Last Thursday I found myself staring out of the enormous floor to ceiling windows in the penthouse skybar of Ion at Orchard, one of Singapore’s flagship commercial/retail luxury skyscrapers in the heart of the city center. I could see the entire city from there, like a diorama. Singapore is bigger than I realized, with many neighborhoods and many little districts all seeming to teem with so much life and activity. To me, it is still a city very full of wonderment and secrets.
I had come for a special meeting of the Johnson Alumni club of Singapore. We would be hosting the core Finance teacher, who was in town lecturing professors at different universities and defending his research on the relationship between institutionally owned equity and leverage. He had been one of my favorite professors, he had stuck up for me when I was going through some difficult times, and has a no-nonsense air to him that perhaps reflected his time in the Israeli Defense Forces. He was very much a man’s man, he had style and he was warm, kind and intellectual without being puffy or effete. He isn’t the kind of guy that has to run his mouth every second or use a lot of big words to try and show his superiority. I was looking forward to seeing him, and hoped he’d draw out more members of the Johnson Alumni group I could network with.
We had coincidentally met at the elevator on the way up got to walk in together, which made me feel cool. The first two people we saw were co-presidents of the club, who had both met with me in the last few weeks to offer contacts and advice. One was a female, ABC or American Born Chinese as she called herself, who works in new product marketing for a major consumer packaged goods company. She is a thin woman of medium height with a brilliant and generous smile and bright sparkling eyes. Her feminine appearance and dress is often playfully at odds with her raspy voice and tomboyish mannerisms. She originally moved here with her co-president, neither of them having jobs. Their story is inspirational to me.
Her co-president is a mountain of a man, 6’4″ and built like a football player. He has short sandy brown hair and large, warm features. He is soft spoken and gentlemanly and gives the impression of a guy who knows a lot more than he is letting on. He arrived late to the first Johnson Alumni club social, but before he arrived everyone insisted I meet him. We chatted briefly then and seem to get each other’s sense of humor a bit and had many of the same reasons for wanting to be in Singapore. When we met for coffee when I begun looking for new work, he had a ton of advice for me and contacts and just genuinely seemed to care. Ivy league MBA types are not known for their warmth. A classmate once elegantly described this special class of type-A’s as “not inherently mean, just having a narrow threshold of sacrifice when considering the needs of others.” I can say that my impression of the male president of the Johnson Alumni Club of Singapore is as someone who really cares deeply about other people and I already consider him a friend.
Only a few people ended up showing up, but no one seemed to mind. I remembered that one more thing I had in common with the finance professor who was our guest, a highly polarizing personality. He was easily the most hated and most loved one of the core professors. He would often push students to think harder about their answers and was known to isolate students in class with flurries of questions that would leave them feeling embarrassed. Perhaps worse, he was known for giving his opinion easily and crushed the dreams of many a student when he would let them know point blank that they were not cut out for the career that they had in mind for themselves. He alienated a lot of people this way, but for those of us who weren’t quite so thin skinned or easily embarrassed, we were hungry for his realness. Watching him speak to the group, I wondered if one day I would be invited to travel the world, lecturing on my research, or some parallel honor in whatever field I find myself in 20 years.
Just last week, a young entrepreneur asked me to join his team at Unreasonable at Sea, a 100 day start-up accelerator taking place on a ship as it circumnavigates the globe, stopping in port cities to give lectures and presentations on our design. On Friday night I met him and one of his colleagues in Clarke Quay, the night life district to chat over the idea. There is no doubt that the technology they have in hand is remarkable and their potential is significant – they have received more unbelievable honors than you can imagine, MIT’s TR35 award for top global innovators, Forbes Magazine calling the founder one of 30 people under 30 most likely to change the world. Where I fit in at this point is somewhat unclear however. I am a lot older than most of the people on the team and my priorities in life are different, despite how exciting their work and their opportunities are.
Whatever the next opportunity to come my way is, I can say that I look forward to it.