then this leads obviously to an operator, in which case he would share in some of that.

Since then we’ve acquired, as well, hotels back in Nottingham, leased to CORE Group, which again has very successful operations. We have other recent developments that are revolving structures — 55-story skyscrapers in Dubai. We also have an Indian company interested in doing something similar in India; that is an exciting type of project.

Kaizen: So the first decade of this century, what other projects were you involved in?

Singh: Some of the larger ones included a biofuels plant in Canada that was producing ethanol from biomass, which is very innovative.

Kaizen: In northern Ontario?

Singh: That’s correct.

Kaizen: How did that one come across your horizon from all the way across the Atlantic?

Singh: We built a lot of relationships in New York, having had a listed company on the NASDAQ exchange. We knew a lot of the banks and consultants there. I also had to be familiar with the federal security laws and the SEC practices. So we came across the project in Canada by way of a referral. At that stage, you in the U.S. had started feeling the pinch in 2006 and 2007. Capital was drying up. So they were looking towards European banks and they saw me as someone they already had a relationship with who had an established relationship with European banks. They signed me on a retainer to say that if I was able to finance this project in Europe, then they would be willing to compensate us. However, we actually felt that the engineering company that had actually designed it wasn’t actually capable of seeing the plans come to fruition.

Kaizen: So Americans were financing this project in Ontario, but American funds were drying up in the lead-up to the financial crisis. So they came to you in Europe.

You mentioned the engineering expertise. You need to get other consultants who have the engineering expertise because you don’t know biofuels personally, right? Although, you can read up on it.

Singh: Absolutely. I was quite fortunate that one of my colleagues had a Ph.D. She was an expert in sustainability. She went on tour for one of the major fuel companies. They were very interested in the project. I have another colleague of mine from a capital fund, who were interested in the project itself given that it was a sustainable project.

We had U.S. and European banks because they saw this as a way of  legislation, because at one stage 10 percent of ethanol formed a part of the fuel pumps — most Americans don’t know that, but they actually pump 10 percent ethanol and they were looking to increase that to 20 percent. So they knew that there was a huge market for it. Corn prices — ethanol being from corn — were going through the roof in the Corn Belt. So that was very unpopular. But here we had innovation and technology, and we had Foster Wheeler at the forefront of developing commercial processes in order to convert biomass into ethanol, which is a tricky process.

Kaizen: What do you mean by “biomass”? Tree bark and whatever is left over from lumbering operations?

Singh: That’s right. Whatever is left from lumbering operations or from natural waste in the forest that needs to be cleaned up. Also some woodchip derivative parts. In Canada there are huge sites accumulated over years and years. We inspected one site that was something like 100 hectares. They were seen as dump sites and they didn’t understand why we were interested in them. [Laughs]

Kaizen: Free raw materials.

Singh: Yes. Free raw materials. That’s one of the reasons the pension funds were interested: we were getting our raw materials free and producing a product.

Kaizen: Were these U.S. or British pension funds?

Singh: Canadian. And we had one of the Netherlands banks.

Kaizen: What dollar value is this operation?

Singh: That was about $320 million (USD).

Kaizen: Much larger. What years were you working on this one?

Singh: 2006.

Kaizen: Was it an R&D project primarily, or was the R&D done and it was more an engineering issue to make it happen?

Singh: The R&D was completed. However, upscaling to mass production was a problem that needed specific expertise. That came from a British company, in fact, Foster Wheeler. Wheeler is known more in the petroleum industry for resolving problems using mass furnaces.

Kaizen: When did this project come to completion?

Singh: It’s still partly financed because we had a project that was taken over by a drawback of Scotland. Things pretty much came to a halt at that stage. Now with financing again becoming more available, we are hoping to move again.

Kaizen: You are working on a project in Ireland involving a port?

Singh: Yes. That’s correct.

Kaizen: How did you hear about this one?

Singh: This came from one of my clients who looked to finance this development and thought that it was far too large for them in Ireland — he’s based in Dublin himself. He asked whether this would interest me; it was a marine project at that stage. While I was in London, I floated the idea to the banks, one of the banks being the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. It was quite fascinating because it qualified in the European Union grants for an infrastructure project since we were developing a port. But the scale of it didn’t actually allow it to qualify for some of the larger grants; I was told at that stage that it was probably easier to procure larger numbers from European investment as opposed to going for something smaller.

Kaizen: Is this Euros? Sterling?

Singh: Sterling. So instead of trying to finance something for about £25 million, they were asking us to look to upscale the project.

Kaizen: So they can loan you more money. [Laughs]

Singh-Lall-15Singh: That’s right. And here in Europe it qualifies as a sort of private-public partnership, where private money is being matched by public grants and loan financing. This was essentially driven by EU legislation: mandated fishing vessels — mainly Spanish fishing vessels — shipping in the Irish waters have to dock for a certain number of hours after each fishing trip, which meant that they would have to travel all the way back to Spain; but here they could put a facility that was localized. On top of that, we had a wind farm and rigs off-shore, near the facility, without having to go to Dublin or Cork. This would justify having a base there. Also, on the West Coast there is a lot of tourism, which attracts cruise liners and so on. So it mushroomed into a much larger project.

Kaizen: The projects you’ve worked on are quite geographically diverse: Romania, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, and even Canada.

Singh: [Laughs] There are a few developments in France as well.

Kaizen: Fair enough. [Laughs] There doesn’t seem to be a pattern there. It seems it is more of the matter of when and where a deal comes up.

Singh: That’s right.

Kaizen: The projects are also in all sorts of different areas: insurance, hotels, biomass, and so on. Of all of the deals that are possible, what makes one attractive to you? It doesn’t seem to be geography or industry specific. What are the features that interest you?

Singh: I’m quite privileged to receive more projects than I could possibly allocate my time to. The projects that attract my interest … it really is about the people I’m working with. I have a great admiration for our management; it’s really the people who make the projects happen. I tend to pick and choose projects with people I can really work with and see their passion. Also, I even find that even though it’s across different industries, the mechanics of making a project work are quite fundamental. The mechanics distill down to good marketing, good numbers, an eye on the numbers, good productivity, a business plan that is realistic, and so on.

Kaizen: That is more abstract than the particular product or place.

Singh: Yes. I’ve developed those fundamentals having come from a management background, combined with marketing and corporate governance. It’s about how to oversee a project and how to take that “pilot” or strategic view. You can make it happen from start to finish and you have the people and elements in place.

Kaizen: The first thing you mentioned was the people that you get to work with. You deal with a wide range of people in many different countries. It’s not always the same financiers from private equity and venture capitalists. Is it people that you know and you’ve worked with before?

Singh: Actually, you look at the merits of the project and you know your own resources of people. Also, with some projects you look at the existing management already in place. What’s their passion? Where are things going wrong? Where do they lack the skills to do it themselves? And where can we make it a mutually-beneficial relationship? So I’m very interested in who actually spearheads the project itself.

For instance, we were quite fortunate in the Ireland project. We have someone who has 25 years of experience in the industry. He’s built up a family business, which has gone pretty much as far as it can go, because you can’t break the threshold of a family business into a more corporate structure, which takes structured financing and attracting the likes of what we would call “merging capital.” It would be highly capital-intensive and then dealing with a lot of the blue chips to get relationships to make a support development work. It’s beyond their agreement. But you have the people on the ground at the local level who are there and willing to see it through with you at the end of the day.

Kaizen: How much of this can you do from your home office? How much of it requires you to travel — boots on the ground?

Singh: In the early days, I used to travel a lot. But now I try to manage remotely, being a family man. [Laughs] But it is difficult; I’m still traveling.

Kaizen: Do you have more junior people whom you can farm the travel out to in order to do the leg work?

Singh: Yes, we do. We have a lot of junior people who’ve come through the ranks who have worked with us on several projects. Also, technologies such as Skype and so on make it so much easier.

Kaizen: The company is still Capital Instruments?

Singh: It certainly is, yes.

Kaizen: How many people work at Capital Instruments?

Singh: About 25 people.

Kaizen: You’re CEO of the organization?

Singh: Yes.

Kaizen: With 25 people, how many projects in an average year?

Singh: We take on a variety of projects. Some years it may be like 12 projects, which might be fairly small. And some years we may take as little as two or three projects in a year because they take a lot of time and are a lot more involved. It really depends. Some of the companies may be in high-growth fields, like biotechnology, which doesn’t really need too much key-input, but they do want the ability to raise financing. We’re pretty much putting together their business plan and pitching for them to banks and helping them in an almost hand-holding approach that isn’t so resource intensive. Whereas if you are developing a completely new project, like with the port development, for instance, we have to sort of scrap the original plan to look at something far bigger that involves some key players that we have to resource or to incentivize to work with us in order to bring to fruition.

Kaizen: So the 25 people who are part of your staff, how many of those people would be finance? How many would be marketing? How many would be management? Or does that breakdown even make sense?

Singh: Most of us are all-rounders. Either we have a financial background or a marketing background, and sometimes an operations background. We come from a particular industry where we’ve managed either to grow a company or projects within a larger company where we’ve had hands-on experience. We’ve been through the “mill,” as we say, having experienced capital-rationing problems, problems with not having enough resources — human resources and so on. So most of the people are quite experienced.

Kaizen: You mostly hire people who’ve been through the fire.

Singh: Yes.

Kaizen: Do you recruit out of universities for junior people?

Singh: We do recruit from universities. A lot of the younger chaps are post-graduates. Some of the research, especially the desk-based research, we do resort to Ph.D.-level students who we can contract.

Kaizen: Speaking of a Ph.D., you spent some time at Warwick Business School pursuing a Ph.D. while you were also doing your full-time career. What was your motivation for pursuing the Ph.D.?

Singh: I had a professor who was very interested in my MBA dissertation who convinced me that I should develop it more and make a dissertation that would be worthy of a Ph.D.

Kaizen: What was your thesis?

Singh: I was looking at specific market segmentation in the leisure industry. In order to motivate myself, the subject had to be marketing, some aspect of segmentation, and it would also have to involve an area that I really haven’t looked at, but interested me. It ended up being the leisure segment. I went through the academic side of it, but I was still very much working and I was pulled away by certain projects. Unfortunately, that has been shelved for the time being. I would love to go back to that.

