Thursday, January 12, 2017

Entrepreneurship Past: Three Losses

Me in my Monstro nightmare.  More below.
We recently lost three good people of special note to folks interested in entrepreneurship.

The first, distinguished American historian Joyce Appleby, died on December 23, 2016 at age 87.  She began her career as a newspaper reporter but was told she “didn’t have the brassy spirit to be successful.”  So, while raising three children at age 32, she began her Ph.D. training in history, eventually writing several important books about the formation of the United States.  Appleby taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, for most of her career, was selected to serve as the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University, and served as president of the Organization of American Historians.  She also challenged some of the giants of history over just what motivated the Founding Fathers--not bad for someone who started late, in a male-dominated field, and lacked a brassy spirit.
A classic for entrepreneurs
My favorite Appleby book is Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans.  Her research for this book included reading dozens of memoirs of Americans born in the early Republic.  She found her subjects to be optimistic and entrepreneurial in ways that sound very much like modern America.  “The elaboration of a national market depended upon many, many young men leaving the place of their birth and trying their hands at new careers,” she wrote. “The range and sweep of their entrepreneurial talents, defined best as the ability to take on novel economic undertakings as personal ventures, suggests the widespread willingness to be uprooted, to embark on an uncharted course of action, to take risks with one's resources. . .Those who did so turned themselves into agents of change.”  Doesn't this sound familiar?

The first generation of Americans, Appleby believed, was entrepreneurial through and through.  “To fail to mark this feature of the early republic is to obscure a very important element in American history: the creation of a popular, entrepreneurial culture that permeated all aspects of American society. Commerce appeared not as a divisive force to ordinary Americans in the early decades of the nineteenth century,” she wrote, “but rather as the carrier of progress for an energetic, disciplined, self-reliant people."  That seems to me to be Appleby's critical insight: capitalism and entrepreneurship are not just economic activities, but cultural phenomenon. 

As John Adams observed to Josiah Quincy, "there is no people on earth so ambitious as the people of America. The reason is," he explained, "because the lowest can aspire as freely as the highest."  

The New York Times obit of Appleby is here.  Another is here.
The second recent loss to entrepreneurship was, in Adams's terms, one of the lowest--a man who battled poverty, professional marginalization, and racial discrimination his entire life.  Tyrus Wong, who died in December at age 106, was a Chinese immigrant who landed at Angel Island Immigration Station in 1920.  Taught to draw by his father, Wong studied at the Otis Art Institute, worked as an artist for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, and joined Disney in 1938 as an “in-betweener,” a tedious job that involved producing thousands of drawings that brought the final animated product to life.
Coming off the success of his lavish Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney was struggling to bring a similar, ornate style to its next production, Bambi. (The animals, it seems, were being overwhelmed by the backgrounds.)  Sensing his opportunity, Wong prepared landscape possibilities in watercolors and pastels, echoing paintings of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1279).  Walt Disney was bowled over, and Wong became an inspirational sketch artist for the company.  “Mr. Wong,” his New York Times’ obituary reads, “spent two years painting the illustrations that would inform every aspect of ‘Bambi,’” said to be Walt Disney’s favorite single film.
Tyrus Wong
That is, in Schumpeter terms, a novel combination: tenth-century Asian sensibilities brought to a 1923 Austrian novel being adapted in 1930s Hollywood, the final product becoming a cultural and economic hit.  
Wong later worked for Warner Brothers and Hallmark, becoming an American citizen in 1946 but enduring indignities throughout much of his life.  His art would triumph, however.  In 2001, he was named a Disney Legend, and in 2003 his work was the inaugural exhibition at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.

Here’s a fascinating video from Disney on the making of Bambi.

“Ty Wong” gets a plug at around 4:35. You technologists should note, too, the “multiplane camera” featured around 11:20--incredible.  
The “Ink and Paint Department” makes an appearance around 10:57.  A position there was the highest rank a female could reach in the Disney production world in the 1930s. I happen to know this because my family and I happily stumbled into The Walt Disney Family Museum on the Presidio in San Francisco over the Christmas holidays.  The feature attraction was the making of Pinocchio, but the entire museum is a real treat.  I might add, too, that the museum cafĂ© has real food.  That alone was worth the price of admission.
The museum on the Presidio.
The storyboard for "Steamboat Willie."
A Diorama of Disneyland at the Museum.

This visit was quasi-therapeutic because, I must admit, Pinocchio scared the living daylights out of me when I saw it as a child.  Based on the beautiful and informative exhibit mounted at the Disney Family Museum--it appears that's exactly what it was meant to do. 
Employees hung this in Russ's office in 2011, challenging
him to $1 billion in sales in his hundredth year.  That's better
than shooting your age in golf.

The third loss to entrepreneurship was even more personal to me.  Russ Sigler, an inspiration to all who knew him, passed away earlier this month just a few weeks shy of his hundredth birthday.

I met Russ in March of 2011 when I interviewed him near his office in Tolleson, Arizona, for Weathermakers to the World.  Then in his mid-90s, Russ was the picture of health; he exercised every morning, eschewed the office elevator for the stairs, and drove me to and from the airport.  Russ was an entrepreneur, a gentleman, and a great interview.  We dined at one of his favorite restaurants where I set my recorder on the table, asked a question, and just sat back.  Russ’s career spanned seventy years, including taking classes as a young WWII vet on psychrometric theory from Willis Carrier himself.  Russ went on to build one of the largest air-conditioning distribution companies in the country. 
Russ Sigler, 2011
At lunch that day, Russ would lean over the table every so often and say, “Now, you can’t print this, but let me tell you about the time we air-conditioned the chicken coop,” or, “Don’t include this in the book, but let me tell you a story that happened to me on Christmas Eve in a department store in Tulsa.”  Then he would spin this wonderful tale, and he’d start laughing, and then the two of would just sit back and howl.  The waitress, who seemed to know Russ well, just kept filling up our ice teas.  Russ lived through the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, WWII, and was one of the Americans who made the country’s Sun Belt possible.  He air-conditioned homes, businesses, and Arabian princes.  I could have listened to him all day.
A great guy and great entrepreneur, Russ was one of the last living “business” links to Willis Carrier.  It was an honor to be his friend, and he will be missed.