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Ronald Cohen, Venture Capitalism & Social Innovation

July 5, 2009

At a recent company-organized speaker event, I had the pleasure of listening to Rohen Cohen‘s speech on a wide range of topics, starting from his own career as an entrepreneur in the world of venture capital (back in the days when the concept barely existed) right after his Harvard MBA, his three pointers on success as entrepreneur and finally, how he is using his experience and skills from the world of venture capital to apply it to areas of social innovation. Following the talk, I immensely enjoyed being part of the small crowd surrounding Ronald as he dispensed quick tips, advice and revealed some personal quirks.

He talked of his own experience, freshly out of HBS back in the late 60’s and early 70’s when Intel was set up and companies were launching IPOs. His journey of establising Apax as a successful venture capital fund was revealing of all the stumbling blocks a startup must expect to face and it was interesting how he surmounted them. Listening to his glib narration of how they grew into a business handling over 35billion USD AUM belied the great battles they must have bought to get it there.

Coming from who is known as ‘the father of British venture capitalism’, his words about success in entrepreneurship certainly carried some weight – his three-point agenda was crisp and universal, applicable to those in the corporate world and to those who look to venture out to make their own mark independently. His three-pointer could be summarized as:

1) Exploiting uncertainty needs conviction but be willing to revise methodology – Not everyone will agree with you, so you must persevere (because luck is more than just chance, it’s perserverance), but do not close out options for evolving as the market gives you feedback about where you stand.

2) A business grows to the vision the entrepreneur brings to it. SIZE does matter, so plan to sustain a larger edifice. Too many people start off with their life dreams and open doors to a ‘cupboard’, rather than to the ‘boardroom’. So don’t chase small fry, plan BIG.

3) The relationship between Ego, Intellect & Intuition should be complementary. Ego can be a good thing but if you always envision yourself at the centre of the organization, then the business has to adapt to the needs of the manager, rather than to those of the market. Lead from the front – delegate decision-making, recruit talent and plan succession.

Another interesting piece of Cohen’s personal and professional history that greatly piqued me was how he exited the world of startups and business expertise after 33 years and entered the area of philanthropy and public policy making and once again, very seamlessly moved onto launch programs and implement ideas as if he had always belonged there. Apart from his work with the British Museum & Institute of Strategic Studies, his major projects include:

a) the Bridges/Ventures initiative, which is a venture fund to spur innovation and independence among classes which often fall prey to dependence on the state – the bottom 25% of society in the UK.

b) a major project on conflict resolution in Israel/Palestine through capitalistic interests. His belief that governments and the military discount the economic dimension of conflict resounded strongly with my own views on the subject. He has been in involved in various activities to develop the Palestinian private sector, most notable of which is a billion-dollar investment in housing in the West Bank. He is of the opinion that, in Europe, the closest example of the ‘Silicon Valley’ is in Israel.

Yes, it is true; contrary to what all your hippie friends and we-hate-the-mainstream-folks tell you, it is possible to be ridiculously successful in the capitalistic corporate world and transfer skills from that world to socio-political contexts to make some real difference to society.

What greatly enhanced what I expected to be only an intellectual experience was Cohen’s approachability, warmth and sense of humour, especially when surrounded by all and sundry with so many questions and requests for advice. He listed to each one with utmost attention and had to be literally dragged away over an hour of advice-dispensing later. Another testament to the fact that successful people are often what they are because of their unreal ability to relate to people.

He was also surprisingly candid and forthcoming about his personal matters, and he made a sheepish remark saying that what he gave to the business world, he took away from his personal life – in reference to his numerous marriages; he seems happy with his present wife who’s quite an achiever too, it would seem, given she is as an Oscar-awarded producer.

The purpose of this talk was to launch his book, The Second Bounce of the Ball.

As an aside, this talk by Cohen helped address my own cognitive dissonance about relevance to the socio-political sphere, given my day job in the corporate private sector. And for the inspiration that he provided, I hold the event in high esteem.

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