Dan Hesse, SF '89

August 2001, MIT Sloan alumni page

Would you leave the security of your 23-year tenure at a world-renowned telecommunications company to head up a technology start-up? At this point, most might say no, fearing risk and the unknown. Dan Hesse, SF '89, didn't . He took a chance.

After working his way through the ranks of AT&T, the former president and CEO of AT&T Wireless services left the telecomm giant last year to become president and CEO of Terabeam, a Seattle-based early-stage wireless technology company. What seems like an unexpected decision on the surface actually becomes understandable once one learns Hesse's history.

On the move

While he worked at the same company for 23 years, Hesse moved around a great deal within AT&T, learning the business of long distance, network technology and equipment, Internet, and wireless. It was a nomadic employment, taking him all over the world through the companies different areas. For the self-proclaimed “army brat” — his father's army career took him to ten different schools across the globe as a child — being mobile was par for the course.

All that changed when Hesse became president and CEO of AT&T's Wireless Services. The job relocated Hesse and his family once again, this time to Seattle, a city with which he quickly fell in love. He also found himself in “what I considered the best job in the entire company.”

Rising to the challenge

But, while he valued the opportunities he'd gained during his AT&T career, he saw one challenge he hadn't yet tackled: to take a start-up and grow it.

That challenge would rise to meet Hesse head on when Greg Amadon, founder and then chairman of TeraBeam, asked him to join the TeraBeam board. No stranger to such requests, Hesse didn't immediately leap at the prospect. However, his curiosity was piqued after Amadon explained TeraBeam's wireless technology. He went for a product demo and got hooked. Then Amadon laid all his cards on the table: Would Hesse join TeraBeam as president and CEO?

While the offer took Hesse by surprise, he acknowledges he'd already been considering similar offers from Fortune 500 companies in other industries.

Decisions, decisions

Hesse had some decisions to make, the first one being whether to leave AT&T. “That was the hard part,” he says. “I had a tremendous affection for the people and the company.” But AT&T Wireless was on sound footing and it seemed like the right time to make a move.

Next, he had to decide between job offers. Staying in a Fortune 500 company would keep him in the comfort zone of running a large organization. But Hesse didn't want to leave the telecommunications industry, which “would have been a real waste of my experience.”

And after becoming so settled in Seattle, he had no desire to take a job that required relocating yet again. Hesse liked the idea of putting down roots.

Seeking out new challenges had always been a hallmark of Hesse's career. But was TeraBeam the right answer?

Everything pointed to yes, starting with the company's value proposition. Hesse was excited by its novel approach to the “last mile” of high-speed connections to city office buildings. And the prospect of taking on an early-stage enterprise appealed to him. The fact that TeraBeam was in Seattle was icing on the cake.

He joined the company as president and CEO and several months later was also named chairman.

Gaining breadth

Today, Hesse reflects on his past with obvious affection. But change the subject to the future, and he turns passionate. “My goal,” he explains, “is to get TeraBeam's technology to market, put it into service, and have it start to make a difference.”

The moral? Citing his own career choices as an example, Hesse urges others to “take a chance, try radical new things, and keep learning. That's always what has kept me from feeling stale.” On the other hand, he adds, “There's something to be said for gaining breadth in a field. I feel I've gotten better at each successive job because of that.”

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MIT Sloan alumnus Carly Fiorina, SF '89, former chairman, president, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, has changed traditional assumptions about high-tech leadership.