Oct 13, 2020

E20: Shaping a Successful Next Act After the Sale – Evan J. Segal

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On this episode, Laurie Barkman speaks with Evan J. Segal, General Partner of 412 Venture Fund. Evan shares how he grew his third generation manufacturing company and sold it to a strategic buyer. He also tells how he created a meaningful next act career in social entrepreneurship and venture investing focusing on providing greater opportunities for women and minorities.

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Read the episode transcript:

Laurie Barkman:

It was great to speak with Evan Segal on Succession Stories. Evan was the third generation President and Owner of Dormont Manufacturing, and fifteen years ago, he led the company to a successful exit. Since then, Evan has had a rewarding next act career as a Social Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Teacher at NYU, and Angel Investor. Evan also served as the Chief Financial Officer at the US Department of Agriculture. He is a Co-Founder of the 412 Venture Fund, focused on early stage companies and he mentors entrepreneurs in addition to investing in their mission. We talked about Evan’s strategy for figuring out what comes next in a successful next act career. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Laurie: Evan, welcome to Succession Stories. I’m really glad you’re here. You’re someone who has seen incredible success in business. You were part of a third generation family business, and you oversaw tremendous growth and a successful exit. And in what I’ll call your “next act career” after the sale, you’ve been following your vision for social entrepreneurship and philanthropy to make the world a better place. And I’m excited to talk with you about all of those aspects. Let’s start by talking about your family’s business, Dormont Manufacturing. Can you share a brief history of the company and what it was known for?

Evan Segal:

Absolutely. So, first of all, thank you, Laurie. It is a pleasure and an honor to be part of your Succession Stories. And, I’ve learned so much from the other podcasts you’ve done and glad that you invited me to join. Dormont is an exciting story. So the company was actually founded by my grandfather. My father got his undergrad and MBA went to the army for two years and it was made an officer and then came back to Pittsburgh and had started a small carpeting business following in his father’s footsteps, who was a merchandiser Franklin Cedars.

Evan: When he met my mom, they got married. And my grandfather, Sidney, asked Jerry to come in and take over this fledging little business called Dormont. The company grew kind of steadily for the first kind of 10 to 15 years doing custom pipe bending and fabricating for regional customers selling large assemblies, but all custom and project oriented. One of the products that we were selling was a flexible metal hose made from brass that was used to hook up gas appliances going from the appliance to the wall instead of hard piping.

Evan: And my father noticed there were a lot of returns due to corrosion from ammonia and other household chemicals. And so, one of the first lessons that he learned and has certainly passed onto me many times is that customer problems or issues if you listened clearly, really actually represent an amazing business opportunity, if you can figure out how to sell it. And so my dad said to himself, there should be a better way to approach this problem. I need a flexible tubing that is stronger and corrosion resistant. And one of the best materials known was a stainless steel – 304 stainless steel, but there was no one actually making that in the States. And so after a long arduous search, and you have to remember for those of us, this was like through the Thomas Register and writing letters, not on the internet, but he found a company in Osaka, Japan named Tofay.

Evan: And my dad developed this wonderful relationship with the chairman of Tofay a gentleman named Yoshiro Misumita and actually became very, very good friends with Yoshiro and his son. And they became our first supply partner for the stainless steel tube. My dad basically designed the product, had to get it approved by all the various appropriate standards. Authorities actually had to get the rules, the standards rewritten to allow stainless steels as allowable material, believe it or not, and kind of launched the product. And that was kind of in the early 70’s. So that was clearly a pivotal moment in the company’s history. And I think the second kind of key part of it was that the McDonald’s people came to my dad and said, we’ve got all this heavy gas cooking equipment ranges, fryers, et cetera. There was a lot of grease and a lot of dirt collecting behind it.

Evan: And it’s both a fire hazard and a health hazard. We’d love to be able to put this equipment on wheels, but right now it’s hard piped, this big, heavy piping. How do we come up with something that we can put the equipment on wheels, move it in and out for cleaning, but yet the gas piping, which is so integral, is safe and can be easily disconnected. And they said, well, the only one doing anything innovative in this field is Jerry Segal. So the gentleman who was a senior engineer at McDonald’s, who incidentally has become a great friend and is still a great friend today, challenged my dad to come up with a better solution. And he invented what is called the Dormont Quick Disconnect Gas Connector. It’s a very heavy duty gas hose. It’s got a plastic coating on it for sanitation and a quick release coupling that we redesigned to work for gas. And we designed that for McDonald’s initially. And, as good fortune would have it, it kind of became the standard in the food equipment industry. So literally anywhere where you’ll find a commercial kitchen, they’ll want to put the equipment on wheels and they’ll use a Dormont Quick Disconnect. So that’s kind of the state of affairs of the company kind of how it got started and certainly taking it through kind of from its inception through the 70’s.

