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Making America a start-up nation again

The Washington Post

September 16. 2018 7:12PM
Former Cisco chief executive John Chambers was interviewed on Bloomberg TV last month. (MICHAEL SHORT/BLOOMBERG)

The CEO who may be best remembered for surviving the dot-com bust has a message for the country: The United States needs to become a startup nation again.

John Chambers led Cisco Systems, which makes the gear that runs the internet, for some 20 years as it gobbled up more than 180 companies in acquisitions. Chambers stepped down as Cisco chief executive in 2015 but remained executive chairman until late last year and is now “chairman emeritus.”

In a new book set to be released Sept. 25, Chambers argues for a comprehensive digital strategy in the United States. In “Connecting the Dots: Lessons for Leadership in a Startup World,” the 69-year-old explains how he reinvented himself and his company over two decades and shares the leadership strategies that made him one of the last remaining CEOs of a major tech company from his generation to step down.

Chambers, who grew up in West Virginia, is now a venture capitalist and coach to 12 startups, as well as an adviser to government leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron. He laments the decline in the number of new U.S. startups. (There were 624 initial public offerings in 1996, compared with 112 IPOs in 2016.)

OnLeadership spoke recently with Chambers. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You point out that the United States is one of the only major developed countries not to have an overarching technology or digital strategy. What would it look like if we had one?

A: It would be a vision of articulating how a startup U.S. — and a digital strategy for our country — could grow GDP two to four points faster than we could grow otherwise. That could incrementally create another 20 to 30 million jobs. That could have the per capita income for American citizens — instead of being flat to down actually increase, just like we saw in the internet era in the 1990s.

It has to be inclusive across all 50 states. It can’t just be California and New York and Texas. This is what’s occurring. People are realizing they can get left behind. It has to go back to how you change the education system to prepare people for the jobs of the future. It’s how do you get young people — regardless of gender, or color of skin, or religion — getting people excited about being entrepreneurs early on, and not when they get to college. It’s about how do you show people how this can change health care, how it can change the environment. It’s the total package.

Q: You’ve said it’s the leader who has to lead these initiatives. How would you grade how the Trump administration is doing on this? Have you advised them?

A: I have not on that. I think you’ve seen some major positive moves in terms of the economy and tax policy. I was almost the poster child in Washington on corporate tax change and repatriation and had been on the startup bandwagon.

But until you have a plan for what you’re going to do for the country and a startup plan it’s hard to give us good grades. I think there are times when many other countries can learn from America, and there are also times when we can learn from other countries. Don’t let the short-term economy fool any of us. If we don’t get the fundamentals right on digitization and new job creation and inclusiveness across all the states, it will leave a lot of people behind.

Q: You mentioned tax policy, but is there a specific thing the Trump administration has done or something you’d like to see them to do jump-start more startups?

A: I view the tax changes and focus on less regulations as a very good start, but it’s just that. We need a vision for what we look like 10 years from now; we need a vision for how this includes all of America. Digitization, artificial intelligence — it will destroy, I don’t know, 20 to 40 percent of the jobs as we know them today. Forty percent of the existing companies won’t exist in a decade. When I started saying that a couple years ago people said, John, that’s not going to happen. They’re now realizing it probably will.

Q: Would you ever consider running for public office yourself?

A: I have thought about it, and I made my decision about 14 years ago not to. I have a couple weaknesses. I like to move fast. I like Democrats and Republicans, and I like doing what’s right, period. You don’t survive in politics in today’s world doing that.

The second thing is I love business. (Former Israeli president) Shimon Peres said it to me very directly: He said, “John, you can accomplish more as head of Cisco . . . if you go on and do these startups than you can in political office.”

Q: I was surprised to see you write about how many CEOs have dyslexia, like yourself. Why do you think that is, and has it helped you as a leader?

A: The majority of CEOs who have dyslexia won’t tell people they do because it’s viewed as a weakness. I wouldn’t have except by accident — at “Take Your Children to Work Day” (at Cisco) where a young girl with a disability started to cry because she couldn’t get her question out. I walked her through that (by sharing his personal story).

Nobody knew I was dyslexic. I viewed it as a major weakness that I’d learned to overcome. But then I realized that in life, you’re more a product of how you handle your setbacks than your successes.


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