Do School Better Season 1

It’s Not About Being the Smartest Person in the Room

By April 24, 2016 No Comments

Episode 13 – Steve Blank


Entrepreneur-turned-educator Steve Blank is credited with launching the Lean Startup movement. He’s changed how startups are built; how entrepreneurship is taught; how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate.

He teaches at Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley and NYU; and created the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps—now the standard for science commercialization in the U.S. His Hacking for Defenseclass at Stanford is revolutionizing how the U.S. defense and intelligence community can deploy innovation with speed and urgency.

You’re listening to Entrepreneurs are Everywhere on Business Radio, powered by the Wharton School, Sirius XM 111. Here again is Steve Blank.

Steve: I’m Steve Blank and you’re listening to “Entrepreneurs are Everywhere” on Sirius XM’s Business Radio 111 powered by the Wharton School. My next guest is Doris Korda, Director of Entrepreneurial Studies and Associate Head of Hawken School, an independent K-12 school in Cleveland, Ohio, where she runs its academic curriculum and directs the Entrepreneurial Studies program. She’s here to tell us about how she’s preparing the next generation to thrive in an entrepreneurial world. Doris, welcome to the show.

Doris: Thanks, Steve. Hi.

Steve: Hi. Doris, before we got into how you came to this because it’s one heck of a journey, why don’t you just tell us what are you doing now and what’s entrepreneurial preparing students . . .

Doris: Sure. So I’m not alone in thinking education is broken and what worked before doesn’t work now.

Steve: What does that mean?

Doris: What I mean is the school system that we have now is created at a time when what mattered most was that everybody learned pretty specific content. It worked for a long time.

Steve: What do you mean, like math and history?

Doris: Yeah. These are the things if you’re going to take a math class, these are the exact things you need to know. Out of all of what’s happened in history, you need to graduate high school having learned the following things, etc.

Steve: And in Common Core.

Doris: Yeah. Common Core is different. Actually, that’s the first set of standards I’ve seen that’s based on concepts more. But that’s a whole different topic. But basically, what we don’t do is right now, what the world needs is not a bunch of people who graduate high school and can recite from memory the quadratic formula, but we need people who can be smart about knowing what questions to ask and how to solve really complicated problems that the world has never seen yet.

There was a time when having the information gave you the power. I don’t know if you ever had anybody in high school who held onto the notes and didn’t share them. But that’s no longer the case. The problem isn’t getting information or data. It’s knowing what to do with it.

Steve: That’s interesting. It sounds like what you’re saying is education was developed when people went to work for factories and needed to have a basic knowledge of math, English and whatever.

Doris: Absolutely, the industrial model. That’s what we’ve got.

Steve: And now we’ve got a very different model but factory jobs are maybe not predominant in the US. There are some. But it’s a very different knowledge economy where you need a different set of skills.

Doris: Absolutely. That’s absolutely right. We don’t have a school system where students learn those skills.

Steve: Is that what you’re doing?

Doris: That is what I’m all about doing.

Steve: So I want to get to that. You’ve had an interesting journey to end up as an educator.

Doris: Yeah.

Steve: You didn’t start as an educator.

Doris: I didn’t start as an educator.

Steve: So where did you grow up?

Doris: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio.

Steve: Your parents had an interesting journey to get to Columbus.

Doris: Yeah. So I’m an immigrants’ kid. I learned English as a second language. I grew up, although very early . . .

Steve: What was the first language?

Doris: Hungarian. But I was really young when I learned English. I was three and a half when we moved to Columbus. But my parents were involved in the Hungarian Revolution and ended up having to leave when it became clear that it was failed and the Russians rolled in and it became bloody.

They left with basically three things. They left with a backpack that had diapers for my sister, who was a baby and sleeping pills to keep her quiet during their escape. They left with their education and they left with each other and that was it. So they made their way via London and Canada where I was born ultimately to Columbus, Ohio. So I grew up in a family where life was really different at home and outside of home.

Steve: How so?

