I interview many folks with unique backgrounds and Jared is among the most unique. Jared worked at NASA, then McKinsey, got his MBA at Harvard, then alternated between working at McKinsey and Teach for America, ran for governor of Arkansas, and last year became the CEO of Assist Services. Assist is a Portland based transportation company for underprivileged children to help them get to and from school and other important locations. Jared is leading Assist Services to become a nationwide company, all remotely from his home in Arkansas.
I’ve been very excited to have him as a guest because of his focus on social missions, building a great team to serve a very vulnerable group, and expanding a storied regional company to a national level. Enjoy the episode.
Live Oak Bank – Live Oak Bank is a seasoned SBA lender focused on search funds, independent sponsors, private equity firms, and individuals looking to acquire small companies. Live Oak has closed billions of dollars in SBA financing and is actively looking to help more small company investors across the country. If you are in the process of acquiring a company or thinking about starting a search, contact Live Oak directly to start a conversation at liveoakbank.com/contactus.
Hood & Strong, LLP – Hood & Strong is a CPA firm with a long history of working with search funds and private equity firms on diligence, assurance, tax services, and more. Hood & Strong is highly skilled in working with search funds, providing quality of earnings and due diligence services during the search, along with assurance and tax services post-acquisition. They offer a unique way to approach acquisition diligence and manage costs effectively. To learn more about how Hood & Strong can help your search, acquisition, and beyond, please email one of their partners Jerry Zhou at [email protected].
Barrel – Barrel is a digital marketing agency that helps companies create revenue-generating websites, emails, and marketing campaigns. Clients include L’Oreal, ScottsMiracle-Gro, Barry’s, and SmartyPants Vitamins. Barrel has extensive experience working with venture capital and private equity firms to help audit, optimize, and grow their portfolio brands. To learn more about Barrel, visit barrelny.com/alex or email [email protected] and mention Think Like an Owner podcast.
I’ve been excited to chat with you for a couple reasons. The first of course is being CEO of Assist Services, which has a strong social mission, but also the fact that it’s a company that was once a regional one here in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. They are now growing nationwide into multiple states. You were saying before you had three new states this school year, so I’d love to hear about that, but also how you got to be CEO of the company because you have a really unique story and background.
Well, thank you. I think unique is a relatively kind word to use for it. Others might just say it took me 20 years to find some focus, but I’ll give you my real quick background, how it brought me to Assist, and then we can dive in wherever you want. I grew up in Northwest Arkansas and went to public school there. I actually left there when I graduated high school. I had dreams of becoming an astronaut and I got into the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and took off from Arkansas public school to there, little over 20, I guess it’s been about 23 years ago now. But I broke my hip my first year I was there and ended that. And several months after I started in Annapolis, I found myself back home going to the University of Arkansas, 10 minutes from where I grew up.
So I spent four years there. I got degrees in computer science and physics, and actually did get to work for NASA for a while, but discovered I had no business being a scientist or engineer. I just wasn’t very good at it. So I finished college trying to figure out what was next, and through some pretty extraordinary luck I got a job working at McKinsey & Company in Dallas as a business analyst for a couple years, just developed a whole new perspective and energy and excitement for private enterprise. And that took me to business school at Harvard. And I also did the joint degree with the Kennedy School while I was there, and then just ate up all of that. I’ve always loved and been excited about government and politics.
And so I just really had the time of my life while I was there. As much as I enjoyed private sector though, I had always had a desire to have a career in public service in some way, shape or form, but when I was in graduate school I really didn’t know what route I wanted that to take. But while I was there, I met some folks that had been public school teachers through Teach For America who were my classmates. And they were just really, really impressive people, even amongst the community that I was privileged to be a part of, they really stood out. They were sharp and talented. They’d had remarkable experiences and stories about what they’d done with children, the inequities they had seen in our education system. And it really opened my eyes to a problem that I didn’t experience as a public school student.
I had a really good experience and went to well-resourced schools and had a lot of good fortune, but it opened my eyes to the cause and to the organization Teach For America. And so I went to work there after business school, spent a year there working directly for their founder and just came out on fire about serving underprivileged kids and kids living in poverty. I returned to McKinsey for a few years after serving at Teach For America for a year, got to work in the public sector with a couple of state departments of education and a couple of mayors during the great recession. That was an incredible experience, but then returned to Teach For America as a national officer and later as an executive director in my home state of Arkansas, and I spent six more years there.
