Sam Zell talks entrepreneurship, education at on-campus Q&A

“Collaborators don’t make discoveries. Leaders make discoveries,” investor tells students

September 26, 2014

MIT professor Vladimir Bulović, left, interviews Sam Zell

MIT professor Vladimir Bulović, left, interviews Sam Zell

Billionaire investor Sam Zell brought his personal brand of wisdom to MIT Sloan Sept. 23 for a lunchtime discussion with MIT Sloan students in a packed lecture room on campus.

Zell shared his thoughts on leadership and entrepreneurship education in the United States, among other topics. After a one-on-one interview with MIT professor Vladimir Bulović, co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, Zell took questions from students and other faculty members.

Zell describes himself as a self-made man, a first-generation American entrepreneur who grew a series of real estate holdings into an investment empire and an estimated personal fortune of nearly $5 billion. He is the chairman of Equity Group Investments, among other positions.

“I didn’t know what I couldn’t do,” Zell said of his early days in business. “If you begin with the presumption that you don’t see any limitations on what you can do, then your creativity is unlimited.”

“It takes a great deal of independence,” he said. “It takes a great deal of self-confidence.”

Zell is known for his strong opinions and contrarian investment moves. To MIT students, he declared conventional wisdom his enemy and said that collaboration is overrated. Leadership, he said, is a quality that requires a singular capacity for decision-making, albeit one sometimes informed by others.

“Collaborators don’t make discoveries. Leaders make discoveries,” he said. “Cross-pollination is wonderful, but in the end somebody’s got to stick their neck out [and take the risk].”

Zell assailed entrepreneurship and business education, saying that schools for too long taught students “there has to be a formula,” creating “a bunch of automatons” and wasting intellectual talent. Entrepreneurship, he said, has been labeled “junk science” in the past, simply because people did not understand what it was. It is only in the last fifteen years or so, Zell said, that Americans have recognized the importance of innovation and begun to incorporate it into education.

The son of Polish immigrants, Zell also criticized the U.S. government for restricting immigration, saying that the country is made of self-selecting immigrants and that “entrepreneurs are a natural adjunct to that concept.”