Govindh Jayaraman is a portfolio entrepreneur who started his first company at 18, has worked in industries from real estate development to tech, and is currently President of IMBA Medical. He’s also an inspirational leadership author and the mastermind behind the Paper Napkin Wisdom movement, a collection of “nuggets” of wisdom from leaders, business-owners and difference-makers written on paper napkins. This fall, he’ll join longtime Starbucks President Howard Behar, culture expert Jason Barger and others at the second annual Thermostat Cultures Live one-day retreat on Nov. 9 in Columbus, Ohio. Here, meet Govindh.
Q: You call yourself a portfolio entrepreneur. Can you give us a sampling of businesses you’ve run?
A: I started with a student painting franchise then went into real estate development. From real estate development, I went into importing and exporting—buying and selling stuff. And I didn’t really care about what stuff it was until somebody said, “I want to buy 2,000 computers.” So I teamed with a guy to sell computers that were new but two to three generations old at a significant discount. Our market became developing countries and developing schools in those developing countries. One day, one of those schools said, “Hey, we’ve got all of these students who are learning coding. Do you have any projects?” I thought of a program, and they make it. After software, I got into renewable fuels. And now medical. But really what I do is lead.
Q: Which has been most successful—and why?
A: Measuring success is difficult. The most successful company has been the biodiesel company in every traditional measure—revenue, profit, duration. It’s been much more successful than I ever anticipated. We helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New York Harbor by 3 percent on our own one year. But I think the most successful company truly will be my healthcare startup that’s happening now.
Q: Why do you think this will be most successful? I assume based on your response that means you’re now measuring success in a less traditional way?
A: How I measure success is really in line with my purpose in life—my why. All of the companies that I’m most proud of helped people or organizations make small changes that would make a big difference. Now, we’re working on healthcare. I really believe that everybody deserves to have the care they need when they need it most, and I think IMBA Medical can help make that happen.
Q: You say you feel it’s as important for leaders to share their failures as it is to share their successes so that people can learn from those. What failure have you learned from?
A: At one point, I was so committed to changing the rules—to innovating—that I forgot that being a rebel against convention didn’t mean that I needed to rebel against everything. And I rebelled against everything. I was not predictable as a leader. I didn’t show up consistently to support my team. I didn’t show up consistently for anything other than the thing burning brightest at the time. And that lack of focus created challenges. I never practiced focus when I had the opportunity to do so in little, manageable, winnable ways. I practiced focus when I was down and out—face down at the bottom of the ditch.
Q: How have you changed because of that?
A: I’ve massively simplified the number of things that I have to do in a day. I was convinced that I was the superhero to my own story, and I think I’ve learned that I don’t need to be the superhero, I can be part of the team of superheroes. There’s more strength in all the Avengers than in any one of them. For a very long time, I made it impossible for great teammates to join me, because I was unjoinable. So how have I changed? I’ve simplified what I do. I focus on important things. I show up consistently in the same way, and that allows people to understand who I am. And once I’ve created that level of focus and attention on the vision, everyone knows exactly what it means to move forward. Then we can stay wildly committed to getting the results we want.
Q: The concept of Paper Napkin Wisdom is simple: You simply ask people to share a pearl of wisdom on a napkin. How did this start?
A: I’m really not sure how the idea started. But I’d be at these really great places with great entrepreneurs, and I’d take notes of the things they said. And I’d ask them to write them down themselves and give them to me. Especially when I was at the bottom of the ditch, I’d really hold onto those words. What I stumbled on is that when I asked people to share with me their greatest point of wisdom, and in a space-restricted way, that got the response to a better place. That was a better question. So the napkin is a door to a question. It’s not the answer. It’s never the answer. I think it’s trite to say we can explain the world in a few letters on a napkin. What follows is the great question and that’s what’s most powerful.
Q: Is there a common theme to the pearls of wisdom people share?
A: I don’t think people are conscious that there’s a theme. But the bottom line is, I think we forget that success is something we contribute to every day in a little way. My big failure was when I thought I was successful. I did not pay that rent every day. And I certainly didn’t act every day in a manner to be successful that day. Success is about who we are, who we show up as.
Q: Who do you hope to show up as every day?
A: Me. Just me. That’s good enough. And I think my discovery—my learning—is about peeling off layers of, Who is that person? And how can I be that person?
Q: How and when do you ask people to write on the napkins?
A: I get them a lot. I was at a chef’s table, and the chef said something really amazing, and I asked him to share it on a paper napkin. The other day I got one from my first ever mentor. I remind myself that answers are found everywhere, but questions are harder. I’m always trying to learn from everyone.
Q: How many have done it?
A: Thousands. I’m in my home office as we speak, and I’m looking at Ziploc bags full of napkins.
Q: What are a few personal favorites—favorite people who have participated and favorite things written?
A: Asking me to do that is like publicly admitting I have a favorite child. That’s a loaded question. But one of my favorites—mostly because of the conversation that followed—was this: “One’s true success is only measured against one’s capacity.” His point was, your capacity increases over time. You’re always chasing this more successful self. It’s your own internal capacity of being who you really are. I think that state of being, that state of presence, is a powerful thing. There’s another great paper napkin that says this: “The only worthwhile task is a monumental task.” The man who wrote that actually said he’s never met one of his goals, because every time he gets close, he throws it out further. We can always compete upwards to something else, something greater.
Q: Have your wife or any of your three kids ever written one?
A: The kids do them up all the time and hand them to me, which is great. They’re mostly about how they feel. My wife has been less willing to give me one. But she’s a truly great leader and a very intuitive one. Her greatest trait is that she treats everybody as they can be and not as they are. So if she had one, that’s what it would say.
Q: Thermostat Cultures Live is an intimate, day-long gathering for innovative leaders committed to shaping dynamic cultures, hosted by Jason Barger. It’s all about insightful conversation and meaningful connection. You’re among the speakers. What excites you about the event?
A: I love the work that Jason does. I first met him through the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, when we invited him to speak at the Global Leadership Conference in Bahrain. When I started Paper Napkin Wisdom, he was one of the first people I reached out to for a paper napkin. He’s a student of every moment. “Step Back From the Baggage Claim” is all about being a student and being observant of the things around us all the time. I think it’s really profoundly aligned with what we think at Paper Napkin Wisdom and what I think personally about leadership.
Q: Why is culture important?
A: It’s like asking, “Why is air important?” One of our most successful Paper Napkin guests shared this message: “A small team of people who are willing to go to back to back for each other can beat a huge organization.” He always picked a small team. And that small, nimble, cooperative, cohesive, high-culture team will beat a team that’s 10 times its size every day. That’s why culture is important. If you’re a company that’s got a default culture, you’re probably running cold—and you’re in trouble, and you don’t know it. Today, with a snap of a finger, you can go from being relevant to irrelevant. Culture is important because it’s the only thing that will keep a company relevant over time.
Q: What does your paper napkin say today?
A: Focus. Align. Act.
Join Govindh along with longtime Starbucks President Howard Behar; author, speaker and leadership coach Jason Barger; and others at Thermostat Cultures Live on Nov. 9, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio.
Reserve your seat for this interactive day to connect, learn, grow and thrive at www.thermostatcultureslive.com.