Gala Week: Interview with Bill Schawbel, JA Alumnus, Entrepreneur, and JA Gala Chair

April 30, 2019

Gala Week: Interview with Bill Schawbel, JA Alumnus, Entrepreneur, and JA Gala Chair

Last month, JA Worldwide sat down with William (Bill) Schawbel, founder and CEO of Schawbel Companies, Wharton graduate, and JA alumnus, who is also Chair of the Centennial Gala Host Committee. He discussed business, entrepreneurship, and the life-changing impact of JA.

JA Worldwide: Thanks for joining us, Bill. Can you start by telling us a little bit about your time working at The Gillette Company, and then what it was like to strike out on your own?

Bill Schawbel: I had been working for Gillette for 19 years in “intrapreneurial” programs, which means that I was involved in setting up or acquiring new businesses within the Gillette Corporation.  In 1981, I was able to acquire two underperforming and unprofitable divisions from Gillette as a leveraged buyout.  I was very fortunate in that Gillette financially supported the two divisions for a period of time as I transitioned them into a private company.

JA Worldwide: What was your plan to get them to be profitable?

Bill: I believed that they could be profitable if overhead and inventory were managed very closely. I also quickly understood that it was all about finding consumer product niches – products that were unique, patentable, and gave the consumer a much better “mousetrap”.  This was critical to achieving topline growth.  Of equal importance was closely monitoring cash flow and returns on any investments I made in the business.  Our first patented technology out of the gate was a butane cartridge, which was a fuel cell that could provide a source of cordless energy and pinpoint heat.  We adapted that to products we knew from Gillette – haircare products such as curling irons and straighteners – and launched the world’s first cordless devices of this nature.  We sold the appliances with butane cartridge refills – a revenue model from my Gillette days – blades and razors – and at premium prices in the marketplace.

JA Worldwide: Portable curling irons! That must have been a big hit in the early ’80s.

Bill: It was. And I actually took a different marketing approach from Gillette.  Instead of going directly to consumers and spending millions of dollars to brand and market, I set up major corporations as distributors for these new products. The products were sold under the Conair name in the US, under Black & Decker in Canada, under Philips and Clairol in Europe, and under Panasonic all over the world.  This licensing model is one I have repeated over time and encouraged our consulting clients to consider.

JA Worldwide: And customers already trusted those names, so you didn’t have to take the time to introduce yourself to them. Smart. What other lessons did you learn during that time about running your own company?

Bill: When it is your own money, you need to assess all risks – there is no net under your tightrope.  You need to make decisions based on the best information available and be ready to change gears quickly if a problem arises.  There are never perfect or foolproof solutions.

JA Worldwide: It appears that money management is critical to entrepreneurship. In general, did you find that your corporate “intrapreneurship” was good groundwork for entrepreneurship?

Bill: Yes, it was excellent—almost as good as my Junior Achievement experience. I think of my time at Gillette as “Senior Achievement.”

Both had so much value to me. In 1956 or 1957, when I was involved in JA, I was president of my JA company. We had to deal with banks, get a product to market, and get investors. This was not that different than my later career, when I also had to deal with banks, had to create new products, and had to manage accounts receivable and accounts payable.

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JA Worldwide: Is JA what first got you interested in entrepreneurship?

Bill: In actuality, no. I first experienced entrepreneurship at home. My mother was an entrepreneur, although she didn’t know the word. She didn’t finish high school, but she loved to knit. So, she opened a knitting store and yarn shop, which she operated out of our house, along with her sisters and cousins. I did her books . . . and knitted some, too!

JA Worldwide:  What would your mom say were some of the benefits of being an entrepreneur?

Bill: She was always happy because she was doing what she loved.  Her advice was to do what you were good at because that would make you happy.  These were important messages.

JA Worldwide:  During that time, you attended Boston Latin School, right?

Bill: I was fortunate enough to attend Boston Latin, the first school in the country, founded in 1635. It’s a public school, but it was very competitive right from the beginning. They told us, “Look to the left, look to the right. One of you will graduate . . . maybe.” I found that I thrived in competitive situations.

JA Worldwide: Boston Latin was such a challenging school.  Was it that which prepared you for college?

Bill:  Yes, but so did participating in JA which I was active in while at Boston Latin School.  I participated in JA because it gave me the entrepreneurial exposure, but also allowed me to interface with a broader and more diverse set of students, including girls, since BLS was an all-boys school and I learned about setting objectives and priorities.

JA Worldwide: And girls have been a big part of JA from day one, in 1919!

Bill: That’s right.

JA Worldwide: How important do you think JA’s focus on job creation and entrepreneurship is?

Bill: I think the combination of financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills — learning leadership skills, working well as a team, and how to take chances — all of those things make a significant difference.

JA Worldwide: We hear predictions—some dire; some inspiring—about the future of work. Nobody knows for sure what the future of work is going to look like, which makes it difficult to prepare for. What are your thoughts on what the future will bring?

Bill: The world changes so quickly, and you really have to adapt to it. A lot of corporations— names you have known for years—go by the wayside, which lets new companies and products take their place. You always have to look at what is going to be needed, what needs must be fulfilled.

JA Worldwide: What’s your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Bill: Take careful and thoughtful chances. Don’t risk everything, but if you see an opportunity, take it. Also make sure you know the people you’re working with, and make sure that you’re all in sync and that you’re all taking the risk together. Because the entrepreneurial world is risky, and you need to know people have your back.

The first question I ask potential team members is, “Tell me a little bit about your failures.” If they say they have no failures, they’re probably not being truthful or they’re not the people you want to work with.

JA Worldwide: Both great pieces of advice. What else?

Bill: Have a vision outside of your neighborhood. There are opportunities outside of your city, your region, and your country. Reach out and see what’s happening in the rest of the world, because you might find there are more opportunities outside than at home.

But get involved locally, too. I’m on the boards of 23 nonprofits, all geared toward entrepreneurship, diversity, and education. I get to see the difference these organizations make in people’s lives. I believe it’s entrepreneurial to give back, whether with time or money.

JA, in particular is very, very valuable for the economy and for underserved people in particular. JA enhances what students learn in school. JA students learn that, “Yeah, I can do it.”

JA Worldwide: That’s JA in a nutshell! Thank you, Bill, for being such an inspiring entrepreneur and JA supporter.