Back To Basics

So, I’m recovering from massively invasive spinal surgery . . . Wait, wait, wait, OK, let’s back up!

2020-11 In November of last year, I woke up one morning with debilitating back pain. The pain level itself wasn’t incredibly high, but it was so uncomfortable that I basically couldn’t sleep for a week until I finally discovered Aleve PM and melatonin. I had had unexplained pain in this particular spot before but never this significant or this persistent.

Over the next few weeks the pain migrated from my upper back to my left shoulder down my arm, eventually to settle as numbness in my fingers and weakness in my left triceps and pec. Indeed I had had some numbness in my left fingers off and on over the years but it had always resolved itself. Because this wasn’t going away, I asked my doctor for some help; he referred me to an orthopedist and a physiatrist. The ortho took x-rays and couldn’t find anything wrong so it seemed most likely that this was a nerve issue.

2020-12 I met with the physiatrist shortly after Christmas and demonstrated how this fit athlete could barely do a pushup due to the left arm weakness. She ordered her own x-rays and an MRI, hypothesizing that we would see some nerve impingement in the lower cervical spine.

When the MRI came back it did indeed show a slight herniation (bulge) in one of the cervical discs on the left side that was likely causing my symptoms. However, much more worrying was a diagnosis of “critical spinal stenosis” around my C5-C7 vertebrae. That means that my spinal column was being massively compressed there, which my physiatrist found very worrying.

“Critical” compression at C5-C7

In addition to the compression potentially causing nerve damage itself, it put me at much greater risk of much more catastrophic damage, like paralysis, if I experienced jarring movement, like an auto accident. I assumed this compression must be the result of my football playing days but the doctors told me it was likely congenital. Given that 20 years ago my mom experienced sudden and unexpected paralysis, maybe it is even hereditary.

2021-02 My physiatrist agreed that I could pursue conservative treatment for a little while to see if conditions would improve. I did physical therapy on my neck and spine twice a week for the better part of two months but unfortunately didn’t see much improvement.

2021-03 At this point my physiatrist became more insistent that I should pursue surgery with due haste. The longer my spinal cord remained compressed, the higher the likelihood of permanent nerve damage.

I met with neuro and orthopedic surgeons. They reviewed my imaging and mostly gave me two options: 1. fusion, 2. disc replacement. In both cases they would go in through the front of the neck and reduce pressure on my nerve root. These were pretty routine procedures with rapid recovery and low likelihood of complications. Everyone seemed to agree that these were my only options.

My last visit was with Dr. Patrick Curry of Boulder Centre for Orthopedics. Although he thought it likely that surgery would be the ultimate answer, he engaged with me much more openly rather than the “You must have surgery right now and here are your options” approach I had received from others – which I appreciated.

He noted the disparity between the worrisome spinal cord compression evident in my MRI and my symptoms which were much more related to pressure on the nerve root. He presented the same fusion and disc replacement options that I had been presented previously – but he was concerned that they wouldn’t adequately solve my issue since not just the discs but the c6 vertebra as well were providing pressure on the spinal canal. As such, he presented two additional surgical options:
1. c6 corpectomy – which he didn’t recommend for someone my age (One of the unexpected benefits about spinal surgery in your 40s is being constantly told how young you are – I guess it’s all relative!) – 2. posterior laminoplasty.

In posterior laminoplasty, he would go in the through the back and peel back tissue to create more space/room in the spinal canal. While he was in there, he would go around the spinal cord to clean up the anterior disc herniation as well. This would have a longer recovery than other options (having to cut through my muscular back and neck) but he believed it would more comprehensively address my issue(s) – with a lower likelihood of leading to more and more surgeries in future.

In the spirit of informing a decision with more data, we agreed to do a CT scan immediately and another MRI at higher resolution before finalizing a decision of which surgical option to pursue. After reviewing the new imaging together, we decided on the posterior laminoplasty.

2021-05 Unfortunately it took months for insurance to approve all of the imaging and the procedure – not very comforting when I had been told that the longer I waited the higher the likelihood of permanent nerve damage would be!

Finally we set a surgery date – May 20 – and then I began to get scared. I had never had surgery before and this would be really invasive, risky stuff – cutting open my neck and back and messing with my spinal cord! What if something went wrong and I turned into a vegetable? What if I went under anesthesia and never woke up? What if these were the last beautiful moments I would ever spend with my darling 3yo or amazing partner? What if I hadn’t prepared my work team to keep going in my absence?