Laurie: There’s a lot of really great stuff in that story. Just so many things. Let me just go back to a couple of them. One is the innovation story. A couple of things you brought out, one was looking at returns, looking at why they were coming back. I worked as part of a business that worked in reverse logistics. And we talked about this a lot. Well, why are these products coming back? And yeah, to the credit of your father having that insight, looking at the returns, understanding what those opportunities were for the fix. And then also with the Thomas Register, just making a nice connection. The very first episode of this show is with the CEO of Thomas which now is a digital company. So that’s funny you brought up Thomas Register. That’s a nice connection. But the McDonald’s story is incredible too. And that innovation brought a lot of value, ongoing value, to your company and helped change the industry. So that’s really, really cool. So let’s switch gears a little bit and let’s talk about you. When did you join the company?

Evan: I went to Allderdice and Carnegie Mellon for undergraduate and graduate. And I’d worked at Dormont and during high school and college, we really got to see what the business is about, but it was a small business and I really wanted to go do my own thing. So after I graduated from Tepper, which was GSIA at the time, I went to work for Scott paper company in Philadelphia, which was really a wonderful opportunity. I was there for about three and a half years, and I was promoted several times, moving initially from finances, strategic planning, into marketing and branding roles. I really got to see what big companies did well and what they didn’t do well, and really got to learn a lot about kind of entrepreneurship in my own way. And probably that was a sign for me that Scott wasn’t necessarily the long-term place for me.

Evan: While at Scott, I was a part of a team that basically revolutionized the toilet paper industry, which sounds crazy. But what we found in looking at toilet paper, again, the most commodity product you could ever imagine where the biggest issues where labor having to change rolls in office buildings etc. and theft. People were stealing. And so we actually designed a large jumbo roll. We had seen it in Europe and a cabinet to lock it in. And so the jumbo roll had 10 rolls of tissue on it. And what was interesting, it actually improved effective usage and reduction of labor in a way that we are actually able to take a commodity like product that was very, very price sensitive and actually increase the price 25% because the effect net effective usage saved those office building managers money. What a great lesson to take a core product, look outside your own world and look at Europe and see what, in this case they were a Swedish company, was doing for solutions.

Evan: So that was a great opportunity. And I was also part of the team that was paying an outside telemarketing company $100 to sell a $50 case of product. And, as I would like to be, it raised my hand in the meeting and said, it doesn’t seem to be the best economics. And they were, okay, hot shot MBA come up with a better plan. And so over the course of the next year, I developed a pilot program that eventually became a national program and we had 60 telemarketers and the national telemarketing center, which was really amazing. And so that continued to grow and develop. So I learned a lot at Scott, but I also saw that the myth of security was there with big companies. That I saw people around me that were getting laid off. In fact, at the time I left, I was doing three different jobs, my job, and another manager that had left and running this telemarketing business. And it was clear that they didn’t necessarily understand or value – it was the old seniority role. Again, it was a very patriarchal company. It was as we like to say now, male, pale, and stale. And it was not quite the place where I wanted to be. So a father had been with my dad, and his CFO had passed away and my dad’s sales manager actually called me and said, okay, it’s time you need to come back. So in 1987 in February, I left Scott and came back to Dormont.

Laurie: That’s a great intrapreneurial story at Scott paper. I love that story. And you looked at the market, you looked at what problems you were seeing and you worked on a solution that created immense value for the company. So now you were ready. So now you’re ready to come into the family business. And this is in 1987, as you said. What was that transition like between you and your father over time? You weren’t president CEO right away. There was some transition there. And what was that baton passing like at the moment when he was ready to retire? Tell me a little bit about those years from when you’re being groomed for succession, if you will. And then yes, now it’s time. What was that like?

