Internet millionaire William “Bo” Peabody ’94 spoke to an audience of students Wednesday about the entrepreneur-driven economy that is rapidly shaping business across the country. The lecture, which took place at 8 p.m. in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, was attended by over 100 people.
Throughout his speech, Peabody stressed the importance of being civic-minded and the value of a liberal arts education in honing entrepreneurial instincts.
Sponsored by Entrepreneurs @ Williams (E@W), the event was the first in a series of lectures and workshops aimed at raising student interest in entrepreneurship.
Felton C. Booker ’01, co-founder of E@W, introduced Peabody as “a son of Williams and an Internet visionary.” Booker spoke of Peabody’s successful launch of Tripod.com, an Internet start-up that began as a project during his senior year at the College. As the importance of the Internet grew, Tripod became a trailblazer in the cyber-community and was bought by Lycos.com. Soon after, Peabody began Village Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests capital in the intellectual wealth that accumulates in rural areas known for their excellent quality of life, such as the Berkshire region.
“Entrepreneurship is innate,” began Peabody, before adding frankly that if members of the audience were unsure if they were entrepreneurs, they probably were not. He mentioned that in his experience, three types of executives exist: those who are able to run companies, those who are able to begin companies, and the rare individuals who can both start and manage the operation of a company. Thus, he advised those in the audience who were interested in business but not entrepreneurship to gain experience in the operation of companies and join start-ups after their initial launch in order to keep the new company afloat.
In his comments, Peabody spoke about how his education at the College had been valuable. “I’ve always believed liberal arts education is best not in learning entrepreneurship, but honing techniques,” he said.
He also said that, based on the number of people in the audience, mentalities have changed at the College. “Entrepreneurship was regarded as unintellectual,” he said about his time at Williams. “It was considered vocational.”
According to Peabody, current social conceptions have made entrepreneurship an admirable asset. While speaking about his mindset, he continued to stress that an entrepreneur, in mapping out a business plan, “has to be flexible and think laterally.” To that end, he mentioned that philosophy, religion, society and psychology courses at Williams were courses that helped him most while structuring his businesses, as he was able to use what he learned to understand the people with whom he interacted.
Likening entrepreneurship to philosophy, Peabody said, “Being entrepreneurial is thinking in a revolutionary way, changing paradigms…and often times knowing what you know and what you don’t know.”
After concluding his remarks, Peabody conducted a short question-and-answer session. R. J. Broadhurst ’00, who along with another member of his graduating class is involved in a start-up media company in the Williamstown area, asked for Peabody’s opinion on his wealth and the obvious absence of wealth seen in the Berkshire region. “After building a business,” asked Broadhurst, “how do you resolve what you’ve built with the [economically] depressed neighborhoods you see while driving to work every day [to North Adams]?”
“The only reason I’m doing this [Village Ventures] is because I have a passion for revitalizing North Adams,” responded Peabody.
Peabody continued, challenging the audience to question why Williamstown, one of the more affluent towns in Massachusetts, is neighbored by North Adams, one of the poorest towns in the state. “Seeing that [disparity] motivates me â€“ not the money. I see the mountains, and the people, and I see hope where it didn’t exist before, and I can see it all working.”
Speaking with a sense of passion, Peabody reeled off several statistics about the distribution of wealth and venture capital investment in America. Specifically, he mentioned the fact that of the billions invested in start-up companies by venture capital firms across the United States, the vast majority of funds were invested in ten metropolitan areas. In contrast with that statistic, Peabody mentioned that only 25 percent of the country’s population of individuals with professional and Ph.D. degrees lived in those areas.
Peabody’s vision for Village Ventures is to invest in the remaining 75 percent of the country’s intellectual wealth, which lives in rural areas known for their quality of life. Village Ventures, he said, would invest $15 million in start-up efforts in several small towns â€“ especially those in the Berkshire region â€“ known for their intellectual capital.
By conducting outreach efforts with local residents, Peabody hopes to create an incentive for accomplished students to return to their hometowns after college. “Right now,” he said, “kids leave North Adams and never come back. What do they have to come back to?”
The audience seemed to appreciate Peabody’s candor. “It’s an innovative and original approach,” said Hong Ngo ’04 of Village Ventures. “It’s very rare that one encounters somebody who is willing to take such a risk. Such an innovative idea has to come from the heart. I truly believe him when he says that it’s not because of the money that he’s doing this.”
E@W intends to follow up the lecture with several workshops on raising first-round funding and writing business plans. It also hopes to feature AmericaOnline chairman Steve Case ’80 in a lecture in the near future.