So I wrapped that up in June of 2017. And then between June of 2017 and December of 2017, I was approached by a few people and decided it was a good idea to get into politics and actually ran for governor in my home state of Arkansas, declared my candidacy in December of 2017. And one of my primary was the democratic party nominee, but lost the general election to a popular incumbent by a very wide margin. And so I spent November and December of 2018 licking my wounds, figuring out what I wanted to do next. And that led me to Assist Services.
And the calculus that got me there, I decided I wanted to go back into private enterprise after spending a decade in the nonprofit sector. I wanted to build something from the ground up that I could make my own and set a vision for excellence that I could actually have the power to lead towards. But I also wanted something that I felt performed a really useful and honorable task for society, and Assist Services fits the bill on all those fronts. So I’ve been leading it since December of 2019, and we’re trying to get a full head of steam go and even amidst a global pandemic.
So, can you give us a walkthrough of what Assist Services does and a little bit of its history here in Portland, and then what you’re trying to do with it now?
So, Assist Services at its most basic level focuses on transporting students to and from school and other critical services. And what makes Assist unique and valuable to society is that we focus on children that have acute special needs or special circumstances. So the vast majority of the children we drive are homeless or they’re in the foster system, their children they may have two or three addresses in a six or eight week period. They may also be children that have special mental or emotional needs or sensory issues or autism. And so they need to ride alone or in a smaller self-contained vehicle. These are things that for different reasons, school districts with their traditional yellow bus infrastructure and vans are not well-suited to do efficiently. And so we have a model where we can come in and do that more efficiently. We can provide a better service for the child and the family, and also take something that is stressful and difficult for a school district off their plate.
Assist has been around for a long time. The previous owner created it about 15 years ago, built up a very strong reputation and a large client base, as you mentioned, all around the Portland area in Oregon, but it was acquired by some new owners who were my partners early in 2019. And they brought me on in late 2019 to lead the company with a mandate to make it a national organization. What I think I layered on that excited my partners and led them to hire me, I view Assist, we’re absolutely a transportation company. Of course, we measure ourselves by standard metrics, we want to be on time. We of course prioritize safety above all else, but to me that’s the most minimal baseline for what we do.
We are transporting children that have all the potential in the world, but that have been dealt a really tough hand. And so for me, our responsibility and the opportunity here is not just to do the transportation well, but to also put a good adult in front of them every day. If you drive a kid to school round trip every day, and let’s say it’s a relatively brief 15 minute ride one way, you’re going to spend more than 90 hours a year with that child. And that makes you an important adult in their life. And so we try to think really purposefully about that and the good that we can do if we get that right.
How do you hire folks who can be those drivers? Because I mean, every company wants people who are good with people and good with customers, but in this scenario, each child they’re going to drive has different needs that they need to pay really close attention to. And so how do you find those people who can have that empathetic and caring attitude while also being able to switch back and forth to different needs with different children?
That’s the real key question here. And I think what really shaped my perspective on that and has held true so far as we’ve been doing this in Assist, is the best way to really understand the skills and ability that someone’s going to bring to the table and the best way to really understand what they care about and what they really want to do is to look at what they’ve done in the past and what they’ve already achieved. And this is where us viewing ourselves as an organization of caregivers that are providing a specific critical service is crucial. Because as we go out to try to recruit drivers, if I’m looking at this as pure transportation, I may try to go recruit at the same places that Uber is recruiting or the same places that a district school bus group is recruiting.
And that’s not necessarily bad, but if you view the service and our mission and our job and our value like I do, which is first and foremost putting the right type of human in front of a kid, you’re going to look in some different places to start. And so our recruiting, I want people that are graduate students in social work or current social workers that want to make some extra income on the side. I want people that are retired special educators, that I don’t have to wonder if they know what they’re getting into, if they know how to serve and support a kid with special needs, they’ve done it for 30 years. I know it, it’s true. And when you go and recruit those folks, that’s a different group of people than your standard group of folks that are driving for Uber or Lyft. And I don’t mean that in a superior inferior way, I just mean different.
