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Leader Q and A: FIRST president aims to invent more inventors

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 14. 2013 12:57AM

In May, Donald E. Bossi took over the president's job at FIRST, the Manchester-based Dean Kamen organization designed to ignite passions in science and technology in the youth of America, if not the world.

That flame has long burned in Bossi. He earned college degrees, including a Ph.D., in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He started as a research scientist for United Technologies and ran a startup company in the fiber optics field (JDSU Electro-Optics Products).

He went on to work in venture capital fields and as a chief executive on an interim basis. He holds four patents, served on the boards of several privately held companies and is a member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

Bossi takes over a company whose promotion of science and technology education appears to have caught on, with 350,000 students participating worldwide each year, with a goal to increase that to 450,000 by 2017.

Still the country expects that 6 million STEM jobs will go begging by 2018.

FIRST reported $51.3 million in revenues for the budget year ending June 30, 2012, according to IRS documents available on, up from $40.2 million the previous year.

Bossi would not disclose his salary, but FIRST paid his predecessor, John Dudas, $454,000 in wages, bonuses and other compensation for the 2012 year.

Question: Tell me about your early career. At Electro-Optics, what was that like? You ended up running the company.

Answer: We were a small startup at United Technologies, which at the time was a $20 billion corporation, and we were a little technical startup that had some relevance to their divisions but a bigger market on the outside. So they said, "Well, why don't we grow this business and incubate this business and see if it leads us into new businesses."

And then the recession at the end of 1990 hit, and suddenly they said, "We've got these big billion-dollar businesses to worry about. Why are we worried about this little business?" That was when they made the decision to sell us. We got acquired by Uniphase Corporation in California. We were their first acquisition, but they ended up growing and becoming the largest supplier for fiber-optic telecom components. They're still the largest supplier of fiber-optic components in the communication industry.

So I was part of this little tiny startup. They were small themselves. We were about a 20-, 30-person operation when they acquired us. We grew that, just the electro-optics part of the company, to be about a $250 million business at the peak. Then the bubble burst. We had to go through restructuring and how to reorganize the company. I've taken small businesses and grown them into large businesses. I've reorganized large businesses as the market threw some curve balls. I learned a lot along the way.It grew tenfold under you.

What's it like to be in something that's growing that's fast, and what's the biggest challenge?

It's better than being in something that's shrinking. I think people don't actually realize how stressful growth is. Everybody thinks it's a great problem to have. You're hiring people and all this. But trying to figure out how you put in place the systems that allow a company to continue to grow and maintain quality and keep an eye on the product, keep a leadership position. It takes a lot of work. You're bringing on people and assimilating them into the culture.

I think that's part of what was interesting about my background to FIRST. Most people don't think of a not-for-profit as a growth organization, but FIRST grows pretty substantially every year. We have programs that grow 10 to 20 percent year on year on year.

A lot of lessons you learn growing a for-profit business are just as relevant.

How do you scale? How do you maintain the quality? How do you keep everyone engaged and feeling like you can have a difference. How can you be a fast-moving, nimble organization that reinvents itself and comes up with creative ideas?

You've got a background, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, some patents, I would think your career would always be in startups, where you've got a gadget you invent and produce. This is more an education-marketing job. What skills are needed here? You don't have to figure out formulas, you don't have to invent anything.I haven't figured out formulas in years. It's leadership and management. We have a staff for 140 people, and off of that we've leveraged 126,000 volunteers, benefited from 8.8 million volunteer hours last year. It's a huge organization. Show me any other huge organization that's growing 10-20 percent a year. That's pretty impressive. It's all the leadership and management skills that takes to run a tech company. That's the same thing you do here.

If you tell a smart kid he's got one wish, he'll wish for a 1,000 wishes. If you ask an inventor what he'd invent, he'd say I'm going to invent 1,000 more inventors. That's what FIRST really is. It's looking at what people like Dean have done with their lives in terms of inventions that make the world a better place, impact the quality of lives of thousands of people for the better, and it's going into the world of not necessarily making a product but making the people that are going to make the world better.

What kind of need do you see out there for kids with this kind of background?

You can look at it two ways - what's the impact of the country in terms of workforce development and what's the impact on the kids. I'll tell you an interesting story. I met a gentleman in Los Angeles who's a long time FIRST supporter. He said why he's so passionate about FIRST. He has two kids, they both went through FIRST.

His son was naturally interested in math and science and did robotics for four years. At the end of it, he concluded he didn't want to major in engineering, and he went off and became a paramedic.

He's in the central valley of California, a rural, agricultural area. They drive SUV ambulances. The other day, he had to slide down and embankment to get to a homeless community underneath and overpass in a bridge where a woman gave birth who didn't even know she was pregnant.

His father asks him, "Do you ever use what you learned in FIRST?" and he said "Every day.

In FIRST I learned how to deal with problems, figure things out, think on the fly, think on my feet. I do that every day."

His daughter was younger. When she was in eighth grade, she didn't understand what all this math and science was about. She joined the FIRST team because she wanted to design the T-shirt and go with her team to the championship. She found her true calling in it, and today she's in her second year of getting her Ph.D. in chemistry.

She worked with a mentor who could help her take math and science and bring it into the real world and understand what it's good for. She just had lunch with the Nobel Prize winner in chemistry two weeks ago.

We've got everyone from kids in expensive prep schools to kids from dirt poor parts of the country who are finding new opportunities, finding, "Hey, I can do this."

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