Edwin H. Land is on my virtual board of advisors

At the Entrepeneurship Workshop here in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the tricks that Professor Tom Kosnik suggested is to create a virtual board of advisors. (I’m not sure if that’s the exact phrase he used to describe the list of people, but I think it describes the idea well.) The idea is that we should have a list of entrepreneurs and visionaries who we look to as examples and models.

Today, I’d like to add Edwin H. Land to my list. He was the founder of Polaroid, and he was mentioned by Steve Jobs in a 1985 interview. He dropped out of Harvard and never received a formal degree. However, “he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Carnegie Institute of Technology, Willams College, Tufts College, Washington University, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, University of Massachusetts, Brandeis University and many others.” Who needs a formal degree? I certainly don’t. (But I have one, just in case.)

During his time at Polaroid, Land was notorious for his marathon research sessions. When Land conceived of an idea, he would experiment and brainstorm until the problem was solved with no breaks of any kind. He needed to have food brought to him and to be reminded to eat. He once wore the same clothes for eighteen days straight while solving problems with the commercial production of polarizing film. As the Polaroid company grew, Land had teams of assistants working in shifts at his side. As one team wore out, the next team was brought in to continue the work.

Sometimes people think that hackathons are just for software hackers. Edwin Land was doing hardware hackathons in the 1940’s. He is truly a pioneer.

And he was a rebel: he didn’t always do what the investors wanted:

Land often made technical and management decisions based on what he felt was right as both a scientist and a humanist, much to the chagrin of Wall Street and his investors. From the beginning of his professional career, he hired women and trained them to be research scientists.

Edwin Land is a hero.

It is important to stand up for the things I believe in, even (and especially) when they’re unpopular. In Saigon, it’s a common expectation that businesspeople go out drinking alcohol together late at night, get drunk and do stupid (and ostensibly “funny”) things. I don’t think that’s good for productivity, and there are better ways for me to get to know people. I’m open-minded enough to give others the freedom to get drunk and not hold it against them; but it is a deliberate decision on my part not to participate, and it is my desire that they similarly don’t look down on me for making that choice.

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