Evan: I think it probably starts with my dad and how he talked about leadership and people, and that’s the biggest lessons I’ve learned. And he treated me in a very similar way. I mean, we had a tremendous amount of respect for each other. He respected what I learned at Scott and what I could bring to the company to help it grow. And similarly, I respected his knowledge and experience. I talked to him every day, we talked about what was going on and any bigger decisions I’d run by him. So I keep him informed, but it quickly became, as he would say, it’s your company, Evan. And one of the things we did that, learning from other family businesses and challenges they’ve gone through. And I actually joined YPO in the early 90’s and have been a member ever since then.

Evan: I heard many, many, many stories about family businesses and transition and the challenges. So early on, I actually purchased the business from my dad with a 20 year payout. And he was gracious enough to allow me that opportunity. What was interesting to anyone else, it was a paper transition. Nothing changed in terms of how he acted, how I acted. No one effectively really knew except he and I in terms of passing that baton. I think one of the biggest challenges was that I went from an environment where I was surrounded by 10, 15, 20 MBAs from top schools and had this real cohort of people who were challenging each other intellectually. To I felt very isolated, very alone, and I was trying to do everything. I was trying to upgrade the company in every single functional area.

Evan: And most importantly be the Rainmaker. So how do you continue to grow? And it’s challenging to be kind of everywhere. And in that timeframe, I met my wife who is the most wonderful, amazing person we’ve been married for 32 years and have this phenomenal relationship. And shortly thereafter, we had twin daughters. So my life was changed for the better changed in an amazing way, but also became clear that I couldn’t do everything. And so I’d stayed in touch with my best friend from grad school. And he was working in New York and we had been talking even in grad school, we always said, wouldn’t it be great if we could work together? That would be so cool. That would be so awesome. And so we were able to work it out where he came back to Pittsburgh and joined me at Dormont and we essentially split up the functional roles.

Evan: I was Mr. Outside. So I dealt with customers, marketing, growth and he ran the operations. He ran the trains. He was the Chief Operating Officer. Again, we talked every day, two, three, four times a day. We had similar thoughts about it, but we challenge each other. He probably challenging me more because I tend to believe the best in people. And he’s a little more skeptical than I was, but it allowed us, it set us in a position to then grow the company because we had both each other to rely on in terms of challenging each other intellectually and pushing each other while allowing the organization to grow. It was an interesting transition – he came to the company in 1990 and till we sold the business in late 2005.

Laurie: I liked that you had an outlet like YPO, which is an organization, if people aren’t familiar, we’ll include a link in the show notes, but it’s an organization I was a part of it too, for a few years when I was CEO. And I found that it can be kind of isolating and lonely. You don’t necessarily want to open up to the people in your organization and you do need a sounding board. So that’s great you had that outlet. You also had your father as a wonderful mentor, and then you eventually had your life partner, your wife, which is great. So balance, I think is difficult. And it sounded like at one point in your life, you were definitely feeling out of balance and bringing in this really trusted friend of yours who complimented your skillset, probably set you on a course to really enable you to focus on what you were best at, and what you enjoyed, which is what we all aspire to do, and really grow the company, which is incredible. So let’s flash forward a bit and talk about the sale of your company. It was 2005. And tell me a little bit about that. Did you put the company on the market, were you approached by a strategic buyer?

Evan: It was an interesting process. So again, I’ve learned so much from YPO and what’s interesting is the YPO theme is going to come back even to this very day. One of my best friends now, and someone who got me to the program I teach at NYU is someone I met 25 years ago, who was the President of Heinz at the time. So it’s become a very kind of common theme. And one of the fellows in YPO who had worked for an investment firm and was now running a family business, talked to me about the sale of his business and other businesses. I started seeing some things that were going on that became inflection points as I got a sense about it. Our business had grown pretty dramatically. We grew from about $2.5 million when I joined the company to about $60 million in sales. We grew from about 20-25 employees to almost 300 employees.

Evan: We were selling our products all around the world. We had about an 80% share in the food service market. We actually bought one of our competitors and just brought it in and actually shut down the facilities and just, we had the capacity to satisfy all their customers. And on the residential side, we had about a 30% share. But there were some yellow flags that became clear to me. One was our largest competitor on the residential side was a $12 billion company called Mascow. Who what we found in certain situations in pricing that if they wanted the business, they could use our category as a loss leader to keep us out of those accounts. Interesting piece. I spent a lot of time in China, understanding not only the products and systems, but who is making our product, and how much of a threat were they, and when were they going to come?