The closer we got to May 20, the faster time seemed to go, such that all my ability to prepare for what was to come – practically and psychologically – seemed to fly out the window. Multiple pre-op appointments came and went but I always seemed to leave with more questions than answers. Suddenly, the morning of the procedure arrived and there was no looking back.

2021-05-20 Katie and I woke up very early the morning of May 20 and drove to Porter Adventist Hospital just south of Denver. The surgery prep team was amazing! Everyone introduced themself and told me exactly what they were doing before or during the operation. They all gave Katie (who was in constant communication with my brother, Nick) an opportunity to ask questions too.

Ready for battle!

They asked me 100 times who I was and what I was there for so I was pretty confident they wouldn’t get me mixed up with another patient. The anesthesiologist even turned out to be a close colleague of one of my friends from college! All this to say, as I was wheeled to the operating room, while I was still scared, my anxiety was much reduced. In the operating room, as the drugs kicked in, I remember making jokes about the funny looking x-ray protective gear and then . . . that’s it.

2021-05-20 I came to propped up in a hospital bed with a neck brace on and Katie right beside me. The surgery had lasted ~4 hours and everything had gone as expected.

Awake! (sort of)

Now I was hopped up on drugs for pain management, had a drain inserted into my trapezius, a foley catheter inserted into my bladder, and a big incision stitched up on the back of my neck!


I would need to remain at the hospital until I could meet a few pre-defined milestones. For the time being, though, it was time to rest. Katie returned home and video called me with our 3yo, which made everything feel much better.

It wasn’t a restful night per se as nurses were coming in and out of the room all the time, taking vital signs, giving me medication, and asking lots of questions. Between my inability to move, the catheter, and a numb finger (where the oxygen sensor was on tightly), it wasn’t terribly comfortable, but I managed to piece together some sleep in preparation for the following day’s work.

2021-05-21 By the time Katie rejoined me next morning, I was already checking off milestones. The catheter was out (Hallelujah!). The physical therapist came and helped me sit up, then stand up, then go for a short walk. The occupational therapist came and helped me go to the bathroom, brush teeth, and take a shower. It was funny how jubilantly the nurses would celebrate each of these milestones – it felt a lot like us at home celebrating the same milestones with our 3yo!

This all seemed relatively straight forward until I had a chance to sit down and catch my breath. Only then did I realize how exhausted I was; I had to take an hour-long nap immediately! And that’s how the rest of my day went: getting up to push the boundaries of longer and longer walks, eating a little bit, and then napping to recover.

After Katie left for the evening, Mom came to visit me and we had some good walks and talks along the hospital floor. The night came and went and suddenly it was Saturday, the first day I was eligible for discharge!

2021-05-22 Saturday proceeded like the day before, with routine functions like walking becoming more, well, routine. Finally the nurse checked my drain and declared that the small amount of discharge being produced meant that I had met my final discharge milestone. They pulled the drain out (which felt like someone was flossing my insides) and I was free to go!

Katie drove me home and I was elated to be rejoined with my pack. I made it home in time for our bath and bedtime routine then turned in very early myself.

Home at last, home at last, thank God almighty, I’m home at last!

Now I’ve been home for a week and every day keeps getting better and better. I’m blessed to have an amazing support team around me: my mom, my sister-in-law (who flew in for the week), and especially my partner. Katie has suddenly found herself a single parent with one wild 3yo and one wild puppy – and now a spinal recovery patient as well! She’s phenomenal, though, and is always making sure I’m nourished, comfortable, and have the right medication at the right time.

I’m still in a neck brace (which makes many things uncomfortable – including sleeping!), still on medication (a little less every day), and still on supplemental oxygen at night (meant to counteract the effects of some of the medication). I’m regaining physical capacity daily, though. Walking is the only form of exercise I’m currently allowed (which makes sense as my HRV is still incredibly low) and up to 11,000 steps / day.

Candidly, this is all very hard for me. As someone who is used to feeling invincible, suddenly I feel very vulnerable. And it will be a long road to full recovery . . . but so far the slope of the curve seems to be positive and pretty steep. With this great team around me, I’m very optimistic and looking forward to this as my next great adventure!

Getting after it!