Later Career and Advice

Singh-Lall-17Kaizen: So when you have some leisure, you can finish up your Ph.D.

Singh: Yes. That’s right.

Kaizen: You are in a good situation now. You are in your middle 40s; you have a prosperous company; you have more deals in front of you than you can handle, so you can be choosy. What do you see yourself working on for the next few years?

Singh: I think the mix of projects at the moment with the port development, the new, revolving skyscraper …

Kaizen: Yes, we do need to come back to the revolving skyscraper. [Laughs]

Singh: [Laughs] That’s kind of interesting, yes.

Kaizen: So the port project in Ireland, a revolving skyscraper in Dubai, and a project in India, is that right?

Singh: Yes.

Kaizen: Those will keep you busy for a couple of years.

Singh: Yes. Those are the immediate projects. The biofuel project is also coming back on-stream. So those will keep me busy for a while. I’ll have to light a candle to try to fit my Ph.D. in between.

Kaizen: Let’s talk about Dubai, where all kinds of engineering marvels are happening. How did you get involved in this project?

Singh: This was from an old business associate who went out to Dubai. He had been there for a number of years and sold something to the tune of $200-$300 million in property there; so he became quite a significant property dealer there in Dubai. He was involved in Jumeirah Beach Resorts, which is one of the prime lands in Dubai. We had a very good relationship there. He based himself in Dubai and is looking at a way of presenting something at the height of the highest structure in Dubai at the moment, Burj Khalifa.

Dubai was priming itself to be one of the major hubs that you can actually stopover when you are flying from, for example, Birmingham to the East. So when I take a trip to India, I have a chance to stop off in Dubai and have a chance to enjoy a lot of the 5-star and even 6-star and 7-star hotels they have there. As well as some of the water parks — they even have a ski resort there. It is a very exciting place. Obviously, they took a battering during the financial crisis and everything almost came to a halt. My business colleague there is struggling, having had a lot of boom years in property sales.

However, there is still a niche market of those interested in innovative property ideas. He’s working with Atkins Engineering to develop a revolving structure. What became popular is what is called “villas in the sky,” where people buy whole floors of a building in order to have an apartment that stretched across a whole floor.

Kaizen: So the idea for this one is that the entire building rotates?

Singh: It rotates, yes. He got the technology and wants to build on prime land as its first prototype. He approached me for the financing aspect because we have the hotel experience and the type of investors who may be interested being that it is at the forefront of innovation — that’s always a risky venture. He was having a difficult time financing, which is why he approached me.

Kaizen: How much is it to finance this project?

Singh: About $200 million. It’s a 55-story skyscraper.

Kaizen: Part hotel and part villas in the sky?

Singh: His idea initially was to have all residential. We changed to thinking that you are perhaps better off selling the first 15 or 20 floors to a hotel. At the moment we are working with the Core Group, who are quite interested in the first 15 floors.

Kaizen: This project is still relatively early and you are still working on the financing?

Singh: Yes. We have a Swiss group and an Indian group interested. We’ve acquired the land where it is going to be built, so we can put those stages together to satisfy both of the criteria and maybe bridge debt to finance the difference.

Kaizen: The engineering is a “go?”

Singh: Yes. Apparently the technology has been patented as a joint patent between Atkins and my business colleague.

Kaizen: Does the property have a name so we can keep our ears open for it?

Singh: Yes. You can look at the website; it’s Time 55. It’s very exciting. I can very easily imagine somewhere like Las Vegas having a revolving structure like that. It would be quite unique. Perhaps New York as well. In fact, the company itself, Time 55, wants to put a building on each timeline. I think that’s quite ambitious; at this stage we are focusing on getting the initial one off of the ground.

Kaizen: It could serve as a prototype for lots of others.

Singh: That’s right. So we are trying to get the prototype off of the ground, and once we know that’s done, to replicate it will be easier. Right now it’s about getting the prototype financed and workable and to make it a worthwhile hotel — to make it successful by having full sale on the residential as well.

Kaizen: So your major projects currently are a revolving skyscraper in Dubai, the biomass case in Canada, and a large port structure in Ireland. Your plate is quite full.

Singh: Yes. [Laughs] Of course, I’m not the only one working on these. We have a number of people involved.

Kaizen: Yes, a whole team of people. Of your 25 permanent people, are they divided among these three projects? Or is everybody doing a little bit on each?

Singh: They are pretty much divided. Each of them has their expertise.

Kaizen: And there would be a smaller group of you who are in a general oversight position — or perhaps just you?

Singh: The oversight I’m heading on each of those major projects; so I need to coordinate and orchestrate who’s working on those to make sure that we are still on target and things get done.

Kaizen: Over the twenty years or so since you finished schooling, what’s the thing you’ve enjoyed the most about all of the projects you’ve worked on? Is there one element you’ve liked the most?

Singh: The fact of the achievement. You see a very small company that grows. Like Biofarm Conglomerate has grown into something that has become very exciting because we started from a pharmaceutical company and then acquired a whole sequence of opportunistic acquisitions and ended up the life of the group at that stage. It was very fast, in a couple of years. And I enjoyed the bounce in our stock price — we went from $0.20 to $8.00.

Kaizen: Wow. That’s forty times the original price.

Singh: Yes. So the shareholders benefited — it made a lot of money for a lot of people and they were very happy. It was a very exciting time; reflecting back on it is very pleasant. But also seeing some of the smaller projects come to fruition are very good. The insurance assessors — when we became a major player in the market on a very small concern. A $2 million turnover went up to about $40 million. It was quite good. The growth is what I tend to reflect on.

Kaizen: It’s a happy measure.

Singh: That’s right.

Kaizen: Have you had any projects that ended in failure, projects that just didn’t work out?

Singh: Oh yes. I’ve had my fair share of deals that didn’t work out. Sometimes you do reflect on them and think, “Maybe if I had done it differently.” But that is part of the learning process.

Kaizen: Are there any common threads, things you’ve learned from those deals that fall through that inform your decision-making the next time around?

Singh: Sometimes it comes down to negotiations. Sometimes it’s best to try to find a common platform in order to make projects work. I’ve lost out on a fair share of projects where you try to get your shareholders the best deal, but it wasn’t quite right for everyone.

Kaizen: Over-extended? Too pushy?

Singh-Lall-10Singh: Maybe “over-extensive” is more appropriate. [Laughs]

Kaizen: So it has to be win-win. Though, going into negotiations, you’re both in a separate ballpark.

Singh: It’s usually very complicated and difficult to keep all of the connections.

I’ll give you an example. We owned an aviation subsidiary in the Isle of Wight and that was one of three manufacturers of aircraft here in the U.K. What we wanted to do was to take over a small concern in Yorkshire, where they produced single-pilot, two-seater aircraft. So you get these ex-military pilots to buy the fuselage first … this is a very nice plane where you can detach the wings, put them on the back of a trailer and reverse it into your garage. That really interested me.

Given that we had the production line in Romania and the Isle of Wight, we could actually put those into full production. And we had the usual federal licenses and CAA licenses for production. But in negotiations, it meant buying the company outright; we had some very tough negotiations there. Obviously, you are concerned about the risks you are taking. But upon reflection, I often think perhaps that would have come around. And those aircraft are still around, but not manufactured and not as popular if they were in full production, which would have lowered the price quite drastically. At that time we were looking at something like $10 million for the company, which was a lot of money at that time. But I wish we had acquired it at that time. That would have been a different story. So there are always difficult negotiations because you have lawyers there to represent your interests and you are almost negotiating with a whole team across the board. It’s very difficult. You wonder sometimes if maybe you could orchestrate a board that would do a little better. But it depends on timing and a lot of other issues as well.

Kaizen: Juggling a lot of balls.

Singh: And blades at that time, yes. [Laughs]

Kaizen: Thinking about younger people still in school. How important was your formal education was in enabling you to do what you have done? If someone has smarts and ambition but not the formal schooling, can he do what you did? Or is the formal schooling important?

Singh: You know, I think I ride the learning curve a lot faster. Formal education is the way to go. You have to load yourself with the key thinking. I found that originally — and this was having qualified as an accountant — you’ll still find yourself blinkered in the market because you don’t understand the marketing aspects; you don’t understand the operations; you’ll also get pigeon-holed in a specialization that is self-restricted. I broadened my horizons and tried to get better perspectives by looking at other areas and I became interested by accident in marketing; it wasn’t a subject that really appealed to me.

Kaizen: And that wasn’t until your MBA level.

Singh: Right. Nowadays in business to get ahead of the game, you need to be more of a generalist, but see the woods from the trees by having enough knowledge in the various aspects: numbers, accounting, managing operations, managing people, as well as being able to see a vision for the company in terms of goal setting and where you are positioning your company relative to the competition.

Kaizen: Two other things come to mind here. You consistently mentioned knowing people — having people bring things to you and having your own network of people you can call on. What goes into being the kind of person who can be a part of a network like that? Are personality and character important? And can they be taught?

Singh: I think in business your reputation is extremely important as well as your ability to deliver. And more importantly, as we say in England, an old phrase that is, unfortunately, being emptied of meaning: “Your word is your bond.” Integrity. Loyalty to your principles.

Kaizen: Developing a reputation as being someone who can deliver but also being a person who delivers what he says he’s going to deliver.

Singh: That’s correct.

Kaizen: Part of that is the skill- and knowledge-set, and part of that is being smart enough to have the formal schooling.

Singh: Yes.

Kaizen: You mentioned that most of the deals you’ve put together have had common elements — you are able to see certain, abstract patterns. But in each case, since the industries you are so different, you have to plunge into the particulars of that industry. It strikes me that you’d have to be a pretty quick self-starter to learn about biomass, ports, pharmaceuticals, airplanes, and so forth.

Singh: Yes. That’s correct. That’s the interesting aspect. In terms of brokering a deal in order to make something grow, to make it appealing to shareholders, to make it appealing to the people who are going to buy the products, and to any stakeholders who are in the business — putting those elements together. The only term I can think of is cross-functional integration. You have to see the woods from the trees. You make everyone strategically coordinate in the same way. And sometimes it’s like marketing to move the company forward, but then you know the numbers fed back to you to see how you perform. I think I have a good mix of the two.

