155: Margot Machol Bisnow, part 1: Raising an Entrepreneur (transcript)

March 15, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Margot Bisnow

A few months ago I attended an event called The Summit in Los Angeles. You may have heard of it. It’s up there with TED Talks, Burning Man, Davos. Things like that. It was expensive. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be worth it. I also took the train out there which was a long time. I wasn’t sure if I would get the value out of it that I put into it. As it happened it turned out to be great for me. As it came together which happened during the event I met the founder Elliot and then happened to meet his mother Margot and she is who I have the conversation with today. She was a big part of making that event great for me. As you’ll hear in the conversation she was like a force of nature there. She was connecting people. She was doing what leaders do despite having no formal role as many leaders often work, with no formal role. To give you some background also on Margot’s formal leadership she was an FTC Commissioner, she was the chief of staff of the President’s Council on Economic Advisers, she’s in D.C. So she’s had plenty former leadership. Today we talk more about her book Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers and Change Makers which she writes as a mother as you’ll hear she found the roles of parents significant and people becoming entrepreneurs. She wrote this book for parents but I also found that it applied equally to leadership and non-parent relationships and I bet she expected. So let’s listen to Margot.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek.

Margot: Hey, Josh.

Joshua: Hey. And this is Margo. How are you doing Margot?

Margot: I’m great.

Joshua: Thank you for coming here. And you know I want to talk to you about a couple of things. You’ve written a book on how to raise an entrepreneur and it occurs to me that it’s easier for me to become an entrepreneur than it is for me to become a mom. And so there’s things that I’ve no idea about and I think a lot of people want to become more entrepreneurial and want to make others around them be more entrepreneurial. And there’s another thing I want talk about too which is that there’s a big overlap between entrepreneurship and leadership. So I think talking about one we’ll talk about the other. I’ve also seen you in action at Summit and let the listeners know that she’s blushing now. Well, let’s talk about raising an entrepreneur first.

Margot: OK.

Joshua: Because I told you what I was going to say earlier and now you’re blushing and you’re making me not say it. So this is to get the listeners to be like, “What’s going to come next?” Your background… I think a lot of stuff in government a lot of people say that’s not particularly entrepreneurial and yet your family’s very entrepreneurial. And so what does a mom do or anyone to make someone more entrepreneurial? Is it you force them to get really high S.A.T. scores and take lots of AP tests, right?

Margot: So, first of all, no one in my family was entrepreneurial until 10 years ago, 15 years ago. And, second of all, I don’t think you ever want to make someone an entrepreneur. I don’t think you ever want to force someone to become more entrepreneurial. I think what you want to do is you want to raise them in such a way that they will become the best person they can be. And if that means more entrepreneurial and following a more traditional path, that’s wonderful. And if it means becoming an entrepreneur, that’s wonderful. I would never want to make someone an entrepreneur and I think so many parents kind of fall into that trap “Oh, my kid should be an entrepreneur. I’m going to send them to an entrepreneur camp and then someday they’ll think of a good idea and they’ll become an entrepreneur.” And that’s exactly the opposite way that you actually do raise an entrepreneur. So we inadvertently raised two entrepreneurs but we didn’t know what we’re doing. We were trying to…It just happened.

Joshua: So it wasn’t telling them what to do. It wasn’t guiding them. It was supporting them.

Margot: It was supporting them. And I interviewed 60 entrepreneurs and their parents for my book and how they were raised. And there were only two of the 60 successful young entrepreneurs who were “entrepreneurial” i.e. who were selling things through high school.

Joshua: So you know I think I remember a long time ago you told me that you spoke to a lot of parents. And did you intend to find trends or were you just kind of talking to people and the trends popped out?

Margot: So you mentioned Summit. For people who are listening who don’t know that this is this organization my son stumbled into founding ten years ago and I’m happy to talk about that also later. And it’s basically events for young entrepreneurs. And so I just had met like every cool young entrepreneur in America. And we weren’t really into being entrepreneurs and I was just so curious about where these people came from, how they ended up being willing to take on so much risk and work so single-mindedly to achieve an objective and then put everything on the line for an idea and so I’d ask all of them how they were raised. And to my amazement almost every single one of them said the same thing to me. They all said, “I had someone (usually it was a parent, generally a mom) but it was always someone, someone who believed in me. Someone told me I could do anything I set my mind to and I worked hard enough at it. And I believed that and that gave me the courage to take risk.” And every single person said this and I was so struck by it and I just kept talking about it all the time. And finally my kids started saying, “Mom, you need to write a book about this.” I was like, “I can’t write a book about that.” Mom, you need to write a book.” “I can’t write a book.” “Mom! You need to write a book!” “OK, I’ll write a book.” So I just thought I should interview people and my only goal in choosing the people to interview was that I really wanted as diverse a group as possible. So I wanted half man, half women, I wanted every race, every religion, every socioeconomic background, born in this country, born overseas, first generation, second generation, single moms barely making it, upper middle class parents, one kid, three kids, five kids, seven kids, just as diverse a group.

And while obviously in some ways they were raised differently. When they told me their stories I began to realize over and over again in answer to your question that there were these patterns emerge and they were in most of the core ways they were all raised the same. And those are the 10 rules that I talk about in the book.

Joshua: So I want to ask about those and I’m curious also… While you’re speaking I’m translating what you’re saying from being a mom or from a mother being the person who makes this happen, not who makes it happen but often that support but anyone it’s… I mean what you talk about it’s not only moms or only parents can be that way. I feel like it’s useful for anyone.

Margot: Well, first of all, in terms of children I mean most of these people did have a parent who was supportive but some of them in one case it was a step dad, in one case it was a grandmother. But in other cases it was a teacher or somebody… I mean obviously you know it’s perfect if it’s a parent but it doesn’t have to be. But I mean I feel this is true not raising kids but just in life. I mean I’ve had people tell me when I’ve been talking about the book now since it came out a couple of years ago and so many people will tell me like, “I never believed I could do anything and I started this company and one of the founders said, “Oh my God, you are incredible. You can do anything you set your mind to and I was like wow, I can.” and then they started their own company. So I just think somewhere along the way someone has to believe in you. It sounds kind of trite and corny but I think it’s true.