What’s critical about our service that makes that possible is that we do our work in small vehicles and sedans, in almost every case our drivers drive their own vehicles. And so I don’t need to go hire someone that’s got special certification and ability to drive a 60 passenger yellow school bus, or even a 12 passenger cargo van. If I look at their motor vehicle report, I’ll know if they’re a good driver or not with a pretty high degree of confidence. And so really it allows us to focus on what’s distinctive about our people, which is their experience with kids and kids with special needs.
Yeah, certainly. Leading up to this conversation, I was thinking a lot about how you had your experience with Teach For America. And I’m curious with building this business at Assist Services, in terms of the lever that you have with it being a for-profit business that can grow within itself and internally and organically without needing donors or outside help, do you see this as a higher leverage way of making a bigger social impact on the world?
The short answer is yes. The private sector in the free market, if you’ve got something, an idea that can survive and thrive in that market, it’s just there’s no better engine or system to perpetuate and scale that, that I can see. And as I mentioned, I reached a point in my career or a point, I don’t know if it’s a point, it’s definitely a phase at least, where I just I’m so proud and thankful that I had the experience I had in the nonprofit sector, because it really did give me valuable perspective on what it takes to create and sustain a philanthropic enterprise. But I’m also really excited to be leading and building something that if we do it and do it well, it will very naturally perpetuate itself. And yes, I do think it’s a way for us to do more good and to reach more kids, in this particular circumstance at least.
I’m also curious if you find this role more satisfying potentially. I mean, you weren’t governor, but if you imagine yourself as governor, you could make a shallow impact over a huge population of people within Arkansas, but at Assist Services you can make a much deeper impact on a smaller number of people. And so I wonder if just in your experience so far, if you feel like this job has been more satisfying than perhaps governor or some other political type of role might have been.
It’s a good question. I mean, just to be candid with you, I really did want to be governor. I didn’t just run for fun, even though which is not what you were implying, but I really did want to do that. And I’d still would love to do that someday if I felt there was a fighting chance to win. What the office of governor gives you is just, especially in a smaller state like Arkansas, you’ve got a chance to press on a spectrum of issues that tie together. So it’s hard to not have that opportunity. That said, I think at this point in my life, at some point you have to realize how much of life and business and everything is luck and circumstance and how you respond to it.
What I try to live by, whether it’s in non-profit or business or politics or my own personal life, is just looking at the hand you’ve been dealt and honestly trying to assess how can I do the absolute most and make the best use of my short time and short life while I’m here right now, on something that matters and that I’m proud of and that I think is a good thing for the world. And so in that sense, I am very excited and proud to be doing what I’m doing. I think over time we could reach a lot of children and families and school districts with a small, but really, really important service. And so I am very excited about that and grateful to be able to do that work.
And in your expansion so far into the new states you’ve entered, how has that been going as working remote as a CEO, not in Portland, adding new drivers and new school districts and building those new relationships? How has that work been going?
Boy, it’s hard to describe that concisely with a seemingly consistent set of emotions or adjectives. I think it’s been like entrepreneurial endeavors go. It’s been pretty exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, usually ambiguous in terms of, especially in the context of COVID, but overall I have to say I’m having fun with it. I wish I wasn’t having to lead and figure this out in the context of the pandemic, because it really has been a big drag on everything, at the same time that’s just life. Like the best leaders in business or anything else, “Okay, I wish I didn’t have this challenge, but I do. What do I do with it?” And we’ve been figuring it out. I think what’s been, I don’t know fascinating is the right word, but it’s what’s in my head so I’ll use it. What’s been fascinating is in pursuing this business to also still be engaged and to see how our public education system is trying to deal with this.
And it’s just, I think this is true for many industries, but public educators and administrators, it is hard to overstate just how unprecedented COVID is and the decisions, because it’s forcing the question that it’s raising. And frankly, the moral dilemmas it’s even creating because, and this is where it’s easy to get into politics and that’s not my intent, but there is a very understandable tension right now between public health prerogatives and restarting or maintaining certain levels of activity in our broader lives. And whether it’s more direct economic activities or education, and to see districts grapple with the dangers, not just to kids, but to educators and families of bringing kids back in person versus acknowledging the very real limits if not outright flaws of trying to educate kids virtually, especially kids that are facing challenges or are living in poverty. It’s been something to be engaged in that, through trying to promote and scale Assist.
