SMITH BRAIN TRUST — During his University of Maryland visit on Sept. 19, 2017, Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis shared lessons from his youth and career as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Here are six quotes from the inaugural Robert G. Hisaoka Speaker Series, made possible through a gift from Robert G. Hisaoka to the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at UMD’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
“Sometimes little things done the right way have this enormous unintended positive consequence.” At age 16 Leonsis decided to start a lawn mowing company. He checked out a book from the library and studied lawn mowing from the masters. Then he started looking for customers. One man noticed Leonsis’s attention to detail and became a mentor. He steered Leonsis to Georgetown University, which changed Leonsis’s trajectory in life.
“Leave more than you take.” Leonsis achieved business success at an early age. He worked hard, earned good grades at Georgetown, started a company and made lots of money. He thought he was living the dream. But his priorities changed in 1982 following a midair scare on a commercial flight. The experience caused Leonsis to flip his priorities. Instead of thinking about how much he could take for himself, he started thinking about how much value he could create for others. “We all have reckonings,” he said. “They can be small, medium, large or extra-large.”
“Play offense rather than defense.” Leonsis sat down after the near-death experience and wrote 101 goals. Items ranged from ambitious, such as owning the world’s largest media company, to random, such as seeing a volcano erupt. Then Leonsis started tackling the list. So far, he's checked off 83 items.
“There are no right answers that someone else can give you.” Doing research and seeking advice is great, but trusting experts can also hinder innovation. Leonsis says people who play offense must learn to trust their own instincts. “No one knows nothing,” he told aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience.
“Universities are the single most important engine that define a community.” Sports play an important role in unifying a community. But Leonsis says universities do more to drive upward mobility and create economic opportunity.
“People think philanthropy is all about writing checks. My mom was always the person doing bake sales.” At one point in his career, Leonsis was donating to more than 400 charities but not creating lasting impact with any of them. “I was the easiest touch around,” he said. “But I was a bad philanthropist.” Now he focuses on a small handful of philanthropic projects, and he does more than write checks. He also invests his time and talents. The new strategy is closer to what he observed at home as a child. His parents lacked financial resources, but they gave back to their communities in other ways.
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