The Fall of a Titan

With a heavy heart I’m sharing that former Rice Owl, Courtney Hall, died unexpectedly Thursday, apparently of a heart condition.

The only person I ever knew who was in Tecmo Super Bowl!

Graduating from high school as a National Merit semifinalist at age 16, Courtney was an all-conference center at Rice (starting every one of Rice’s 44 games during his four years). Drafted into the NFL at age 19, Courtney was an All-Pro center for the San Diego Chargers while completing his Rice degree in 1990 and captaining them to Super Bowl XXIX (the 1994 season).

Since his playing days he had an illustrious career in finance and public service. While serving on the Association of Rice Alumni board of directors (where I first met him) he earned a joint JD/MBA from U Chicago and was recently named to Rice Board of Trustees. Like me, he married way, way up and, although he built a sizeable family of his own, I would say that he saw every classmate, teammate, business partner, or other human as a family member. Someone of his prominence always had many people asking for something but I never once saw him refuse to lend a helping hand to a fellow in need.

I was proud to call Courtney a friend and mentor and I will always call him an inspiration. If you didn’t have the great fortune to know Courtney, please take a moment to read the articles below (hat tip to former ARA board member, George Webb, for curating them). You will see what an extraordinary life he led and that the impact of his legacy will endure long after he has left this mortal world. We have lost a true titan, but, after all, Rice fight never dies.

Introducing Genève

Almost one year to the day since we lost our sweet Max, we are elated to have added Genève to our family!

Genève is a Great Bernese, a Bernese Mountain Dog / Great Pyranees mix. Ever since we fell in love with Berners in Switzerland, we have wanted to bring one into our family but never felt that hot climates like Houston would be appropriate for such a big, furry dog. Now that we’re in Colorado, though, this seems like a great place for such a breed!

Everyone else seems to think so too. We have been on the Berner rescue list for months and are frequently told that we may never be able to adopt one. Accordingly, we put down a deposit last month for a puppy from a breeder that was recommended by the rescue organization and were told that it would probably be a year before one was available.

Late last week, though, we received a call from the breeder, letting us know that two people had backed out of this particular puppy, who might be on the small side – would we be interested? Yes! We drove out Saturday to meet her and drove back with her in tow. During the car ride, we discussed mountains and places near mountains that could inspire a name for her. When we arrived at Genève, the conversation was over because our 2yo insisted that that had to be her name. I agreed as long as her middle name would be Aéroport!

We’ve had her now for 24 hours and she is a little fluffy ball of joy. She has spent a lot of the daytime sleeping – tuckered out from these big changes – and a lot of the nighttime keeping me awake because she wants to go out and play in the yard! At eight weeks old, she still has a lot of growing, developing, and learning to do but so far she has pottied exclusively outdoors so we consider that a good first step.

Our 2yo loves her, except when she is trying to chew on their toys. Katie and I are overjoyed to have a furry companion back in our lives again; it feels like a hole in our family has been filled.

Happy Easter, everyone; we have extra motivation to rejoice this year!

I Don’t Say “Redskins” Anymore

Looking through my blog history, there are many references to the Washington Football Team, which was – until recently – called the Washington Redskins. I grew up in the DC metro area at a time when this was a magical team that frequently won the Super Bowl and I developed a strong affinity for the franchise.

Washington Football Team

For many years there was a controversy about the Redskins name. Was it racist? Was it offensive? It took me a long time to establish a position for several reasons. First was that most of the people arguing about it seemed to be privileged white folks like me, not the people to whom the name actually referred. Within Indigenous communities, there were arguments on both sides of the debate, which meant I couldn’t simply defer to a unified position.

Also I had never (and still have never) heard anyone use the term “redskin” as a racial epithet. I had heard it used exclusively to refer to the Washington NFL team – and even then, usually abbreviated to “‘Skins.” These are reminders that issues like these are often more complex than the cut and dry arguments people like to make about them.

What eventually convinced me that the Redskins name was wrong actually had less to do with the specific name itself and more to do with the broad fetishization of Indigenous peoples. As I underwent my [still in process] learning journey about equity, inclusion, and justice, I found it increasingly indefensible for a bunch of wealthy, mostly White people to profit from the name and likeness of people who suffered displacement and genocide at the hands of . . . a bunch of wealthy, mostly White people. At best this was unintentionally in poor taste and at worst this was deliberately White supremacist.