Kaizen: Some questions about Britain’s business climate and the European climate, more broadly speaking. From your perspective, there are opportunities all over the place.

Singh: There are always opportunities, yes.

Kaizen: Do you get the sense that Britain now has an entrepreneurial culture? In one sense, Britain is the birthplace of modern economics and has a strong entrepreneurial history. Is the climate healthy? In decline?

Singh: I think the entrepreneurial spirit in Britain has always been quite strong. It’s weathered the recessions and the booms that we experience here. We have a very good entrepreneurial structure here where people are given the freedom to look at developing and incubating new businesses. We are probably more risk-averse than the Americans are. When you are in New York and pitching a road show and people are buying your stock — the Americans are more risk-seekers. Obviously, you have to speculate to accumulate, but the British tend to be more conservative. We see that through venture capitalists.

The recessions and so on tend to polarize people. You get those who are looking for opportunities and are more risk-seeking, and you have some people looking at the austerity measures going on at the moment and are risk-averse. They draw their funds in more and securitize them in gold and silver and not be willing to invest at this stage. But there is still an entrepreneurial culture that has weathered the differences in available financing.

Kaizen: Britain traditionally has strong ties with North America and more broadly the Commonwealth. But also, due to geography, close connections with Europe. Are the American connections more important now, or the European?

Singh: The American relationship has always been great. For Britain, I think, that is a huge market that is readily available. The European market is a little more fragmented; it’s always been a little more difficult because it has essential differences all across Europe. But, again, it’s an open market, which will continue despite differences in the currencies or whether the Euro dies or whatever.

Kaizen: Europe’s temporary troubles. Britain is in some ways part of the European Union, but it does have its independent currency and it guards its sovereignty. To what extent do current troubles with the Euro affect business in Britain?

Singh: The Euro is a fluctuating market at the moment with the economic climate. But the British Pound is still really relatively strong. Although, for exports, it makes your price a bit more expensive across the continent.

Kaizen: Zeroing in on the so-called “PIGS countries” [Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain], there is a current instability. Does that impact your decision-making about whether you take on investments there?

Singh: We certainly do because of the political instability. I would certainly be an advocate, but if all the debt was actually liquidated, it would be a lot easier to get the next generation to have it fall on their shoulders the burden to liquidate this debt bubble. Inflating each time isn’t the solution. 

Kaizen: So solve the problem now?

Singh: I certainly would. In some ways it will come to the crunch because Greece is a recurring problem. You saw the problem with Cyprus, which is the first time 30 percent was just wiped off of accounts. It may well be that at this stage that Germany is not willing to further inflate and dilute their own currency, the Euro. This would create a domino effect where Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Greece are all impacted, which might be the best thing that’s ever happened to Europe. But I think the most likely scenario is that they will hop-along. The austerity measures will be quite drawn out. I mean, we are having riots and so on in the various countries about this, including the U.K. We are, obviously, not sheltered from it here. It’s quite unfair. A lot of assets are being depreciated due to this bubble. And business perceptions are impacted. It’s a shame that it has to come to this. But this is the result if you want these cycles — and quantitative easing is actually adding to the problem and deferring the solution as opposed to offering a long-term solution.

Kaizen: Younger people. What advice would you give to those starting out in business? Do they need to work on personality issues? Character? Or acquiring formal knowledge? You also mentioned being able to see the forest through the trees, so cultivating a big-picture, abstract ability? Understanding markets? Politics?

Singh: I think people in college now have a lot more opportunities these days, especially with the information age where we have the internet.

Kaizen: Research costs are way down.

Singh: Absolutely. And we have readily available information through the internet. Researching opportunities and social networks are developing and have changed marketing in of itself. And communication can happen almost instantly across the globe. And we can almost travel anywhere in the world. I think it is a very exciting time for someone in college.

Kaizen: What from your college experience has stood the test of time?

Singh: I would certainly invest in knowledge-development by gearing yourself up through formal education. Also by looking at the common denominators of what make businesses work.

Kaizen: So lots of case studies.

Singh: A lot of case studies, which are, again, readily available. It’s almost gaining experience through someone else’s eyes without actually doing it. Because the best experience, I always say, is experience.

Kaizen: Also learning from failure cases?

Singh: Absolutely. Failure cases as well as successful cases. One of the big things I enjoyed in my MBA looking at was real companies that either got it right or wrong. And even some live cases. Or even simulations where you are designing a product  —  I think that is a very good way of learning. In those days we competed against each other in a marketing simulation and we had a product that was the equivalent of, let’s say, a 3D gadget like a navigation device. It gives you a good taste of business given that you can never have perfect information; you’ve got to make guesses sometimes. The other thing that you do learn is to follow reason through  —  everything has a cause and effect. To understand that and to build your character in terms of experiencing all the virtues we derive from reason.

Kaizen: So lots of experience whether through case studies or simulations, and getting internships and actual jobs as you can. Then combining that with high-level knowledge and judgment skills as well.

Singh: Yes.

Kaizen: The internet is a boon in making tons of information available, but one still must sort through that information and say what counts and what doesn’t and then exercise good judgment.

Singh: Yes. You have to be able to make that meaningful to your own goals. The other aspect, which is very essential in the earlier part, is combining your personal goals with the goals of your organization. And self-development is something that you really have to invest in from the outset. Putting time aside to look at your weaknesses and how you can improve them. There is  a lot of talk about positive thinking, but I always promote what I call “negative thinking.”

Kaizen: Objective self-evaluation is part of the process.

Singh: Yes. In terms of constructive negative thinking. With negatives, sometimes we have to overcome them. The positive things look after themselves.

Kaizen: When you were younger and your family was poor and working class, a big part of your motivation for going into business was to earn money. Now you are comfortable financially and wouldn’t have to work anymore if you didn’t want to. So the money is part of your motivation, but what also is motivating you to continue to work hard?

Singh: I think it gives you the emotional fuel in terms of knowing that you are valuable, that you can contribute and make a difference. I’m happy to grow businesses  —  to see our starting position and where we could make a contribution towards that business and make it grow. And if anything is attractive, it is probably the achievement from having done it — moving companies and making a difference. That excites me.

Sometimes you have a project that gets me thinking about how we could do it. I always find that if there are complicated financial project, many people don’t want to get into the messy details of finding a solution. But I’m wired in the way that it gets me excited to find a solution to it. From an early age, I tend to think about how I can make things work. Perhaps I can get certain investors or banks interested and maybe partly venture-capital financed. If I can break that project down to phases, then …

Kaizen: So you enjoy the process of problem-solving, seeing the problem solved and watching as the business grows.

Singh: Well, not always is it growing! [Laughs] Sometimes it is something you didn’t envisage and I think, “Why didn’t I think of that at the time!” But it is all part of the learning curve. You get better as you experience more.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.

 

Montessori in Chile — interview with Bernardita Jensen

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

Entrepreneurship and Montessori Education

Berna 1Bernardita Jensen is founder and rectora of the Pucalán Montessori School in Colina, Chile. Before founding Pucalán Montessori, Jensen studied at the Houston Montessori Center and founded three other Montessori Schools in Chile. We met with Jensen to discuss her passion for education and the Montessori method.

Kaizen: Where in Chile were you born?

Jensen: In Santiago, but I lived in southern Chile in my childhood and adolescence in Temuco. It’s beautiful and similar to western Canada.

Kaizen: Chilean Patagonia.

Jensen: Yes, near Patagonia. As a young child, I lived on a farm in a beautiful place with trees, volcanoes, and lakes. It was marvelous.

Kaizen: What was your education like?

Jensen: My schooling was traditional. Nevertheless, for me the farm environment was very important, and my mother had a significant role in my education. She gave me more confidence. She was a very creative woman. In my childhood I played a lot, read a lot, imagined a lot, and dreamed a lot.

Kaizen: Was it a small town or big town?

Jensen: It was a small town.

Kaizen: And so your formal education was traditional Chilean schooling?

Jensen: Yes, it was a typical traditional education; with very little space for personal initiative. However, in high school I had a very fantastic teacher who was Japanese. His name is Josuke Kuramochi. My life changed with this teacher.

Kaizen: What did he teach?

Jensen: Spanish literature.

Kaizen: And you were reading a lot, so you were the right student for that class and that teacher?

Jensen: Exactly.

Kaizen: You say it was life-changing. In what way? When you were a girl, were you thinking that you would become a teacher or go to university?

Jensen: My life was changed because he was a teacher who truly knew me and helped me to develop a deep sensitivity. He helped me learn to love reading and also brought out in me leadership skills. I learned from him to love what I do. I also learned diversity from him, being the open and accepting person he is.

When I was a girl, I liked education and psychology. I’m not sure, but I think I studied education because of the influence that my teacher had on my life.

Kaizen: And what age were you when you took the course with him?

Jensen: I was seventeen.

Kaizen: In that time, were you thinking about becoming a teacher?

Jensen: Though I wasn’t sure I would be a teacher, I had by that point begun thinking about teaching. My passion was always to work with people, even better with children or adolescents.

Kaizen: Did you go to university immediately?

Jensen: Yes, in Santiago at the Catholic University. I studied psychology for two years and studied education for four years.

Kaizen: And you graduated with a diploma that enabled you to become a teacher?

Jensen: Yes.

Montessori-School (16)Kaizen: Did you at this point have any work experience other than on the farm?

Jensen: I had, as a young adult, some experience working as a volunteer in areas of social work.

Kaizen: Did you immediately become a teacher after finishing university in Santiago?

Jensen: Yes, and I also began to study Montessori education in Santiago and then in Mexico. I was simultaneously working and studying: both in the field of education.

Kaizen: How did you first hear about Montessori?

Jensen: At the university. In a methodology course, I had to study a current pedagogy and, by happenstance, the topic that chose me was Montessori education. I had been intuitively drawn to Montessori studies and had even found a book by Maria Montessori in the library and had resonated with it.

Kaizen: Completely independently?

Jensen: Yes. I found that book and read it—and then I read all Montessori books in the library every day.

Kaizen: Were the ideas in Montessori similar or different to your formal education for teaching?

Jensen: Completely different. Despite amazing and sincere professors, my university courses on pedagogy weren’t true for me but Montessori changed all that.