Yeah, certainly it sounds like a tremendous challenge. How have you worked with school districts so far in making sure that while schools are starting to go more or have been virtual for a while now, how do you make sure that the kids you’re responsible for are still taken care of and still involved in education?
It’s a challenge. I’ll tell you that. A, just because this is so unprecedented and different. And B, because different states and even different school districts are just handling it so differently. And in Oregon where we’ve got some longer standing relationships and partnerships, what we’re trying to do there is just make it clear that we are here and ready to try to be adaptable and supportive. And a lot of that just starts with showing up and just trying to ask the right questions and genuinely listen and understand what they’re dealing with and how they’re trying to approach it. That’s the first step, is just trying to gain some insight into what they’re really experiencing and how they’re going about it. And then it starts to provide insight on, “Okay, how can we fit into that and provide the service that’s needed and also sustain the business?”
That’s been tricky, honestly. And even in Oregon, where we got longstanding operation, and I’ll say more about that in a second, but in new places where we don’t have relationships and we don’t have trust, it’s been hard. I’m amazed that we’ve had as much success as we’ve had in launching in three new states amidst this. It’s sort of I can’t believe we’ve done it. And it’s not due to any brilliance on our part, as much as it is just you engage 200 people so that four or five of them will work out. And you just got to be aggressive and have perseverance.
I want to go onto other questions too, but one thing that’s come up on the top of my head is, is there any seasonality to working with new school districts? So do you have to make sure that if you’re going to work with a school district for a year you need to get to them by the start of the school, or can you start midway through the year with them?
In general, there is some seasonality. And what I mean by that is many districts make their purchasing decisions and stuff for a school year in the spring before, but not all of them. Education is such a local enterprise to this day in the United States. And so from state to state, education varies a lot, but even within states different districts do things very differently, which is to say some of them if you’re not on their radar or talking to them between March 3rd and April 6th, you’re not going to get business with them for 15 months or maybe longer, but others it’s much more fluid and ongoing. Especially I would say in a service like ours, where the need can be very unpredictable for a district from year to year.
And if you’re in their orbit, they might not need you on September 1st, but on October 17th they’ll get that 51st kid that they need to provide a ride for and they don’t have anyone and they need it tomorrow. And that’s how you get your foot in the door and you start to earn that relationship and that trust. And so part of this is just building the capacity and establishing the channels so that when they need you, you’re there and you’re ready to take that first ride and to start that longer relationship
Yeah. And to that point, most of the investors and owners I’ve interviewed on the show are working with companies that are business to business, and I’m really curious how you develop relationships with government enterprises and programs and municipalities and schools. How do those customers differ from more of the business customers and clients?
It’s such a great and critical question. I think in a business setting at the end of the day, while there might be four or five or six factors that affect a decision by a business customer, you know without a doubt that one of them is price and the value, and you know what you can do for their bottom line, period. With government and school districts in particular, price is definitely very relevant. And I would say in general, it’s probably the most important factor, but the math isn’t as ruthless or as determinant as it is in a business situation in many cases and in a school district situation.
And what I mean by that is there are other factors like the quality of the service, the experience of the child that matter a ton. Also, just the trust you can earn and the likeability factor are just huge. And of course they are anytime human beings are involved even in business. But, man, in the school district context, a transportation director in a 5,000 kids school district in a suburban or even rural community, as long as you’re in the band of price it’s going to come down to, “Do I like and trust this person? Do someone I know locally like and trust this person? And therefore, am I willing to take a risk on this?”
It’s just an enormous factor. And candidly, I think if you haven’t worked in a school or a district office, it’s easy to miss that. And I’ll tell you, I see some of our bigger competitors who are five years ahead of this, and who’ve got seven figures or eight figures, even a venture capital money and whatnot, and I see them investing in these big sophisticated software systems and tracking apps and all this stuff. And I just, my experience working with educators and administrators don’t make any confidence at all that wins you any business or let you do the job better. We’ll see if I’m right over time.
