By Péralte C. Paul
If there’s one thing that drives Richard Berman, it’s the desire to find the passion in others and to help foster it in ways that give back to society at large.
Berman is the newest Entrepreneur In Residence (EIR) to join the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC). A native Ohioan with master’s degrees in business administration and public health, Berman is looking forward to working with ATDC’s startup companies in the high-growth and funding stages of their development and ensuring their owners stay true to their passions.
Berman has a distinguished career in health care, education, housing and humanitarian affairs and has held leadership and advisory positions at the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and consulting giant McKinsey & Co. He sees one of his greatest successes as being the turnaround of Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y.
In 1995, when Berman was named the school’s president, he took an institution that faced default on its bonds and imminent closure back to financial solvency. He did that by redefining the school’s mission: to mold its students into ethically and socially responsible leaders.
It was there that he first received the nickname, “Don Quixote, social entrepreneur.”
“In addition to saving a school, our 2,000 students performed 35,000 hours of community service each year,” Berman said. “Many of them have gone into making a difference, whether it’s charter schools they’ve started on their own or reading and writing companies. A lot of them have started their own businesses in education, health care and services.”
He later did the same as board chairman of the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., when it was in dire financial straits.
Social impact and developing a successful business are the twin themes he’s looking at fostering with the companies he works with at ATDC, the technology business incubator within the Enterprise Innovation Institute at Georgia Tech.
“So I’m particularly looking for people who have a passion about the end-user,” he said. “Are you trying to make life better for that child in the hospital who’s all wired up in a hospital bed and doesn’t like to be wired up?”
He also wants entrepreneurs to see the growing opportunities that exist in improving civil society and the infrastructure space — like ATDC Select Company Rimidi Diabetes — that help others while achieving success.
“They’ll be successful, but they will also help change the lives of people down the road.”
In this edition of Tech Square Talk, he gives some insight into what led him down the entrepreneurial road, bridging that with a desire to help others, and key lessons learned from his successes and hiccups.
Q.: When did you realize you wanted to be an entrepreneur? Around what idea was it centered?
A.: I’ve always had a passion to make the world a better place. Whether it was in health care, housing or in education, it was to improve the lives of others. What I realized quickly was that there were the same tools and techniques of business that were important — whether it was for big companies or not-for-profits — but I needed the room to do my own thing. And so one of the exciting parts about being here is to help people follow their passion. I’m really at heart a social entrepreneur, so I am more concerned with the end-user and making life better for those who will benefit from my product or my skill. I’ve been able to help bring business techniques and tools so that not-for-profits could actually use more of their resources and provide more of a value to the people they were trying to help. ‘No margin — no mission’ for non-profits, and helping entrepreneurs develop successful businesses in this same space.
Q.: It seems like there has been a recognition that you can create a company in the social space that both helps people and is profitable. Do you see that as well?
A.: I think that’s the future. We’re so dependent in terms of jobs and in terms of what makes America strong, it’s the service industry. We know that there are some significant social parts of our society — health care and education — that are ripe for very large change. That change will be driven by entrepreneurs, as it has been in communications, entertainment and business in general. I’m excited about the real opportunity for the future for making our civil society more compassionate, just and fair, while creating jobs and wealth.
Q.: What are your biggest priorities with respect to being an EIR at ATDC? What do you hope to accomplish?
A.: What I really hope is that we would be able to attract individuals who have a real transformational idea and a real passion and a real commitment to it to come to ATDC and that we will be able — given the robust resources of Georgia Tech, ATDC, and the networks that each of us have around here — to make them successful entrepreneurs who are really making a difference — social entrepreneurs.
Q.: Why did you want to give of your expertise and guidance through a program such as ATDC?
A.: ATDC has the most capital. I’m talking about human investment, and that is the extraordinary, unlimited supply of the smartest minds at Georgia Tech and a foot on the ground to open the doors to all the other networks important to people who can influence and make a difference in a company’s life. They could be at Emory or Georgia State or Children’s Healthcare or they could be in government. So, ATDC had the best resources, they had the best network external to Georgia Tech. I thought it had some of the best individuals or companies here already and they were committed to the state to make a difference in both jobs and economic viability of not only the individual entrepreneurs, but of the state. EI2’s mission, which is to improve people’s lives and create jobs in Georgia, permits me to follow my passion and therefore provides me a good home.
Q.: What, as an entrepreneur, has been your biggest success?
A.: My biggest success was turning around a college that allowed and encouraged students to follow their dreams and find a sustainable way to follow their passion and make a difference in the world. And to see them now performing like that is really the most successful thing I’ve ever done.
Q.: Conversely, what has been your biggest setback? What did you learn from it?
A.: The biggest setback and challenge is always going to be barriers to change and barriers to adoption. It’s interesting because we tend to think that if we transfer knowledge, automatically, people will then make the “rational decision.” So if we create a product that helps make individuals healthier, or live longer, or be pain-free, that automatically, the regulatory mode, the political mode or the individual will automatically change their behavior. The biggest frustration is that there are large, financial interests that have also created large, political barriers to adoption of some of the smarter ideas. When you think you have something that would have a large social impact, but you can’t get it produced or distributed or funded, you learn that the more you understand those barriers, the more you recognize them and the more you know about them from the beginning, the better you are at not letting those barriers deter you from being successful.
Q.: What is the one word or phrase every would-be-entrepreneur should not have in their vocabulary? Why?
A.: The phrase is, ‘because I’ve experienced a need, therefore, there is a market for it,’ that’s probably what they should never say. Most often, startups and businesses fail because they don’t understand their customer and what the customer values. That’s why we spend a lot of time on customer discovery here. ‘I assumed’ is another phrase you don’t want to hear. ‘I assumed’ the market wanted this, ‘I assumed’ the customer was willing to pay this amount for this.