Inspiring TJ Football Players

Last weekend was my 15-year high school reunion, which coincided with TJ's Homecoming. I was honored to be asked back by the football coach to talk to the team before the game. I've done this twice before and both times the team has followed up with its first win of the season. I can't claim any responsibility for that but hopefully I at least helped!

This year the TJ football team was in a different situation. They had started off the season very strong but, as the result of several key injuries, had lost their last several games - and lost them very decisively. So I decided to focus my brief time with them on overcoming adversity:

"As Coach said, I was TJ Class of 1997. I played football for four years at TJ, three years as a two-way starter on varsity, and one year as Captain. After TJ I studied computer science and electrical engineering at Rice University, where I played fullback for the Owls. Professionally I have spent my career starting up and leading cleantech companies. I've had some successes and some failures - just as at TJ I had some wins and some losses.

What I recall, though, is that it was losing winnable games that hurt the most. All games are winnable, of course, but some are more winnable than others. For example, my senior year we were beaten pretty badly by a Chantilly team that went on to win the state championship and produced multiple D-IA / NFL players. That loss didn't hurt too much. However, we also lost to a Centreville team that would could have - should have - beaten. That one stung even more because I was injured and had to watch my teammates struggle out there on the field without me. Is anyone here injured? [A scary number of hands shot up into the air when I asked this!] Yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

So help me out, guys, is tonight's opponent / game more or less winnable? [lots of agreement that this was a very winnable game] OK, then we all agree that

We CAN win

Is there anyone here, though, who believes that ability is all it takes to win a football game? [no hands] Good. Then let's talk about what else it takes.

With the benefit of 16 years of hindsight, it's clear to me that you get much more out of TJ football than just playing a fun sport with your friends. I have four degrees from some of the top schools in the world in computer science, electrical engineering, and business, but the skills I rely on most every day didn't come from those academic experiences; they were developed up there on the TJ football field. Skills like leadership, teamwork, discipline, determination, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to overcome adversity. [brief discussion about what "adversity" means to them]

Life is adversity. Whether you don't get into your top choice for college, you get dumped by your girlfriend, or - something that resonates with me personally - you're running a tech startup and one day Google launches a product that competes directly with you, life is constantly knocking you down. The question is, what do you do about it? There are two types of people: those who roll over and take it and those who bounce back up fighting even harder than before.

The ability to overcome adversity is the most important life skill to develop and it can't be taught in the classroom or learned in a book. There is no AP exam for it. No, the good news is that the best place in the world to develop that skill is up there on the TJ football field. The bad news is that you're running out of time. Seniors, I'm especially talking to you. You have three hours of game time left in your TJ football careers. Three hours to prove to the world - and yourselves - that you have what it takes to overcome adversity.

This team has seen its share of adversity this season. You've lost some key players and come up on the wrong side of some close contests. In the world of corporate strategy we talk about "must-win battles." I believe that tonight's game is a must-win battle for TJ football; tonight's game will define the season for you and even your entire TJ football experience. Out on the field tonight you will show that you're not boys who will lie there and take it but men who will stand up and fight. Can we all agree on that? [murmers of consent]

We MUST win

Is there anyone here, though, who believes that necessity is all it takes to win a football game? [no hands] That's right; it's not the team with the greatest ability or necessity that wins; rather it's the team that executes on the field of play when it counts. So close your eyes; I want you to visualize yourself executing perfectly tonight.

QBs, see yourself making the right read and firing a tight spiral right on target. RBs, see yourself taking the handoff, securing the ball, and making a good cut. Receivers, you're running a tight route, turning around, and looking the ball into your hands as you catch it. Linemen, you're dominating the man across from you, putting him on the ground and moving downfield to pick up a linebacker. Defensive players, you're squaring up on the ball carrier,wrapping up, and driving through him as you take him to the ground. Kickers, you're pointing your toe and seeing the ball splitting the uprights perfectly.

Now fast forward to the end of the game. The seconds on the clock are ticking down. You're looking over at your comrades in arms and smiling. You're beaten and bruised but the euphoria of victory is upon you. You know that tomorrow's Homecoming dance is going to be a lot more fun now - but you're not ready to think about that just yet. Right now you just want to savor the feeling of victory. What does it feel like? How does it smell? How does it taste? [As I had not closed my eyes, I could see smiles creeping onto the faces of all the players - visualization is such a powerful tool!]

OK, open your eyes. You've all just seen the future, so I think we can all agree that

We WILL win

We CAN win
We MUST win
We WILL win
[got them to say it with me a few times]

And why? Because you deserve this. You've worked for this. And tonight in the stands there will be 25 years of those who've come before you, previous TJ football players who've shed blood, sweat, and tears out on that same field and we all believe in you. But you are the ones who have to go out there and get it done tonight. So get out there and make us proud, gentlemen."