Joshua: And not just “I believe in you.” and then take the extra step of vocally saying it to you and behaving consistently with that and anyone can do that.

Margot: Right. And so when I talk about this to parents around the country they all say, “Oh, come on. Everyone believes in their child.” And I say, “No, no. Everyone loves their child. Everyone wants their child to be happy and successful.” But most parents believe if their child does the thing they love the best whether that’s playing chess or writing music or acting in the school play or running for office or running a little non-profit or playing video games or whatever it is, they believe that if their child does that extensively, that they can’t make a living and that it’s not a serious pursuit.

So as you know my younger son is a musician and most of the parents who I would run across whose kids love music or acting or anything in the arts in high school they all say very supportively, “Oh, of course you can take music lessons or art lessons or dance lessons in high school. But then in college you have to major in something useful.” So what does that communicate to the child? That communicates you don’t really believe they can make it in the thing they love.

Joshua: And it also feels to me… I think of where that comes from.

Margot: Fear.

Joshua: And if you’re not a parent but fear, anxiety… And that must be very difficult on the parents’ side. And for that matter a manager’s or boss’s aside in a professional environment, because I keep translating into my life, and it’s hard to let people to do what they think is best but of course why do you hire someone if not because you think they can do the job?

Margot: So one of the people I interviewed for my book who is really one of the most impressive people I know Esther Wojcicki and she was the high school journalism teacher of the year in California, the teacher of the year in California. She started the biggest high school journalism program in the country and two of her kids one became CEO of YouTube and one started 23andMe.

Joshua: This is Susan and Anna.

Margot: Yeah.

Joshua: Quite a family.

Margot: Susan and Anna. Yeah. And [unintelligible] also a daughter who’s a doctor. And so anyhow she has this journalism program. And the kids come in the first day and she says, “OK, you can do anything you want this year because whatever you decide to do I know you’re going to do it really well and I’m going to support you and help you but it can be anything you want. It can be a podcast, it can be a newspaper, it can be a TV show, it can be a radio show, it can be on politics, it can be on sports, it can be a current event. You decide.” And she said some of these kids nobody’s ever said that to them before and they sit there for a week before they get the courage to choose.

Joshua: So I feel like you’re swimming upstream against a common current in American parenting of, not all American parents, but certainly I guess the extreme would be like the Tiger Mom that was really popular that book a few years ago of like you’ve got like every hour’s spelled out and you’ve got to do this and like all the things to fill out a college application. And whether that works or not what you’re talking about is different and it feels more wholesome and more loving, less fearful. It must be harder though. You know I don’t know if it is hard or not. It sounds like it might be hard if you bought into that other perspective.

Margot: Right. Well, I mean I’m sure those kids will all grow up, you know they’ll get their straight A’s and their tough S.A.T. scores and I mean I think this is part of what that fight is at Harvard. You know the kid just says, “Well, I have the top grades in S.A.T. scores so I should just get in.” And in fact those kids are going to be great doctors and lawyers and accountants and architects and investment bankers. But they’re not going to shake the world. I guarantee you Lehman Miranda was not a straight A student. I mean maybe he was but he probably wasn’t. And probably Elon Musk wasn’t and probably Steve Jobs wasn’t. And these kids are shaking the world and those are the people that Harvard wants. They don’t just want the people who’ve always done what they were told and voiced color inside the lines. They want the people who think differently and creatively and you know it’s just you’re raising your child in a different way and you raise something else, just now when you were talking that I think is really key and you were talking about fear, and I think one of the key traits separating entrepreneurs from other people is their approach to failure and that they’re not afraid to fail. They’re not afraid to take risk because if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risk. And my favorite quote is Billie Jean King who says, “We don’t call it failure, we call it feedback.” But they’ve also done studies since then and they’ve shown that when parents only praise their kids for success then you get kids who they sure would love to try you know ancient Greek but they’re afraid they won’t do well so they just stick with Spanish…

Joshua: In order to maintain their identity.

Margot: In the classes they take. You know they’re afraid to, “If I take this class, I might get a C. I’d really like to but I’m afraid I won’t do well.” So they only take the things they know they can do well. And this is the same with companies. If you get furious with people if they don’t succeed, people just set small goals and make sure that they succeed at their small goals. I mean as you said I spent time in the government this is like a typical government thing you’re under promise and over deliver or just deliver you know you don’t have wild crazy goals. One of the people in my book Blake Mycoskie who I adore who started Toms Shoes, I mean he always talks about how that he thinks that Toms that’s one of the things he did the best. What he calls it servant leadership and he says every time he screws up he makes sure that everyone in the company knows that he screwed up and how he screwed up and what he learned from it and why it’s not a problem and they’re going to move on from it.

Joshua: I can’t help but ask. Did you screw up in any ways that you shared with your family or with the communities you’ve been in?

Margot: Oh. I mean yeah, I’ve screwed up a million ways I guess but I mean it was interesting. Both of my kids… So I never wanted my kids to become entrepreneurs. I wasn’t trying to make them entrepreneurs but I look back at it and both of them ended up having passions that we knew nothing about which I’m happy to talk about later so we couldn’t advise them but also they just screwed up incessantly. So my oldest son Eliot decided at age 12 that he loved tennis, He’d been doing lots of sports. At that point it was like he hadn’t done tennis that much. He was just, “I’m just going to do tennis. This is my passion in life.” And I don’t know how much you know about tennis but most of the kids who end up being top in the country at 12 they’re doing regional and national tournaments already.

Joshua: Not just starting.

Margot: Not just starting. And he basically lost every match for four years. It wasn’t us. We don’t play tennis. We certainly weren’t encouraging him. We told him we thought it was ridiculous but he loved it, he wanted to do it and he’d lost match after match after match. And after each match he’d say, “You know I know what I did wrong and I’ll beat him next time.” and he fought his way up to thirty-five in the country. And I mean that teaches you sort of…

Joshua: After four years?

