Ben Carpenter, former Wall Street CEO and author of The Bigs, came to Yale on October 6th as part of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society’s speaker series. Having worked as a treasury salesman at Goldman Sachs and then for a smaller firm named Greenwich Capital, Carpenter pointed out that his career has been a unique one. At Greenwich Capital, he exemplified entrepreneurial spirit, helping grow the company from 75 to 1,200 people, making it three times more profitable per employee than Goldman Sachs. Speaking in LC 102, he advised student entrepreneurs on developing career strategy and finding happiness in life.
Carpenter opened with the following line that was to color his whole speech: “what you may be passionate about may not be the same as what you are good at.” He punctuated this remark with a personal anecdote about his own abilities. “I had always imagined myself as a trader, and upon realizing I wasn’t good at it, I brought it to my manager’s attention.” The company offered him the position of CFO, which he turned down— a difficult choice for the ambitious— because he realized that this position would not play to his strengths. He instead chose to return to sales, where eventually climbed the ranks to become the company’s COO.
While these jobs are not entrepreneurial in nature, his advice is of particular importance to entrepreneurs. Carpenter explained why through a sports analogy. “In sports you can work on your weaknesses. That’s not true about starting a company—business is all about specialization.” He urged students to play to their strengths, even if doing so came at the expense of an entrepreneurial idea, running counter to the widely accepted advice to pursue one’s passion. Passion is frequently cited as the life-blood of a startup, but Carpenter’s claim also makes sense. “If you aren’t good at what you love, it can become something you hate,” he said. “It becomes a burden and a disappointment. Instead find a way to pursue something you love, with the skill set you have.” He recommended delegation as a means of tackling problems one might not be able to tackle on their own.
Most of his entrepreneurial advice stemmed from his own offbeat endeavors. He related the tale of opening a bar in New York in the early 2000s. Carpenter happened upon the lot, realizing it was the prime location for attracting the young, business crowd. He turned to the student audience, knowingly stating, “you’ve all been to these bars—you shouldn’t be, but you have.” Upon starting the business he realized why the lot had previously been closed down. The demographic that the bar had originally attracted was a rowdier crowd. Dangerous bar fights began breaking out. Carpenter tried multiple solutions, including hiring a bodyguard, who quit the first evening after hearing gunshots. His wife then suggested raising the price of beer, which eventually solved the problem. Being an entrepreneur means being open-minded to creative solutions, he concluded.
The most important advice Carpenter had to offer about entrepreneurship was, simply, to do one’s work consistently and with excellence. “No one hires an employee expecting they’d do less than a good job. It is outstanding work that is required to open doors,” he said. He also stressed the importance of always thinking like a CEO, regardless of one’s role in the start up—specifically from a financial perspective, thinking of ways to raise revenues and reduce expenses. Carpenter also gave useful advice to student entrepreneurs with exciting ideas who might be hesitant to take the risk of pursuing them fulltime. He cited the positives of joining a medium sized company with a similar mission in order to network and to understand how such a company works. This way, when the time comes to start the business, students will have a team to work with and a model to improve upon. Though several of Carpenter’s lines could be construed as cliché, one of them rang true: “Entrepreneurship is as much inspiration as perspiration.” Success is something one must work hard to achieve.
Carpenter ended his speech with some thoughts on living a happy life, stressing that it should be placed above other goals. “I used to think that being happy was something that just happens to you, like getting the flu,” before adding that he has since realized that this isn’t the case. “You can decide to be upset or you can work to better yourself.” Life will be rife with setbacks, especially when starting something new, but it is best to take it as an opportunity for betterment rather than to dwell on the upset. This is how personal success is achieved. This is the path of the entrepreneur.