What Makes a Person Great?

By Peter Brill   |   May 23, 2019

What makes a person great? If they are rich enough, are they great? What do we look for when we say they are wise? What does it mean when we say they make a difference? If we want to make a difference, are there models we can emulate or admire?

I have been answering questions put to me in this column by others so I thought this month I would ask myself a few of my own.

I came across someone who I think is a great person, and who has taken me a long way toward answering my questions.

Tom Washing, who now lives in Montecito, certainly is highly successful. He has been active in the venture capital industry for over thirty years. He is a founding partner of Sequel Venture Partners, a Colorado-based venture capital firm investing in emerging growth technology companies which, at one point, had 400 million dollars under management. He has served on dozens of corporate and non-profit Boards of Directors, including as founding Chairman of the University of Colorado Center for Entrepreneurship, President and Chairman of the Colorado Venture Capital Association, and Chairman of the Board of the University of Michigan Technology Transfer Advisory Board. This is just to name a few of his achievements. 

Does that make him great?

He was raised in a middle-class family in Ohio by a father who worked for the same large company for 55 years, most of it as a factory manager. He was one of the few in his high school who made it into an Ivy League school, and to Dartmouth College at that, and had to hitchhike there. But then the world opened wide with his connections to students from all over the world. He became a Wall Street lawyer and partner for 14-15 years and then jumped into an opportunity with a client to start a venture capital firm. Does the willingness to take a risk make you great? Maybe it is a part of it. He then started his own venture firm in 1996 and was able to sell three funds with focus on the early stage of investing. He says, “I loved working with entrepreneurs and I loved being my own boss.”

And then his life somewhat changed direction. “Like everything else, things happen to alter your life as you stumble along.” He had a friend, Tim Starzl, a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur. Tim’s wife had grown up in India and this made him aware of a particular problem there. He needed money for a company that was working on a cure for children with chronic diarrhea. That may not sound either exciting or significant, but the problem is vital. It’s the second biggest killer of children, under the age of five, worldwide. Tom had done some personal investing before but this became a cause celebre to him. It really grabbed him. This was a big idea that could change the world. He got two other friends to co-invest $300,000 to run a second trial in India. “Every child who was given this stuff was cured within 24 hours.” He went on to find funding for the other rounds, helped to bring in a management team from Pfizer, and even received money from a private equity firm who never takes on this kind of risk.

I asked him if this felt different, somehow, from what he had done before.

“For the first time I felt an emotional attachment to making the investment successful. In my previous investments, I always got involved with the entrepreneur, but the money was first. But this could save lives. This could make the world a better place first, and the money was second.” He even wrote a book about his experience, An Unlikely Intervention: A Startup Company’s Quest to Conquer the World’s Second Leading Killer of Children, so that others could follow his lead and benefit from his experience in doing good while investing.

I asked him why he became involved in the new profit organization called Sustainable Change Alliance, Inc. (SCA, Inc.). SCA, Inc. is an offshoot of the membership organization Sustainable Change Alliance which has been presenting programs for the last two years focused on various social and environmental problems and featuring impact organizations needing capital. SCA, Inc. is an impact investing firm in Santa Barbara dedicated . . . 

• To becoming the best local impact investor in the United States

• To becoming the best local impact investment community in the United States; and

• To becoming the example for communities worldwide.

His answer, “My wife Susan and I wanted to get involved in the community. I love working with entrepreneurs, but I wasn’t interested any longer in making money from investing in high tech apps and organizations without a social benefit. I wanted to create a model here, and to promote that model more broadly.” My sense was that he had experienced the passion and meaning of making a difference and he was no longer interested in going back to just making money. He wanted to use his knowledge, wisdom, experience, and skills for the betterment of the world.

One final question remained, why communities?

“Ever since Susan and I were married, we were involved in our communities. I believe that you should act locally. That where you are, you have the greatest impact by your philanthropic activities. We are facing serious problems at this time nationally; but, if people all over the country act locally, we can have a larger impact.”

So, have I answered my questions satisfactorily?

What makes a person great? If they are rich enough, are they great? What do we look for when we say they are wise? What does it mean when we say they make a difference? If we want to make a difference, are there models we can emulate or admire?

Would you say that Tom Washing is great, wise, making a difference, and a model to emulate or admire? I certainly would!

I welcome all questions and comments and can be reached at pbrill@dwmblog.com.


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