Margot: Yeah but no, he wasn’t thirty-five in the country after four years. I mean he was 35 in the country after eight years. But he didn’t even win a match for four years.

Joshua: So many people wish they could get results like that. And so few people put the work and resolve into it even though they know that it’s possible. I guess you never know. But he didn’t do anything that anyone else couldn’t do. I mean maybe some people… It’s not tennis but people can put into what they love that level of commitment and it’s just a few people are willing to suffer that many losses on the way there. Did he find the joy in the playing? Was that what kept him going?

Margot: I know he loved it. He just loved it. He was like I mean I’m sure… I think he thought he’s going to be a professional tennis player. He loved it with the passion and it was just his passion. It’s like all he did for eight years, 10 years. And the thing is that every one of the entrepreneurs in my book that I talk to that I just randomly pick every one of them was like that about something. Every one of them was passionate about something. And it wasn’t that the parents said, “I’m going to make you an entrepreneur.” But their kids had a passion and because they had a passion they ended up just like Elliot. They just worked like crazy on something they had chosen that they loved, that they screwed up and they fixed it and they solved it and they got better and they tried a different route and they did it again and again and again and they got better and better and better and not only they weren’t afraid to fail but they also developed the kind of confidence that you get when you’ve mastered something, that you’ve become really, really good at something because you’ve done it the right way and the hard way. And you get that kind of confidence. And so you know Elliot didn’t end up doing anything in tennis but he developed that confidence. Blake Mycoskie who I just mentioned, by the way, he also was a tennis player, passionate about tennis. He doesn’t do anything with tennis now. And a third of the entrepreneurs in my book it was sports, their passion was sports. So that’s why I’m saying like I think these parents they shouldn’t be freaked out that their kid is passionate about something because you know it may not be what they do in life but they develop a mindset.

Joshua: Yeah. I was going to say they develop… You said mindset, also I would say a set of social and emotional skills to handle the challenges that come from when you’re self-directing to do something. It’s a different set of skills than to get an A on every test that’s given to you when someone else is choosing what class to take in what order and what level of depth and so forth. It’s a very different set of skills to master doing what you’re told as to as opposed to charting your own course.

Margot: Hundred percent. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Joshua: And it’s not just charting your own course because he couldn’t tell at the beginning what the course would be because he was just starting. So it’s even something different. It’s like figuring things out. You know I have to ask you something that since you’ve done this research, in my book that’s coming out in a couple of months I want to make accessible to people… I believe that people who find these great passions are not special in the sense of like there’s something superhuman about them and what they do is accessible to anyone. I think a lot of people hear that and think, “Oh, if only I had a passion like that. [unintelligible] was me. I don’t have a passion like that. If I did that, I would do that too. I just hope that the muse will whisper in my ear and then it’ll happen for me too.” But I think that it’s not… So some people think, “Wait for your passion to arrive and then act.” I think other people think, “Act and maybe your passion will arise.”

Margot: Yes. I believe the latter. And I had an interesting experience recently. I had an opportunity to go through our family’s photo albums from the beginning through to the end. We were really very good about…

Joshua: OK. Now I know why you were looking at the old photo albums. What’s happened recently with you?

Margot: So my older son Elliot just had a baby and…

Joshua: Congratulations.

Margot: Thank you. And I made a book for him called Elliot: From birth to Dad and I took photos of him from birth all the way through. And so I for the first time ever really I was going through all the photo albums and up until 10 years ago there were actually albums of the last ten years have been it’s digital but before that it was just albums. So I went through these albums so here’s what’s really interesting and it kind of response to your question. For my kids there were two pivotal transformational events that happened… I mean they each had a pivotal transformational event. For Elliot it was when he’s starting to play tennis. We had two extra weeks before fifth grade. He went to a little camp, he kind of liked it, he took a lesson. Once he went through fifth grade he decided to go to a tennis camp for a few weeks that summer. [unintelligible] was when he was 13 the beginning of camp he broke his leg. It was a basketball camp I was looking around desperately for something and the only thing I could find was a camp where you ended up he could write music on a computer. And by the end of that summer he was like he really liked that. And within a year it was like writing four songs a day I mean for Science Week and he’s been writing music ever since he’s in the band.

So here’s what’s so interesting. I went through the photo album and those two events for the kids I didn’t notice them, I didn’t record them, I didn’t take pictures. I have no pictures of Elliot with a tennis racquet at all in fifth or sixth grade. I have pictures of him in his baseball uniform, holding a lacrosse stick, playing soccer, zero tennis pictures. I have for Austin for that summer camp I have a picture of him in these in the play at the end of the camp, don’t mention the music, don’t mention it the next year. So I say to parents and I’m like you know kind of unobservant you know this thing happened to each of my kids where they started doing something that ended up becoming a passion but no light bulb went on. I didn’t pick it up. I didn’t know it was a passion. I knew Eliot was playing tennis and Austin was writing music. I didn’t know that was any different from any of the other [unintelligible] things they were doing.

It’s only you know within a couple of years later that I began to see, “Wow, this is really special.” and now looking back I can say, “Oh, yeah, that’s where it started.” But I would say to parents if you don’t see your kid’s light bulb, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t started doing something that they love. It may just be that they’re doing it and you’re not noticing how much joy it gives them. And it may be that they’re doing it and you think it’s a waste of time so you keep saying, “Stop spending so much time playing chess or writing music and go study your math.” And it may be a million things but it doesn’t mean that something isn’t there that’s you know grab their heart.

Joshua: It’s like a discovery process for you as well because I hear you saying like don’t necessarily try to look for every little thing. Am I oversimplifying to say it’s to support them in choosing what they think is best for themselves and letting them play?

Margot: Yes, and being proud of them for their success in that thing and letting them know that you value their success in that thing as much as you value their success in the academic things.

Joshua: And some of those things are things that you aren’t aware of.

Margot: Or don’t know anything about or it’s not your world. I mean we don’t write music. We’re not musicians. We don’t play tennis. We’re not very athletic like they were enjoying it. OK, cool, I didn’t know in either case it was going to transform their lives.