Evan: And so what I found was that we were competitive with anyone in the world from a manufacturing cost standpoint. We had automated many of our processes and our largest supplier Steel Allegheny had a plant in Shanghai. And they were very open and honest about pricing of stainless in China. So, we literally understood the manufacturing process well. What we couldn’t factor in was the Chinese government willingness to subsidize businesses to keep workers employed. And so what we found was the first question people would ask was what do you want to pay? And so what became clear is there was a desire to get the business, to keep people employed and their government, rather than having people being concerned and not knowing what to do, could employ people with onsite dormitories. And so that was certainly a sign. We also saw an issue where there was vendor consolidation. You had litigation and liability, and it was interesting you mentioned doing the things that you love as the business grew.

Evan: I find myself moving further and further away from the things I love, which was interacting with people, with customers and sales and managing the business, dealing with all the legal issues in running a business. And whether it was intellectual property or contracts or litigation. Yes, you work with lawyers, but they don’t know your business like you do. And so you have to be involved to protect your business. And so all those things came back to the idea of, well, I wonder what this business could actually get. And so we decided to create a pretty disciplined process. We actually contacted four middle-market sized sell side only investment banks. And I brought together a team that included my personal lawyer, who was my estate attorney and two people from our accounting firm, one who did our tax and one who was their kind of strategic business lawyer. And they joined me. And so the series of meetings, there were two rounds. The first round was, teach me your business, give me graduate school 101 selling a mid-market sized business. I want to know everything I can about your process, how you do it, and about your firm. And the second round was we gave them financials and it was okay. Now tell me how you’d sell our business and what are the ranges and what would that look like? And we eventually, the numbers started to be kind of eye opening. And we started the process of selling the business, which was interesting because not realizing at the time it was now became a second full time job.

Evan: They had to do well without anyone other than essentially my friend who was our Chief Operating Officer and our Chief Financial Officer were the only three people in the company other than my dad that knew what was going on. And so we engaged in a process over a period of about a year, going from sending out the confidential memorandums to about narrowing 50 letters of interest down to about nine serious letters, bringing those nine people to Pittsburgh for a day of meetings. We did factory tours and we told people that they were part of YPO. People thought they were part of OPO, the old president’s organization because a lot of these guys were older. I will tell you, it was a nerve wracking process, but we then narrowed it down to three buyers to strategic one strategic and two private equity firms.

Evan: And what became clear is that the private equity firm, the district, the private equity firms are going to leverage the company. That’s part of their model. They’re going to want you to keep 20% signed a five year contract. And in effect you become really pared back because you’re taking a core business and they’re going to borrow to the limit of what they can against that business. And so you really don’t have a lot of margin room to make decisions. It’s all about hitting their numbers so they can grow it and then flip it. And I understand it, that’s their business and that’s fine. The strategic on the other hand. And we had had some history with them. They needed our product line to fill out their business. And so they went ahead and actually made us an all cash offer that were higher than the others with no employment contract.

Evan: And they were going to keep the business in Pittsburgh and keep all the employees on at their current salaries and benefits. And that was a big factor for me. I was really concerned about these people who were my extended family, that I had got to know all of them and really cared about them and their families. And so it wasn’t about the highest dollar. As we set together a decision criteria, what would happen to the company and the impact on the employees was a very, very important decision factor. And so it all finally came together. We signed the papers on like December 30th of 2015 to sell the business to a company called Watts Water Technologies, which was a publicly traded company out of the Boston suburbs.

Laurie: A great story. You assembled kind of a SWAT team to help you. You surrounded yourself with people who had been through this before you relied on them. They got to know your business and a year sounds like a short amount of time. This was fast and furious.

Evan: Yeah. It may have been a year, year and a half. The other fascinating thing was, and it’s interesting because I’ve had lots of discussions with people and actually wrote a book and I have a whole chapter dedicated to this. But one really interesting example was the electronic data room, which was just starting to coming to being. What you realize is that you literally need to digitize all your documents. And if you have them digitized, it’s easier to create electronic data room. When you don’t, you’re going through paper files, looking for supplier contracts or rep contracts. And then in the middle of the night, you’re trying to scan stuff and not alert any, you can’t like just ask people in departments to gather documents for you without raising suspicions. So just the simple, seemingly simple process of setting up an electronic data loom, let alone kind of cleaning up your balance sheet and doing all the right things.