So if it’s not the big venture capital fancy systems investing that you’re doing, what is it instead? You’ve mentioned team of course before and hiring great drivers, are there other elements of Assist Services that you’re really trying to invest time and energy and funds into?
There’s nothing more important, I think, than our ability to consistently and efficiently recruit really high quality drivers, and to do so quickly in response to how demand can grow in a place. Part of what I also want to be true about how we do that is, if in two years we’re killing it financially and we’ve scaled, but our drivers don’t consistently feel really happy and proud to work for the organization, I won’t feel super happy about what we’ve achieved. I may be glad that we’re doing well, but the work won’t be done. And I won’t feel like we’re an excellent company yet. I want this to be an organization that everyone is genuinely happy and proud and satisfied to be a part of. And that’s tricky, even with the best intention.
So we’ve got to figure all that out. And right now I think we’re making a lot of headway saying, “Okay, how do we recruit a pool of drivers quickly and scale it? How do we get them through the state regulatory processes, which are very different state to state, in a way that is good and efficient?” We’re figuring that out and we’re starting to get pretty good at it. What we got to do next is we scale in new places, how do we make sure if they start driving children and getting routes that they continue to have a good experience? And that we’re going to have to do more of it to really figure it out.
And you’ve been expanding in fairly scattered areas within the US, not focused in the Pacific Northwest. I’m curious if you’ve found any regional benefits to expansion. So take Portland, Oregon for example, if you expanded to Salem, Eugene, Bend, to Seattle, would that be an easier and more effective expansion, or have you found that the regional focus isn’t as necessary to getting new school districts?
I think in terms of, let’s just take the ease of expansion, I think once you’re in a state and you understand how to operate in that state’s regulatory environment, I think expanding from just an operation standpoint expansion within the state is attractive. It’s relatively easy. It’s an easier way to increase profit and cashflow. And we’re certainly going to do that, whether it’s in Oregon, we’re working on that. Or as we start to get beachheads in a metro area in one state, if there are other attractive markets that are in that state, they’re going to be right next on the priority list. But beyond that, I made it a priority to make sure that we go to a few very different places right out of the gate, and to get experience and set up beachheads in a few very different seemingly scattered places.
And the main reason is because on the context of the Assist, we’ve got very substantial and even deep experience, but it is in one market. And as I’ve said, education is so different from state to state that if you’re going to build a nationwide company, you better start gaining experience, incubating your operations in very different places as quick as you can, because until you do, you don’t know what you don’t know about what it’s going to take to ultimately earn business and to deliver on it effectively in different contexts. Because in very obvious and less obvious ways, Portland, Oregon is an extremely, extremely different place than Birmingham, Alabama, which is an extremely different place than Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is super different than a suburb of Houston, Texas. But all those places do have these needs. And so figuring out what’s similar and different about serving each of them as quickly as possible, I think is pretty critical in this industry and in this business.
You talked about the establishing beachheads in a bunch of these different states. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose the locations you did? Is there any particular advantage there, or just a high need and misallocation of supply and demand for the services you need there or that are needed?
I would say to miss allocation of supply and demand was a big factor. I mean, districts almost everywhere are struggling to deliver on the service we provide. I think one of the most critical factors though and for me in deciding where to go is that some places have already decided to outsource this and some haven’t. And especially for us being on the one hand, we’re not a new company, but we are new to everywhere we’re going right now. And our story, if I were sitting in the seat of a district I’m approaching, we feel like a risky option. Because yeah, okay. You all been doing this for a while and that’s good, but I don’t have anyone near me that’ll vouch for you. And that matters a lot. It’s going to be a tough sell. And we’re getting past it, but it’s taking work.
And so I say that to say this, critical for me when I’m thinking about where to go right now is I’m focusing on people that have already decided to outsource this, because it’s a much harder thing to get someone who needs us but doesn’t trust any outside vendor to trust us. It’s a different thing to take someone who’s using one of our competitors or someone who is using a taxi cab to take the leap to come to us. It’s much easier for me to convince someone that’s using a taxi cab to try this new company that’s coming into their area than it is someone who, boy, they need us, but they’re grinding it out with their own vans right now. It’s just a bigger leap. That’s been one critical factor in deciding where I go.