Joshua: I wonder and I’m trying to extrapolate from your experience as a parent can managers and leaders use that… OK. Some people hire people because they want a job done and they say, “This is the way I want it done. Do x, y, z or do you know step one, step two, step three. Don’t think about it. Just do it.” They are probably not listening to this podcast. And then they’re going to be ones who are like, “This is a hard problem. I don’t know how to solve it. I possibly could but I’m hiring you because you’re better at it.” And now there are going to be certain deliverables that probably parents don’t have for kids of like you know this thing has to be done at this time. But I coach a lot of people who want to be more entrepreneurial and one of their biggest problems is that their bosses don’t listen. Their bosses don’t support. They manage which is a part of leadership. You’re talking about something different. I wonder if that also translates into professional relationships. And I don’t think you have to be just a manager or boss or leader to a follower or a managee. But it could be peers, it could be… Just leadership doesn’t have to require being somewhere in relative positions at a hierarchy.

Margot: Right. But if you’re a creative person who wants to think outside the box and tried different kinds of things then you have the boss who just wants you to do it the way he tells you, it’s probably not a good fit. I mean I still remember my first job out of college. I worked at the Office of Economic Opportunity in Chicago. And I was just really diligent and hardworking and anyhow after a year or something it was time to review and whenever it was I didn’t get the highest review I got like the next you know medium review. And I went and I asked my boss I said, “I just don’t get it like I’ve done every single thing you’ve asked me to and you know more so.” And he said “Yes but you challenged me.”

Joshua: OK. The listeners can’t see that I was just taken aback and like. Yeah. And so that’s a bonus, right?

Margot: Well, obviously that wasn’t a good hit.

Joshua: I think also for people who are listening who want to become better managers, better leaders, there’s probably more support. Is it a difficult thing to do – support even when you don’t know where it’s going to go? I feel like that’s one of the things that you’re seeing works and has worked with all these successful entrepreneurs from coming from their parents. Because I’m not a parent and I’m thinking, “How can I use this myself?” And I think it’s to listen more and to support more and to put more faith in the other person that they would know if they’re wasting their time. And that’s scary. On the other hand, they might not get this job done how I wanted them to do it but they might come up with ways of doing things or things to do that I never would have thought of and that’s growth and results that the kind of people dream of.

Margot: Right. And that’s why they say you know when they’ve studied more diverse companies they do better than when everybody in the company looks alike because when everybody in the company looks alike, they’re all white men or whatever, no offense…

Joshua: For those who don’t know I’m a white man. Unoffended. Although I’ve not been invited to lots of places where it’s like majority not white men. So it’s not like I’m being brought in to make other place more diverse.

Margot: But anyhow they have discovered that when you get a more diverse population in a company you end up with different ways of viewing the same thing and come up with new ideas.

Anyway I’d love to read you just one little paragraph that I wrote which I think applies not only to parents raising kids but also anybody, any leader in a company. I say, “Even if your child doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur, encouraging them to become more entrepreneurial by promoting certain attitudes can only be a good thing. Our children thrive and I would say all people thrive if they learn to believe in themselves, to pursue their true passions, to find new ways to solve old problems, to see opportunity where others see the status quo, to be willing to take on the challenge without proper credentials, to work with single minded determination to achieve a goal, to take on risk if the project is worth trying, to learn that building something wonderful is its own reward regardless of how much money you make, to view failure as feedback and setbacks as learning experiences and to dream big dreams.”

Joshua: Now can you say the couple of words before the list of “to do”?

Margot: I said, “Even if your child doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur, encouraging them to become more entrepreneurial can only be a good thing. All children thrive if they learn to behave in these ways. All people thrive.”

Joshua: Yeah, it’s… What’s the word? Counter… It’s advice that runs counter to what you often hear. But as a child, when I think of being a child, that’s what I want. Well, I appreciate that.


Joshua: Now I want to change a topic, not change the topic but go with… You were talking about diverse communities. And we talked about Summit earlier and that’s how we met. All right, I am going to make you blush. That’s the way it’s going to be is that one of my measures for leadership… A lot people say, “How can you tell someone is a good leader or not?” And there’s no hard and fast rules but one of my measures is the followers they have. And so I met you. And I’ve also seen something… I’ve seen you from a slightly different perspective of you at Summit which is I see you walking through a crowd talking to this person, talking to that person, talking to this person, talking to that person and there’s like this wake of people reacting to your passing through and they’re all smiling and they’re all talking to each other. And that to me is followership. And I felt like I saw something there that is… So Summit, for people who don’t know, is a conference… I describe it, you can describe it maybe differently than I would but to me it’s like sort of between TED and Burning Man and very entrepreneurial. And it’s a place where people can very easily meet each other and people who normally put their guard up I feel like they put their guard down so that they’re open to being approached and open to approaching even in a context when everyone is like that. I saw a wake behind you that I didn’t see behind other people. Yeah. So let the listeners… She’s blushing. She’s like please, please, please. But tough luck that’s what you get when you talk to me. That’s what I saw. I wonder if you could say something about the Summit forming or what you do there. What it is to you? What do you do when you’re that results in what I saw? Pick up on any of these threads.

Margot: Well, I love Summit. I don’t do anything. I just show up and I’m happy to be there.

Joshua: You certainly don’t sit in a corner.

Margot: No. But as you said I mean the nice thing about Summit is everyone’s sort of been pre-cleared to be a friend. And at one of the earlier Summits a woman came up to me in a high powered New York executive and she said she goes to all these events in New York and she’s, you can’t see this, you know her arms were like clutched to herself. She’s like, “What do you want from me?” And she said, “I come to Summit.” and her arms outstretched and it’s like, “Hi. How can I help you?” It is different. It’s just a different attitude and that’s they say like, “Just don’t fanboy the big guys.” I mean just everybody’s there because they’re interesting. Everybody’s there because they’re doing something that they love. And it doesn’t matter if they have three employees or thirty thousand employees. It doesn’t matter if they’re artists or entrepreneurs or if they’re doing nonprofit work or they’re activists. Whatever they’re doing they’re doing something they’re excited about and they’re trying to make the world a better place and it’s just a wonderful group of people and I feel so lucky that both our kids… You know my other son is in a band and we get to be groupies and show up at his concerts so I feel so lucky like if our kids would become like lawyers or doctors like you can’t just go sit in their office. We get to go to concerts. We get to go to Summit events. I just like how lucky are we?