Kaizen: So you wanted to be a teacher, but you didn’t like what you were being taught and you were looking for other alternatives.

Jensen: Yes. I loved the kids but not the curriculum in university.

Kaizen: You said you got some formal Montessori training in Santiago. Where?

Jensen: Exactly, I studied in Centro de Estudios Montessori Chile with Mexican or North American teachers who came to Chile to teach us. This would have been in the early ‘90s.

Kaizen: And then you went to Mexico for further training?

Jensen: That’s right.

Kaizen: There is a formal certification process for Montessori?

Jensen: Yes. In the United States I studied for three years. I travelled during my vacations in the summer program to the Houston Montessori Center. I studied in the middle- and high-school program there.

Kaizen: Your interest as a teacher was at the high-school level primarily?

Jensen: Somewhat. I did study the Montessori Method for elementary and middle school as well as high school students. My interest, more than a specific age, was to see the complete development of the child. I understood from this that Montessori is not just a method but an educational philosophy.

Kaizen: So you were working in Santiago and self-studying Montessori and then going for formal training as well. How many years altogether did this take from

university to the time you finished your training in Houston?

Jensen: I studied at university from 1984 to 1990. From 1990 to 1995 I worked and studied Montessori. I studied in Houston from 1999 to 2003.

Kaizen: That’s a long time. During all of that time when you were working were you teaching in a high school in Santiago?

Jensen: No, first I taught upper elementary, ages nine to twelve. And then I studied the adolescent program and worked with adolescents. Before the current Puculan School, I co-established three other Montessori schools in Santiago.

Kaizen: When did you start your first Montessori school?

Jensen: In 1991.

Kaizen: Soon after finishing university. Who were your partners?

Jensen: Elena Young. She had a solid background in Montessori for young children, after having studied in the United States. She was an important woman in Chile promoting Montessori education. Elena and I formed one of the first Montessori school in Santiago: Huelquen Montessori School.

Kaizen: Were other people involved?

Jensen: Yes, there were three other teachers. It was very small. There were only twenty students in a little house with no back yard for play, so we would go to the town square for recess and the children would climb the trees, play hide-and-seek and other games.

Kaizen: You said you founded three schools. Did the first one fail?

Jensen: No, it’s still operating. I took time off because I had my first child. And then I formed the other schools with other people: the second was formed in conjunction with the Boy Scouts. Are you familiar with Boy Scouts? Montessori and Boy Scouts—they have ideas that work quite well together.

Kaizen: Starting chapters and different troops?

21Jensen: Yes, with the Chilean Association of Boy Scouts.

Kaizen: So you started one in Santiago, and that was successful. Then you had your child and took a year off before starting your second one.

Jensen: Yes, exactly. I was also always studying and deepening my understanding of Montessori education.

Kaizen: Who were your partners for your second one?

Jensen: I started the second school with Paola Bianchi. She was another Montessori teacher, who had studied Montessori for elementary age children with the AMI in the United States.

Kaizen: Was this school similar to the first with just a few teachers?

Jensen: Yes, it was the same.

Kaizen: And how long before you started the third one?

Jensen: Three years.

Kaizen: Same story? The second school was also successful so you started a third one?

Jensen: Yes, pretty much. I moved from Santiago to a more rural area outside of the city. And there the parents knew me and asked me to start a new Montessori school there.

Kaizen: Did you have any special challenges with attracting students?

Jensen: Not really. Young families found Montessori attractive: connection with nature, an interest in healthy lifestyles, etc. Apart from this, most of these young families in this small rural area knew each other and were interested in keeping their community tightly knit.

Kaizen: Yet you were starting the first Montessori schools in Chile—what did they know about Montessori?

Jensen: Montessori is new in Chile. However, traditional education has been in crisis for some time and it has been a great moment to encourage and speak about the benefits of Montessori. Families are interested in holistic development, individual development, emotional development, in diversity and respect toward the environment: the fundamentals of Montessori, even if the name “Montessori” is new. The parents listened to me speaking passionately about this new model of education and, as they were also looking for something new, the response was overwhelming.

Kaizen: So you are a credible person and you are passionate about it and you speak about it well.

Parents also look at the expense. Traditional schooling is “free” because it is covered by tax money, and at your school they pay tuition?

Jensen: Yes, and it is not cheap. However, the system in Chile is such that, even traditional schools are not free. The public schools are the only ones covered by tax money and they are considered very low-level.

Kaizen: For young families starting out, it likely looks expensive. So you attract parents who are very committed to their children’s education, and if they think it’s good they will find a way to pay for it.

Jensen: Yes. We have even seen some families that choose the school and then decide to move here due to it being the right choice for their children.

Kaizen: So you now have started two schools in Santiago and one in Colina?

Jensen: I have actually started two schools in Colina. The name of the first school in Colina is Rayen Mahuida. I started this school with the other people for profit. It’s a beautiful school which we designed with an architect.

Kaizen: You designed it from the ground up? So you are not starting in a house now?

Jensen: That’s right. This was the first school where we bought the land, and worked with a team to design and build it. It was a fabulous project: the school was specifically designed for Montessori education. For three years I worked with these people, but then I broke away from this group because my vision was different from theirs. For me, education should be non-profit, and the school was for profit and, due to this, our relationship was broken.

Kaizen: Was the divide was solely about mission and money issues?

Jensen: Yes, exactly. I broke away from this organization, and the parents told me to start a new school again.

Kaizen: How would you describe the business organization of the new one? Is it a cooperative or a non-profit trust or foundation?

Jensen: Yes, that’s how Pucalan was founded; it is a private non-profit foundation. The board is made up of parents, and my work is with the parents, and sometimes it’s not easy.

Kaizen: As the rectora?

Jensen: That’s correct.

Montessori-School (13)Kaizen: The new school is called Pucalán and is north of Santiago. What year did you start it?

Jensen: Yes, it started in 2000 in a lovely building we rented in the area which had been a horse stable that we remodeled and used for 12 years.

Kaizen: You still have expenses to pay and a new facility. Is everything paid for out of tuition or did you have to do financing with banks?

Jensen: The operation of the school is financed by tuition. Three years ago, we bought a new space and built a new building, which was financed by a bank but is thankfully no longer a rented space.

Kaizen: How many students?

Jensen: 550.

Kaizen: How many teachers?

Jensen: 95.

Kaizen: About one teacher per every five students. How many administrative staff?

Jensen: 12.

Kaizen: You are the rectora, and your board is made up of parents??

Jensen: Yes, mostly parents.

Kaizen: Do you have other people on the board of other expertise?

Jensen: Different expertises but not in education. We have architects, lawyers, psychologists, and so on.

Kaizen: What is the cost of tuition for parents?

Jensen: 300,000 Chilean pesos per month, which is about $430.00 US Dollars.

Kaizen: And a school year is how many months?

Jensen: Ten.

Kaizen: So the cost for a year would be 3,600,000 Chilean pesos. What is the current exchange rate for U.S. dollars?

Jensen: Right now, the exchange rate is about 690 pesos per dollar. The annual tuition in dollars would be about $5,200.00 per year.

Kaizen: Did you have any problems with regulations starting a private school?

Jensen: Yes, especially in the beginning. The national curriculum is required for any new school. It’s a very strict and linear curriculum based on cognitive skills based on memorizing information, which is quite different from Montessori. Montessori is a holistic structure which is more concerned about learning processes rather than just information. The emphasis is not only cognitive in the Montessori model, but also social and emotional integration of the child. Breaking away from a very traditional system, we have had a great deal of success and have, over time, gained more respect from the community. In fact, many Schools of Education have requested to come and observe our school, as this new system is becoming more attractive.

Kaizen: You’ve done this several times. Did it get easier each time?

Jensen: No, it didn’t get easier. Of course, I had more experience but the conditions were still such that it was, each time, quite challenging. I learned to develop more confidence each time and understand the system better but the system hasn’t radically changed.

Kaizen: What challenges stand out aside from the amount of paperwork?

Jensen: One of the most interesting challenges of Montessori is that it is not only an educational system; Montessori requires a certain ethic, community involvement, a radically different paradigm than the individualistic society we’re used to. This can be difficult to sustain over time, as each member must commit fully to this paradigm in order for the project to work. Overall, this is the greatest challenge and beauty of Montessori: it is a way of life.

Kaizen: So when you are applying for the permits, it doesn’t translate well to what the education establishment is looking for. How do you get past the hurdles?

Jensen: To a certain degree, we haven’t fully overcome all the hurdles. We submit to the most essential regulations imposed by the educational establishment, but these regulations don’t necessarily impede our work as Montessori educators. In a way, we are still running risks by doing what we do, yet ultimately, the results speak for themselves.

Kaizen: So after you’ve done the Montessori schools and you have a track record and can show that it is working, then it becomes easier. But at the beginning you would have to be convincing government officials.

Jensen: Yes. The results we’ve had have been very positive. This is primarily because many of our students that we have by the time they are in high school have strong leadership skills, a critical awareness of their environment, and many of our graduates have gone on to entrepreneurial pursuits in the areas of their interest.

Kaizen: Are there any other kinds of regulatory challenges that you face?

Jensen: No, because the standard is higher in Montessori schools. Furthermore, we have generally had great results on the standardized tests that dictate the regulatory requirements, which is typically all that the government officials look at.

Montessori-School (8)Kaizen: When you are talking to parents, what do you tell them about why you believe Montessori is right for their child?

Jensen: I talk about freedom and educating the whole person—emotional, personality, spirituality, and the social aspect—not only cognition. This is an important point for parents. Education involves thought process and emotion, as well as spirituality, and our spirituality program is very significant in the school; not a religion program exclusively but a spirituality program. I also speak to them about the parallels between the Montessori Method and today’s scientific discoveries about how we learn as humans.

Kaizen: So you emphasize the freedom element—the uniqueness of each child—and being well-rounded. You grew up on a farm, and Montessori herself liked agricultural education. Do you incorporate that into your schooling?

Jensen: Yes, there is a lot of hands-on experience. We have a tree nursery which the children look after and will then plant those same trees around the school. We also have gardens cared for by the children which were designed by a permaculture team. Do you know permaculture?

