Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m the founding executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. I am also an adjunct instructor in the University of Montana College of Business teaching Entrepreneurship, Management and Organizational Behavior.
What has been one insight or lesson that has been most helpful in your career?
Be adaptable and open to new opportunities. I went to college to be an English teacher, then married a forester and moved to rural Michigan where there were no teaching jobs. After 18 unhappy months being angry that I couldn’t teach, I finally took a job in marketing and fell in love with business. I’ve gone on to work in economic development, higher education, and nonprofits. Learning to adapt has been essential to keeping my career moving forward, whether changes have come by choice or by necessity.
What has been your favorite mistake? A mistake that in retrospect led to a great lesson and progress.
I lost the business plan competition at the University of Montana when I was an MBA student. My team missed making the final four by one vote. Initially I was devastated and viewed it as a public failure. Over time, though, I realized it was a mistake to take myself and the competition too seriously. I learned to lighten up. I’ve also learned to view entrepreneurship as a series of tests in search of a successful business model, rather than the pursuit of some perfect plan right out of the gate.
Project forward ten years. How will your industry or field be fundamentally different then? What opportunities do you see?
In ten years, Montana’s high-tech industry is going to be a huge part of our state’s economy and much more high-profile nationally. There will be more opportunities than ever for Montanans to find engaging jobs and start successful companies while living one of the most beautiful places on earth.
What are some bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I dislike the advice that young people should steer clear of the Liberal Arts and pursue only STEM or business degrees because they are more “practical.” The tech industry and business in general need diverse skill sets and ways of thinking. We need people who can write, communicate well, empathize, understand human nature, think critically and creatively, and navigate the ethical questions surrounding technology. These are all skills gained from the Liberal Arts. Many successful tech leaders have Liberal Arts degrees, like Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn (Philosophy) and Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube (Literature and History). Everyone has to figure out how to be useful when they hit the job market, regardless of what they study.
In the last two years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I’m better at saying no to good things so that I can say yes to my biggest priorities. I’m also better at knowing what my biggest priorities are.
What is the one book you recommend most often and why?
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett. It’s the true story of two groups of sailors shipwrecked on opposite sides of Auckland Island at the same time, in 1864. Both groups faced the same terrible conditions for nearly two years but had drastically different outcomes. One side stuck together, took action, and every man survived. The other side said “every man for himself” and nearly all perished, subjected to cannibalism and other terrors. It’s an extraordinary case study of survival, leadership, and the best/worst in humanity. Even my 11-year-old son couldn’t put it down.
What advice would you give a smart and ambitious recent college graduate? What advice should they ignore?
No matter what job you start in, view yourself as building a body of work and a professional reputation from day one. And it’s not enough to just list your job description on your resume – handled accounts on the sales team, prepared monthly reports, etc. Think in terms of stacking up measurable accomplishments – increased sales by 30 percent, launched a company newsletter, named outstanding new employee in 2019, etc.
I don’t think “follow your passion” is great advice. I resonate with Cal Newport’s suggestion (in So Good They Can’t Ignore You) to focus instead on developing rare and useful skills. Then become passionate about being good at what you do.
What is your favorite quote, one you aim to live by?
“Between safety and adventure, I choose adventure.” – Craig Ferguson