Joshua: I’m curious about the story… What did it look like from the outside forming? Because I am recent to it and the woman who invited me who’d been there she’s been doing it for eight or nine years. So she gave me some picture but I’m curious your picture.

Margot: So it’s really interesting. So as I said like we weren’t really thinking about entrepreneurship or starting companies or anything. And Mark actually had just started his first company which was a newsletter and ended up being newsletter and events in commercial real estate. And Eliot went off to Wisconsin to play tennis and the R.A. in his dorm said “Hey, let’s start a T-shirt company.” and Elliot said, “Cool. Who are we going to work for?” And the guy was like, “No, no. We’re just going to do it.” And Eliot is like, “But who are we going to work for?” You just couldn’t…

Joshua: His blinders were on…

Margot: Blinders like it just I mean this is you know 2004 like people just weren’t really thinking that way. Mark was about to start his company that hadn’t really it’s just… I don’t know it just wasn’t our mindset. And after two and a half years he worked with Mark over the summer between his sophomore junior year and then after the first semester of his junior he told me I was taking a semester off.

And he came to be Mark’s first employee. And after a year he said he really wanted to meet young entrepreneurs and see how they did it. He was just so curious and he didn’t think he was cool enough that they would meet him. And you know normally so he decided he should ask them all to go skiing in Utah for a weekend. So he looked in Inc. and Wired and found who he thought were the coolest 20 young entrepreneurs under the age of 25. And he cold called them and then 18 said “yes” and they went off to Utah for a weekend and it was just going to be a one off. He never thought it was going to be an organization or a company or anything.

And at the end of the weekend and this is 2008 nobody in that group had ever met anybody like themselves before. And they all said they were like best friends for life and they all said, “Oh my gosh, you have to do this again and I want to bring five friends.” And the other part of the story that I love is… So he had been selling ads so he was really good at cold calling. He was selling ads from Mark’s newsletters. And so he had called some sponsors to get some money to pay for this and to get some stuff and North Face and everybody jackets and duffel bags. So at their last day they were all skiing and a reporter came up and said, “Hey, what do you call this organization?” And Eliot hadn’t thought of this as an organization. So he looked down at the jacket from North Face and it said Summit Series and he goes, “Ahh, Summit Series.” That’s how the name came.

And so that was the first one. So I mean I helped. He said he wanted you know invite these 18 people to go skiing for a weekend and I helped him find a nine-bedroom house. And I helped him find somebody to you know serve some meals and you know helped him do a little of the organization. But you know we obviously we didn’t go to it. So anyhow that was the first one.

Joshua: It’s funny now that you see… That I can see these things in it that now that you say it I can see the elements. When I was there I was thinking, “What creates this culture here?” Part of it is who’s invited in the process, you have to be nominated and things like that. But some of it I didn’t quite get. Food was provided and you know different things were provided but lots of things weren’t provided. And now I see some of some of the kernels of those things. Very interesting. It creates a lot of depth.

Margot: Everything was provided.

Joshua: The connections aren’t provided. Like I had a roommate who I didn’t know who this guy was. And so I have to meet this guy but there’s no thing for me to meet that person and I didn’t know the schedule before until I got there. I mean I knew something of the schedule but not really. I mean a lot of conferences there are things that are provided… It’s like every day you know exactly what to do. But this I mean maybe you have a choice, there’s like three breakout sessions and you have to pick one of them. This is not like that. This is walking over… What do you call? Downtown L.A. I’m not all in one conference center or one hotel.

Margot: It’s a learning safari.

Joshua: Yeah. I would go in the morning to… Like I was a morning person. I would go to the workout events in the morning. My roommate was a night person and he would come in like only couple hours before I got up so we’d actually didn’t meet until the last day. We were just kind of be very quiet and not bother the other one and I appreciate that he was quiet. I hope I was for him. And then we had a great time because he was an actor and I took a lot of acting lessons and acting has informed my leadership a lot. And so you know there’s no one telling you should favor this type of event versus that type of event or even that there’s a type of trend, types of events that you could have. A lot of it is what you get out of it. The first couple of days I was really struggling and then just it wasn’t long before I met you that things started fitting together like if I want to make this work, I have to make it work. Most conferences… And if you don’t put the work in, it’s not work. If you don’t put the attention in, you are going to have a really miserable time. Whereas most trade shows and things like that they’re designed that if you don’t work on it, you can’t help but go to all the right things.

Margot: Yeah. They more spoon-feed you.

Joshua: Yeah.

Margot: But anyhow you asked about the culture, how did the culture get started. So you have to understand like Eliot was a 22-year-old kid and he wasn’t thinking he was going to start this path-breaking company. The first time he just set to be like cool to meet these people and see how they started a company and then they all said they wanted to do it again and they wanted to bring five friends and so he started organizing another one for that fall in Playa del Carmen, Mexico and that’s where some of the other Summit founders came on to help him. And he was still working you know on the newsletter with my husband and I always say that it was like that scene in Dumb and Dumber at the end where these girls come by and say, “We’re looking for guys to rub oil in our body.” and they say, “Well, if we find anyone, we’ll let you know.” You know they’re setting up this event in Mexico for 60 people and he’s saying, “Gee, I wish I could think of a company. I’d love to start my own company.” And it was like right about the time of the actual event he was like, “Oh, gee I wonder if this could be something like I could actually do you know after next week you know.”