Kaizen: Yes, that you can do anywhere. That must have been a challenge in Santiago, a large urban area, earlier.

The other issues about responsibility—learning household things, cleaning up after yourself, and these kinds of things—how do you teach that in your school?

Jensen: It is very important to teach responsibility for their actions. The students clean the school and put the materials in order. This is the first step to responsibility. And this idea is also very important to the parents. This is a revolutionary idea in the school because it seems a waste of time to let the child labor over cleaning up their space, but lost time is not lost time. They can learn a lot. When the children learn these skills and responsibilities, they feel more involved in the community – they feel a stronger sense of belonging. In fact, some of our high school students, in a community service program, will build a playground on our school grounds for use by the younger students.

Kaizen: I visited your new campus for Pucalán school in Colina last year. It was built in 2013?

Jensen: Yes.

Kaizen: It is huge and impressive. When did you decide to build the new campus?

Jensen: In 2008 I started thinking about it, because the rented campus was old and very expensive. I had the experience of seeing many beautiful Montessori schools in the United States, Mexico, Italy, Spain, and New Zealand which inspired me to consider designing our own school here.

Kaizen: So you chose the best of everything that you liked?

Jensen: Yes, I was inspired by the best parts of all that I saw and we then had to adapt to our reality. We chose a spiral form, relating to the cyclical development of the individual. This is comprised of 8 large modules. Each module is a space for each stage of development as described by Montessori as well as an additional module for Music and Art.

Kaizen: And with a successful school running and a supportive board you were able to build your ideal school?

Jensen: Yes, but it was not easy.

Kaizen: So you had more financing to do and an architect to work with?

Jensen: Yes, I worked with an architect from Sweden. The design of the school was very important. The students and the parents and teachers had input in the design of the school. It was a community project, really.

Kaizen: How did you choose this architect from Sweden?

Jensen: He is a Swedish architect but he has lived in Chile for some time. He is well-versed in indoor and outdoor space design as well as sustainable design. This was what we found most attractive about working with him.

Kaizen: The school’s land has several acres.

Jensen: Yes, five hectares, which is 50,000m². This translates, I believe, to just over 10 acres.

Kaizen: That’s substantial, and you have about eight pod-like buildings built in a nautilus-like spiral shape. It is very organic and flowing, and with a large central courtyard area.

Jensen: Yes, it is a peace garden, still under construction.

Kaizen: And then in the outlying areas you have a gymnasium and play fields.

Jensen: That’s right.

Kaizen: You had the idea in 2008. When did you start building?

Jensen: 2011, and the construction lasted two years.

Kaizen: When I saw it in September of 2014, everything was operational but you still had some landscaping to do. And you said over 500 students?

Jensen: Yes, well, 550.

Kaizen: You are still young, so what do you have planned for the future?

Jensen: I want to start a school of education to prepare Montessori teachers in Chile. If there is no preparation for Montessori teachers here, the whole Montessori system will be very vulnerable.

Kaizen: Will that be in Colina?

Jensen: Right, the idea is to be centered in Colina, as it’s absolutely necessary to teach by doing; to use Pucalan as a “living laboratory” of education. To be centered in Colina doesn’t necessarily mean disconnected from the rest of the world—we also want to link with other schools for Montessori teachers around the world.

Kaizen: Will this require new buildings and a new location?

Jensen: Not necessarily. This could possibly be an addition on the same school grounds.

Kaizen: You will bring them to your campus for on-site training?

Jensen: That’s exactly the idea. It is fundamental for teachers to experiment in different environments. They need to be trained by experience and not only theory.

Kaizen: Do you have relationships with the formal Montessori organizations internationally?

22Jensen: Yes, with the American Montessori Society. This is because my training was in the United States in a Montessori school for teachers founded by the AMS. Our school is not accredited by the AMS, yet we do have the connection to them due to my background.

Kaizen: I understand there is a split between different camps of Montessori.

Jensen: Yes, there is AMS and AMI. AMI is European, while the AMS is American. There are some differences between the two but I see these differences more in execution than principle.

Kaizen: You have been a serial entrepreneur, as we say, in the field of education. What has been the most rewarding thing to you about being an entrepreneur in education?

Jensen: I love creating jobs for other people—and significant jobs. It is very important. The people respond very well when working with big ideas. I love creating work for other people, not just for me. I also love creating a community, as I believe wholeheartedly in community work. Ultimately, though, the reward is watching children grow into confident, compassionate and peace-making adults.

Kaizen: Over the years what has been the most frustrating thing for you?

Jensen: It is not easy to work with the parents. Working with the children is very easy. The problem with the adults is because they are focused on results and not the process. Also, as I stated earlier, Montessori requires a lot of commitment. There are occasions where some teachers don’t want to spend the time doing inner work that will make them good Montessori guides. The commitment in doing this inner work is not a very popular idea in our culture and there can be conflicts on account of this.

Kaizen: So that is many conversations?

Jensen: Of course, there is much conflict-resolution every day, but it is vital. It is part of the community building. This involves the teachers and the parents, really the whole community, and it is important to sustain these conversations with everyone.

Kaizen: When people talk about entrepreneurship, there is often difficulty even if you are passionate about what you do. There are frustrating problems, you have to be able to visualize new things and have good communication skills to make your vision real to others. Also, you have to persevere. What character traits seem to you to be the most important to become a successful entrepreneur?

Jensen: There is not just one. There are many characteristics, but perseverance with confidence and balance. You have to believe in the idea and have courage and love. Finally, self-discipline is also very important.

Kaizen: When you say love, is that the same as passion?

Jensen: Yes, I use them synonymously and this requires an inner burning energy.

Kaizen: You have to master yourself.

Jensen: Yes. I must learn before I can begin to teach anyone else. I practice meditation and sometimes fight with my ego.

Kaizen: To return to your own education: In many cases, traditional education is rote-learning and uniform, and the students are disengaged. That doesn’t help them become entrepreneurs, so what made you different? Is there anything that helped you become entrepreneurial when you were a girl?

Jensen: Well, not everything can be explained in a completely rational way. But, things like autonomy are very important and believing in your personal characteristics and making dreams. My family always encouraged a high level of autonomy alongside taking good care of each other. I had a great deal of space to dream, as well. Dreams are not always logical and they are very mysterious. Nevertheless, the most important characteristics I was able to develop were autonomy, confidence, self-discipline and having room for mistakes.

Kaizen: Suppose you were to give advice to other teachers who are young and perhaps dissatisfied with their teacher training. Or perhaps they are working at schools and don’t find it fulfilling, and they are thinking of starting their own schools. What advice would you give to them?

Jensen: Create a community. Don’t work alone, work together. Develop empathy and listen. Again, most importantly, create community. It is not possible alone.

Kaizen: If you’re a teacher, does create community mean having relationships with people who have financing or parents or other teachers and people who will form a network and will help you start the school of your dreams?

Jensen: Right, any project like this, needs to be founded in community. Everyone is learning by growing together and working together. This must be interdependent work—everyone is contributing to the original dream.

Kaizen: Thank you, what a good story your career is.

Jensen: Thank you.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.

Read more Kaizen interviews with leading entrepreneurs.

© 2015 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.

Video Interview with Professor William Kline — Transcript

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Interview conducted at Rockford University by Stephen Hicks and sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

Hicks: I am Stephen Hicks, executive director of CEE, and with us today is Dr. William Kline, who is Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Professor Kline is a Philosophy professor, primarily specializing in business ethics, which is why we invited him here to Rockford College to speak to our Business Ethics class earlier this evening.Kline,W-UIS

Now, Professor Kline, in your approach to business ethics you take issue with the usual statement that business ethics is a contradiction in terms or that it’s an oxymoron. Or what we might refer to as the negative approach to business ethics — which is primarily about focusing the Enron and the Bernie Madoff cases — all of the scandal cases, and presenting an unrelenting litany of problems as representative of what business is all about. What is wrong with that approach to business ethics?

Kline: One of the things that struck me is — I was teaching business ethics at the time that Enron happened in Tyco — and everybody wanted to talk about that, everybody asked, “Wow, what about WorldCom?” And you had, just in terms of corporations and not in terms of business overall, on the New York Stock Exchange something like 3,000 enlisted companies and, on the NASDAQ, I believe something on the order of 5,000. And I might be short on that. It might be easily be higher than that. So we are talking about 8,000 business and five did bad things. That’s actually a pretty good record.

So why not talk about the 7,995 good cases that have gone right and what we can learn from that? Rather than, you know, the same old boring story that, well, somebody pilfered the company funds and ran off to some exotic location, which we all know is wrong. I don’t need business ethics to tell me that’s wrong.

Hicks: Is it your point, though, not that we can’t learn from the negative cases just as a doctor can learn from disease cases, but that we have more to learn from the good cases or successful cases?

Kline: I hear what you say, and it’s not that we can’t learn from the negative cases. Of course, you need rules to protect property and contracts. I think there are real issues with what stock ownership entitles you to, and those rules need to be worked out, but they just get overemphasized. Nobody is looking at all of the good that happens through business, and specifically, the individual good when you decide to enter into business or a business person decides to enter into business, how that might be conceived of as morally good.

Hicks: And here your major theme was putting your business life, including the choice to go into business, this approach to business, or choosing this particular business in the context of your life overall, putting an emphasis on the good life in a very Aristotelian sense? Can you say more about that?

Kline: I think, quite frankly, it’s tragic. I’ve had students graduate now. I’ve been teaching long enough. And I’ve had students that have gone into things that they loved and students that have gone into things that they’ve hated. And this notion that, well, here is my business and professional life, and that’s totally separate from my personal life, and totally separated from the good things I do in the world, and it’s its own entity, I don’t find that works that often. The happiest people I met are the people who have incorporated their business life into their broader goals, their broader aspirations, and see it serving a purpose within their lives. And so, yes, that’s how I want to talk about business ethics. And then in the Aristotelian version of it, what we want to talk about is a flourishing life, and that requires taking a holistic approach to one’s life, including business in that.

Hicks: Right, so if you then ask what are the constituent elements of a flourishing life, and then once we articulate what those are, we can then place one’s business activities in the context of that and many of the same things carry over to that. So, if we are then to ask in an Aristotelian sense, updating Aristotle, what is a flourishing life, or what are the major constituent elements here? You had a list of six features, I believe, no that we have time to talk about all of them, but what are we talking about here?