I stopped using the term myself a few years ago and I was glad to see when the NFL team officially stopped using the name as well last year. I would go further, though, and suggest that no teams – Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, etc. – should be using Indigenous names and iconography without significant representation of Indigenous people determining how they are used and sharing in the profits of their likenesses being sold on jerseys, TV broadcasts, video games, etc.

This is a continuous learning journey for me so my perspective might change, in which case I will share my learnings here. In the meantime, in the spirit of learning, rather than erasing my past use of “Redskins” on this blog, I will leave those instances intact but with a note expressing regret and pointing to this post for context.

What do the rest of you think about this approach? All opinions welcome but opinions from Indigenous people weighted most heavily.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Chapter 6

Having consumed the Harry Potter stories almost exclusively in audio fashion until recently, I always assumed that Fleur Delacour’s last name was a reference to “the heart.” It would seem to be in keeping with her portrayal as commanding the hearts of many would-be suitors at Hogwarts. Now that I have seen it in writing, though, I wonder if that is the case.

Fleur Delacour by artbysmashley

“Heart” in French is “coEur,” whereas “cour” actually translates to “court.” I wonder if JKR’s reference with her last name actually refers to a court then – perhaps a royal court (vs a court of law) thus indicating she is adept at using her wiles to gain favor.

Or another translation of “cour” is “yard” or “garden,” which would be very much in keeping with her first name, Fleur (“flower”). So perhaps JKR actually wanted her name to be “flower of the garden.”

I had never considered any of this before. What do you think, did JKR intend “heart” but just change the spelling a bit based on preference? Or did she intend “court?” Or did she intend “garden?” Or did she simply think it sounded cool?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Chapter 5

I never thought about this before but we are told here that Moody placed enchantments at the Order HQ. Now that Moody is dead, should the enchantments persist? When Dumbledore died, the petrificus totalus (or similar) spell he had placed on Harry died with him. Perhaps there are some types of spells that persist after the caster dies and some that don’t?

The more I think about it, the more I think there must be some kinds of magic that persist after the caster dies. Let’s take Hogwarts, for example. From the bewitched ceiling of the Great Hall to the singing suits of armor, magic abounds there. Do we really think all of those magical properties have been cast by living wizards?

There are three possibilities:

  1. The spells end when the caster dies. Then another wizard must recast the spells to ensure minimum disruption. I think that unlikely and, if it were the case, probably lots of stuff would have gone haywire at the moment of Dumbledore’s death as I am certain that he cast quite a few ongoing spells there.
  2. There is some sort of group spell casting thingy going on. It’s possible, I suppose, but we don’t have any indication of anything like that in the text.
  3. There is a type of magic that does persist after the caster dies.

Let’s go even more specific and examine the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets. It was created hundreds of years ago by now-deceased Salazar Slytherin yet maintains its magic. This seems to rule out possibilities 1 and 2 as they would have required others to perpetuate the magic of the Chamber yet we are told that the Chamber has never been discovered by anyone since Slytherin’s death. Or possibly there has been a secret order at Hogwarts of Slytherin followers keeping up the magic of the Chamber continuously for hundreds of years – sounds like cool fan fic but I find it unlikely!

So I’m forced to conclude that 3 is the right possibility, that some forms of magic persist. I’m not sure of the exact taxonomy but perhaps these forms of persistent magic are called “enchantments” (vs spells, charms, hexes, jinxes, etc).

P.S. why are they so concerned with the timing of portkeys here? We know from the Triwizard Cup in Goblet of Fire that portkeys can be made without any temporal component.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Chapters 3&4

Here we deal with Harry’s flight from Privet Drive and narrow escape from the Death Eaters. There are several head scratchers here: Why not sneak Harry out with the invisibility cloak? Why not have Hedwig fly to Burrow? Why not cast protego on the back of Hagrid’s motorbike? That said, if you can suspend disbelief, it’s a pretty riveting action sequence regardless.

snow owl phoenix

The most heart wrenching outcome is the death of Hedwig. It had never occurred to me until my book club leader, Becca, pointed it out but Hedwig’s recently deceased body was still in the sidecar when Harry cast confringo upon it. That makes the subsequent explosion Hedwig’s version of a Viking funeral – I love it!

