Who Are Minnesota’s Radical Tech CEOs?

by Ernest Grumbles

radical ceo'sDoes Minnesota have any “radical tech CEOs”?

I’ve asked this question many times, and I usually get blank looks or, “I can’t really think of any.”

What is a radical CEO?

First, you have to understand what a radical CEO is.  My definition is: a CEO who (a) understands the effect that their company has on the socio-economic, political and cultural circumstances of their workers, customers, investors and partners and (b) is able to articulate and share a credible vision for the company’s role in improving those circumstances (beyond mere foundations and donations).

Radical CEOs, who are, in larger enterprises, analogous to political figures, understand the clear connection between what their business is trying to sell and its cultural and social impact.  This is obviously a vital business skill in the sense that to be able to sell products and services well, you need to understand the environment that you are trying to sell into.  But I think there is an aspect of how radical CEOs operate that shows that they are fundamentally concerned with both the economic and social impact of their enterprises.

Here are three random examples:  Steve Jobs (CEO, Apple – no groans); John Chambers (CEO, Cisco); Lynn Elsenhans (CEO, Sunoco).

Why Jobs?  Do I have to answer?  The guy gets the connection between kickass design and the cultural and social forces it engenders.  Jobs understands the impact of technology on human lives and cares enough about that impact to create things of beauty that provide entertainment and accessibility for millions of people.  I recently read a quote that said that “I would buy tissue paper from Apple if they sold it.”  This is also why my 69-year old non-techno mother told me a few days ago that her relatively new iPhone was “one of the best things she’s ever had.”  Does this mean Jobs is not robustly trying to grow profits and market share?  Of course not.  But in our age of fickle consumers, you don’t get those without connecting company and culture.

Why Chambers?  Consumers are demanding accountability and connection in communication with the people that sell the things they buy and radical CEOs are willing to engage in that conversation.  In fact they encourage it and facilitate it.  Chambers figured out that his company, known for building routers and switches, is really about communication and collaboration.  The networks and systems the company develops and innovates are about connecting people – not machines.  And the philosophy starts at home – with Cisco’s dismantling of traditional corporate hierarchies and information pathways in favor of open innovation and communication.  Chambers is now facilitating the creation of entire wired communities in Asia.

Why Elsenhans?  This former basketball player and math major from Rice, one of the 15 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, is making an oil company an advocate for environmental change.  How many oil companies are advocating for climate change legislation, an increase in federal gas tax and move to all sustainable energy sources?  That Sunoco is out in front on these issues is her doing.  Elsenhans knows that the companies with the greatest influence on energy (the oil companies) need to lead the way – not fight.

It’s too simple to say that these are simply clutching, greedy people who are just manipulating society at large to line their pockets and enrich their investors.  That’s to fundamentally miss the personal passion for changing the world that lies at the heart of anyone pushing innovation, whether at a large or small enterprise.  I firmly believe that CEOs like Jobs, Chambers and Elsenhans could just as easily have ended up running powerhouse soup kitchens or doing public health work in Africa.  Corporations with these kinds of CEOs have public/private missions that drive the loyalty of employees, investors and customers.

Why do we need radical CEOs?

Another important feature of radical CEOs is the willingness to speak out.  Radical CEOs recognize the responsibility to govern and lead and talk openly about what revitalizes communities, technology, creativity and new enterprise.  They set an example for other CEOs and corporations, who are often struggling to figure out what and who they are beyond a purveyor of a particular good or service.

Yes, many CEOs have big egos and can be brash and arrogant (like some of the folks above).  Name a social enterprise or movement that didn’t have dominant personalities or titanic characters at its heart (think: Samuel Adams; Abby Hoffman; Lucretia Mott; Newt Gingrich; Cesar Chavez; Emma Goldman; the list goes on)

So radical CEOs fully understand that a large scale economic enterprise is a large scale cultural and social force movement.  In an age where government and business share hegemony in preserving social stability, businesses and CEOs that don’t understand and actively cultivate the social impact of their enterprises are leading enterprises that may or may not have relevance in 20 years (how’s that for market impact).

Again, the question is: who are Minnesota’s radical CEOs?  Who are the outspoken business leaders that blur the lines between economic, social and cultural leadership while leading energetic and successful enterprises?  Where are the titanic personalities that put Minnesota enterprises on the map as innovation engines?  You should not have to struggle to name names.

Minnesota, in fact, should be a prime breeding ground for such radical CEOs.  It’s a populist state with economic might, with strong connections between rural and urban, academic and “real world,” whose citizens give among the greatest percentages of income to charity of any state, a home of radical theater and agricultural cooperatives.

Minnesota CEOs who get the deep and organic connection between business, society and culture, and are willing to be outspoken community leaders, will be the ones to drive Minnesota innovation and attract investment dollars.  Finding, highlighting and nurturing these radical CEOs is thus a critical step for the Minnesota economy.

In an ongoing series, I will be digging into the Minnesota soil, looking for, and profiling, radical tech CEOs.  Leave any comments or suggestions below & stay tuned!


  • http://OpenSwipe.com Casey Allen

    That's a good question. I wonder if it's just not in the MN DNA to be “dominant” or “titanic” about things. Perhaps that makes you too many enemies in the upper midwest early on, killing the chances you'll be remembered for it.

    As I look at a list of local tech CEOs* I can't even say that I have even heard one iota about 99.9% of their styles or approaches, nonetheless their missions.

    Ernest, you hail from Austin, TX, no? Are we just a subdued, humble, and boring bunch? Or do we just not have enough Stanford MBAs running things?

    * http://j.mp/bZXhAX (not a complete list, just a list compiled mostly by someone more driven than me. Please don't get bent out of shape if you're not on it.)

  • ernestgrumbles

    Casey, good question. I'm from Dallas, where business interests tend to dominate – sometimes in bad ways. There is a more wildcat culture there. I actually think Radical CEO's are rare in most places. But you need just enough of them to keep the rest honest (so to speak). I think really it's a combination of vision (as opposed to pragmatic execution) and willingness to share the vision. The latter is key.