Kline: Yeah, let me just take a few. What we’re talking about is this: in order for us to flourish as beings, we have to recognize both constrains on what we are and what we can’t do but also certain abilities that we possess and that need exercising. As Mill said famously, to be Socrates dissatisfied is better than being a pig satisfied. And quite frankly, I think part of the reason for that is really to live a life of a pig is either exceedingly boring or, if you look at people who’ve lived purely hedonistic lives, is quite self-destructive. So, the question on the Aristotelian line is: given the kind of being I am, how can I do well iaristotle-bustn the world? Some of the characteristics of a flourishing life that we looked at today were that the flourishing might have to be some sort of standard for flourishing conducts, something that goes beyond my preferences, something that goes beyond my whim, or some sort of guide post to let me know when I am doing better or worse. And one of those objective elements that I pointed out today that we should consider is that there is something fundamental about us in trading. Aristotle said that we are social creatures; Adam Smith said we have a natural propensity to truck and barter. I don’t see why it’s something we should deny. It’s something we should embrace, and it’s a good thing. When we explorers go exploring and they want to make contact with new people, they take stuff to trade.

Hicks: Yes.

Kline: It’s far better than just annihilating who you meet. And trading is social. It’s not antisocial, not at all. Once again, Smith points out that economic transactions are a way of communicating, a way of persuading, which I find highly interesting. If one took a Hayekian model, one can say it’s a way to trade information. That’s exactly what I am doing when I am trading price information. I will take this for that much, and you’ll take that for that much. This is a fundamental type of communication.

Hicks: So, in a broader context, the constituent element of a human flourishing life is social?

Kline: Yes.

Hicks: The rich values that we get as social beings interacting with each other, that then carries over to the business world, which is essentially social through trade. And we’re trading lots of things back and forth, and we’re productive individuals trading with each other to mutual benefit. The point that you are making, then, is that business is tapping something deeply social in us.

Kline: Well, absolutely.

Hicks: And, positively, the social is a constituent of a good life.

Kline: Yes, exactly. I mean, people recognize that when they meet at the local club, that they are being social. People will recognize when they meet on Facebook, they are being social. People aren’t as apt to recognize the fact that when you meet to trade, whether it’s in a bazaar or a Walmart, you actually are being social.

Hicks: However, you might not know much about particular people you’re trading with.

Kline: Right, but that’s a good thing too. I don’t need to know everything about somebody to trade. I can productively engage in a fun, social interaction that mutual benefits both of us and I need not worry about what religion you are or what political beliefs you had. How horrible that would be if I had to litmus test everybody on their political views or religious views before I interacted with them.

Hicks: And another element of the social boldness that you mentioned is that business, in its propensity to trade with each other, leads people then to be willing to overlook a lot of the things that they ordinarily wouldn’t overlook in history, like their ethnicity, their race, religion, or gender. So, people in business, to the extent that they engage in this propensity of truck and barter, are more likely to be tolerant and peaceful?

Kline: Tolerant, peaceful, and there are real incentives in the market and in business to not discriminate. There are real incentives to include anybody within your trading or productive enterprise as long as they can in turn trade or be productive with you. I am not saying that answers all questions or solves all problems in humanity, but there is a critique of market systems out there that they are inherently racist or inherently sexist, and that’s simply not true.

Hicks: All right, to go from flourishing in general, if we look at business in particular, in the former you mentioned Aristotle a lot, and now in your methodology in talking about the nature of business you rely on Hume a lot; you are very empirical. What is it that makes business business? It’s one thing to say here is the ethics that we should be applying here, but we also have to understand enterprise in its own place. So, what makes business a distinctive kind of human enterprise?

Kline: I think that the purpose of business is to produce a good or a service for trade. That that’s what makes distinctive. Someone would argue that perhaps the purpose of businesses is to serve a social good. For various reasons, I don’t think that that’s the purpose of a business. That’s the purpose of charities. That might be the purpose of certain political mechanisms. But if you look at what business is, it fundamentally involves trading. It involves using money as a method of calculation for making your decisions. To overlook that is to overlook the nature of business.

Hicks: If the purpose of business is not primarily to produce a social good, then what is the contrast purpose to that? Is business primarily individuals mutually satisfying their individual purposes?

Kline: Business allows you to do that, but I can solve my individual purpose. I can be an artist, I don’t have to trade. I can make my art works. I could be a philosopher. Socrates didn’t trade his thoughts and he had, you know, a life of his own that satisfied his preferences. I really think that saying that you are going into business means that you are accepting a body of rules and goals and obligations that center around this notion that I am going to productively engage with other people on the basis of trade. If I am not trading, if I am just giving you something as a gift, that’s not business. If I am just taking from somebody, that’s theft: that’s not business. Once we engage in this mutual give and take of what’s called trade with goods that we have produced without violating property rights or contract rights, then that’s business.

Hicks: You are also critical of two of the major models that are currently dominant in business ethics discussion: the stakeholder model and what’s sometimes called the stockholder model. And you use Milton Friedman as the major representative of the stockholder model. You’re critical of the idea that business should be defined in terms of a social responsibility to produce profit. What is wrong with that definition or account in your judgment?

Kline: The majority of my business colleagues know the purpose is to make a profit. Well, stop. If one is on the financial services industry where the good or service one provides is actually an optimization of money accounts, whether it through hedge funds, mutual funds, monetary instruments, or derivatives, then that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that it applies to everything. I mean, people get involved in family businesses because they like the business. People start second careers in different businesses just because they’ve always wanted to operate a tiny theater in a small town. I am thinking of Berkeley, West Virginia. There is a small theater that people opened up because they just  always wanted to do that. Profit is important; without a profit you go out of business. As I said before, money is a method of making your decision procedures. And profit also allows you to get what you want out of life, so it’s very important. I am not saying it’s not, but I don’t think it’s the purpose of business to gauge how well you’re doing business.stockholders

Hicks: Would you put that in the context of a corporation, say, where there’s a division of labor between management and the stockholders? Is there any role for saying that the managers have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit for the stockholders? Or is that merely a limited case of business closer to the hedge fund people, for example, you mentioned earlier?

Kline: There is a tendency in business ethics to over corporatize everything so that if you want to talk business ethics we have to talk about either Enron or GM. And, if you look at the business sensitive data, at least half of all businesses are smaller than, I think, five-hundred people, with sizable chunks even in the lower registers. So, the reason I don’t like talking about, you know, fiduciary responsibilities of managers to stockholders isn’t because it isn’t important. It’s because everybody is talking about it, and what I want to talk about is this practice called business. And whether you’re a corporation, a privately-held company, a professional, or whether you’re operating out of your garage or some multi-billion-dollar complex, this is something that has importance to you.

Hicks: So, the profit as the primary purpose model which is sometimes called the stockholder model, you criticize that. But you also equally criticize the stakeholder model. And what was your criticism of the idea that the purpose of business is to satisfy the interest of all relevant stakeholders?

Kline: That is my objection. The purpose of business is to produce a good or service for trade. Once you figure the good or service you want to offer, that you want to be an accountant, that you want to make widgets, etc., and you’re now doing that and making trades, there are multiple decisions one has to make in the means of production, where one wants to locate, who one’s going to hire. And money is the method to make these decisions. What am I going to get if I invest in this? And it’s a multi-attribute decision problem made on the basis of money. That’s the key, as I said, methodology of business. Stockholder thesis says no, if that’s all you are taking into consideration, you actually being immoral. I have to equally consider the interest of all my stakeholders. So, if I make a decision, I have to consider the interests of the community, interests of the workers, the interest of consumers, interest of the suppliers, the interest of…I am probably missing one now. Stockholders, actually count as well. Or the interest of the owners, mighty nice that they count sometimes, huh? And so, I have to balance all their interests. Well, if it’s not going to be with money, then how do I balance it? And it turns out that it’s a political decision process to balance it. So, that notion of business ethics I actually think it’s antithetical to business. It’s political ethics.

Hicks: But rather relying on the narrow stockholder approach or the narrow stakeholder approach as you’re arguing here, we need to think more generically about the nature of business, which can come in many forms and serve many different purposes with different individuals. And so, your definition of business as purpose-driven production of goods and services for the purpose of trade, that’s where we should start. All right, so then, on the positive side of business ethics, you say that this then generates a kind of principled commitment that can come out in an ethos, right, that if you want to decide what it is to be a good business professional or what it is to commit to the best kind of business life, you think of what are the needs of the production part of the business and what are the needs of satisfying the trade, so being committed to productivity and being committed to trade. That’s how we should approach things. And then, equally, towards the end of the discussion you mentioned that this serves as a principle for deciding what is unethical in business. And even if we rule out the clear cases of crime and so on as not being part of business, how does your account of what business is help us deal with cases like discrimination, say, in the workforce or the owner who uses the business as his personal piggy-bank and so on? How does it provide us a guide in the negative cases?

Kline: Okay, let me go back to the positives briefly.

Hicks: Fair enough.

Kline: Well, remember we are looking at us as human beings, and the trading actually touches something within us, something that’s very peaceful, something that’s exciting, something that’s social. That’s important. Business can serve that because trading is a fundamental aspect of business. I’m producing goods and services for trade. So, in general, business is a good thing. Now, I have to decide specifically what I want to do within business. This is a good way to live, but I don’t live a way, there is something specific I have to do. I want to be an accountant or whatever. And so that funnels down. Now I’ve decided to be an accountant, or I’ve decided that I want to make hamburgers, or I have decided I want to sell whatever. Now, I have specific obligations that go along with each of those. If I am going to sell chicken, I have a specific obligation not to kill people with salmonella or kill people with E. coli. I have these specific obligations as I provide this on the market, certain things that I have to do. So it’s very action guiding in a good sense to tell me what ought I focus on that just making a profit doesn’t, right, as I am focusing on these productive activities. Now, to help me on the other side with when I’ve gone wrong, right, so what am I going to do right? Well, I want to focus on the productive side and the trading side, but when I’ve gone wrong I have stepped outside of this. And people will do self-justification all the time. It’s my business, so I can discriminate. Or, it’s my business, so I can hire the secretary to sleep with. Well, that’s precisely just self-justification. And why is it just self-justification? Because you’ve agreed and you’ve broadcast that you’re in business. We have said that this is what business is and now you’re doing entirely opposite. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. You are really doing business or you’re not. And if you are using it as your personal piggy-bank, if you are using it as your personal sex-playpen, or if you are using it just to lord it over other people, you are not engaging in business and I think you are violating the telos of it. I think you’re doing something fundamentally wrong. And, by the way, in the process of that, people say, well, you’re violating the goals. But remember what you’re violating. You’re violating this trading, right, so we’ve gone from a trading model to an authoritarian model which doesn’t serve flourishing the way the trading does. You’re not being productive in this sense. You’re actually probably being some sort of, wish I could find a better term, but some sort of leech. You are sucking the productive abilities out of people or the company. You are not engaging in this mutually productive trade anymore. So when I say you violate the goals or the ends of business, there are some very real effects, both on your individual flourishing and on the flourishing of those around you as well.