And I especially love it, given that this takes place in a universe that prominently features birds that rise from the ashes. And I especially especially love it, given that a feather from one of those rising-from-the-ashes-birds is the core of the very wand that casts the confringo spell on Hedwig!

Yes, I’m sure of it. If this were a Dungeons and Dragons item description, the small print next to “Phoenix Core Wand” would read “When casting fire spells, any affected birds in the area of effect gain vitality from the magical fire and gain phoenix powers.” New head canon established!

Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows Chapters 1 & 2

We have come to the final book in reading our nightly bedtime Harry Potter reading to our 2yo. Generally I love this book and think it ties things up nicely. However, there are also many instances in which JKR’s retcons fall pretty flat – get ready, because I have thoughts! Let’s start with the beginning, though.

The leader of my Harry Potter bookclub, Becca, hit the nail on the head with a comment that Voldy criticizing Bella feels like someone kicking a puppy. Well that’s just it, isn’t it? Animal cruelty is a trait often associated with psychopaths. Moreover, and I didn’t realize this until looking into it just now, “IATC (Intentional Animal Torture and Cruelty) is sometimes used to coerce, control and intimidate women and/or children to be silent about domestic abuse within the home.

So my read is that Voldy lashes out A. because he is a cruel psychopath, B. to keep Bella under his heel, and C. to help control his other sycophants.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Film Review

This is one of my least favorite Harry Potter films. I am generally less of a fan of the David Yates films, which seem more plot-paint-by-numbers and lose much of the magical whimsy that make the books and early films so fantastic. This movie is probably the greatest offender because it leans so hard into the feeling of foreboding it is trying to create; it just makes it not very pleasant to watch. Even so, there is still a lot to love in this movie too, so here is my breakdown:

The Good

  • This film does a good job creating an ominous, foreboding mood, including some genuinely terrifying moments like Katie Bell’s curse. Part of what makes the atmosphere so scary is that, for the first time, they really flesh out scenes in the Muggle world, like London and Spinner’s End. That makes the threats no longer feel contained to the fantastical wizarding world.
  • Harry is really charming. “Actually, sir, after all the years, I just sort of go with it.” “But I am the chosen one.” The full Felix Felicis scene (including my favorite line of the film: “And the pincers – click, click, click”) – Harry’s comedic time is just spot on.
  • Slughorn is affable and likeable, also with excellent comedic timing: “I’d have liked the set.” “All hands on deck, Granger!” “Just in time for dessert – that is, if Belby’s left you any!”
  • I generally find Snape in the Yates movies to be not nearly as compelling as he is in the earlier films. This film is no exception but he does have a couple of outstanding moments: “Bella, we musn’t touch what isn’t ours.” in Spinner’s End and delivering Dumbledore’s message at Slughorn’s party. RIP, Alan Rickman; you were one of a kind!
  • Helena Bonham Carter once again chews all the scenery as Bellatrix.
  • Evana Lynch is endearing as Luna: “I sleepwalk you see; it’s why I wear shoes to bed.”
  • I’m not a huge Rupert Grint fan but he does really well as Ron in the love potion sequence.
  • The inky aesthetic of all the pensieve memories is really cool.
  • This is totally subjective, but I love that they used the Cliffs of Moher as the cave entrance. We were very impressed by those cliffs during our trip to Ireland and anything that links Harry Potter to The Princess Bride is cool in my book!

