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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Gary Michelson

I spoke to renowned businessman, inventor and philanthropist Dr. Gary Michelson about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?   

Gary: The broad range of my life and my philanthropic interests, including medical research, animal welfare and education.

Adam: ​How did you get here? ​What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your success?  

Gary: To succeed the way I did, doing what I did, required a very high level of focused single mindedness to the point of being willing to give up a lot of other things that most people would not be willing to give up. The cost of my success was very high. I did not have a family. I did not have a wife and children. I did not go out and party, I did not even have a television set, because I could not give up the time from my work.

Usually when someone works for a company, there is a team of people, somebody has an idea, somebody makes the thing, somebody tests the thing, and so on. I did not have this. I was doing everything by myself. The imagining, the thinking it through, making the machine drawings, the testing, evolving and perfecting the inventions through multiple iterations, and then negotiating with potential buyers. It was more than a full-time job. On top of that I was a full-time practicing surgeon.

Talking about failures…when you set up to invent something it is very rare to succeed on the first go around. I have learned a lot watching my things work or fail.  The answer here is as Tomas Edison said – if you are working towards a goal, there are really no failures if you learn from whatever you just did. Yogi Berra said, and this really applies to inventing, you can see a lot by just looking – looking and learning.

Adam: As the holder of hundreds of patents – many of which you sold for over $1 billion – can you describe the process of coming up with a big idea or invention? To what extent do you believe creativity is a natural gift compared to a skill that can be learned? 

Gary: To begin with, there are different kinds of inventing, though by definition they all result in something new, non-obvious, and useful. I am most familiar with the most creative type: “I dream of things that have never been and ask why not.” I believe that the most important factor there is is the permission to most purposefully color outside of the lines. It is the permission to feel free to fail, to take things apart without the certain knowledge that you can put them back together again. Permission to think forwards, backwards, and sideways, to do what everyone around you tells you is impossible. Of course, there are other types of inventing, such as the discovery of saccharine, or the invention of Velcro that begin with observation and then realizing how the thing observed might be made useful.  Another type of inventing is exemplified by Edwin Land, the “father” of the Polaroid process and camera. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and just moved step by step until he got there. 

Adam: You literally wrote a textbook and created a course on how entrepreneurs can leverage intellectual property. What are the biggest takeaways everyone should understand? How can entrepreneurs and leaders better foster innovation? 

Gary: All you have to do is look around. The biggest corporations in the world are no longer General Motors or U.S. Steel, none of the companies that seemed to be the “forever” companies from the past. Now we have, for example, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Twitter. All of these companies were started by people who were in the college demographic space. Yet even five years ago there was not a single university or college in the entire United States that was teaching intellectual property. How could that be? Eighty – eighty five percent of the value of major companies today is not in the bricks or the machines, it is in their intellectual property. 

There was a great need for the intellectual property textbook that we created and for the course itself. We also released a video series explaining intellectual property to reach high school students to give them an understanding of what it is about and why it is important. 

The intellectual property courses that we have implemented in universities and colleges have been hugely popular. I think one of the biggest takeaways from them has to be learning the business side of inventing, how to monetize an idea.

What does that look like? Let’s say you meet with an industry leader in your field. They say “yes, we are interested.” Then you must ask “how much of my product can you sell?” Their answer very likely will be an exaggeration, because they want you to turn the product over to them, place your trust in them with no assurance that they will actually do anything. Then you take this exaggeration and turn it around on them, by asking them to guarantee the royalties on the same amount, let’s say ten percent from 10 million dollars of sales. What happens then? They might not have had any intentions of selling your product at all, but once they are forced to pay you a million dollars in royalty, nobody wants egg on their face, and they will make sure that they sell it! There are a lot of situations like this. You have to learn the business side of inventing to be successful. 

Adam: Can you discuss your decision to join The Giving Pledge? What have you learned from and about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett through your participation? Are there any other participants in The Giving Pledge who you have found to be especially inspiring? 

Gary: Scott Peck wrote in one of my favorite books The Road Less Travelled that we give our time to that which we love. If I would describe what all of the people who I have met through the Giving Pledge have in common, it would be love and care for the world and people. These are people, that do not think that, even if they made their wealth through their own hard work, that it is fair that they keep it all for themselves. These are extraordinarily inspiring individuals, that are concerned with many issues, who are reaching out to heal the world and help others as much as they can.

Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, make you reach bigger and beyond yourself. Every year Giving Pledge gets new participants and takes on new projects and brings new ideas, stories and experiences to share. 

Adam: How do you decide what charities to give to? Is it hard for you to say no? Can you describe your process and what we can learn from it?

Gary: To begin with, people should pursue their passions, and different philanthropists will have different passions. I think, it is important to do what makes your own heart happy. Beyond that, and this is what I have learned from Michael Milken, is if your idea of philanthropy is to write a big check, then in general, you really should not expect a lot for that check. If on the other hand you are a driven person, you should try to do it yourself or very actively participate in the project of your passion.  