Evan: Fortunately, we didn’t need to do a lot of that, but a lot of smaller businesses do. Took much, much more time than we thought. Again, a great process. Also, in the process, one of the people in YPO said, you should figure out what you’re going to do when you sell the company in terms of your money. And I’m like, well, what do you mean? They go, well, you’re going to get a big check. What are you going to do with it? And so I set in place a similar process to meet with four different private wealth management firms. Again, probably six months before we sold the firm. And explained to them what was going on and said, again, teach me your business, teach me private wealth management. And if I get a check for this amount, what would you do with it?

Evan: What would you recommend that I do? And let’s talk about, I had a whole series of criteria about how I would work with them, including how they would engage my kids, how they help teach my kids and understanding this was a huge in effect product diversification or investment portfolio diversification. Where you went from 95% of your net worth in one asset to now having truly a diversified portfolio. And again, that’s a different business model than I had been accustomed to. But as of the day we signed, I was now in that business. And so I had to be prepared. And so we knew the day we invested where the check was going and what the plan was on that new venture that in effect started that day.

Laurie: Yeah. And you, again, looked at it from a teach me your business. That seems to be one of your mantras is you really want to understand so that you know how they’re going to help you and therefore you can help them help you. That makes a lot of sense to me. So let’s talk about that now. I’m curious about your life after the sale. You obviously got a big check, which was very exciting and changed your life and it diversified your net worth incredibly so. How did you determine a strategy for what comes next? Because you’re probably a young guy at this still at this time. Right? Cause you’re a young guy now and that’s a compliment to you. Cause I think age is actually irrelevant. So I think it has to do with what you choose to do with your life and spend your time. How did you decide what to do? How did you decide how to spend your time?

Evan: It was an interesting transition. I stayed on for about eight months, but realized, first of all, they kept giving me more responsibilities. So they were like, well, you’re good at strategic planning. Why don’t you do planning for us? And I’m like, you’re $1.5 billion, publicly traded company. Who’s doing your planning now? And then they’re like, okay, we bought all these companies, you need to help us integrate them. And I was now doing three jobs instead of one. And I’m going, I don’t necessarily see a long-term future in this business. And the fella I brought in from grad school was there, and so I felt okay leaving the business and letting him kind of take over the reins which worked out well. So the question is, what do you do? I’ve actually thought a lot about this now because as I do a lot of mentoring, I actually talk to people who are either thinking about or have sold their businesses about kind of next stages in life.

Evan: I wish I could say that mine was smooth. I will tell you, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gotten better at refining this. So it was an iterative process in terms of where I am today. The first thing I did was I thought I had to fill my calendar. And so boy, I just joined like five non-profits, got on the boards, local, national. It became clear that first of all, non-profits will take as much time as you want to give them and as much money as you want to give them. And they will love you while you’re writing checks. But when you stop writing a checks that is a little bit less love, and there’s a whole lot of politicking that goes on in non-profits that isn’t always about doing the right thing from an operational or strategic standpoint, but based upon the whims and fancies of their biggest donors.

Evan: That’s a really interesting lesson about non-profits. Plus I found board meetings to be interminably boring, and just being on these calls or in board meetings would just make me crazy. So, simultaneously I really cared about the world and want to make it a better place and started getting involved in politics. I initially thought about running and talked to a number of people who had kind of gone down that path, et cetera. I got involved at initially helping Bob Casey in the 2006 election, and Bob and I became good friends and we’re friends to this day.

Evan: In that election I met with then Senator Obama and like many people, I was smitten and told his staff, whatever he does, I’m there. And so I joined the National Finance Committee and was part of the 2008 campaign team and truly just a wonderful life changing moment being in Grant Park with my wife and daughters the night of the election was clearly a moment I’ll never forget. I offered to go in the administration and Bob Casey and his team helped thought something would happen and probably commerce or SBA, but it turned out there was a gentleman from Pittsburgh named Tom Vilsack, who was the Secretary of Agriculture. And Tom asked me to go to DC to join him to affect change in the Ag department. I was honored, it was an organization with a hundred thousand employees and $120 billion budget, a little bit different than Dormont.

Evan: I went through a pretty intense vetting process with the FBI, reviewing all your financials. Used to be, you had to sign something that you could not lie on your SF 86 Form, not sure how true that is today, but should be, and was then. I had a Senate confirmation hearing, was approved by unanimously by the Senate and went to work in DC. It ended up being a very brief time there because what I realized is the skillsets I had around affecting change around innovation and entrepreneurship were not things that big government really valued. And in fact, your board of directors, the Legislative committees in the Senate and House, really were there to maintain the status quo and keep their corporate donors happy. So we moved to DC, did the whole thing and then realized that wasn’t it.