This one was pretty long and the visualization exercise might have seemed a little hokey but hopefully it all helped. Long story short: they went down 12-0 quickly but rebounded (overcame adversity!) to win 42-12. It was cold and rainy but there is nowhere I would rather have been!

The rest of the reunion was great, especially introducing Katie to my classmates. The highlight by far for me, though, was the football game. Congrats to those young men; I hope they'll all build on what the accomplished and use it for the rest of their lives!


What is it like to attend Rice?

I was recently asked to answer the question, "What is it like to attend Rice?" on Quora. My answer:

There is no better word than "magical" to describe my experience as an undergrad at Rice University. Indeed, Rice often invites comparisons with Hogwarts due to its Residential Colleges (much like being sorted into Hogwarts Houses), its students who take pride in being a little different, and perhaps even its campus (complete with a dungeon-like labyrinth of steam tunnels underneath the "castle" grounds). The magic I found there, though, is much deeper.

Having grown up in the Washington DC area, I didn't know what to expect when I first visited Rice: dust, tumbleweeds, and saloons? Cowboys on horseback? I had never really been to Texas before and my impressions were shaped by what I had seen in popular media. Imagine my surprise when I walked through the main entrance for the first time, canopied by beautiful live oaks, and discovered a lush, verdant campus with amazing Byzantine Architecture.

It was a 300-acre oasis right in the heart of a thriving metropolis, just down the street from many of the world's most significant companies and just across the street from the world's largest medical center. Walking distance from Houston's Museum District (Houston neighborhood) and just a few hops on the light rail from the Theater District and all the major sports arenas, there was always so much going on. And yet the hedges around Rice's borders seemed to protect it magically from the frenetic energy that surrounded it. It was a place of tranquility, a place where I could see myself reading a book under a tree in the endless green space of quads, courtyards, and grounds.

When I walked into the Computer Science building without an appointment, one of the faculty invited me into his office and chatted with me for some time about the curriculum, their goals for CS grads, and what life as a CS major would be like (more time in computer labs than reading books under trees!). I was surprised by this openness of faculty to engage with students - or even prospective students in my case - but the CS department wasn't unique. There was a friendliness about Rice that I just didn't find at any of the other schools I visited. I was hooked. After I received my acceptance letter I barely even glanced at the letters from the other schools to which I had applied.

When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I quickly realized that most of the other students had been attracted to Rice for the same reasons - it was elite but not elitist. My classmates were absolutely brilliant in all sorts of ways but everyone was modest, open, and friendly. My residential college quickly became my home away from home as we all worked hard and played hard together.

Academically, I found Rice really challenging. I double majored in computer science and electrical engineering so I was already taking a heavy work load - but then I would have been remiss not to take advantage of the amazing course offerings in the humanities, arts, and literature as well. It was a struggle to keep up with it all but I wasn't alone. Rice's achievement-oriented culture meant that many other students were also pushing the boundaries of what was reasonable. Rice let us do it, though, and we banded together to help each other out.

As I labored through my classes, became involved in student government, started some clubs, and founded my first startup (and slept very little) over the course of my undergrad career, one thing that really stuck out to me was the Rice administration's trust and empowerment of its students. We were really treated like adults. Our classes were taught by faculty, not grad students, we worked on research directly with those faculty, and even dined and socialized together through the residential colleges - some faculty even lived with us on campus (our College Masters, like a Hogwarts Head of House). Students were entrusted to enforce the honor code, which added integrity to our degrees, and numerous times major problems or policy decisions were left to student leadership to solve.

This trust and and responsibility made for a unique experiential development environment. I learned an incredible amount in my classes, of course, but my most valuable development happened outside of the classroom: relationships, leadership, teamwork, communication, organization, prioritization, and general find-a-way-to-make-something-happenness. I don't understand people like Peter Thiel who argue for students to forego a college degree. I think they miss the point of the real value created during one's time at a university and I suspect that they didn't have a magical experience like this one.

Now that it has been 15(!) years since I matriculated as a freshman at Rice, one thing is clear. The bond that was forged between so many smart, different, honest, humble students going through a unique development experience together lasts forever. I have lived around the world and every time I meet another Rice alum there is a warm glow and an instant desire to connect that stems from this bond.

Many others could probably articulate it better (and more concisely) than I have, but I hope you can tell by now that the story of Rice is a love story for me - from falling in love with the campus during that first visit to falling in love with another student who would one day become my spouse, from developing a career in entrepreneurship that I love to being inspired by professors to devote my career to creating social - not just economic - good. So perhaps the comparisons between Rice and Hogwarts aren't that far off - after all, we learn in the Harry Potter books that Love is the most powerful magic of all.


A Meaningful Award for Smart OES

Yesterday we were honored to receive first place in the Goradia Innovation Prize competition!

When I first announced that I would move back to Houston from Switzerland to launch Smart Office Energy Solutions, people thought I was crazy. "Why Houston?" "They don't have startups there - just big oil companies!"

