Alumni Explore How to Break into Entrepreneurial World after Law School

On Oct. 11 and 12, alumni from across the country convened for the Law School’s Business Advisory Council meetings. The Business Advisory Council is an alumni group designed to foster and encourage interaction between the Law School and alumni who have left the practice of law for opportunities in the business sector.  

This year’s theme was the Entrepreneurial Boot Camp. The program featured three panels: one moderated by Fred Hutchison ’75 titled “Turning Ideas into Value: The Entrepreneur’s View,” another moderated by Mike Lincoln ’91 called “Investors and Bankers: Getting to Market” and the third moderated by Rob Masri ’96 was devoted to the Law & Business Program. 

The program kicked-off Oct. 11 with a welcome dinner in the newly renovated Alumni Hall on the main grounds and a keynote address by the new University of Virginia Provost Dr. Tim Garson.


Session I: Turning Ideas into Value: The Entrepreneur’s View

A panel of former graduates of the University of Virginia’s School of Law spoke about their own experiences in the unpredictable world of private enterprise during a discussion Friday, Oct. 12 in the Purcell Reading Room at the Law School. The panel was moderated by Fred Hutchinson ’75, a partner in the Hutchison Law Group.

The panel which included Mary Porter ’94, founder and CEO of Curiosity Zone, a franchise, hands-on science center for children now in its third year; John Muleta ’93, founder and CEO of M2Z Networks, which is working to establish a free, nation-wide, wireless broadband Internet service; and Matt O’Connell ’79, CEO of GeoEye, a private equity firm, which is the largest operator of imagery satellites in the world.

The discussion began with the question of how each made the transition from lawyer to entrepreneur. That transition came for Porter during the heady days of the dot-com boom in the late 1990’s. With hundreds of millions of dollars floating around, her company gave her the opportunity and funding to build whatever she wanted and she was hooked. “Dreaming up ways to make money is a fascinating, creative process,” she said.

For Muleta the transition came following the dot-com bust. “There was no guarantee in jobs anymore,” he said, “That’s the lesson I learned.” There were bleak times during the transition but, after working as the head of the wireless bureau at the Federal Communications Commission, he was given another opportunity to be involved in a high-tech, start-up company.

Following a particularly circuitous route, O’Connell described his transition. “I left Wall Street to work for one of the few guys I’d call a visionary, Chuck Dolan, who started HBO,” said O’Connell. “It was a great education working for him because he taught us all about taking risks,” he added.

Hutchison asked the panel what advice they had for entrepreneurs looking for funding for their own ideas. “I’ve seen what happens to you when you take the wrong money versus the right money,” Porter said. “When you take a lot of money without really knowing what you’re going to do with it [you might] go down paths that you probably shouldn’t or wouldn’t have gone down if you had taken the time to really think about why you’re raising money,” she said.

Muleta’s advice was to not be afraid. “People are investing in you and your ideas and your intuition as an entrepreneur. The minute you start listening to [the investors] you should just hand them the keys and move on,” he said. He encouraged entrepreneurs not to let investors micro-manage the business. “Funding is attractive,” he added, “It’s great, it’s nice to have an easy ride [but] if you don’t like the people who are investing and you’re just doing it for the money, it’s going to be a short ride.”

O’Connell agreed. “You should take money very cautiously. Venture capitalists are bossy people and they’re generally pretty smart…They achieve out-sized returns by taking out-sized risks… so when Mary and John say ‘Be careful’ be absolutely careful,” he warned. O’Connell stressed the importance of being able to live with those giving you advice.  “You’ve got to be able to put up with trying circumstances. You want smart money not jerks,” he added.

On the importance of developing the right culture within the company Porter was quick to refer to the traditional male-oriented business model. “It’s typical of companies to be pyramids, for a man to lead,” she explained adding, “I lean toward a flat organization and more of a team structure…the people who work in my company are almost all women.” She noted that some have questioned her business strategy. “I’ve had a lot of people say to me ‘that’s a dumb idea, you can’t have a company that’s flat’ and, granted, we’re not very big yet, but for now we’re doing it and it’s great,” she added.

