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  • Upstart CEO: A Moon Shot Please

    Where is the “Moon Shot” – who is America’s Shai Agassi?

    Upstart: Gamechangers

    I have an ominous warning – a prophecy of doom: America has become the old IBM, the IBM before it became “new IBM.” Before it was revived, repositioned and restored – IBM was an iconic American symbol of big business and advanced technology. But somewhere IBM lost its way: its culture become monolithic, it failed to read mature and emerging markets, it was debilitated by “groupthink,” and slowly, newer technologies, smaller and more powerful machines and more rapid information sources, were eating away at IBM’s market share, profits and brand image. I think the United States is hurling itself down the same path as the old IBM – and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

    I spoke of IBM in a previous article Business Turnaround: Blowup The Company To Save It, about its bloated infrastructure, its lack of diversity in thought and culture – and its tin ear, preventing it from hearing, seeing or believing the seismic changes that were happening right before their eyes. IBM lost its excellence, and once IBM was not excellent anymore, it wasn’t IBM anymore. I relate the United States to IBM, because America has also lost its way. America has lost the mindset, culture and momentum of excellence. We have become character actors, as opposed to stars – American Idols, not “American masters.”

    In the Empire at the End of Decadence, Charles M. Blow, stated,“It’s time for us to stop lying to ourselves about this country…..America is great in many ways, but on a whole host of measures — some of which are shown in the accompanying chart — we have become the laggards of the industrialized world. Not only are we not No. 1 — “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” — we are among the worst of the worst…..Yet this reality and the urgency that it ushers in is too hard for many Americans to digest. They would prefer to continue to bathe in platitudes about America’s greatness, to view our eroding empire through the gauzy vapors of past grandeur.”

    America is doing now, what all great empires do, right before they are no longer great empires – they fail to be introspective – the fail to see the world as it is – they stay encapsulated and nostalgic to a world they once dominated – influenced by a world that doesn’t exist anymore – so instead of doing everything to meet and become the future – they do nothing and are forced into the past.

    We are inundated with the  Groupon’s and Facebook’s of the world – but what do they do exactly – – where is the “Moon Shot” – who is America’s Shai Agassi – do we really need discounted coupons, or do we need companies that look to fill vacuums: companies and entrepreneurs that can build new business infrastructures and technology platforms. “I don’t want a car man – I want a space man, who builds cars.” Give me a dreamer, an iconoclast, who refuses to accept conventional wisdom – someone, who knows that what we too often accept as “right,” is dead-wrong – and has dedicated his life to proving it. Give me a believer – a tree shaker – an empire builder. Unfortunately, America has become a country of “Top Models, Real Housewives and Top Chefs,” fun stuff, but really no purpose except to be a distraction.

    We’ve become a country of distractions: with the awesome computing and tech prowess at our disposals – with the intellectual firepower of our best and brightest – with those now commanding the stage and light, and those soon emerging, the best we can do is Groupon, Twitter and Reverse Mortgages — C’mon. I don’t think most people know that we’ve learned to live off the distraction, as opposed to the actual thing we are supposed to be focusing on in the first place. America has built multi-billion dollar industries off the distraction. America has decidedly chosen convenience over mastery, and the painful side of that tradeoff is upon us.

    Google had it right when it indexed and created sophisticated search algorithms for the entire internet – it thought it could change the world, but what happened – it became a search advertising company, built on “Keywords, Page Rankings, Pay-Per-Click and Search Engine Optimization” – Huh. Google became something other than it was supposed to become, because it lost focus, and has never regained its correct perspective, ambitions or alignment. Google was started by two exceptionally brilliant young men, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who created one of the purest forms of “equality” – equal access to information: and what have we done with it – nothing – what has Google done with it – nothing. Google wasn’t supposed to be competing with Facebook and Apple; it was supposed to be competing with NASA. Google blew it.