Doris: The Midwest in the ’60s and ’70s was a wonderful place to grow up, but very Midwest. We spoke a different language. The culture was different.

Steve: You spoke Hungarian at home?

Doris: Yeah, we spoke Hungarian at home. As you’d imagine, it got to be a mix of English and Hungarian very quickly.

Steve: What did your parents do?

Doris: Both parents were engineers.

Steve: Your mom as well?

Doris: Yeah.

Steve: In the Midwest in the ’60s.

Doris: Yeah. They ended up having four kids. So she quit being an engineer when my baby sister was born, but she was engineer at a time when there weren’t a lot of female engineers.

Steve: Was she a role model?

Doris: She was absolutely a role model.

Steve: So in high school, did you know you wanted to be an engineer?

Doris: Absolutely not. I had a bunch of different things that I wanted to be. By the time I graduated my class, I wrote this thing and I was going to be the next Secretary of State and I thought, “Well, that’s a good idea. I like that.”

Steve: So where did you go to college and what did you end up majoring in?

Doris: Well, I started at Northwestern, actually, studying journalism.

Steve: Great school for that.

Doris: It is a great school for that. I ended up reluctantly agreeing with my father that I needed to get what he considered a more practical degree. So I switched into engineering.

Steve: Really?

Doris: Yeah. I graduated undergrad from Ohio State with a degree in systems engineering where my father was teaching.

Steve: Why did you pick Ohio State?

Doris: My father was teaching there and I could go for nothing.

Steve: That’s a good hint.

Doris: He got really tired of the Northwestern bills.

Steve: That was very Midwest values too.

Doris: Exactly.

Steve: So you ended up as an engineer?

Doris: I started as an engineer. I worked at Bell Labs and AT&T. Yeah.

Steve: So that was your first couple jobs, Bell Labs and AT&T.

Doris: Yeah.

Steve: First of all, what did you do at Bell Labs and AT&T?

Doris: Well, it was really interesting. Actually, this is luck of the draw, but it had a pretty profound effect on me. When I started at AT&T, I was an engineer and I joined a group where everybody in the group had come up from the inside. They’d been engineers who had been promoted up into the group.

Steve: What were you doing there?

Doris: I was designing systems for very large media companies.

Steve: Got it. So you’re a systems engineer.

Doris: Systems engineer, very big systems, McGraw-Hill, NBC, CBS, ABC, the works.

Steve: Got it. Wasn’t this the time AT&T was breaking up?

Doris: That was what was interesting. So eight months after I started, there was the breakup.

Steve: Remind our audience. The breakup was AT&T used to be this giant monolith. It was the phone company.

Doris: It was the monopoly. It was the only phone company that existed that you could use.

Steve: Hard to remember we had essentially a national phone company.

Doris: We had a national phone company.

Steve: And then we broke it up into what were called regional Bell operating companies.

Doris: Regional Bell operating companies, separately Bell Labs as an R&D arm. AT&T communications is a separate entity. So this massive, massive organism was broken up into piece parts that had all these rules about not sharing and it was crazy.

Steve: How did you become an innovator inside of AT&T? What happened?

Doris: Well, because I wasn’t paralyzed, what I did is I looked for ways to take the piece parts that my particular unit was allowed to work with and I partnered with people all over the company that I was allowed to partner with and I created solutions. I basically . . .

Steve: So you built new products.

Doris: Built new products.

Steve: And were you thought of as an innovator or crazy?

Doris: Well, it was really exciting because they were so desperate for any kind of competitive success and I was really successful. I ended up at a very early age being promoted, put on the fast track, taken to all these, given awards, all this stuff. When I look back and I think about how young I was and what they let me do, they were crazy.

Steve: Did you keep doing that or was there another job inside of AT&T.

Doris: Then I went into, there was a small group formed by the chairman of AT&T inside of Bell Labs to create a product basically from a mathematical breakthrough.

Steve: What was the breakthrough?

Doris: It was in the area of linear programming of optimization problems.

Steve: This wasn’t a traveling salesman.