And I think he would tell you it’s the only event they’ve ever done that he didn’t really like because there was no what we now call curation. I mean everyone just invited five friends and they were just a lot of like rich obnoxious party animals who were there. And one of the people who was there was Tony Hsieh who started Zappos and Tony said to him, “You know I think you might really have something here but let me ask you a question. The people here if they weren’t famous, you wouldn’t want to hang out with them.” And Elliot said “yes”. And Tony said, “Listen to me, this is really important. You can never invite them back because it will ruin everything you want to do. And if you don’t invite them back, you can build something amazing.” And it was like an epiphany. And Elliot said you know I’m not going to say you have to be doing 25 million dollars’ worth of business. I’m going to say you have to have started something you’re passionate about and you have to be a nice person.

And if you change the paradigm for who you invite which they did after that event, then suddenly you get interesting nice people who are starting interesting nice things and you can get women and you can get minorities because a lot of them haven’t reached that threshold. I mean that’s why YPO is just all white men. And so they changed it after that and it became what it is today.

Joshua: I want to go back to something I asked you before about. I said some people think you have to have a passion and you act. Some people think you act and that creates a passion. My model is that people have interests but an interest is not yet a passion. Some of those interests may evolve into a passion if you work at it and some may not. And I have this little cycle in my head of IAP – initiative, action, passion. So at the beginning you’ll have some direction of where you want to go and then you take initiative to act on it and the action will turn the interests of passion which will create more initiative which will create more action. And so we have to act a little bit that drives more passion that drives more action that drives more passion that drives more action. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off and you’ve got to cut bait. And so I think if you wait for your action to be so great, then you often burn yourself out. If you wait for your passion to be so great, then you often wait forever. And I think to start a little bit, then take a few steps, see if that increases your interest, take more steps and go on a cycle like that.

Margot: No, I agree completely. I mean you know Elliot was like a big baseball star before he fell in love with tennis and the fact that he put all of that time into baseball and he was amazing at second base. He was amazing. And the fact that he put all that time it didn’t mean that it was a waster, that it was pointless. He took what he could out of it and he learned stuff and figured out what he liked and what he didn’t. And then the next sport came along and you know he fell in love with that but also we were talking before about passion and I said that everyone who I interviewed had a passion for something.

So about a third of the people their passion became what they do today like the people who were in music or film their passion really just went straight forward. There were other people like Elliot or Blake Mycoskie whose passion when they were young had nothing to do with what they do today but they just like we’re talking about kind of developed the mindset and the confidence so that when the right thing came along they’re ready to jump into it.

But there was a third group and this is more what you’re talking about where they were passionate about one thing and it morphed into something else which morphed into something else which morphed into something else which morphed into something else which morphed into what they’re doing today. Alexis Jones first it was acting and then it was storytelling and then it was public speaking and then it was public speaking about a cause that she fell in love with. Joel Holland first he was selling things and then he wanted to figure out like what good careers would be and he went to his guidance counselor in high school and it turned out there was nothing interesting about all the different careers so he decided he was going to try to… He’d been filming these little projects. When he was younger he decided he would try to film people talking about interesting careers and he got somebody to give him a grant and he went around for a year and interviewed CEOs about what their career was for high school kids. And then one of the people he’d interviewed was Governor Schwarzenegger in California and he realized what he said was interesting but it wasn’t interesting to watch it because there was no background information you know no background pictures so he decided he needed some background pictures and there was nothing available online. So he started a company where you know to get like the backdrops, the cities and the mountains and all this kind of stuff and he built a huge company in that. And so it’s like one thing kind of led to another which led to another which led to another which led to another. It’s not like he woke up when he was eight years old and said, “I’m going to start a company called Footage Firm.” that’s going to have footage for you to download. But you know just one thing. He just let it. He kind of rolled into it.

Joshua: And passions lead you to have people… Acting on passions leads you to have people in your life more passionate, then you follow suit with them and you work with them. Here’s something I’ve learned and listening just now I wish I’d spoken to you a couple of months ago because I could’ve put some stats into my book. You said they act on their passion and they learned something that might not work out. They learned how to act on their passions, they learned how to identify problems and solve them.

Margot: And it can just more if it can just develop you know it can just… It doesn’t have to be a sort of a linear thing and parents or bosses shouldn’t be upset if they see somebody going off on something that’s in a direction that they don’t think is going to lead somewhere because [unintelligible] it’s going to lead.

Joshua: And people who don’t act on their passions are scared that they might act on the wrong one or that they don’t have one to act on. People who have succeeded at this they look back at ones that, air quotes, didn’t pan out and they’re glad that they did that. It doesn’t feel like they waste… If it was something they didn’t end up doing, they don’t look back and feel bad that they wasted their time. On the contrary, they’re glad that they did it and they wish they’d done it earlier because that first thing led to the second thing and to the third thing. Or you know sometimes that first thing panned out. People who don’t act are scared of acting. They’re scared of what’s happening is is not going to work out how they want but the people who did act they’re glad for exactly that reason. Even if it didn’t pan out, it led to it what work out.

Margot: Right. It’s not, as I said the Billie Jean King quote, “It’s not failure. It’s feedback.” And how do you learn unless… I mean there’s so many kids in there they have no idea what they’re interested in because they haven’t really started to do anything, they haven’t tried anything, they haven’t explored anything, they’re just so busy doing what they’re told and making everybody happy and coloring within the lines and trying to get A’s and all the requirements. It’s really heartbreaking.

Joshua: It’s so funny to… I want to take just you saying that dripping with it’s not contempt but like you’re saying what a lot of people dream for their kids or they think that they will deliver… What they dream for their kids is happiness and success I guess. But what they’re actually doing is what you are like almost contemptuously saying it’s like you must feel compassion for people like that that they’re trying to get something and what they’re doing is actually getting the opposite or maybe not the opposite but not achieving it.