Evan: And so now we move to the next chapter. And so the next chapter started evolving and three kind of themes really evolved. One was around social entrepreneurship. And so that was really using those innovative skills to affect change. I became very intrigued by the ideal of capital access. And so there was an organization called Kiva, which did crowdfunding for micro finance or small loans around the world. And I helped them when they decided to come to the US, scale in the US. We did the first full scale pilot in Pittsburgh that has been phenomenally successful.

Evan: And that’s kind of cascaded into a whole series of different social enterprise investments, both in nonprofit and for-profit. And so innovation, social entrepreneurship, became one important piece. The second piece was around philanthropy. So after we sold the business, we started a family foundation and that also was evolved. We were doing like many foundations what is called checkbook giving. We’d have different places and we’d write checks and that felt, gee that’s okay, but it felt very shallow.

Evan: I had known a woman for many years through different work I had done, named Marla Warner, and we hired Marla to be our Executive Director. And we created a clear mission for the nonprofit and our kids have been involved in all this they’re now in their 30’s. And we created a mission around focusing on two key pillars, social justice and human kindness. Our approach has been as a small organization to be very entrepreneurial. What I like to call entrepreneurial philanthropy, which is we’ll work with and partner with local non-profits, not funding operating expenses, but coming up with new ideas often in collaborating and bringing different organizations together that hadn’t worked together and proving ideas. And then using our hands on skills, Marla being the lead, doing strategy, development work etc., and our social capital and our network to help these organizations grow.

Evan: And then it’s almost like angel investing, then we’ll go back and I’ve developed amazing relationships with wonderful people in the community, who we have a track record of bringing them successful innovation programs that we’ve piloted, scaled, and proven and ask them then to invest in our Series A, to scale it and expand it. So using kind of entrepreneurial lingo and working in the philanthropic world. It’s truly been one of the biggest joys and pleasures of my life.

Evan: So that world around philanthropy has been very meaningful. And I think the last piece has been around teaching and mentoring. So I mentioned the YPO connection. The gentlemen named Brian Ruder, who was President of Heinz and left to become the Chief Marketing Global Marketing Officer for Citibank was here in New York. And Brian invited me to speak at a program he was running called the Leadership Fellows, which was for second year MBA students at Stern. And I spoke at it for a couple years and now am co-chairing during the program with Brian and leading two different cohorts of 12.

Evan: The second year Dean selected students on a leadership journey throughout the year where we discuss their life journeys. In many ways, what does happiness look like? Not just in terms of career and dollars, but what are you looking for in terms of physical health, mental health, your family situation, giving back to the world and measuring happiness, not just in dollars, but in a much more richer, emotional sense. So these three worlds of teaching and mentoring, startups, social entrepreneurship and philanthropy really intertwined, layered on continuing to engage in the political world and supporting progressive candidates who are supporting issues that I feel are very, very important for the future of our world and our country.

Laurie: Evan, I love that. I love how it’s different pillars. I love how it pulls together things that you’re passionate about, where you have skills and how you’re sharing those skills with organizations that you care about. So that that’s really amazing work that you and your family are doing. And in the different communities that you serve. I want to ask you about what challenges you the most about your work, because there’s so much going on. As you continue to develop the things that you just talked about, what do you find the most challenging. Is it how to spend your time?

Evan: So I would say the challenges for me are kind of twofold. Number one is focus. There’s so many challenges in the world today. I find myself jumping down rabbit holes because I’m just intellectually curious. I feel like I can make a difference and they’re all important. And it’s how do you focus? How do you prioritize, if it’s climate change, if it’s our food system and looking at economic and racial justice and food justice, and unfortunately we’ve got a political system right now that is very dysfunctional and a party in power that has created many, many more problems than they’ve solved, which just makes it that much harder when we can’t agree on basic science and basic facts. I think coming out of Carnegie Mellon, being facts and data and science and analysis were really important, and they become the bedrock of looking at challenges. And then you actually have to roll your sleeves up and get out and understand. But if you can’t understand those basic facts, it becomes challenging. I think it’s trying to continue to make a difference, but while figuring out where to focus my time and energy are the biggest challenges, and still living a rich life, taking care of myself. Like most people, I’m great at talking about mental and physical wellness and probably don’t look after myself as much as I should.

