I want to start by thanking JB, Chris, Jai, Jamie Cowie and the other committee members as well as the entire team at ILLINOIS TECH for their help in making this evening possible. Who knew Jai had a sense of humor – I thought he was just an over-the-hill squash player. I’m thinking that maybe he and Suzanne should take their act on the road – not that I’d like to be rid of them exactly – I’m just sayin’.
I want to thank Jim O’Connor, Laura Ferris Anderson and the CEC/1871 Board for their support and for letting me accept this role and honor. No one today does anything important by themselves and, very frankly, I can’t even tie my shoes without the amazing team at 1871. Anyone who believes he’s a self-made man has a very short and selective memory. Tom Alexander regularly keeps me from putting both feet in my mouth, Lakshmi Shenoy runs our strategy and biz dev like the pro she is, Laura Clark, Jeanne Reidy and Diana Lopez keep the wheels from flying off our supersonic and increasingly global machine and regular comic relief is provided (just you try to stop her) by the irreverent and irrepressible Claudia Saric.
And I need to thank the production team for all their work with the show, assembling and editing the videos, and especially for constructing the timeline which so convincingly demonstrates that I am at least 109 years old – being born just before the Cubs won their earlier World Series titles - by clobbering the Detroit Tigers two years in a row in 1907 and 1908. That may also have been the occasion of my first Frosty Malt at Wrigley served to me by none other than Jimmy Hoffa. Go ahead and Google it. I’ll wait.
Speaking of longevity, Tuey also reminded me that I’m here roughly in the same capacity as a corpse at a funeral. Necessary for the occasion, but not expected to say very much. So, while I’m flattered to be tonight’s honoree, and not at all sure I deserve it (although I have arthritis in both shoulders and I don’t actually deserve that either), what’s most important is why we’re really here - which is to raise funds for the Center for Computational Science. As you saw in the timeline, I took my first computer class at IIT in 1963 - more than 50 years ago.
I say just about every day that “data is the oil of the digital age” and the opportunity which we have before us to help position, not just IIT, but the entire Chicago academic community as the nation’s premiere hub for advancements in computational science is unique. It’s an open field, no one “owns” the space or the title yet, and there’s no reason why this can’t be the start of another extraordinary effort to put Chicago front and center on the map in this essential domain - just as we have done with 1871 in the technology arena.
The way things get better and ultimately get done is by getting started. Tonight, thanks to your help and generosity, we’re off to a great start – raising more than $850,000 for the Center – which, frankly, is an astonishing amount for a first-time dinner with a no-name honoree.
Now I realize that the opportunity to have a chance to slander and abuse me (or even merely to witness such a long-awaited flogging) is a tremendous draw and virtually priceless (which may help to explain the presence here tonight of hundreds of otherwise kind and gentle souls), but I can’t even take credit for coming up with the idea of a roast. It was the brainstorm of the committee and it couldn’t have been worked out better or been more fun. Fortunately, I have a very thick skin (it’s part of every good entrepreneur’s DNA) and I was also blessed to be raised by parents who gave me an unusually high degree of confidence that is utterly disproportionate and far in excess of my actual good looks and abilities.
It’s my 72nd birthday today and it’s pretty amazing to look back on the almost 50 years that I’ve been engaged in this crazy process of trying to imagine, invent and then bring the future to life across half a dozen very different industries ranging from autos and insurance to education and entertainment. Our lives are ultimately built on the many choices we make and one of the choices I’m proudest of was the decision to stay in Chicago and build almost all of my businesses here when New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, DC repeatedly beckoned. It was the right choice, it’s always been home, and it’s a place that I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of. Now, if I could only drag my daughters and granddaughters back here from Maryland, my life would surely be complete.
I’m so pleased and honored to see people here tonight who’ve been important friends, partners, investors, mentors and team members at critical times throughout the entire journey. Larry Levy and I were sandwich “boys” at Northwestern as well as Rush Week competitors. I invested in JB’s first New World venture fund with William Blair when Blair was just a fledgling firm and before Jim O’Connor turned it into a global venture superpower. We used Casey Cowell’s modems in building my first computer business. Ed Kaplan (who has done so so much personally for IIT) was renaming and relaunching Zebra around the same time that CCC started to get some real traction. Vic Morgenstern (another important IIT supporter) and I played tennis (poorly as I recall) under the old Fullerton L. I met Mark Cuban when he was still using duct tape to attach antennas to the office roof in 1996 before he sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo for about $5.7 billion. Bruce Rauner was the most junior associate on my deal at Golder Thoma when they funded CCC. And don’t even get me started on Rahm.