Margot: No, I think it actually generally, not generally but often is the opposite I mean these parents they’re putting so much effort into trying to help their kids achieve happiness and their kids are miserable because, first of all, they have no free time to figure out what they really enjoy doing. And, second of all, they’re absolutely terrified that they’re going to screw up and get a B in something in their life will be ruined. I mean I mentioned Esther Wojcicki, the journalism teacher, she’s at Palo Alto High School, so many kids were jumping in front of the train on their way home from school that they have a crossing guard now at Palo High School to keep kids from killing themselves on the way. I mean it’s really bad out there. And the percentage of kids in college who say they’ve considered suicide, the percentage of kids in middle school who say they’ve considered suicide I mean it’s horrifying. There’s no contempt in my voice. There’s nothing but sorrow.

Joshua: I did put some statistics in my book research that finds higher level of anxiety and drug use and things like that among communities with higher like well-to-do suburban communities where the schools are valued that the kids show more anxiety, more drug use, more fear of the future. But that’s not to say that education isn’t useful but it’s a certain kind that can be counterproductive.

Margot: No, I mean we should do another podcast and talk about how screwed up our education system is.

Joshua: Well, that’s yeah… As you said, a whole other show. I want to stop here and leave the listeners hanging of… Now I want to read your book because your book is How to Raise an Entrepreneur?

Margot: Well, yes, Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers and Change Makers.

Joshua: And we’ve heard the results and now I want to switch topics. I didn’t mean to stop; I want to switch topics to the environment because that’s what… You talked about brought people who have passions and that’s the big passion that brought me there because I was doing a panel on leadership in the environment. And someone attended that and invited me to Summit. That’s how we met. And OK, the environment seems like something… Is it something you care about? Is it something that matters to you?

Margot: I mean I hope it matters to every thinking human being.

Joshua: Well, I guess it’s different to everyone I think. I mean different people… What does it mean to you when you think about the environment? What does the environment mean to you?

Margot: I mean honestly I think it’s terrifying that our kids are going to be screwed. The plastic in the ocean and warming and it’s terrifying.

Joshua: I am missing a very visceral strong feeling. I mean terrifying is not a soft word.

Margot: I mean when you see pictures of these whales with pounds of plastic debris in their stomachs you know and the coral reefs that are bleaching out and you know animals that are dying off and that’s not good.

Joshua: Yeah. As you say it, it’s making me think of these things since making me. It is terrifying. And we are kind of sleepwalking into it is what it feels like to me. It’s hard… Sorry, the way you said it’s hard not to comment on it now. We were kind of joking before and now it’s gotten very sober but one of the things that I… part of the show… One of my goals of this podcast is to give people a chance to act on something that they feel strongly about and share their experience. And I wonder if you would be interested in based on what you said about the plastic in the ocean, the coral, the whales, what you think about when you think about the environment, what you feel when you think about the environment, I invite you at your option to do something… You do not just fix all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight but just something to act on that terrifying feeling or something that you know about the environment that you think about or that you feel that would make a difference however small or big but not telling someone else what to do and not just education or awareness as valuable as those things may be. Something that makes a measurable difference.

Margot: We actually talked about this a little [unintelligible] and it’s been racking my brain since then and I feel like a complete imbecile and I had mentioned to you yesterday when we spoke that I’ve been trying not to use plastic straws and to carry metal straws with me when I go to restaurants and I feel like a buffoon because half the time in restaurants I forget to ask until they bring the drink and then I’m like, “No, I don’t want to a plastic straw!” And of course I can just you know vow to be more diligent and make sure always to ask in advance and I always when they do have plastic starts I always go up to the general manager afterwards and say you know, “This is supposed to be like a cool millennial restaurant. How can you serve plastic straws? It’s not appropriate. It’s not good for the people you want to reach and it’s bad for the planet.” And I mean I can do that in a more consistent way but that still feels kind of weak and pathetic.

Joshua: And actually you based on the conversation we just had it might be the most meaningful person I’ve said this to is that what I’ve found is not the magnitude of the first or even early things that the person does but the developing of the skills and changing that mindset. Because once that mindset shifts then things that never popped up… If you don’t do the little things. it’s really hard to do the big things. But if you do the little things, oftentimes the big things become not big anymore. They become the natural next step or maybe medium sized things and then the big things. I mean you know I didn’t fly to L.A. to the Summit. I took the train. I didn’t intend to get to a place in my life where I would not take planes. But by the time I got there it was a natural next step that had I not taken the earlier steps however small they seemed at the time I wouldn’t have gotten there. And so I think it sounds great. And I propose making a SMART goal out of it which is to say specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time based. So where as you said you might put a little more effort into it. Maybe we could say a specific amount of time or a specific amount of effort or a specific result.

Margot: So what would the result be? I mean just no more plastic straws?

Joshua: For some period of time. Yeah. Like if you said you know, “For some period of time I’ll do my best to make it zero or do my best to make it below a certain threshold.” or something like that.

Margot: I’ll try to do it forever. I am not going to go back to plastic in June.

Joshua: I’m a fan of forever but let’s say this. How about we plan a time when you come back on and share the experience? And for the experience to be enough time from now that it’s either stuck or not or that you have something meaningful to say about the experience.

Margot: Do you have a suggestion for how I can remind myself every time I go out at the very beginning when I sit down?

Joshua: I mean the top suggestions to do exactly what you’re doing with me with and others. So ask other people who have created habits how they’ve been able to do it. I mean for me you know you caught me. Today I was going to a lunch and they only had plastic forks and I normally have a metal fork in my bag. And I did not have one today but normally I keep metal utensils in my bag. I just keep them in my bag when I get home I rinse them off so that they are generally clean. And I just make a habit of having them in there.

You know the store where I get peanut butter they have a machine that you put a little container under it and the peanuts go in and peanut butter comes out. They have free containers that you can get there. I don’t take them. I reuse the ones I’ve been using for a long time. If I forget to bring that container with me, I simply just don’t get peanut butter that day. And so I’ve learned through experience of lacking peanut butter. I don’t let myself be like, “Oh, next time I will remember. OK, I forgot it this time.” Or if I go to a store and I don’t bring a bag with me I only bring home what I can carry in my hands. So that being hungry is an excellent teacher for me because I don’t like being hungry.

