Nelson A. Carbonell Jr. Shares Keys to Tech Entrepreneurship

At a George Talks Business event, the chair emeritus of the GW Board of Trustees discussed the lessons he’s learned through the years

GTB Carbonell
Nelson Carbonell, chair emeritus of the GW Board of Trustees, shared entrepreneurship insights during a George Talks Business event. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
September 25, 2019

By Briahnna Brown

Even though he does not consider himself fearless, Nelson A. Carbonell Jr., B.S. ’85, understands that being an entrepreneur means looking at risk differently.

For example, while many people would consider leaving a stable job to start their own business to be too risky, Mr. Carbonell said the information he had after working in software engineering for almost a decade indicated that any risk in pursuing his dreams by starting a new venture was worth it.

“I never had trouble finding a job,” he said. “I had trouble finding a job that I liked.”

The Monday afternoon discussion was part of the George Talks Business event series, which the George Washington University School of Business hosts. The series features regularly-scheduled interviews with respected thought leaders in multiple fields.

Along with his entrepreneurial success, Mr. Carbonell served on the GW Board of Trustees for 17 years, the last six of which were as chair. Many describe his tenure as transformative. While on the board, Mr. Carbonell served on two presidential search committees, which recruited the 16th President Steven Knapp and the 17th President Thomas LeBlanc, and he chaired the committee that led the board to approve construction of Science and Engineering Hall.

During his tenure, the university hired GWSB Dean Anuj Mehrotra, who asked Mr. Carbonell a series of questions about tech entrepreneurship during the George Talks Business event—particularly how GWSB students interested in that field can be successful.

Mr. Carbonell founded Cysive, a software engineering company, nine years after he graduated from GW. He took the company public in 1999, just five years later. That growth required a corporate culture that prioritized technical expertise—something many companies did not at the time. This allowed his company to attract talented individuals who normally would not take the risk to work at a start-up, he said.

"One of the big challenges in a start-up is not getting the right people, because the right people won't come work for you,” Mr. Carbonell said. “It's getting the best people that you can get that can help you at that moment in time."

One of the hardest things to teach people is how to be a successful entrepreneur, he said, because it requires having something that can’t be taught in a classroom. However, students must understand that learning is something that doesn’t stop after graduation, Mr. Carbonell said, and everything learned while in school is important in helping students learn everything that will come later on.

Being a successful entrepreneur also requires plowing through a great deal of failure and rejection. Mr. Carbonell said he is fortunate to come from a discipline that anticipates mistakes throughout the process, as it’s not all about “failing fast.” Rather, he said it is more helpful to apply the software engineering mindset of understanding a problem, designing a solution and then fixing any bugs that come along the way.

"I think that rather than attaching this kind of loaded word ‘mistake’ to decisions, if you think about the fact that you have to debug things, that there's no way you could have been right out of the changes the way we think about it," Mr. Carbonell said.

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