Doris: This was a guy named Narendra Karmarkar that was on the cover . . .

Steve: Sure, that’s the famous . . . Remind our audience what it was.

Doris: What he did is he found a completely different way to solve simultaneous equations.

Steve: What does that mean for the practical world?

Doris: Well, it’s resource allocation problems. So you could solve, for example, scheduling problems in orders of magnitude less time.

Steve: What’s a scheduling problem?

Doris: Error line scheduling problems or resource allocation for the DOD.

Steve: What does that mean?

Doris: So it’s about optimizing resources. So if you think about the network of airports and airplanes and all the different moving parts, his algorithm applied allowed those flights and schedules to be done in fractions of the time.

Steve: So they have this algorithm, but what was the product and who figured out how to sell it? Was that you?

Doris: Well, I was the one to do the product management on that team. So I was the one to do the marketing, the product planning and the sales.

Steve: And how did you figure out what customers needed?

Doris: I asked a lot of questions. I talked to a lot of people.

Steve: To who?

Doris: I worked with airlines.

Steve: Oh, so you got out of the building?

Doris: I got totally out of the building. I worked with the Department of Defense. I worked with Solomon Brothers.

Steve: So you learned a lot?

Doris: I learned a ton.

Steve: So why didn’t you stay with AT&T forever? What happened?

Doris: What happened was that basically my husband wanted to move, got a great job back home in Ohio.

Steve: Really? So you went from AT&T back to Ohio?

Doris: I went from AT&T back to Ohio.

Steve: So did you want to do that?

Doris: Well, my father wanted me to take over his engineering business, which was very successful. I did that for about three months. I realized quickly that I wasn’t . . .

Steve: Working for your dad was kind of a retrograde . . .

Doris: Actually, the biggest issue was in found out I wasn’t particularly interested in plumbing design.

Steve: He was doing plumbing?

Doris: He was doing construction-related engineering. I realized it didn’t float my boat.

Steve: Did you get into a high-tech . . . was there a high-tech in Columbus at the time?

Doris: I did. I found a small network company called Order Net Services that was part of Sterling Software. They had just made an acquisition.

Steve: Wait a minute. Sterling was a big software company?

Doris: A big software company based in Dallas.

Steve: And what did they do at the time?

Doris: They had a lot of communication software.

Steve: I see.

Doris: And then in Columbus, they had this teeny little operation. There were 78 people in a basement and they were . . .

Steve: One hell of a basement.

Doris: It was one hell of a basement. They were selling . . . they weren’t all in the basement. They were on the first floor too. That’s an exaggeration. They were selling network services in a world called electronic data interchange, if you remember what that was.

Steve: Why don’t you remind our audience?

Doris: It was networks to allow companies to exchange business documents, invoices, purchase orders.

Steve: That was incredibly new at the time.

Doris: That was incredibly new at the time.

Steve: Actually, do this instead of sending paper, you had a standard format to kind of send invoices and other shipping data that all of a sudden computers could read and you didn’t need that stack of paper.

Doris: That’s right.

Steve: So Sterling was one of the pioneers.

Doris: Sterling was a pioneer.

Steve: In fact, didn’t they grow to be like the fifth or third largest company?

Doris: By the time I left, we were the fourth largest software business in the world. The software products that I built with a team of others is still part of IBM and is still dominating its market in translation software.

Steve: So let’s kind of take almost a halftime break here. Your whole career now sounds like we’re talking to an engineer and somebody who’s on the path to do their own startup.

Doris: Exactly.

Steve: You were having a good time building products. Let’s take the break and summarize what did you learn to this point in your career? A woman in engineering and engineering in the Midwest . . .

Doris: Well, I’ll tell you what I learned. First of all, I learned to ask questions and not to be afraid of asking questions. That sounds like a simple thing. But back then in the tech world, it was mostly engineers talking tech, bits and bytes. I don’t remember people talking about solutions.

Steve: What’s the difference between tech and solutions?

Doris: It’s everything, right? Solutions are something that solves somebody’s problem.

