The Power of Failure, People and Karma Banking

Delivered May 20, 2012

Six months after leaving grad school, I found myself at a rocket launchpad for one of the very first private enterprise rocket companies. Our business manager was doing the countdown. 5-4-3-2-1, oh, BLEEP. The rocket blew up!

That explosion, that failure, launched my career in a completely new direction as an entrepreneur. By being part of an incredibly bold venture, well a bold failure (that didn't kill me or anybody), I became open to becoming an entrepreneur myself.

Returning to the Bay Area, I started my own rocket company. It failed. I ended up helping start seven high tech companies. Five failed.

The first one that actually succeeded commercially created a machine that could scan just about any document and turn it into a text file, removing the need to have someone type it in. There were big commercial applications like scanning tax forms, contracts, insurance documents.

However, the coolest application that we thought of was making reading machines for the blind.
But my next failure sent me in another new direction, when my venture capital investors vetoed my plan to make a reading machine product (for good business reasons).

In Silicon Valley, we're trained to drop things that don't make boatloads of money, to drop it like a red hot potato. But, my lawyer suggested I start a deliberately nonprofit high tech company, which I found funny since my company at the time was accidentally nonprofit.

We created Benetech, what is now called a social enterprise, and became the leading reading machine for the blind company, but it was formed as a charity, a nonprofit, to do good. I told my wife, Virginia, who's here with us today, that I'd do it for a year and then go back to regular profit-making high tech. That was 23 years ago!

It was at Benetech that I figured out that this is what I was meant to do. As a nerd, as a geek from birth, I had found a place to use my technical skills to do good for the world.

Now there are 75 other people at Benetech who feel the same way, along with hundreds and thousands of volunteers, who all want to see technology benefit all of humanity, not just the richest 10%. I know these are values that resonate here at St Mary's!

Our team has built project planning software for environmentalists and databases and encryption for human rights activists, created the largest online library for students with print disabilities (like blindness and severe dyslexia), as well writing one of the best-selling iPad apps for special education.

We're doing this not for the sake of technology, but to use these technology projects as tools for helping people, including:

  • Being expert witnesses in war crimes and genocide trials
  • Assisting nine truth commissions get to the bottom of what happened during their civil conflicts
  • Supporting dozens of LGBT groups in Africa, documenting abuses against their communities, among hundreds of social justice groups we help
  • Helping environmental activists around the world better plan their projects, from a wetlands restoration or conduct a campaign to change their community
  • Providing access to almost 200,000 students with the accessible ebooks they need to succeed in school, including returning veterans with major injuries who want to go back to school.

On my path from being a rocket engineer to a high tech entrepreneur to very successfully not making money with a nonprofit tech company, I've learned some important lessons from my failures. I want to share these lessons because I hope you find professional opportunities to do good and challenge you everyday! I have three powerful ideas to share with you.

1. The power of failure.

Fail early, fail fast, fail often. I know that in grad school, a high priority was placed on not failing. I want to congratulate you on being here, because by definition you didn't fail!

However, failure is the best way to learn. When you succeed, it's not always clear if you were lucky or smart or hard working. But when you fail, there's usually a really clear lesson.

Be proud of your failures. So many people never even try. In Silicon Valley, a bold (and honest) failure makes you a more attractive investment than somebody who has never risked something before.

I'm not saying you should go out there and do foolish things just for the sake of failing. But, be open to the lessons of failure, of what didn't work so well, to become better at your job, your profession, or simply a better person.

2. The power of your people network

I'm not talking about Facebook here!

You've had the pleasure of meeting some great people before you came to graduate school, here in grad school, and as you launch the next phase of your careers you're going to meet more.

When I was in graduate school, I thought most of my peers were kind of dorky, and I'm sure they probably thought the same about me.

But, these are the people who can make a huge difference in your life: they are potential partners, investors or advisors, colleagues and mentors, and they have been or will be your connection to the person you'll fall in love with.

One example, the resident associate in my graduate dorm from 30 years ago has been a colleague with me in both for-profits and nonprofits and is now our VP of Human Resources at Benetech. She's been crucial in making Benetech successful. One of the people sitting in the audience here could be that important to your work!

Treat these people as the most important asset in your life, because ... they are!

3. The power of karma banking

Think of karma banking as the Golden Rule on steroids.

Don't simply do unto others as you would have them do unto you: do triple the amount of good for others as you could ever imagine receiving back.

Don't even account for it: that's not the point: this is all off balance sheet accounting. And this isn't about doing favors for powerful people: it's not karma banking if you do a favor for your boss.

One example: I love talking to undergraduates who are taking classes on social entrepreneurship or solving problems around social issues. However, it turns out that several undergraduates I spoke to over the years are now program officers for foundations that fund my nonprofit. Coincidence? I don't think so.

My suggestion is to keep making deposits in the karma bank, whenever you get the chance. Doing these little favors is its own reward. But, I promise you, there will come a day when something completely fabulous happens to you out of the blue! And, although you may not be able to trace it back to a specific karma deposit you made, I have no doubt the connection is firmly there!

Here's what I have to say to you, at this celebration of your accomplishments. As someone who has learned far more from failure than success, the world needs your talents, your drive, to solve problems.

Be proud of your failures, and take the lessons from them as a treasure.

Tend to your most important asset, your personal network of people.

And, make plenty of deposits in the karma bank!

Your opportunity is to build social good into everything you do -- don't wait until you've made money and defer the social good until then.

If you do it now, you'll be able to reach for success, and always stay close to your humanity.

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