Laurie: And that’s a challenge for many of us balancing our time and making sure we’re focusing on the right things. So it’s time for some rapid fire questions for you. First one, who has had the greatest impact on you as a leader and why?

Evan: For me, it’s my dad. He taught me kind of very simply to be a mensch to do the right thing. He had a great phrase was that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And so, it’s really been important, the people that you work with. I don’t care who they are. Hourly people, if you are real and authentic, they know it. And if you’re just mouthing words, they’ll know it too. And you see that today, when companies put out these statements about we support this movement. If there’s nothing behind it, it falls on deaf ears and actually has a very negative kind of response to it. So, all that is very, very important in this process.

Laurie: What’s your favorite business book?

Evan: I spent some time with White Fragility by Robin de Angelo, and I would highly, highly recommend it. It has me rethinking and re-evaluating many, many aspects of my life, and really understanding the world from a non-white male privileged perspective. We also do a lot of work supporting women in women’s entrepreneurship. I’ve helped produced a couple of documentary films on these topics. And, it’s important to me to create equal access and equal opportunity and to be reflective and understanding of my own biases and prejudices and limitations so that when I’m engaged in a conversation, I spend more time listening, which I’m learning to do. I’m getting better at it. But listening with trying to take down my lens of bias that I have just by the socialization of when and how I grew up.

Laurie: What is the one leadership trait that brings success?

Evan: It’s funny. We talk about this in our class a lot, and there’s a number of traits. So it’s hard to give you just one. But when I talk about this idea of servant leadership, it incorporates or integrates a couple of key themes. One is kind of empathy and gratitude and caring and being appreciative for the people that you work. You’re not successful alone, you’re successful because of everyone on your team, your job isn’t to manage people. It’s to inspire people to greatness and let them succeed and let them thrive. There’s also situational awareness. Leadership is not one style. You have to be aware of the situation and the people you’re with and adapt your style. Sometimes you need to be prescriptive. Sometimes you need people to run and grow with things. A friend of mine who had an 80 year old business, basically had to reinvent his entire business in a week because of COVID and he said, I’ll never go slow again.

Evan: And so you don’t realize how quickly you can change until you have to. And so situational awareness is really incredibly important. And the last piece I’ll say is self-awareness, being reflective and understanding who you are, how you come across to people and continuing to learn this process of continuing to learn, don’t ever assume it all. Don’t ever assume you understand what other people are thinking or saying. And so, like I said, the whole Black Lives Matter movement and our work we’ve done with the Latino community and other communities of color continue daily to open my eyes up about, my responsibility to make it a more fair and equitable role world. But also to understand, like I said before, the prejudice and biases, not only that I have, but that our society has and its policies, procedures, laws that stack the decks against women and people of color.

Laurie: If you have a favorite saying or a mantra regarding entrepreneurship, what is it?

Evan: I’ve had the pleasure of this past year. We bring in C-level speakers every month. And I met an amazing person named Vivek Bapat, who is now the Chief Global Strategy Officer for SAP. He’s an amazing person and amazing journey. When he spoke to our students, one of the things he talked about was a very, very important phrase about not only entrepreneurship, but life, which was:

“Rise with humility and fall with resilience.”

And what he meant with that meant by that was that you learn when you fall and you teach when you rise. Instead of measuring your career progression in wins and losses start measuring it in terms of learning and teaching people. And when you rise with humility and fall with resilience, the jagged edges become little saw tooth data points in a graph of a successful career. I thought that was just so thoughtful and prophetic, and humble, which is who he is– a person that shares of himself in so many ways. He’s an amazing person and an amazing story.

Laurie: You’re an amazing person and you have an amazing story and I’m so grateful for you to be on the show today. There’s a lot of gems in what you talked about with your experience and how you continue to lift up others. So thank you so much for being here, and I really appreciate you Evan. Thanks for coming on the show.

Evan: Thank you, Laurie. And I appreciate everything you do.


Innovation. Transition. Growth. Easy to say but hard to do. If you’re an entrepreneur facing these challenges, I get it. I work with businesses – from small to big – for strategic planning with your team to achieve your vision. Visit smalldotbig.com to schedule a call with me. I’d love to connect with you.

Be sure to catch the next Succession Stories episode with more insights for next generation entrepreneurs. Thanks for listening!

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