So how do you find that out about a school district? How do you find out what services they’re using and do it on a nationwide scale?
Well, I’ll tell you there are pros and cons to working with the public sector. One of the pros is that there is an immense amount of public information, if you know where to look and you’re willing to do that legwork. And so I don’t want to give away every R&D tactic that we’re using, although I’m telling you everything else about how we operate, but that’s one thing I would say, if you’re willing to do your homework and look, you can find out a lot from the outside in without ever even talking to anybody what are local school district or government agencies doing to solve a problem. That’s just been one thing where we’ve been focusing on. The other thing that I’ve learned is, and I think running a relatively small and already profitable company, one of the levels of freedom it gives us is I had the freedom to really engage any strong potential customer that I think is out there.
And what I mean by that is it’s really tempting to say, “All right, who are we going to go after?” Well, step one, give me a list of the 25 or 30 biggest school districts in the United States. Seems reasonable, right? That’s where the kids are so that’s where your business is, maybe. But the thing about school districts, if you understand them, is that the bigger a school district gets the more scale it has, the more resources it has, the more ability it has to handle this in house. And by the way, the other thing that you find is the bigger the school district gets, the more bureaucratic it gets, the more price sensitive it becomes, the more that your ability to get business with them is a function of an equation you satisfy on an RFP more than the relationships you can build with really talented teams and really hard work over time. And so that leads me to probably look at a different set of districts than a lot of people do.
Now, the advantage I have is that me and my team we understand these districts. I’ve got people that come from district, so I understand, I think better than a pure general transportation leader, how do you talk to and appeal and earn trust with a school transportation leader or someone who directs services for children with special needs. It’s a very different sales process and line of work if you’re looking at it that way, versus I’ve just got to sell rides to people.
I’m curious on other things that you’ve learned being a CEO that perhaps you didn’t expect coming into the job.
I make mistakes every day and learn stuff. In terms of what I didn’t expect, I don’t know, nothing is jumping immediately to mind. And I think that’s mainly because when I reflect on my experience the last six months, so much of it has been defined by how we adapt and react to COVID and what that’s doing. So those are more unique lessons that are based purely on the circumstance rather than more general lessons that I’m probably learning along the way as a leader of a private enterprise versus a nonprofit. So I’m probably not as reflective as I normally would be on that dimension because I’m so, so consumed with how we’re dealing with COVID. But I don’t know is the short answer, honestly.
My experience with Teach For America and then I had a lot of private sector experience beforehand, Teach For America we weren’t profit driven per se, but we were an extremely outcomes focused organization. And we did tailor ourselves to deliver and track our progress on very quantitative, very concrete things. And so it was probably almost as close to running a private enterprise or a piece of a private enterprise as you could without doing it. So it hasn’t been that knew.
Excellent. I want to ask you a few closing questions here. What class would you teach in college if it could be about anything you wanted?
In terms of subject, I love history. And I would love to be in a future life, be a history professor, because I just think understanding why things happen, understanding the effect that human nature has on all human events and all industries and all sectors, I just think is one of the most important things we can learn if we’re going to be wise people and raise wise children and good citizens. Having said that though, I got asked a few years ago to give a lecture to a class of MBA students in St. Louis at the Olin Business School, and the professor that called me in asked me just to talk about whatever I wanted. And so I drew up a couple of lectures for him, and it was based on my experience so far in life on just general characteristics that I look for in anyone I bring to my teams and what makes people successful.
And the four things that I talked about and highlighted and that I built some curriculum around were one, just how do you become a good general problem solver? How do you learn how to take any ambiguous situation, structure it and attack it in a helpful, productive way, to how do you consistently build and earn trust with people, which is just one of the most important abilities that a person can have. Three, how do you take care of yourself and maintain energy and stamina? And four, how do you build and maintain a healthy sense of perseverance and just tenacity? And I think whether it’s as a professional or as a human being, if you’ve got those four abilities or if you can sustain them and nurture them, odds are you’re going to make a big and a good contribution to almost anything you’re a part of going forward, especially if you’re a person of integrity and decency. So that’s two answers for you.
That’s a great answer. I like that one.
Thank you. Thank you.
What’s a belief you used to hold strongly that you’ve changed your mind on over the years?