Steve: Somebody’s problem.

Doris: I worked at Bell Labs and I worked at organizations and teams with lots of people in the room a lot smarter than I was technically.

Steve: And they were the smartest people in the building.

Doris: And they were the smartest people in the building. I really always wanted to know why should we do this? Who wants it? Who needs it? And I talked to people.

Steve: And did the engineers at the time care?

Doris: No. They didn’t care.

Steve: They thought that they were the smartest people in the building.

Doris: Absolutely. These wrinkles and gray hair, I got it honestly . . . what I learned, I learned a lot about asking questions, asking why. I learned how to get shared interest, how to form and cultivate shared interest amongst people in a system where everybody had individual interests. That sounds like a fancy thing, but it’s really just about a lot of relationship building.

Steve: And did you learn stuff about talking to customers?

Doris: I talk to customers all the time from start to finish.

Steve: You weren’t even in sales.

Doris: I wasn’t in sales. I built sales forces along the way, of course, when I built businesses. But I wasn’t in sales.

Steve: So that was pretty unique at the time, right?

Doris: Yeah. You use terms, you’ve coined terms that are so brilliant and they didn’t exist at the time.

Steve: Stop.

Doris: No, they didn’t exist at the time, but this notion of an MVP.

Steve: Minimum viable product.

Doris: Figuring out what’s the smallest thing you need to build to fix what they most need to fix. That was the story of my life as an entrepreneur and engineer. At Sterling, we were all about keeping those profit margins really high. We had very, very low expenditure in R&D, so a lot of our products were based on not so great technology. So I asked a lot of people what they need.

Steve: Figuring out what their needs were.

Doris: Yeah.

Steve: How about being a woman engineer at the time, any pluses, minuses?

Doris: Well, I noticed at spots along the way. Also, what I learned from my parents, I’m pretty stubborn and I kind of refuse to acknowledge it was an issue and I operated that way.

Steve: So we are. You’re kind of on a great trajectory to do something wonderful and all of a sudden, you decide not to. What happened?

Doris: What happened was Sterling got really big and really successful.

Steve: As a software company

Doris: As a software company. I was doing extremely well. I was running a huge organization. I was making a lot of money and I started realizing that I didn’t enjoy my day. We got really big. As I mentioned, we were the fourth largest software business in the world when I left and I realized I like to build stuff more than run stuff. So I quit. It seemed abrupt to everybody else, but I had been thinking about it for a while.

Steve: So what did you decide to do?

Doris: Well, I was consulting for a while, but in the meantime, we had kids and I had been running and building this big software business, so I had been totally absent from my daughter’s schooling and I volunteered for everything. One day, an administrator at my daughter, she was five, at her school, they’d had a teacher quit in the middle of the year teaching just one math class. She asked if I’d try out to teach the one math class. I thought, “Sure.” I tried it and I was hooked. That was it.

Steve: And you became a teacher?

Doris: I became a high school math teacher.

Steve: No way. And do you still teach?

Doris: I’ve been an educator for 20 years. So I taught math for 14 years. When I started teaching, I was horrified by what we were teaching and how we were teaching it. I spent 14 years building new ways to teach so that students would learn.

Steve: You teach this curriculum at Hawken?

Doris: I now have an entrepreneurial studies program.

Steve: I want to know how you went from math, the math curriculum to an entrepreneurial curriculum. What happened?

Doris: Well, after learning a lot about teaching and learning, I decided I wanted to find a school where I could really build stuff to do school better. I found a school, Hawken, in Cleveland that is committed to being a laboratory for creating new educational programs to change education. I’m there.

Steve: So they allowed you to experiment.

Doris: They allowed me to experiment. I was there a month, four a half years ago when the head of school there, Scott Looney, said, “Hey, with your background, do you want to create an entrepreneurial studies class?” I said, “Yes, I do.”

Steve: Did you know what you wanted to do?

Doris: Yeah, I did. I wanted to create a class where students learned by solving real problems on teams and I wanted to show how they could learn really hard stuff.