And once when I was meeting with that big beverage company in Atlanta I was having dinner with someone on the sustainability team there and they brought out water and there were straws in it and I wasn’t going to drink the water anyway. I wasn’t thirsty so I didn’t really think anything of it. He said, “Can you bring these back?” And they said, “Well, if we bring them out, we’re just going to throw them out.” And he said, “Well, then whatever.” And I said, “So whatever you want with the others but take mine back.” And they said, “Well, we’re going to throw it out.” I said, “What you do is your responsibility. I’m not being responsible for that. I didn’t ask for this.” and I wouldn’t have done that had I not been in the community where someone else took the initiative. But I felt that it was even if they did throw that particular straw out, it would get them closer to not serving them the next time and going to a place where they just don’t serve straws and then maybe next time it’ll be they don’t serve another single-use plastic straw. And I think of all the things I could’ve done that was the direction that was most useful given the situation at the moment.

And so did any of those help your question of what to do? I think maybe adopting the mindset of that you want to reach a strategy that works for you and each time learn from each time to make it a little bit more conclusive the next time. And now that I think of it what I would say to a student in my Leadership and Entrepreneurship classes when they ask a question like that as I say, “Good question. Work on it and tell the class what you’ve learned the next time we meet.”

Margot: OK. Will do.

Joshua: And that’s actually what I think one of the reasons why I like people not knowing what they want to do is that listeners who are like, “I don’t know what to do.” Here’s someone else who doesn’t know what to do. And then they hear other people struggle through it and sometimes it’s easy but usually it’s not. And no matter how small this is yeah, a couple of straws is not that big of a difference compared to you know what ExxonMobil is pumping out and every second but the skills that you learn you’re not going to unlearn. And the next thing one day you’re going to be doing something that other people are going to say, “That’s really big.” and you are going to think, “It’s not.” And you’re going to think, “Oh, it’s because I did the straw thing that made it easier.” That’s my prediction. You’ve got to start where people are.

Margot: Fantastic.

Joshua: So how long do you think it will take before you can say something meaningful and substantive about it?

Margot: I don’t know. What’s your experience?

Joshua: Oh, I’ve had people the second conversations have gone between a week later and a year later. I’ve a feeling it’ll be more than a week but less than a year.

Margot: Probably. Split the difference.

Joshua: So that would be six months. I think it’ll be sooner than that. But it’s up to you. How often do you find yourself at a restaurant where a straw is served or…? It doesn’t have to be a restaurant, it can be like a [unintelligible].

Margot: Several times a week.

Joshua: So several times a week. So if it took a dozen times, that would be like three or four weeks. What’s so funny?

Margot: You want me to commit to a date?

Joshua: Oh, yeah. Because I want to schedule a second conversation. OK, well we can schedule after we…

Margot: OK. How about four months?

Joshua: Four months? OK.

Margot: OK. Done.

Joshua: Cool. And then we’ll schedule the exact time after we’re not online.

Margot: OK. Cool. Do you think I can do it in three months?

Joshua: So now the listeners can’t see your expression. I hear you laughing and you look like you’re…This is a mix of silly but kind of interesting. Do I read you right? How do you feel about it?

Margot: It’s interesting.

Joshua: And are you doing it because of me or are you doing it because of…?

Margot: Because it needs to be done.

Joshua: So it’s a sense of responsibility.

Margot: It’s a good thing.

Joshua: Okay.

Margot: Okay. Done.

Joshua: Okay, cool. And yeah I think that what will happen is that people will listen to this among other people that are renowned, if I can call you renowned, and they will say… I think that people say…

Margot: “If she’s such a bozo and she’s going to do something, then I can do something.”

Joshua: Exactly. It’s the opposite… It’s very different than, “If I act but no one else does, then what I do doesn’t make a difference.” because you’re doing it. Oh, now I should say to you. There’s someone I should put you in touch with – Dune Ives of Lonely Whale who has been a guest on the show and she played a big role in the straw campaign getting started and she works with Adrian Grenier from the…

Margot: Yeah. I know him. He’s been at Summit.

Joshua: OK. So I should probably guys put you in touch. Alright. I want to wrap up with… There are a couple of questions that I ask to close. One is is there anything that I didn’t think to ask to bring up?

Margot: No. I’m content. I hope you are too.

Joshua: Yes. I’m more content now than I was when we began talking an hour ago. Is there anything to say to the listeners that you might want to say directly to the listeners?

Margot: Well, just don’t worry. Let go. Trust the process. It’ll be fine. Your kids will be fine. It’s not a smooth ride. You might not notice what they’re doing that is going to lead to something great. You might not think it’s going to lead to something great. But if you tell them it’s a wonderful thing they’re doing and you let them prosper and thrive, you’ll be amazed at how their life could turn out. And I think for people who don’t have kids the same is true in a company. Don’t be too rigid in your expectations of what things ought to look like but encourage people to try new things and encourage them to think boldly and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Don’t be upset and encourage them to try something else.

Joshua: If you don’t mind me commenting on that, you’ve just said… Something about the way you said that gave me really strong feeling that looking back at my childhood I’ve often thought of the things when they told me to do this I didn’t want to but what you said I got a lot of that growing up and I haven’t thought about it enough. Sorry to wax philosophical or whatever you call it.

Margot: By the way, that was the one thing I didn’t… You said, “What didn’t I ask?”. I didn’t get to ask about your upbringing but we can do that next time.

Joshua: I’ll make a note of it.

Margot: OK. Cool. Thanks, Josh.

Joshua: Margot Bisnow, thank you very much.

Margot: It’s my pleasure.


I wish you could see Margot at work. She would say that she wasn’t working but I think effective leadership like any active, social, emotional, expressive performance-based performance art when mastered feels and looks effortless like the person is just being himself or herself. One of Summit’s main goals is to create environment where people can connect with each other. Margo connected people more than most. In that sense, she was achieving more than most people were despite not trying. She may have felt and looked like she was just enjoying herself and she probably was but I spent years developing the skills, experiences and beliefs to be able to do that myself. And I bet that she did too. In any case, I want it on this podcast to share a bit of someone who appears like a natural leader.

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