In regard to our own foundations, we try to find activities that would not otherwise get funded through conventional sources. We take risks and go into areas that do not already have major support. 

An example would be our Young Scientists Medical Research Prizes in Immunology. We fund brilliant young scientists, 35 years of age and younger, who would not get grants from the NIH (National Institute of Health), no matter how important their research was, just because of the way the process of granting is set up. The most satisfying part of this is to see what a great impact our prizes have had on the trajectories of their careers as well as the science. 

Another example is our $25 million Prize for anybody who can provide a low-cost, permanent, nonsurgical sterilant for male and female cats and dogs. It’s a huge problem, but nobody wants to deal with it. Every year three million adoptable cats, kittens and dogs are killed by municipal animal services because people do not come and adopt them. We envision a world in which this product would be widely available to shelters, animal welfare organizations, and public health groups so as to eliminate the shelter euthanasia of healthy, adoptable companion animals and to reduce populations of feral and free-roaming cats and dogs.

Another area of our focus as philanthropists is to fund the medical research to develop effective vaccines to protect humans from parasitic worms. More than one billion people, living on the borderline of starvation, are affected with them. The industrialized world has given this almost no attention and the countries in which worms are endemic have little health infrastructure to speak of. This is a humanitarian crisis that somehow does not rise to the level to even be a story in the newspapers of any developed country. Beyond funding research in this area, it is my driving reason for creating The Global Immunotherapy Center, that I am currently working on.

Adam: How did you get involved with my alma mater, USC? What excites you most about the initiatives you have spearheaded on campus?  

Gary: Our Medical Research Foundation has funded projects in more than 20 different universities around the world. The story with USC, which I did not attend, started with them coming to me with a proposal to fund a new medical research building, that would carry my name, which I was not interested in.  But then we started to talk science. I had been advocating for doing science in a different way for a long time, and nobody was listening. What I believed in was an approach when you bring brilliant people from different specialities to work together in the same place on a point of focus, like the Manhattan Project. 

In the discussion that I had with USC we talked about that “convergent” model, and they said they were completely on board, so I supported them, I supported what I believed was a much more effective model for success in medical research.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Gary: That is a very interesting question, because look at Atilla the Hun, Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump they all might be considered effective leaders, if you are talking about effectiveness from the perspective of getting things done.  Now, is this the kind of leader, that I would want to follow? No. 

To me, the first quality of leadership has to be integrity. You have to be honest. You have to be transparent. Then you have to have a good heart. If you do not have a good heart, whatever you do with the power is not going to turn out well.

Adam: ​Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?   

Gary: I would say there are three people who had an influence on me as a philanthropist. Number one is Michael Milken. He is an absolutely remarkable person. When I came into my great fortune, Michael was incredibly generous with his time in trying to help me to understand the ins and outs of philanthropy. Second would be Eli Broad, who is a shining example of what philanthropy is all about. Finally, I would say Peter Uberroth.  I’ve learned some very important things from Peter, like do not run around with a tin cup, if there is an available business model, and to think really big. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?    

Gary: First, believe in yourself. If you do not believe in yourself, you will keep working for someone else forever. If something does not work out with your project the first time, it may succeed on some other try. You have to keep going. 

In regard to civic leaders, I believe they have to be intelligent, have integrity and a good heart. The world would be a better place. 

Executives? They live in a different world. They have to answer to bosses. They are not the leader, but they have to have similar qualities, to be intelligent, skilled and honest.    

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?  

Gary: Do not drop out from school.

Adam: What is your definition of success?   

Gary: Written large and in terms of functionality it is achieving what you have set out to do. But it is also circumstantial. When my daughter was applying to school, the school asked me, “what are you looking for, for her?” My answer was – I want her to stand by the door, smiling, waiting for the bus to come. That was success. Somebody else would say – I want her to go to Stanford. That was not the success that I needed.  

I remember reading a book “Whole Child/Whole Parent” by Polly Berrends, and she asked the question “how could you succeed in raising your children if you don’t know where the goal posts are?”  Yet, if you were to ask some parents how they would define success in raising their children, they might not have an articulatable goal. In this case my answer is that you raise a child to be an adult who is self-sufficient, happy, loving and lovable. To me, that would be success.  

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?    

Gary: Have a good heart. As a particular example, at the end of World War II a very famous pediatrician, Dr. Spock, wrote a book.  He was talking about how important it was not to give in when a baby is crying, to instead feed on a schedule. I was talking to a Professor of Child Psychology and she said, “that book is crap.” She also added something amazing – she was working with some young mothers 13-14  years old, and not one of them would do that, they did not need to go read a book, because they had the good hearts to know that they needed to be there for their babies, and to comfort them when they cried.

Adam: ​What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?    

Gary: I am a very proud family man and all of my hobbies are centered on my wife and children. Snow skiing, waterskiing, gardening, traveling and doing the things that they want to do.

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