Hicks: All right, so think of business as a principled calling in the context of a flourishing life, given the kinds of beings that we are. When you then enter into business you’re committing to productivity and trade. Take those seriously, internalize them, and then also externalize them in business and remain true to that. That’s business as a noble cause?

Kline: Yes, and if you don’t want to do that then do something else.

Hicks: Fair enough. Thank you, Professor Kline.

Kline: Thank you.

[The video interview with Dr. Kline follows.]

Video Interview with Professor Arielle John — Transcript

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Interview conducted at Rockford University by Stephen Hicks and sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

Hicks: I’m Stephen Hicks. Our guest today is professor Arielle John, who is teaching fellow in the Department of Economics at Beloit College. Professor John was here to speak with us on culture and entrepreneurship with special reference to Trinidad, her native country. arielle-john-500-px

In your talk you gave us some striking statistics about the relationship between culture and entrepreneurship. You started with a breakdown by ethnicity, or the various segments of Trinidadian society. And, to contrast to that, with the participation in self-employment and entrepreneurship. What were those numbers like?

John: Trinidad is an interesting country ethnically. The two majority segments of the population are Indians, who are descendants from Indian indentured servants; they comprise 40% of the population. African Trinidadians comprise about 37%, so they are about equal. Beyond that, about a fifth of the country, or 21% of Trinidadians, report themselves to be mixed; usually that implies they are a mix between Indian and African. And there is a small minority of individuals who are European descendants, also Chinese and Syrian-Lebanese and they comprise two percent of the population. They are the smallest group in the population.

Now, when we look at self-employment statistics we find that within that minority group [European, Chinese, and Syrian-Lebanese descendants], about 35%-36% of those individuals are self-employed — they are business owners. The next group with the biggest category of business owners are the Indians. About 25% of those individuals are considered self-employed. Mixed individuals, perhaps about 20% of that group are self-employed, and blacks in Trinidad have a below average self-employed rate at about 16%. So that’s the breakdown.

Hicks: So, your area of investigation is the effects of ethnic culture, and possibly racial culture, on the widely varying self-employed entrepreneurial ranges.

You also spoke about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship is complicated in some respects, but you broke it down into two basic moments that you call the Kirznerian moment or the Schumpeterian moment. What are those?

John: Obviously, the decision to become an entrepreneur involves many factors over time and place. For Israel Kirzner, the defining moment of being an entrepreneur is the moment when you discover an opportunity, and usually that happens in a surprise fashion. You are going about your way, and suddenly you realize there are needs that people want met and you know exactly how to do that. So for Kirzner the defining moment is identifying the opportunity.

Hicks: He is emphasizing the cognitive elements in entrepreneurship.

John: Absolutely. For Joseph Schumpeter, what defines an entrepreneur is the doing. For Schumpeter, exploiting the opportunity and actually bringing a product to market or changing how a supply chain works or changing some aspect of production — that is what makes you an entrepreneur. So, in doing something creative, destroying the old way of doing things, the doing aspect of entrepreneurship is what Schumpeter focuses on. So there appears to be two moments of entrepreneurship, the moment when you identify the opportunity and the moment when you actually exploit the opportunity.

Hicks: Okay, so the next question is about culture and those two moments of entrepreneurship. So, in trying to figure out how well or not well a culture fosters the identification of opportunities and the exploiting, right, of those opportunities. joseph_schumpeter You also had a definition of culture earlier, an explication of what culture is. What is culture?

John: Culture is one of those words that is ambiguous and hard to make concrete because it’s so abstract. But I think there is a very good definition of culture from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He refers to culture as an historically transmitted pattern of meanings, a system of inherited conceptions. So culture is essentially defined as the shared meanings individuals have about the objects and about the people and about the actions in their lives. They share meanings together, and those differ from culture to culture.

Hicks: So one then asks what meaning, so to speak, entrepreneurship has within a group of people, and to what extent there is a history; those will be connections that we want to make.

Coming to Trinidad in particular, you had three hypothesis about the intersection. One was about Kirznerian entrepreneurship — the identification of opportunities and how that is in Trinidadian culture. What is your hypothesis there?

John: Well, my hypothesis there is that Trinidadians across all of the ethnic cultures are fairly prolific in identifying opportunities. I confirm this by doing interviews with Trinidadians, and I sat them down and asked them: Tell me about your job, or your dream job, and instead of people identifying opportunities to be technicians, to be doctors, to be educators, people identified specific entrepreneurial activities. So they saw themselves as being self-employed one day, and not only did they know that they wanted to own trucks and rent trucks, or start restaurants, or start hairstyling businesses, they had actual plans for how they were going to achieve these businesses. They had a diverse number of reasons, but what really struck me was that they were good at discovering gaps where consumers had demands that were not being met. They were very good at identifying opportunities.

Hicks: And that was across all of the different ethnic cultures that you identified earlier?

John: Yes.

Hicks: With respect to Schumpeterian moment in entrepreneurship, what is your hypothesis there for Trinidad?

John: Well, clearly according to the statistics I mentioned earlier, the ethnic cultures are not equal exploiters? According to the data, the white, Chinese, and Syrian-Lebanese Trinidadians are the best exploiters, and the blacks are not necessarily good exploiters. Indians are seen as the emergent business class.

Now there can be several cultural reasons for that. When I looked at the history of the different groups, I realized that there could be some historical, cultural reasons for these disparities. White, Chinese, and Syrian-Lebanese, to some extent, brought their cultures with them, from where they came from, e.g., from China, from Syria. They brought with them their entrepreneurial attitudes.

Not only that, once they arrived in Trinidad they kept close kinship ties and they formed business associations. So, an individual who belongs to that ethnic group has a support system, has a group of people who are aware of what it takes to be a good exploiter. They have technical advice, they keep their kinship network close, and that’s fairly true for Indian Trinidadians as well. But when it comes to black Trinidadians, they don’t have those close kinship ties. They never developed them across their history.

Hicks: Is that because they were largely brought in as slaves?

John: They were.

Hicks: And that destroys kinship connections?

John: That destroys kinship connections. Over the years blacks, as opposed to Indians and Chinese, have given different meanings to certain jobs. Public service, education jobs, and professional jobs are highly valued in the African culture in Trinidad. So an individual who is trying to climb the social ladder or make something out of himself, you know, chases prestige, is not likely to use business to exploit those dreams. They are likely to become more educated and avoid business altogether.

Hicks: Professional jobs in established institutions. You also mentioned some dimensions of dependence versus independence in post-colonial history of Trinidad. Trinidad became a country, you mentioned, in 1962. So this is within a couple of generations that we have a new culture, but nonetheless, dependence and independence are not equally distributed. What are the issues there?

John: I believe that coming out of colonialism, more people started to see business opportunities as something that they could do, they could take charge, they could aspire to be anything they wanted to be, which is why, I think, across cultures, Trinidadians are opportunity identifiers. But they are not necessarily, in terms of the ethnic groups, all equal opportunity exploiters, for these dependence reasons. So blacks and Indians coming out of independence were more dependent on the state, even after Trinidad was not a colony anymore.

There were social programs to try to get them to become businessmen, to take care of them, and I think that decreased their incentive to try to make it on their own. Within those families, living with your family well into adulthood and relying on your parents for money, that is still seem as normal in those ethnic groups. And so, again, that diminishes the incentive to become an entrepreneur and to make one’s own way through life. So, these cultures’ dependence transmits across generations and determine who actually, even though they may have ideas, feels a sort of real need to exploit the opportunities. And those who are more dependent don’t feel that need strongly.

Hicks: They are striking — the statistics on differences in entrepreneurship participation across ethnic groups and racial groups. Also, according to the degree of education.

You also had to break down by sex, and there is a marked difference in the participation between males and females in all ethnic groups and all levels of education. What are your thoughts on the gender or sex differentiation stats?Flag_of_Trinidad_and_Tobago.svg

John: There are gender differences in employment across cultures, across nations, across time, and across jobs, right, so not just self-employed versus employed. Most fields, right, you see that choice gap. And I am not clear what the reason is, but I do think sometimes men have different goals. Sometimes women have more family goals, whereas men may aspire to be businessmen or to be very involved in their jobs. And I think there is a fundamental difference when it comes to the actual choices men and women decide to make on their own.

Hicks: The male/female rates in Trinidad aren’t different from male/female rates in other cultures and places?

John: I don’t think that they are, even here in the USA, I don’t think that they are. Well, there may be a higher percentage of women becoming entrepreneurs in the USA, but women here also generally are more self-sufficient and have a higher income.

Hicks: Okay. Toward the end of your talk, after emphasizing various elements of culture, you said your research shows an importance of institutions of certain sorts in fostering or squelching entrepreneurial participation rates. What do you mean by institutions in the Trinidad context? How does that fit in to your research?

John: When I talk about institutions, I am talking about the formal rules of the game within a society. The rules that tell you what you are allowed to do, where you are allowed to participate and not allowed to participate. I am not really talking about informal rules. I am talking about formal, official rules within Trinidadian society.

Hicks: Would informal rules be on the cultural side? And formal rules would be institutions?