I assured them - or maybe I was just assuring myself - that Houston was a great place for starting up a venture. There's a talented workforce here, a business-friendly political context, and the cost of living is just so, so, low. Plus, I contended, there is a nascent but growing support ecosystem for startups.

Well this award is proof of that. Smart OES has won many awards in the past but I have often been somewhat cynical of their value. The recognition has been nice but they haven't done anything to advance our venture. Our joke has been that, if our company completely fails, we'll dole out one award to each investor - those would be some expensive plaques!

This award, however, came with a cash prize, making it very helpful in advancing our venture! This shows how Houston is taking entrepreneurship seriously and literally putting its money where its mouth is. As I stated in my presentation, we have grand ambitions to create a massive worldwide market but we need help to achieve our lofty goals. Well, this helps.

So I offer my sincere thanks to the Houston Technology Center, its staff, the Goradia family who funded the prize, and the judges who selected us. You are helping foster entrepreneurship in Houston in very meaningful ways! And I offer my congratulations to the other Goradia Innovation Prize finalists. It is an honor to be counted among you and I hope that we will all become resounding success stories!

Now . . . back to working hard to live up to the hype!


The First Cleanweb Hackathon in Texas

Last weekend marked the culmination of a special project I've been working on for many months: bringing the Cleanweb Hackathon to Houston!

Cleanweb is a global movement of people developing IT-based "clean" technologies instead of the traditional "cleantech" like solar and wind which require massive investments and decades to commercialize. The purpose of a Cleanweb Hackathon is to bring together talented developers/engineers who don't usually work together, stimulate them with data and APIs that they're not used to working with, and give them a weekend to see what kinds of innovative new cleanweb software they can develop.

There have been some very successful cleanweb hackathons in San Francisco, NYC, and Boston but nothing in Texas. My co-organizers and I thought Houston would be a great location for such an event. Houston boasts world-leading companies in each of the major cleanweb categories (energy, food, water, waste, transportation) so we knew we could bring together people with relevant knowledge and skillsets. Our challenge would be to coax them away from their families or big company jobs for the weekend.

We decided to host the event at Rice University in Duncan Hall, the Computer Science building. Our sponsor, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (funded by Rice alum and legendary VC, John Doerr), provided us with this space. Through online and word of mouth advertising we attracted 55 participants to sign up. Friday evening everyone gathered at Duncan Hall to kick off. After some brief intro and ice breaker activities, we introduced everyone to the data we were providing. In addition to the publicly available data from government organizations and national sponsors like Genability, we were fortunate to receive contributions from Waste ManagementMETRO, and Rice's own Shell Center for Sustainability. These proprietary data sets presented a unique opportunity for our participants to build very practical solutions to very real problems.

Next we opened up the floor for participants to pitch their ideas: what they they wanted to work on for the next 48 hours. This was followed by mingling, Q&A, and building teams around each idea. Development wouldn't start in earnest until Saturday so we took everyone out to the Gingerman for "team bonding" before all the work began.

Saturday morning people arrived early and got to work. It was amazing to see students, industry professionals, NASA engineers, and public servants working alongside each other. Different backgrounds, experiences, skillsets, problem-solving approaches, etc. all combined together for some very innovative solutions. The teams worked all day, nourished by food donated by MyFitFoods, and well into the night. Many teams actually worked all through the night as well or slept onsite in shifts.

Sunday morning the teams wrapped up their work and in the afternoon we held final demos and presentations, which were live streamed over the Internet. We brought in a crack team of judges from many disciplines to determine which of our seven teams had accomplished the most in such a short span of time.

I was really impressed with all of the teams, but the winners were:

1st: C02 Commuter Contributions, a web app to motivate people to make more sustainable commuting choices by translating their greenhouse gas contributions into "real" terms. One of the reasons this team won was really beautiful design.

2nd: Amazing Houston, a web and mobile app to show public transportation users all the cool places they could visit easily from intermediate stops en route to their destination. This pulled real-time GPS data from METRO's API, so it could tell users who stop off for coffee to pay their bill quickly because the next train is arriving in a few minutes.

3rd: Revolutionary Trashcans, a mobile app that connects to a wireless scale underneath your trashcan and tells you how much food you're throwing away. The hardware was developed last semester by one of the teams in my entrepreneurship class and now, with the mobile app in place, they are ready to begin selling to school cafeterias nationwide!

It was an exhausting weekend and one that reminded me a lot of my collegiate experience. After all, Duncan Hall was where many of my late nights were spent back then! I was incredibly pleased with the results, though. Indeed many of the projects were quite practical as we had hoped. Several groups are continuing to develop theirs with an eye toward commercialization and Waste Management has already approached one of our winners about a partnership. Moreover, we're pleased to have fostered so many connections over the weekend: 55 participants and 20+ volunteers, all motivated to build software for sustainability. The event is over, but the movement is just getting started!

Pictures from the event