Muleta raised the issue of moral integrity noting that risk-taking is part of being an entrepreneur. “You have to do risk assessment but you have to do it within a moral culture that says, ‘Don’t go to jail.’” Muleta also pointed out the importance of acting on one’s convictions adding, “Don’t be afraid. Never be afraid to challenge the status quo.”.

O’Connell quoted another of his business mentors in explaining his idea of the right business culture. “Barry Dillard said, ‘If something is worth doing you should do it fast because if you don’t do it fast somebody’s going to pass you.’” O’Connell also emphasized the need for speed in making decisions. “You can’t be a manager if you can’t deal with the need for urgency,” he explained. O’Connell also noted where the entrepreneur’s focus should be. “You can’t be too focused on law, you can’t be too focused on finance, and you can’t be too focused on engineering. You have to focus on the customers. You take care of the customers and you’ll have a good business,” he said.

Wrapping up the discussion Hutchison asked the panel to advise law students who want to become entrepreneurs. “You have to have a high tolerance for risk,” said Porter. “It’s very entertaining but it’s not easy. If you have a dream you have to be smart about it, apply what you’ve learned in law school and all that’s made you successful to date,” she added.

“Take risks a lot earlier than you think you are ready for,” advised Muleta. “I wish I had done a bunch of things and failed when I was in my twenties as opposed to taking that gamble when I was getting close to forty.” He explained that becoming an entrepreneur is a decision that a person makes about their lifestyle. “Don’t focus on outcome, you don’t control the outcome. Live that life and feel comfortable about that decision,” he added.

“I agree with Mary and John,” said O’Connell. “I wish that I had taken risks earlier. I think as long as you’re in law school you’ve got a leg up because law school gives you a tolerance for long hours, and that’s crucial, because, being an entrepreneur, you’re going to work harder than you can imagine,” he said.

• Reported By Ken Reitz 


Session II: Investors and Bankers: Getting to Market

Students, faculty, and alumni gathered in the Purcell Reading Room on Oct. 12 to hear two alumni panelists discuss how to break into the entrepreneurial world following law school.

The discussion was moderated by Mike Lincoln ’91, a partner for Cooley, Godward, and Kronish, who began by introducing the two panelists: Charles “Chuck” Cory ’82, chairman of Global Technology Banking, Morgan Stanley, and Dick Crawford ’75, chairman of Virginia Investment Capital Group and managing director of Virginia Active Angel Network.

Both panelists primarily discussed the experience and traits necessary for law school graduates to succeed in the business world. According to Cory, investment banking firms have become more open to hiring graduates with law degrees in recent years; however, the firms still seem to prefer employees who have graduated from business school or who have experience in investment banking. “I am a proponent of being open-minded, but it’s not always the way the system works,” he said.

Crawford added that when it comes to inspiring entrepreneurs, “there is a fine line between genius and insanity.” Starting a company requires a certain amount of insanity, and is far more difficult than it seems, he explained, and his angel network looks for people “just crazy enough” to succeed. He cited Bill Gates as an example. “Whoever thought in 1975 that there would be a computer on every desk?” he asked.

Cory pointed out that there is a big difference between entrepreneurs and successful entrepreneurs, like Gates. “The really good guys are open to advice,” he said. According to Cory, an aspiring entrepreneur must focus on getting the ball rolling, but still possess the ability “to change course midstream” if his idea isn’t working.

When asked how law school can benefit people in the business world, Cory said it is very valuable because it is “your first opportunity to have a pure intellectual horse race with people of your own talent.” Cory pointed out that an area in which law school is lacking is that it does not force students into a realistic demonstration of preparedness and diligence. “In the real world you can’t say ‘wait until the exam!’ You’ve got to be on your game today,” he said.

Crawford said he benefited from learning the legal thought process. “Law school taught me how to ask questions, business school taught me how to answer them,” he said.

When asked by Lincoln about the best and worst parts of their jobs, Cory said that traveling is the worst part, by far. “Any day I’m on the road is not a good day,” he said.

Crawford said the best part of his job is seeing some of the technology that his company invests in begin to make a difference in people’s lives. As for the worst part, “by definition, everyone looking for ‘seed stage’ financing has dreams,” he said. “It’s disappointing to have to say no, because you’re dealing with people’s aspirations.”

• Reported By Shea Connelly

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