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Konneker Medalists share secrets of succeeding in entrepreneurship

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Elizabeth Harper
March 7, 2018

2017 Konneker Medalists David Pidwell and Robert Painter recently encouraged an audience of faculty, staff and students to take risks and embrace failure in order to grow as entrepreneurs. At an interactive Venture Café on Feb. 7, sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship, Pidwell and Painter gave advice based on tales of their experiences.

Painter is a founding partner at Razor’s Edge Ventures, a venture fund that focuses on companies serving the U.S. defense and intelligence communities. He was chief technologist for Google Federal, the company’s branch dedicated to working with the U.S. government. After leaving Google, Painter became executive director for strategy and innovation at Raytheon-Blackbird Technologies.

Pidwell has two successful start-ups on his ledger: Rolm Corp., which was purchased by IBM in 1985, and Rasna Corp., purchased by Parametric Technology in 1995. One of Rasna’s venture capital investors was Alloy Ventures; Pidwell became a partner in 1996. He also has taught in the Stanford University Graduate School of Business for 20 years.

When he was in seventh grade, Painter wanted to join a computer club at his school. The teacher, who Painter said he admired, told him the club wasn’t for kids like him. He convinced the teacher to let him stay under the guise of wanting to play computer games, but instead learned to write his own games while there.

“There are moments in your life that if you listen to what the people around you expected... it would have been very different,” Painter said. He added that he often thinks of what might have been if he had done only what was expected of him.

Painter came to Ohio University after serving in the military and ended up changing his major three times before choosing geography. Through the Program to Advance Career Exploration, he got a job at the Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development, where he met Michael Finney, currently the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs Chief Financial and Administrative Officer, who became a mentor to him. One of the most important concepts he learned, especially as he changed the focus of his studies, was the importance of having the chance to fail, learn from it and continue.

“What I took away was that it was OK to fail and it was OK to experiment,” he said.

When he was a chief technologist at Google Federal, failure was considered a part of the process and employees were encouraged to “fail constantly, fail often, and fail fast,” according to Painter. Being comfortable with failure is an imperative component of growth and he encouraged the assembled students to embrace the chances they have to fail.

Pidwell started his college career with a risk: He applied to only one school because he wanted to study at Ohio University’s College of Engineering.

“You have to be willing to take risks. You live in a world of risks,” he said. “I think the attitude in Ohio is, often, risk-averse. We need to learn to do calculated risk, and use good judgment to take risks.”

Pidwell spent five years at Ohio University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in that time. Then he moved west to study engineering economic systems at Stanford, and he has lived and worked in the Silicon Valley area ever since.

“Building an entrepreneurial business is not easy,” said Pidwell. “It’s fun. It’s scary. But it’s not easy. There’s a lot of things that have to happen right in order for you to survive and be successful.”

His advice to those looking to get involved in entrepreneurship was to be creative, have an open mind and be willing to work hard and make sacrifices when necessary.

“An entrepreneur is one who effectively fills every moment of the day doing something to get the job done,” Pidwell explained. “You have to be willing to do most any job, because there’s no one else who’s going to do it. If you need and want that job to be done, you have to do it.”

“Entrepreneurship is a bunch of little wins,” Pidwell said. “It’s not a great big win, it’s little wins along the way. You take a moment, take a deep breath and recognize the win, and then you move on to the next challenge.”

The Center for Entrepreneurship is a partnership between Ohio University’s College of Business and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.