Steve: You mean instead of reading about entrepreneurship, actually experience it?

Doris: Exactly.

Steve: That’s a breakthrough.

Doris: Crazy talk, right?

Steve: And the fact that they would even have this in a curriculum rather than, “Why aren’t they taking advanced calculus?”

Doris: Exactly.

Steve: Did you encounter that in school?

Doris: Hugely.

Steve: What were some of the barriers in putting an entrepreneurial program in place?

Doris: We wanted to create a class that was this radical weird class showing that students could learn skills like we’re talking about, creative problem solving, collaboration, all that stuff. It’s a class that gets academic credit in the high school. So you’re immediately taking on political . . .

Steve: What kind of political problems do you have?

Doris: Well, you’re talking about a class that gets honors English credit in an independent high school college prep. You’re talking about a class that students take instead of their AP bio class and it’s very different.

Steve: You mean it’s like an opportunity cost.

Doris: There’s an opportunity cost. If a student takes this class, they’re not taking other things.

Steve: They don’t get the college advanced placement.

Doris: So if I’m a parent, I’m going, “What the heck if this stuff?” If you’re college counseling, “Steve, you’ve got great grades. You’ve got a great track record. You can get into Stanford if you’re a good student. Don’t take the entrepreneurship because that’s two fewer AP classes that you’d be taking.” So in the early couple of years, we had a tough time and then what happened was the students came out of this transformed.

Steve: So you did find some guinea pig students?

Doris: We did find some guinea pig students. The early on students were not the strongest students in the high school by a long shot. They came out of this blowing school away. We had kids who had among the lowest GPAs in the high school who came out and got into NYU Stern School, who created portfolios of things they showed to college admissions offices and got into schools they had no business GPA-wise getting into.

Steve: So I assume now the school and parents are believers.

Doris: They’re really believers.

Steve: Let’s talk about it. What is the curriculum?

Doris: So I find real businesses with real and urgent startup problems.

Steve: Around the Columbus . . .

Doris: Around Cleveland.

Steve: Cleveland.

Doris: Who are willing to let a bunch of high school kids work on them.

Steve: Wow, so for real?

Doris: For real.

Steve: So they get out of the building.

Doris: They totally get out of the building.

Steve: Do they learn something?

Doris: They learn creative problem solving. They learn collaboration because it’s all on teams.

Steve: Teams? Wow. Just like a startup.

Doris: It’s like a startup. So they’re on four different teams working on real problems with real deadlines. They learn critical thinking. They read more and write more. You can’t imagine how much. They learn quantitative analysis. They learn statistics.

Steve: Wow.

Doris: They learn a lot of really hard stuff.

Steve: Is this a single semester or the whole year?

Doris: It’s a single semester. This version of it we have now is three honors credits. It’s 60% of their schedule for that semester. So they have the time to do it. But we’ve also done it as single courses.

Steve: Doris, that’s one heck of a journey.

Doris: It’s really fun.

Steve: If I look back on your career, you made personal impact as an engineer, but as an educator, you’re transforming thousands or tens of thousands of students’ lives.

Doris: Well, it’s not me alone, that’s for sure. But what’s exciting is there are a lot of people now who are taking on education as a startup.

Steve: So Doris, thank you so much. We’ve been speaking with Doris Korda, Director of Entrepreneurial Studies and Associate Head of Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. Thanks for joining us on the show today, Doris.

Doris: Thanks, Steve.

Steve: You can find out more about Hawken School at or follow Doris on Twitter @DorisKorda. That’s Korda with a K. If you have a question about something you heard on today’s show or would like to learn more, email us at and be sure to follow me on Twitter @SGBlank.

Thanks so much for joining us today. Be sure to listen for another edition of “Entrepreneurs are Everywhere” next Thursday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern, 1:00 p.m. Pacific. I’m Steve Blank and you’ve been listening to “Entrepreneurs are Everywhere” on Business Radio, powered by the Wharton School, Sirius XM 111.

Doris Korda

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