This will seem a little bit like a gloomy answer, but it’s not. I could not have been much luckier growing up. I was adopted at birth and I was raised by just two really spectacular people. So I grew up in an environment of extreme trust, of perpetual love, the sense that life was full of opportunity and that if you did the right thing and played by the rules in general, you’d have a chance to be rewarded in that honor and decency would be returned with justice and some sense of progress. And that’s been the experience of my life. But, and even in school as we’re taught, I was a public school kid in Arkansas. And the story that I learned about America was that we were this once in human history country that was founded on these incredible principles and that our story over our first couple of hundred years has been one of consistent and admirable and incredible progress.
And I still believe in a lot of that. I love this country and I’m proud to be an American. I think there’s so much about our story that does show progress and it does give hope and that should make us proud. At the same time, in recent years for a few reasons, I’ve also just come to believe that human progress is not inevitable. That the progress that we have made is quite fragile, and that if we all don’t play a really purposeful, constructive role as parents, as citizens, in whatever arena we have power or voice, as a business leader, society can go backwards.
There is no guarantee that we hand our kids a better world or even one as good as the one that we’d grown up in. And I just have a much more clear eyed sense of that now. I’m not as Pollyannish as I used to be, or even as it was four or five years ago. In some days that makes me a little sad, but in other days it helps me understand the responsibility that I have as a really lucky man to make sure that my kid and other kids, the kids my company drives every day, the kids that we serve in Teach For America, that we do all we can to make sure that we hand them a good world and we help them understand that they’re going to have to fight to hand that on to their kids and so on and so forth. So a big maybe dreamy answer, but that’s what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed in recent years.
No, that’s a very powerful answer. What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
The real question I think that’s implicit in what you just asked me is what’s my definition of best. And for me, I’ll tell you what I think it means to be excellent or the best and I’ll give you a specific answer. But to me, the best businesses are ones that absolutely are sustainable and profitable, that try to engender a good experience for everyone engaged in them, but also hopefully do something for society that’s really meaningful. Whether or not it’s grand and world changing or not, does something that really does add distinctive value almost any way you want to look at it. For me, I can’t speak to that experience of everyone involved like employees, but man, when I look at businesses that really might change the world in profound and permanent ways, it’s hard for me not to look at what Elon Musk is doing with his businesses.
My wife and I put solar panels on our house last year. When you think about what it would mean for mankind if we really did harness the power of the sun for the power of our society, from an environmental standpoint, from a national security standpoint, ultimately from a cost and efficiency standpoint, that could be transformative for our world, for our environment, for our politics in many ways. And I think that’s credible. They’re doing that through solar power, through electric vehicles. Beyond that, as someone who used to work at NASA and is powerful about this, I think it is very… I’m not predicting it’ll happen, but Elon Musk and SpaceX has as much of a chance to send the first people to Mars as NASA or anyone else.
And I’ll tell you what, in a thousand years of mankind is still here and we’ve got any records, the one thing that they’re probably most likely to remember from the 20th century is that we went to the moon for the first time. And it’s like 92 things that happened in 1492. Everyone can name one, can you name another? No, it was when Columbus went to the new world. And so I think if Elon Musk and that enterprise gets humanity to Mars, or even if they’re catalytic and accelerating the technology that gets us there, name me something that makes a bigger difference for the future of mankind. It’s just it’s incredible.
And so to me that’s a business and an enterprise that when I think about, if I had a magic wand and could go back 20 years and do something different or be someone different, I’d probably be him, at least in terms of what he’s doing. Because he may end up being, I don’t know him well enough to I’m not making a statement of what kind of human he is or how he treats his employees, but in terms of whose position to make a transformative difference on mankind through the private sector, it’s hard to think of someone bigger than him and what he’s doing. Like I said, with respect to energy transportation and human technology and exploration. That’s my answer.
I like it a lot. Glad to have you on the show. This has been a really fun one.
Thanks. I appreciate you letting me talk so much.
Of course. It’s great to hear about what you’re doing and what you’re building, and I’m really excited to keep following you. So thank you so much for sharing your time today. This was fantastic.
You bet. I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you very much.
Join small company investors, search funds, private equity firms, business owners, and entrepreneurs in reading the Think Like An Owner Newsletter.