John: Yes, informal rules refer to norms. The formal rules, the institutions operating in Trinidad, certainly apply to everyone. Of all ethnic groups in Trinidad, these are rules that are on the books. They don’t apply to blacks any more than they apply to whites or Indians. So there are institutions in Trinidad and Tobago that I believe, and that I think economic theory would predict, that are beneficial to entrepreneurial identification and exploitation in the first place. In Trinidad and Tobago, private property rights are respected and enforced, so if an individual decides they see an opportunity and they want to follow through with it, they can purchase the piece of land, they can purchase the building, and they don’t have to worry about it being confiscated. Private property rights are perhaps not as strong as in more developed nations, but, still, if individuals want to own properties, they could. Also, in Trinidad, I think the rule of law is respected, so individuals aren’t treated differentially. And so I think in Trinidad, as economic theory predicts, this incentivizes people to be comfortable with coming up with business ideas and going after these ideas because they know that, if they do the face the law in any point in their business dealings, they won’t be treated unfairly or differentially,

Hicks: So the law is noble and consistent, and so people can factor that in and that encourages entrepreneurship?

John: Definitely.

Hicks: All right, a fascinating set of issues. Thanks for being with us today.

John: Thank you, thank you very much. It was great to talk at Rockford University.

[The original video interview with Professor John follows.]

Robert Salvino on entrepreneurship and public policy — transcript of video interview

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Interview conducted at Rockford University by Stephen Hicks and sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

Hicks: Hi. I’m Stephen Hicks. Our guest today is Professor Robert Salvino, who teaches Economics and Entrepreneurship at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. He spoke with us today on entrepreneurship and public policy. robert-salvino

One of your initial themes was the importance of entrepreneurship as a driver of the economy. Innovation, business startups, employment, and so forth. And you were pointing out what we actually do know about entrepreneurship. What are the traits that go into entrepreneurial success?

Salvino: Right. When we think about entrepreneurship, we think of a very positive-oriented type of person’s behavior, somebody who is a problem-solver, who sees obstacles and is already thinking about ways to get around those obstacles and accomplish things in spite of barriers that might seem to be very big for the rest of us.

Hicks: Right. And then the question then is: if we want to encourage entrepreneurial behavior, what kind of institutional framework is going to make that happen — or retard it? In your lecture, you made a distinction between a more active approach to public policy, when government is trying to foster entrepreneurship by picking winners and losers, so to speak, and a more indirect approach, where the government sets very general conditions within which entrepreneurship can flourish. What is the difference between these two approaches?

Salvino: An active public policy approach would be literal programs, if you will, that would maybe subsidize start-ups. If you start a small business, there will be credits that will be given to you or job training will be provided, or these types of things, trying to get people to start things. A passive approach to public policy would simply just to allow things to happen. So, have a very favorable business climate in the first place without somebody having to check the regulations and licenses and requirements and see what kind of things they could do. And maybe if you are in this type of industry, you can get better subsidies or things, so, taking that away and letting things just kind of run their course.

Hicks: So the argument there is: you take away particular types of policies, and you create an environment in which entrepreneurship will flourish. Whereas the other is to have that plus particular programs directed to stimulate entrepreneurship. In your talk you also in passing contrasted some regimes around the world that seem actively to discourage entrepreneurship. North Korea is an example. And then the example of cellphones was very striking. What was that?

Salvino: Just a few years ago, Eric Schmidt with Google and, I believe, Josh Cohen went to over to North Korea. They’ve got a book coming out that talks about technology and its role in the spread of prosperity and the changing of oppressive regimes. Just a few years ago, you were not allowed to have a cellphone in North Korea without some sort of authorization. The majority of population did not have a cellphone. Then, they later allowed a million people in a very large country to have a cellphone, but it was a controlled cellphone.

Hicks: If we try to evaluate, then, the two entrepreneurship-friendly approaches, where we assume that entrepreneurship is a good thing and we want to foster it, how do we evaluate whether a more active hands-on government fostering of entrepreneurship works better than a more relaxed government approach?

Here you took us through some history, asking us to look at some of the great entrepreneurial success stories, Google, Apple, AT&T earlier, Standard Oil, and so forth. What is the lesson that we learn from those examples, on your reading?Steve_Jobs_Headshot_2010-CROP

Salvino: Right. Those companies, those technologies — nobody would ever predicted the emergence of these new industries. Ford Motor Company, you would not have been able to identify a group of people whom might have been more likely to be successful. Try to take a group of people from MIT and put them in a room and say: ‘create the next big thing’. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — nobody would have ever identified them as people likely to create the things that they did.

Hicks: So the argument there is just having a culture in which creative, innovative people can do what they want to do, you’re going to get entrepreneurship. And then on the negative side, you had examples like Solyndra, where active public policy trying to promote certain kinds of entrepreneurship blows up in our faces with a huge price. Stay more with that one.

Salvino: Solyndra was, I believe, awarded about $500 million in subsidies through the federal government because they were in a favored industry working in green technologies. And Solyndra went bankrupt within, I believe, a couple of years of forming. If the company, a start-up, had able to get private investors to back them to the tune of $500 million, it’s very unlikely they would have gone bankrupt in two years. So, the difference is between what went into the development of a company like Solyndra versus a company like Apple.

Hicks: Okay. Are we able to step back and cite statistics and say that here is the more relaxed, entrepreneurial-friendly environment, and in that environment, you get a certain number of entrepreneurial successes — Apple, Google, and so forth — but that we’re also going to have a whole lot of failures?

Salvino: Sure.

Hicks: Contrasting that with a government that is more hands-on and tries to pick entrepreneurial winners and losers, they are going to have a lot of failures, but they also have some winners. Are you able to quantify the relative success rate of those two approaches?

Salvino: I haven’t looked at that in my research, but I think if you look at it just from a theoretical perspective and think about resources that are invested in any and each of those, certainly you are going to have many, many failures in the private market with experimentation. But the difference would be the amount of leverage of that investment and the people who suffered as a result of that. If it truly is a market process, the spread of failure is not going to have the negative impact on all of society that something like many Solyndra-type things would.

Hicks: Okay, so we have one 500 million dollar failure that has to be put against then 500 one-million dollar failures, and so forth.

Salvino: Exactly. It is spread throughout the whole system.

Hicks: Now, you also had one particular example of public policy that seemed more indirect, and that was health insurance, where this is not directly intended to have an impact on entrepreneurship or not. But for various other reasons health insurance is a desirable goal, so the government wants to encourage the greater provision of entrepreneurship. But, nonetheless, indirectly it has an impact on entrepreneurship as the example you presented. How does that work?

Salvino: Okay, if we talk of a different types of entrepreneurs, a self-employed individual as one type. So, employer-provided health care as it emerged over time took years and years to grow and become kind of cemented into our culture as an expectation of a good job were good benefits. And so the rate of self-employment just seems to, over the same period of time, been about cut in half. And so, there is a real cost to acquiring Barack Obama, Chris Gronethealth insurance on your own in this independent market versus when you are with a large company. When you are with a large company that provides the benefit, there are direct policies that make it easier for a large company to provide the benefit to the employee. And so there is a hurdle that is created there, whether it was intended or not.

Hicks: Okay, so the way this works then is health insurance is a desirable thing for individuals. Government creates a policy that encourages employers to provide health insurance for employees. That makes employment with a company that’s providing health insurance more attractive than self-employment, so self-employment rates go down.

Salvino: Right. That’s kind of the idea that I have looked at and to see if there is a causal relationship between the two. Certainly, we can see at least anecdotally this idea that we place a very high premium on benefits. There was a survey done a couple of years ago throughout the world asking adolescents what do they want when they become adults. And most of them said they want a good job with good benefits. So this has been cemented into our culture.

Hicks: Okay, then public policy responds to that directly.

Salvino: And public policy responds and, in some cases, has helped propel that idea, that expectation.

Hicks: Scaling out then: your proposal was that we should have the more indirect, passive approach to public policy by creating general conditions within which entrepreneurs are free to innovate and experiment. What are those general conditions that you think work best?

Salvino: So, for example, just a sound monetary system that allows us to make long-term contracts and have an idea or expectation of what interest rates are going to be, what the rate of inflation might be, and how that affect us. Property rights, so that when we go into an organization, we form a corporation, we conduct business, we know that our rights are protected and that there is a judicial system that is going to help us solve disagreements and such things. Contract enforcement is another example of an institution that helps. When contracts are not going to be enforced, individuals, investors, or entrepreneurs may be very leery of forming partnerships with people that they may not know very well.

Hicks: You gave the example of China, part way through, as a very striking example. One of things we’re interested in is wealth creation. And wealth creation certainly is an important value if we are already comfortable. Nonetheless, we would like to be more prosperous and make sure our kids are more prosperous.

But wealth creation is important when we think about poverty and places in the world that are still ridden with poverty. You mentioned China as a very striking example. In the last generation, something happened that has never happened before in human history, namely, half a billion people were lifted out of dire poverty into a basic minimum standard of living. Can you track China’s success in doing so to public policy changes in China? And if so, what do you think those were?

Salvino: Right. If you go to China a generation ago, we think of China as a communist country. And still today people associate China with communist regime. But it is going in a different direction than many developed countries in the world. It is kind of backing down from that and going from a completely communist institution to state capitalism. Maybe it’s state-directed capitalism with capital ownership, but still it’s a step in the opposite direction, towards allowing markets to flourish more than previously had. And if we think about it from the perspective of our country, many American businesses over the past generation have put operations in China. And over the period of a generation it has become easier for these businesses to operate in China, to maintain their own property rights.

An individual came and spoke to a group of business leaders in South Carolina a couple of years ago and talked about an operation when they first went into China. In order to start their company they had to give away majority ownership of this subsidiary in China, so they were very leery to do that. And over the past few years, that went away to where they were not any longer required to give away that type of ownership of their company. And as more companies have been able to go into China, not having to give up certain of those property rights, more companies will go in there and conduct business. So there are jobs created in China by American companies and other companies throughout the world. And over a generation that has been one factor, I would say, that has helped to alleviate some of their problems.

Hicks: So China is moving in the right direction?

Salvino: Right, they are moving in the right direction.

Hicks: Thank you for being with us today. Interesting material.

Salvino: Thank you.

[The original video interview with Dr. Salvino follows.]