A Deal on a Handshake: A Short Tribute to Outgoing Babson President Len Schlesinger
Sunday marked Len Schlesinger’s official last day of service as Babson College president after five standout years in the role. Today, new Babson president Kerry Healey, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, takes over.
As the guard changes at one of the world’s best schools for entrepreneurship, I wanted to give my own adieu to Schlesinger, an Xconomist. He isn’t going far—just back to Harvard Business School, where he had spent nearly 20 years in the past. I know we’ll hear more from him shortly, after perhaps a bit of recharging. But I felt like giving a special shout out to one of the best partners Xconomy has ever had.
In particular, I wanted to share a short story of how Babson and Xconomy began a great partnership. I hope the story provides at least some insight and maybe a little bit of inspiration for those who think of themselves as, or aspire to be, entrepreneurial. This holds whether you are at a university, a startup, a big company, a government organization, a non-profit, you name it.
This story is about the power of the handshake—something I feel too many of us have forgotten.
So here’s the short version. It was the fall of 2009, and the scene was the Business Innovation Conference in Providence (BIF-5 to be exact). BIF is a great conference where notable figures from a variety of fields share short stories of their brand of innovation.
Len was one of the speakers that year. I arrived late and only heard part of what he said. But I met up with him afterward in the lobby of the theater where the conference took place. I told him a bit about Xconomy, which was only a couple years old, and about a full-day conference we had done at another university. The conference was XSITE, the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. I explained we were trying to make XSITE an annual event that would showcase the New England startup and tech innovation community, and that we were looking for a university to host it each year. Len immediately grasped the concept and the value to both Babson and the wider community. We shook hands on the deal on the spot.
There were several others who played a big role in this story—most notably Ron Guerriero, then at Olin College, who advocated for the collaboration at both schools. Olin, led by its president, Rick Miller, has been a co-host with Babson from the start and also a fantastic partner. But the point is, although there were details to iron out, a fairly major commitment that involved time, money, and other resources was made on the basis of a handshake. At other universities, trust me on this, there would have been a series of committee meetings that would drag on for months.
XSITE has taken place at Babson ever since, co-hosted by Babson and Olin College (here is a writeup of this June’s XSITE, which featured among other things an MIT blackjack team reunion panel, and here are the photos).
I reflect upon this story all the time. Very, very few people are willing and able to commit to a deal upon meeting someone for the first time, with no detailed negotiations and little else beyond a shared vision of how something could be of mutual benefit. Since then, I’ve tried whenever possible to do more quick deals based on some basic principles of reputation, trust, the team around you, etc. This doesn’t mean a blind leap of faith, but it can mean taking a leap beyond normal constraints or conventions.
And you know what? It has worked out every time. We have never once been burned, and no one has been burned by us. So, as Len Schlesinger leaves Babson, I ask any of you who have read this far: Can you do a deal—a fair deal for both sides—on a handshake?
I think we need more of this type of deal. Thanks Len!