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Can an office drone be molded into an entrepreneur? Ressi thinks so. His Founder Institute teaches the art of startups. Ressi talks with Ashlee Vance about taking risks and high jinks with his college roommate, Elon Musk.
What kind of candidate do you look for to join your entrepreneur training program at the Founder Institute?
The most successful entrepreneurs in the world have a combination of the right type of personality and fortunate life circumstance. A lot of them have been doing it most of their life. For whatever reason—they dropped out of school, or they wanted to join a classic profession that didn’t work out—the next thing they know they’re an entrepreneur. But the world conditions you very well to be an employee, to work for someone else. Just look at banks: They don’t know how to finance entrepreneurs. When I want to buy a house and get it financed, a banker looks at my situation and is like, “I don’t understand. The salary history is all over the map.” They don’t know what to do with me. But if I had been earning $125,000 a year for the last three years, they’d be like, “Oh, easy. You’re preapproved for this.” The world deals with people who have stable employment histories very well, and so what we try to do is, we try to find people who have the raw material and have been put into situations where they are employees and recondition them.
A lot of countries and regions have tried to clone Silicon Valley, and it usually starts with building some sort of research center. But you’re trying to clone something different.
Culture. Silicon Valley has very little to do with the weather or the fact that there’s Stanford. If anything, we probably have fewer universities than Boston. But at the end of the day, a lot of it is the collaborative culture that exists here. We try to recreate that. When we opened a chapter in Bogota, Colombia, there was a huge number of successful technology people who’d never met one another. When I say huge number, I’m talking about 10. Ten of the top 10 people had never met one another. How does that happen? We had a lunch for our program’s mentors, and they were, “Oh, I know all about your company. Nice to finally meet you.” I’m sitting there, I’m like, “How do you not know one another?” It’s just different levels of evolution in these markets. Vietnam is very similar.
One of the things you bring to the table is your network of contacts, including some very famous, successful tech people. Elon Musk, for example.
Yeah. I have known Elon for 20 years. We were both transfer students [at the University of Pennsylvania] and got put in a freshman dorm. The social life there was horrible, so I said, “Let’s start a nightclub,” and he’s like, “OK.” So we moved into a house and started a nightclub in the house. It was a full-out, unlicensed speakeasy. We would have as many as 500 people. We would charge $5, and it would be pretty much all you could drink—beer and jello shots and other things. Our second house had 14 rooms—and there were three of us living in there. There was so much room in the freaking house we would actually use spent kegs and put plywood on top, and that was furniture. We had this desk tipped over on its side, painted all fluorescent. It was art. I came home one day, and it was gone. I’m like, “What the hell?” I’m running around the house looking for this desk. I go into Elon’s room. He’d basically taken the desk, painted it black, set it up, put his computer on it, and was using it. I’m like, “Dude, that’s like installation art in our party house.” And he says, “But I needed a desk.”