Stephen Zarrilli, ’83, President and Chief Executive Officer of Safeguard Scientifics Inc., a growth capital provider in Wayne, Pa., is a La Salle Trustee and Chair of the Center for Entrepreneurship’s Advisory Board. Robert Liptak, MBA, ’86, is co-founder and Managing Director of Clarus Ventures, LLC, a life sciences venture capital firm in Boston, Mass.
Neither Zarrilli nor Liptak ever envisioned themselves entering the world of venture capitalism when they embarked upon their college careers. But both credit the foundational values and well-rounded education they received at La Salle as key factors that enabled them to seize the opportunities that arose in their career paths.
As La Salle forges ahead with new initiatives to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship on campus and beyond, Zarrilli and Liptak share their insights on what it takes to prepare the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
As veterans in the world of venture capitalism, we’ve each heard thousands of pitches and read hundreds of business plans—but when it comes down to it, we’re ultimately investing in people. The world of business is bottom-line-driven, but in the venture world, innovation is the bottom line.
Innovation is taking something that exists today and bringing it to the next level to enable further growth, or exploring it on a different plane to create something entirely new. It can apply to any type of business—the entrepreneur who wants to create the next iteration of a Starbucks model, the scientist who wants to synthesize a new chemical compound, the graphic designer who wants to transform art with new methods of digital fabrication.
The spirit of entrepreneurship really cuts across all disciplines of learning. The entrepreneurial mindset can enrich any career path. Creativity and tenacity are two characteristics that we look for in any entrepreneur, regardless of the type of business that they’re trying to build. Can they creatively think through where to take the business? Do they have the fortitude and tenacity to stick with it? It’s not always going to be an easy ride to the next destination. Sometimes things don’t go as planned; in fact, the one constant of entrepreneurship is that things generally don’t go as planned.
Your original plan and what you ultimately end up doing are generally two totally different things. You adapt as you evolve. You can’t let a fear of failure stifle you. If you really want to be an entrepreneur, you’re going to fail. You may fail several times before you become successful. But your willingness to take chances and learn from your failures will take you to places you may have never imagined.
We look for people who have a passion for what they’re doing. We’re not going to invest in people who think that they’re the smartest in the room and don’t need any help. We want people who realize their limitations and know what additional resources they need to make the overall venture successful.
During our undergraduate days at La Salle, the student body wasn’t what you would call “privileged.” Everyone was really hungry to go out and make a name for themselves. We weren’t handed anything on a silver platter—there was a real appreciation for the hard work it takes to achieve success. Those are the types of individuals you want on your team. They are the ones who actually put their heart and soul into the endeavor.
While you can’t teach elements of drive, dedication, tenacity, and work ethic, La Salle provides the framework for students to develop those qualities in themselves in a meaningful way and the opportunities to bring them to fruition in their personal and professional lives. There’s no substitute for real-world experience.
When you have these students for such a short period of time in their lives, it’s crucial to supplement their day-to-day classroom learning with real-world experiences. The ultimate goal is to give them exposure to a volume of ideas and examples to help them better apply what they have learned in class to the real world.
The way we can do that is to have our alumni share their own personal stories of innovation and success as people who once sat where they are sitting and who were actually able to take an innovative idea and make it a tangible reality.