The Bad

  • The entire film is so dark and washed out that it’s kind of depressing to watch. It’s all grays and greens, peaking in the cave (which features geology reminiscent of Superman’s fortress of solitude for some reason??), which is basically black and white. I know they were trying to support the sense of dark foreboding with the cinematography but they went way too far and it actually feels kind of amateurish – like a film school student applying a blanket filter to every scene indiscriminately.
  • As with the previous movie, this one just doesn’t feel very fantastical. The kids wear normal attire most of the time, the Hogwarts Express looks like a modern train, etc. The film is so bad at conveying a sense of magic and wonder that it tries to do it explicitly by having Harry act awed by Dumbledore’s simple act of using a cleaning spell at Slughorn’s hideout – which falls incredibly flat.
  • The teen romance plots don’t work for me at all because basically none of the paired actors have any chemistry. The hug at the beginning between Ginny and Harry is super awkward as are their interactions at Christmas. It feels like they were given direction to “be awkward” but no guidance on how to pull it off effectively. Ron and Hermione aren’t much better (“Hermione’s got nice skin, don’t you think?”) and Lavender is way over the top. As opposed to Goblet of Fire, this film feels like it was written by someone who was never a teenager in love. They were written by the same screen writer, though, so I blame Yates.
  • The plot additions that did not come from the book really don’t work for me either. The subway scene with Harry and the waitress feels like fanfic and a contrived way to introduce Dumbledore dramatically. Similarly the Christmas attack on the Burrow makes no sense. Both of these seem to be continuations of Yates’s preference for nonsensical setpieces over well developed characters and plots.
  • This film features lots of exposition that’s just . . . kind of . . . goofy. Early on, Harry exposits about apparition in a way that is so obviously exposition it practically breaks the fourth wall – and then doesn’t really serve any purpose for the rest of the film. The protagonist trio talk about “Dumbledore maybe getting too old” mere weeks after he epically defeated Voldemort. Cormac McLaggen is set up to be this obnoxious creeper but he’s portrayed by a super handsome / charming model. Slughorn says Harry’s Draught of the Living Death is so perfect that “one drop would kill us all,” but that’s a sleeping potion. McLaggen asks Harry to introduce him to “his friend, Granger” despite having shared a House with her (and just a few dozen others) for the last five years. Neville is randomly serving drinks at Slughorn’s party. After their breakup, Ron is the one making it snow even though Lavender is the angry one – and Lavender is sitting at some other House’s table for some reason. None of these things is particularly egregious; they just demonstrate a carelessness in the filmmaking that wasn’t there in earlier films.
  • I have supported over and over again the argument that Harry Potter is a collection of mystery stories dressed up as fantasy. In this film, though, there is no mystery. In the early Borgin and Burke scene, Draco is shown going right for the vanishing cabinet. Then Draco is shown in the Room of Requirement with an identical vanishing cabinet. Although the bird and apple are very poor, confusing devices to show Draco’s progress in mending the cabinet, his work is very telegraphed the entire way.
  • Dumbledore has some really awkward, weird, and wholly unnecessary dialogue. “I notice you spend a lot of time with Miss Granger.” “Harry, you need a shave, my friend.” WTF? These come out of nowhere and are completely incongruous with anything relevant to the plot or characters.
  • This is related to the poor job this film does more broadly of characterizing the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry. I love in the book how Dumbledore is gently disappointed by Harry’s lack of effort in securing Slughorn’s memory and how abashed Harry is about it – but there’s none of that dynamic here.
  • Speaking of Slughorn, while I enjoy Jim Broadbent’s portrayal here, it is wildly out of character from the book version. This Slughorn is unbelievable as a Slytherin – much more of a Hufflepuff.
  • The young Tom Riddle of this film isn’t nearly as creepy or commanding / threatening as the character in the book.

Again, there is a lot to like in this film and I will never skip it during a marathon. There is plenty of “meh” too, though, and I rarely find myself specifically in the mood for this one – which I do for most of the others.

Entrepreneurial Mentorship

In the call to action of my TED talk on the Entrepreneur’s Journey, I exhorted seasoned entrepreneurs to answer the call to service by mentoring less experienced entrepreneurs.

Because entrepreneurship requires such different skills, heuristics, and calculi than other, much more common business arenas, having an experienced guide is invaluable to first-time entrepreneurs and can be the difference between success and failure. Furthermore, most successful entrepreneurs have themselves been the beneficiaries of mentorship so I would go even further to argue that it is a moral obligation to pay it forward to those in need.

In my own life, I have endeavored to provide mentorship to aspiring entrepreneurs in several arenas:

  • Employees – In my career I have had the honor to serve hundreds of employees as their leader. While it can be tempting in a fast-moving startup to focus just on what those employees can produce, I see my role first and foremost as helping them develop and grow. I am enormously proud that dozens of my former employees have gone on to found ventures of their own, creating billions of USD of value.
  • Academia – Wherever I have lived (and in some places I haven’t!) I have forged connections with universities to mentor entrepreneurial students, teach entrepreneurship courses, and advise startup efforts from students, faculty, and staff. There are few things more rewarding than hearing from former students whose class projects have taken off!

