Incubating Success

A lot of the skills you learn in college are just life lessons.” ~ Kevin Ryan, Founder of Gilt Groupe, Business Insider, and MongoDB

Kevin Ryan
The “Godfather” of New York City startups, Kevin Ryan, talks to students at the Macaulay Honors College in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of the author.

The dynamic nature of modern demands has left students and academic counselors perplexed about what will make today’s students successful as tomorrow’s leaders. Academic excellence doesn’t seem to be enough in today’s competitive world; it is only one piece to a bigger, more confusing whole.

Kevin Ryan—the “Godfather” of New York City startups— has the situation demystified. Pursuing a passion, having interpersonal and leadership skills, participating in extracurricular activities, and knowing about current events are all critical to becoming successful, Ryan says. These are common attributes of leaders with high potential of building teams to solve important issues or to achieve a goal.

Ryan’s empire of startups include MongoDB, Business Insider, Gilt Groupe, and most recently, Zola. Ryan also founded DoubleClick, an online advertising service that was sold for $1.1 billion in 2005 and later acquired by Google for $3.1 billion in 2008. MongoDB, a tech company, and Gilt, an e-commerce specializing in fashion, each have a valuation of over a billion dollars. Business Insider, a business news website started five years ago, turned down a $100 million acquisition by AOL last year. Zola is Ryan’s latest answer to transforming the wedding-registry realm.

Following your passion

So how did one man discover multiple billion-dollar startups in many seemingly unrelated fields and have them become leaders in their respective niches? “Pursue what you love,” Ryan says. “That’s very important.”

Such reassuring advice may seem obvious, but can be difficult to follow. Traditional views about careers are still prominent in many households, especially among immigrant families. Some parents define success as becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, but their kids have other ideas. As a result, many students’ pursuit of their passion comes in direct opposition to their parent’s wishes. Because of this, stories about students who obtain degrees in one field and enter another are becoming increasingly common. More often than not, these students change fields because they don’t have a passion for the career they were expected to pursue. But, how can one take the risk of pursuing his or her passion without the fear of failure and disappointment from family? Ryan gives this piece of advice:

To succeed in anything, you need to be better than most people at doing what you’re doing, and to do something better, you have to love to do it. If you read about the fashion industry, it’s because you love it and you’re passionate about it. You’ll probably do better because you’re more knowledgeable and you think about it all the time.

Pursuing a passion will allow students to thrive because their expertise will come from a foundation of genuine enjoyment and active immersion. They will spontaneously seek to push the boundaries without feeling suffocated by routine and burden.

Having interpersonal and leadership skills

According to Ryan, a person’s success is also largely contingent upon his or her interpersonal skills. “The key is understanding humans and what their needs are and understand the opportunities out there,” Ryan says. Having interpersonal skills allows a person to communicate with others in the most effective way. This opens doors to build meaningful relationships, which can lead to opportunities that can further a person’s ability to accomplish a goal. This, along with leadership skills, brings people together to build effective teams.

Let’s look closely at Ryan’s case. Nearly all of his startups stemming from different corners of the Internet realm, but when asked whether he had knowledge of programming, Ryan’s reply was a simple, “No.” Ryan obtained a bachelors degree in economics and art history from Yale University in 1985 and earned his MBA from INSEAD in 1990.

How did a man with no programming background build an empire of startups in a world completely dependent on programming? Ryan attributes his accomplishments to his aptitude as a leader and his ability to bring together the “right” people. Ryan says:

In the review of 20 people, at no time did we discuss their technical skills as merchandisers at Gilt or as programmers or finance people… What we talked about was how they worked with people. Their judgment. Do they understand what’s going on? Do they understand the challenges they’re facing?

The “right” people are people who can work well with others, have good judgment, and are experts in their field. Becoming an expert comes with pursuing a passion. Working well with others and having good judgment comes from developing strong interpersonal skills, which can be fostered by extracurricular activities.

Participation in extracurricular activities

According to Ryan, a study at Stanford Business School correlated success to two key aspects of a person: 1) height and 2) active involvement in extracurricular activities.

Though height does not necessarily imply success, it seems that taller people have a greater chance for it. Other studies have shown that height is an important factor in the successful election of U.S. Presidents. Unfortunately, height is out of our control.

Extracurricular activities, however, are in our direct control. They provide a platform for people to build social relationships and leadership skills, tackle personal challenges such as insecurity or egotism, and engage in team efforts to solve issues of concern. How well one works with others is a crucial factor in defining one’s ability to effectively communicate and take initiative. Ultimately, these activities train a person to understand the necessity of collaboration in the professional world. Thus, participation in extracurricular activities demonstrates the previous attributes of having interpersonal and leadership skills.

If you didn’t win the genetic lottery, you better be doing a lot of extracurricular activities.

Awareness and anticipation

Ryan also mentions the importance of maintaining an understanding of current events in order to build a professional and respectable profile. A person’s knowledge base is constantly judged in interviews and in everyday life. According to Ryan, if a situation arises in which a person is asked a question concerning a current event, a lack of awareness of the news will lower the interviewee’s credibility as a professional. A deep understanding, on the other hand, will leave a lasting impression.

Ryan credits his array of knowledge to his habit of reading 15 different publications a week. “Over time, I build up a lot of knowledge. It doesn’t take a genius—you need that kind of knowledge. You don’t know when it’s going to come up,” Ryan says.

An understanding of current events will also provide a platform for anticipation of the future. This anticipation is critical in making opportunistic decisions. On anticipation, Ryan says:

I was in college in 1985. Think just how insane it is if you thought you wouldn’t be using a computer today. Almost every paper I wrote was on an electric typewriter, yet I have made my entire career only in Internet, computer-oriented startups, which didn’t even exist at the time…. Our mission [today] is to think about 2045. We need to be thinking about what the world will be like.

Ryan credits many of his current accomplishments to his prediction during his college years of the future success of the Internet. In parallel thought, Ryan says success in the future is dependent on our knowledge of the world today and predictions for the world tomorrow.

Whether we want to be entrepreneurs or doctors or politicians, we must all be “lions” in what we do, Ryan says. We must pursue our passion and pursue it aggressively. There is no doubt that we will encounter obstacles along the way, but our commitment and perseverance to overcoming these hurdles are our greatest assets. Because things are transforming so quickly, we must strive to push beyond our personal limits. Ryan assures us that with the proper balance of passion, knowledge, and grit, success is attainable no matter who we are.

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