Steve Case and I first met when AOL was known as Quantum and when he became CEO in 1991 and changed the name to America Online, he changed the world. Mark Walsh was there for part of that ride and used to say his job was shoveling piles of AOL disks out the door of a plane flying from coast to coast over the entire United States. Ed LaHood (one of the hardest-working guys I know) was known as a “total party monster” at Notre Dame and, like me, he loved his Erector set. He was one of the earliest VR pioneers with VREAM in 1990 and sold it later to Platinum. He started Beauty Jungle (an early online cosmetics business) in 1999 and that adventure taught me a lifetime lesson that it’s just as bad to be too early to seize an opportunity as it is to be too late. And, of course, Flip Filipowski and Divine taught us all a bunch of stuff we wished we’d never learned. John Canning – I’m looking at you and I’d have more to say if you weren’t so doggone generous to PAWS Chicago. David Weinstein around that time was a Blue Man before they were a music group or the primary color of the Smurfs.
Tom Sosnoff and Tony Battista (and now Kristi) at Tasty Trade gave me a show called What I’m Thinking and an open mic to rant about whatever pissed me off, but more importantly, they’ve helped us tell the stories of literally dozens of 1871 startups on their Bootstrapping in America program. Barbara Pollack helped me build award-winning schools, colleges and other amazing environments across the city. Chris G and I were in the music business long before Kenny G picked up his first saxophone. Jamie Cowie (and Mark Walsh again) helped Information Kinetics build the world’s first computerized job database and we learned painful lessons from John Grillos about poop in the punch bowl. And Jai Shekhawat (as anyone who rides the buses or the L in the City of Chicago knows) was one of my earliest (and most successful) students at Kellogg.
Too many years, too many people, and too little time to mention all the rest, but I’m beyond grateful and I can’t think of a single time in my entire career when I’ve asked for help, guidance, support or even prayer and anyone here ever turned me down. That’s the Chicago way – pushing people forward and extending a hand back to help those coming up behind. And that’s why the growth and success of our WiSTEM program for female entrepreneurs and of our newer IHCC Hispanic incubator have been so important to me. And again, these initiatives would never get off the ground without the contributions, stirring examples, and unwavering commitment of women leaders like Kristi Ross who’s made it her business (as if she doesn’t have enough to do in her own life, family and work) to be there and everywhere we need her to be to help move these programs forward.
And speaking of the women in my life, having my wife Judy and my daughters, Jamie and Thea, here to celebrate with me is also a reminder that it’s not simply the entrepreneur alone who pays the price, makes the sacrifices, and supports these grand and grinding adventures. Having the love, confidence and unwavering belief of your loved ones in what you’re trying to do (when the whole rest of the world thinks you’re crazy) is the secret super power of every entrepreneur. There’s always more work, but you’ve only got one family and ultimately, they are the best reflection of what you’ve actually accomplished. I can’t thank them enough or love them more.
I always wanted my daughters to be proud of me and to invite me to Dad’s Career Day at their school, but – alas – for many years, I was just one of hundreds of lawyer Dads in Highland Park and that wasn’t anything to brag about at school. But then, in 1980, I retired from the law and started CCC – the world’s first, real-time, computerized database of vehicle valuation data drawn from thousands of automobile dealers across the country and provided to all of the nation’s largest insurance companies. I figured that – now as a Dad who’s an entrepreneur – my ship had finally come in - and, sure enough, my daughter invited me to the very next Dads’ Day at school. But imagine my chagrin when she proudly introduced me, not as a budding computer genius, but as a used car salesman. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten over that which must be why I take such great joy in tormenting car salesmen every time I buy a new car.
And finally, the fact that I’m privileged every day at 1871 – with the help of a great team and an engaged and dedicated Board – as well as enormous support from the community and even from our political leaders - to spend my time helping the next several generations of entrepreneurs pursue their hopes and dreams and turn them into real businesses is just that much more icing on the cake.
I try through my startup and tech talks, individual coaching sessions, and blog posts to pass on whatever of value I can and I feel like I continue to get just as much out of these sessions as the members do. I posted INC. blog number 226 this morning – which represents just over 4 years of writing - 52 weeks a year – and I’ve loved every minute of it because I feel like I’m spreading the gospel and sharing the powerful stories and examples of what we’re building every day at 1871 and throughout the tech community and the entire city.
You know, over the years, I’ve learned that making a life isn’t like running a Burger King, you really don’t get to have it your way. But, I can tell you that, in my life, with all the exciting ups and all the difficult downs, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I believe in looking for and betting on the best in people. And while I’ve sometimes been disappointed, I’ve never been discouraged or ever stopped trying to change things for the better and to make a difference.
We live in the greatest city, in the greatest country in the world, and the future is scary, uncertain and exciting – all at the same time. But together, we can keep inventing it, building it and making it better – because that’s what entrepreneurs do.
Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.