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Established in 1988, the Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies offers a wide range of courses within the Desautels Faculty of Management. Although a quick glance at the Centre's curriculum suggests nothing revolutionary (Creating the Small Business; Topics in Management, etc.), it isn't long into a discussion with Dobson's director, David Lank, that you realize this is a place that encourages diversity of thought. The same is true of Lank, himself a former investment banker who is an accomplished artist and actor (he's starred in three productions at the Centaur Theatre) and an active conservationist.
Tell us about the genesis of the Dobson Centre.
The Centre is the direct result of the generosity of John Dobson and his foundation, who 16 years ago felt that there was a significant need to expose students to real-life entrepreneurs—practitioners who have been there, done it and, in most cases failed spectacularly [Laughing]. But people who have bounced back with that indomitable spirit of entrepreneurs and have made a great contribution to our way of life.
Over the last dozen years, we have brought in over 100 outsiders who consider it an absolute honor to come in and share their war stories with students.
It sounds like the subject of failure is almost embraced.
Mistakes are essential in the real world. If you aren't making mistakes, it means you aren't trying anything and nothing moves ahead. What could be more boring than that?
We encourage our students to take risks because risk is part of the creative process. That's why we bring all kinds of things into the mix; art, religion, philosophy, poetry and music—things that are going to make entrepreneurs different from people who are strictly technocrats.
We tell our students that we want them to put 90 percent of their marks at risk. Say the most outrageous things, and then be prepared to take criticism, to listen and to modify. Not knowing something isn't a sign of inferiority, it's an opportunity to learn something.
But not all your guest lecturers come from the business world...
Two years ago, we created a course called Entrepreneurial Leadership in which we invite remarkable Canadians who are leaders of their field, any field. We've hosted everyone from Archbishop Bruce Stavert to Chief Billy Diamond [former Grand Chief of the Grand Council of Crees].
Shouldn't young entrepreneurs be learning from business leaders?
Within any human endeavour, you have to be entrepreneurial if you're going to make a difference. Increasingly, business principles—especially entrepreneurial business principles—are applied to everything from NGOs to governments. We're interested in the soft personal skills that helped make these people so successful.
As a result, students are inspired by [film producer] Jake Eberts discussing how he starts a new enterprise every time he starts a new movie—all on a handshake with Robert Redford. And they get to talk to Romeo Dallaire about what it means to represent Canada. Or they talk with Maurice McGregor, ex-Dean of Medicine, who would visit his students in South African jails because they had felt strongly enough about Apartheid to take action.
What are students' reactions?
Most can't believe it. They say "I just sat down with [Justice] John Gomery and I was calling him John." Intellectually, it's totally different than a public lecture series where very talented people come in a give a canned speech in front of 350 people.
There's a flow. The analogy I use is the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur. Until recently, they were the tallest buildings in the world. On about the 40th floor there's a bridge linking the two buildings. We are that bridge because we give strength and structure to engineering and architecture and medicine and whatever else because we facilitate the transfer of people and ideas between the towers.
Can you give an example of the type of soft skills that would be beneficial for an entrepreneur?
We are all victims and perpetrators of social convention. When you meet someone for the first time, you ask people what they do. If they say "I'm an accountant," many people instantly assume they have no sense of humour or are crooked in some way.
But if you want to know who that person really is and co-opt them onto your team, when that magic moment comes, change the question and ask them "What do you love?"
And they'll say something like "African violets," and they'll be happy to give you a whole monologue on African violets. At the end of it, they will remember what a great conversation they had. Then, when you find out they are an accountant and, should you ever need one, they'll bend over backward to help you.
OK, so what do you love?
[Laughing] You were listening!
I love art. I know I'm a good amateur but I also know that I would starve to death as a professional so I have no ambitions to paint church ceilings in Italy.
I have also been very active in conservation. I am the past chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Association and was inducted into their Hall of Fame. I've also served as President of the Zoological Society and as a lecturer for the Audubon Society. In a few days, I'll be talking to the Chateauguay Valley Historic Society and Water Authority on the America that has vanished. It's kind of my Al Gore presentation—except I've been giving it since 1967.
Some people would see the combination of investment banker and conservationist as being one big internal conflict of interest.
[Laughing]Anyone who claims, as do certain politicians who shall remain nameless because Ralph Klein is in town, that the choice is either economic growth or the environment, has got it all wrong. I don't know what rock they've crawled out from under because I see more economic growth from solving these problems than what they are doing on a perpetuating-the-problem kind of basis. There is absolutely no conflict between economic growth and the environment.
Where does the passion for conservation come from?
For my 11th birthday, my father gave me my first book of Audubon birds. He inscribed it "To David on his 11th birthday, the chief birder of the family." It was done in wartime so it was lousy paper and the colour reproduction was terrible, but there was something about the way the birds were interpreted that struck home.
For whatever reasons, from my earliest memories I've had an affinity for wilderness and wildlife that was not normal. I think it compensated for the fact that of all the kids I knew growing up, I was the biggest nerd [Laughing]. I was terrified of people, crowds, public speaking. I was almost catatonic.
But that early passion has informed my adult life—one of the earliest things I did for McGill was a major book on the original charcoal drawings of pheasants and the birds of paradise by the greatest Victorian nature artist, Joseph Wolf.
Any words of advice for the young entrepreneurs reading this?
If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly—and this doesn't only apply to business. We are so trained not to do something unless we can excel, that we end up missing out on a lot of things. Do it to the best of your ability—even though that might mean you'll do it poorly—but try it. If you've never skated, how do you really know that Gretzky was a great hockey player?
One of the things I've always wanted to do was conduct an orchestra. Last year I got the chance when the McGill Chamber Orchestra needed a guest conductor for Mozart's 250th birthday bash. There I was, standing in front of these great musicians with my baton poised and they're just waiting for me. What a buzz.
It got so excited, that in one magnificent moment the tip of my baton hit the podium and flipped through the air. So I picked it up and continued conducting. I did it badly. But, wow, what a high. If I only did those things that I do well, I'd have a hell of a lot more time on my hands.