    My deepest relationship is with Rice, where I served as Entrepreneur In Residence for the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and am now on the Board of the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I mentor at my other alma maters, TJHSST and IMD, as well. During my years in Chapel Hill, I mentored at UNC – especially within the Adams Apprenticeship – Duke, and Elon. For years I have mentored remotely at the University of Wyoming’s burgeoning entrepreneurship program but, now that I have moved to Colorado, I may be close enough to start participating in person after COVID!
  • Accelerators – I have spent a lot of time participating in accelerator programs to help participants get off the ground. The Surge Accelerator, Groundwork Labs, 1789 Venture Lab, Launch Chapel Hill, The Ion Smart & Resilient Cities Accelerator and – of course – OwlSpark are several accelerators where I have hung my hat and where I have built lifelong relationships with hundreds of entrepreneurs.
  • Events – Startup Weekend, 3 Day Startup, and the Cleanweb Hackathon are short sprints to help entrepreneurs find each other and work on meaningful startup projects together – usually over the course of a weekend. I’m not aware of any startups launched during the events where I participated as a mentor that have taken off but I have made some great relationships and hopefully helped prepare some entrepreneurship neophytes gain the confidence to take the plunge later.

Mentorship has been incredibly rewarding for me and indeed my mentees have gone on to create orders of magnitude more impact than I have alone. However, there are only so many hours in the day so how can an entrepreneurial mentor optimize their time and impact? A few practices I follow:

  • Take all meetings: this is counter to the methodology of many sought after people, who prefer to gatekeep their time and connections, which I totally get. I have benefitted so greatly, though, from people taking my meeting requests, that I can’t help but pay that good will and karma forward.

    Rather than optimizing for # of meetings, instead I optimize for time and quality of those meetings. If I can’t help them, I’m clear about it early on. However, I have often found that I may actually be able to help after learning more when it wouldn’t have seemed so from the initial meeting request.

    Furthermore, I have found that sometimes years later I am in a position to help. For example, there was a student startup I mentored years ago. They were direct to consumer and in an industry I didn’t know well. I gave them some generic advice that didn’t seem very helpful to me. Apparently they thought it was very helpful, though, because the reached back out to me years later, having achieved so much success that they were being courted for acquisition. They then needed advice on negotiating acquisition terms, which is an area where I could provide very pointed value.

    Serendipity is so important to entrepreneurs and it is impossible for us to know a priori what will be helpful to them or how – sometimes a meeting with a more experienced entrepreneur provides less tangible benefit, like confidence-building. I also wonder if, when we act as gatekeepers, we introduce biases in advice and connection-making that result in unequal access.
  • Focus on mission-aligned entrepreneurs: Time is at a premium and life is short so I do focus my time on entrepreneurs working to transition the world to a sustainable, prosperous, and equitable energy economy. If you are working on a smoothie bar, I will still take the meeting but will work to connect you quickly with someone who is a more appropriate fit.
  • Focus on entrepreneurs with the greatest need: I try to focus my time on entrepreneurs who need the most help. The venture ecosystem is deeply inequitable and, if I can help level the playing field even just a little, that is time well spent.

    I was mentoring a team of Black founders who were having a hard time fundraising. They asked me to codeswitch their intro email/deck to “my” language and suddenly that had several VC suitors. To be clear, forcing historically underrepresented entrepreneurs to adhere to norms set by the mostly white, mostly male holders of power in venture is not the solution – but this instance was a stark reminder of the systemic barriers faced by entrepreneurs who don’t look and sound like me.

    If you are a rich white cis male from a top university, I will still take the meeting but I will focus much more of my time working with entrepreneurs who have systemic winds in their faces rather than at their backs.
  • Get out of the way: because my time is limited and because I am swamped with a million other things, often the most productive action I can take on behalf of entrepreneurs is to get out of the critical path by making an introduction or pointing them to a targeted resource. If they’re waiting on me for a detailed contribution, they will often be waiting a long time, and waiting is counterproductive for entrepreneurs.
  • Interrogate, don’t prescribe: I try never to tell entrepreneurs what to do. Firstly entrepreneurship research is full of evidence that so-called “experts” don’t know the right answer any better than neophytes. Secondly, new entrepreneurs gain more in the long run from forging neural pathways to develop answers themselves rather than being told what to do. As such, I try to ask probing questions and share relevant experiences. No one can walk the entrepreneur’s journey for them; all we can do is share context to help inform their path.

What do you think? This is – and will always be – a work in progress. How do you think about mentoring entrepreneurs? What key learnings from your own experience can you share?