    The real problem with the lack of excellence is twofold. The people who understand excellence, have resigned themselves to pedestrian performance – have accepted that the days of an exemplary offering is on life-support, and we have become accustomed to being underwhelmed – accustomed to having an unfortunate gap between our best efforts and “amazing.” But the more significant problem is that most people have never seen excellence up close. America lives and works through societies that reward the debate, more than outcomes: Americans live in societies built to demand more, while providing less – it’s old IBM. We have businesses that meet shareholder requirements, not by what they build, but by how many jobs they shed, and they are rewarded handsomely for their lack of performance – rewarded for their incoherence to excellence.

    And there are also real world problems: deficits, debt, entitlement costs, irresponsible tax cuts, no decision decisions, lack of leadership, lack of a real plan, lack of real solutions – and many people make their living off the system being broken, as opposed to it working well. There’s incredible profit in pain and turmoil – because you continually have to pay for the treatment, but payment for a cure always comes to an end, which is unacceptable, because business is always about being in business. It’s not that a pharmaceutical company doesn’t want you to have a cold, they just want to help you continually manage it, where you think their products allow you to bear the cold better. Ask yourself, why doesn’t a pharmaceutical company sell over-the-counter (OTC) flu shots, as opposed to Nyquill — limited money in the flu shot, long money in the Nyquill.

    Just think, what if the folks at Goldman Sachs decided to use their skill-sets to find ways for Americans to be more appropriately invested in American and global markets, as opposed to moving through sanguine capitalism that only serves their own purposes? What if lobbyists lobbied for cosmopolitan and connected infrastructures – lobbied for a stronger middle-class, as opposed to fringe projects that only help the wealthy and well-connected? What if non-profits decided to put themselves out of business by finding cures, and not merely offering ephemeral relief – what would happen if we actually meant what we said – if we did what we said we were going to do – who would we be then?

    America needs to recapture its voice and create a moment to find its imagination, its vision – to find individuals and groups that will snatch the future by the throat, and drag it into our classrooms, into our homes and redefine how we do business, and who we do business with. America needs a call to action: a demand that someone come up with a plan to lessen our dependence on oil by 50% in the next fifteen years, a demand for someone, who has a school reform model that is performance based, teacher and parent supported and replicable – a demand for someone, who has a healthcare plan that reduces costs and improves care, a demand for someone, who has a solution for closing the income gap, without interrupting the free markets – have we forgot that this our obligation – the people’s, not the government’s, not someone else’s, or did you ever know that this power was yours?

    I must admit, as I have started this new venture, Upstart: Business and Management for 20-40 Year Old Professionals, I have and continue to meet some exciting and truly powerful figures, both seasoned and very young, who will shape the coming American narrative for generations, but why will only a select few “breakthrough” – why are we still getting ideas from the same places that we always have – obsolete, self-serving ideas that offer more dependence and less innovation – more monopolies and less pluralism – more freedoms, but less freedom?

    Excellence is not a thing, it’s a lifestyle – it’s a determination – a choice – it’s an identity and outcome, but it’s never rhetorical, it’s always alive, pulsating, contouring, complaining, pleasing and feverishly reconstituting itself into the next possibility, yet excellence dismisses many and only selects the few who, don’t necessarily believe that their time is now, but those who make “now” their time.

    America is at a point, where it doesn’t know what it’s supposed to know – doesn’t know who it’s supposed to be anymore – so as economies and trade repurpose with more of an international equilibrium, as global populations become younger and less dependent on American ideation, as infrastructures become more wired and secular – and as education is defined by those who are serious about it, not just those who have it – the world will change – it already has.

    Will America be able to awaken and force itself into a pause – into a good dressing-down of itself, so it can find and offer its best self to its citizens and the rest of the world, or will it keep accommodating accommodation, and slip quietly into the night?

    Good Luck.

    Calvin Wilson
    CEO, Upstart                                                                                                                                                                                                            calvin.wilson1@verizon.net

    Upstart: Business and Management for 29-40 Year Old Professionals

    Filed Under: Gamechangers

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