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Queens Chronicle

Tech and business leader gives back

Entrepreneurial giant Steve Blank encourages students at his old HS

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2019 9:00 am

Before Steve Blank became the startup business titan of Silicon Valley, he was, by his own description, a nondescript student at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village.

“I graduated with four 65s and a 98,” Blank told students Tuesday morning.

“I was voted least likely to succeed in a class of 1,000,” he said. “Now I teach at Stanford and Columbia.”

Blank, returning to his alma mater for the first time in 50 years, is a pioneer in lean startups, which preaches that small entrepreneurs and innovators have to follow different rules for success than large, established companies.

He was the guest speaker Tuesday at a talk hosted by the Business Technology Early College High School, the charter located within Van Buren. Queensborough Community College, a partner of BTECH, was the primary sponsor.

Students from both schools listened while Blank was interviewed by NBC News anchor and correspondent Harry Smith about his life, his business career and his model for success.

He grew up in Oakland Gardens off of Bell Boulevard. And he told the students that opportunity is available for those willing to seek it out. He said in the United States, many old barriers are gone, while more continue to fall.

“How many of you are the children of immigrants?” Blank asked, raising his own hand as the son of Russian Jewish parents. On top of that, his father abandoned Blank, his mother and sister when he was a small boy, but that did not predetermine his future.

“Look around this auditorium,” he said. “Some of you are going to be millionaires. Some might be billionaires ... Someone here might be the [innovator] who shuts down a big company.” He said there is a lot to the adage that 90 percent of success is just showing up.

“I showed up while other people were sleeping or going to a bar,” he said.

He said high school was an unpleasant experience, with the 98 his senior year coming in a new discipline called computer science. Teachers and principals alike may have cringed at his next tale.

“I was the first student in the history of New York City Schools to hack my own grades,” Blank said. “Martin Van Buren was the first school in the city to get computers, and they were connected to the [Department of Eduction] mainframe. They didn’t know the power they were exposing us to.”

He spent a grand total of one semester at the University of Michigan before dropping out. Then came would what be his first big break.

“I joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War,” Blank said. “They taught me a trade — they taught me how to fix electronics.”

Soon after returning to civilian life, Blank moved to what is now Silicon Valley to work for a company that made chips for the military.

“You won’t live your own life until you leave home,” he said. “You live your own life when you make your own decisions, discover who you are and what you want to be.”

Blank told the students that personal communication is a skill he wishes he had developed earlier.

“You have to make eye contact,” he said. “In high school, I would look down at my shoes a lot; sometimes look at your shoes.”

He said innovators and entrepreneurs need to be able to talk to colleagues, strangers and others.

“Even people you don’t like,” he added.

Personal responsibility, he said, also is important. In response to a student’s question, he said his most humbling experience came after what was a professional disaster following a long string of successes.

“One of my startups lost $35 million of other people’s money,” he said. “That was humbling, shutting down the company, firing the workers was humbling. It was hubris — I believed my own [BS]. But I owned the failure. I took responsibility.”

He also called his mother to say he had lost $35 million.

“English was still not her first language ... she said ‘Where did you put it?’ But I also told her the same people whose $35 million I lost had just given me another $12 million, because they knew I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again.”

He made them $8 billion.

Blank said family and community are at least as important a part of success as financial gain.

“I loved being at work, but I also loved coming home,” he said. “And now I love giving back.”

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