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In today’s youth-centric tech industry, Michael Dell, at 56, is somewhat of an elder statesman. His Austin, Texas, residence hosts occasional dinners where young entrepreneurs can seek his guidance on business and life issues. Dell once was where they were: He started a technology company when he was a teenager, in his college dorm. After that, he dropped out from school. Thirty-plus years later, he’s a billionaire. His journey is more complicated. He created the PC assembly business at Texas University in 1984. It became a Fortune 500 firm that went through many twists. Dell was successful in his fight against Carl Icahn (activist investor) for control and took Dell private. He orchestrated EMC Corp.’s purchase, which was one of history’s most important tech transactions, several years later. In 2018, he took the company again public.
These events, and many others, shaped Dell’s nearly forty-year career as a business pioneer. A new book Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to LeaderThis is. TIME spoke to Dell about his lessons learned.he changing role of the CEO, and his belief that for-profit businesses have potential to make the world a better place—and be more effective than philanthropy.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
You talk about how you have grown as a leader and the lessons you learned along the journey. Which were the most important mistakes you made?
Early on, I realized that people have different beliefs and values. We had to be very explicit about what was OK and what wasn’t OK. As you expand a company, especially around the world—this is maybe not the most elegant way to put it, but—there are places in the world where if they didn’t catch you doing it, it’s OK. Well, that’s not OK in our company. So we had to be super explicit about that and I think by being explicit, we hopefully didn’t attract people that wanted to operate in a different way. And when there were things that were consistent with that, it wasn’t like a hey, I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again. It’s like, no, no. You don’t do that. You’re gone. And I think having an extremely clear boundary around what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable… some might say wow, it’s really harsh.
Telling someone, I’m sorry, you made a big mistake, and you have to leave… That’s a difficult conversation, isn’t it? Is that a skill you’ve honed over the years?
I once heard this described as difficult conversation art. One of the people who was coaching me back in the ‘90s actually gave me a book. It was probably called Tough ConversationsWe are. This was a topic we discussed a lot. And yeah, I wasn’t great at it at first, for sure. I did learn that it was very important. And by the way, the vast majority of people take feedback actually quite well when it’s done in a constructive way. The outcome of these conversations is very telling.
More than a decade ago, Dell laid out some ambitious goals for 2020—around things like inclusion and sustainability. More people now expect companies and CEOs to be involved in solving social issues. How did you come up with these goals in 2010?
Let me back up to the early ‘90s. We were producing enormous numbers of computers and it’s doubling every year. At some point you realize this computer has a set lifespan. At some point, it’s no longer useful. Then what? We better think about this pretty carefully, because if you make a million of these things, eventuality there’s a million that are no longer being used. If you have 10 million you can get 100 million. It is now that you start thinking about their lifecycles and what materials are used to make these items. How could these materials end up in the waterway, a dump or even a ditch? My team was challenged. Let’s really do a molecular level look at everything we’re putting in our machines to say which of any of these ingredients could possibly, over time, be dangerous or harmful. These ingredients can be eliminated. Then we began thinking about ways we can use greener, cleaner materials. Then we started to think about the life cycle and recycling. When I was going to sleep at night, putting the head on the pillow, I’m thinking, ‘Holy Bleep, all these things have my name on them.’
These machines can be found in any landfill and everyone will know where they come from.
I don’t want to be known as the guy that created an environmental catastrophe, right? All we had been trying was to create computers.
Your CEO colleagues, which factors do you believe are driving them to become more engaged in social issues?
You’ve probably seen some of the same data I have, but the Gen-Zers… I think a high percentage of them believe that companies should aim to do good in the world. I don’t think that was the case 40 years ago. This could be because organisations play a larger role than ever before in today’s world. Maybe it’s because other organizations have a lesser role. I don’t really know. We don’t feel compelled to weigh in on every issue, but there are certainly issues that we feel sort of intersect with our business and our stakeholders and our shareholders and also things that we can do something about, and meaningfully impact.
You talk extensively about technology’s potential to solve global problems. Which are the most important problems you believe technology can help to solve?
So look, I’m an optimist. If you’re not an optimist, you’re not going to start a company. I also think it’s just a better way to live your life. Let’s take inclusion, diversity, equity. Well, it turns out if you step back and you say, all right, there’s maybe eight billion people in the world now, and the demand for skills has never been greater. There’s a real opportunity here to increase the aperture of how organizations are thinking about talent and bring more people into this world and create tremendous opportunity. And, there is a lot of science to suggest it’s starting to happen. I believe there’s going to be more progress. I’m not saying it’s on autopilot or just happens by itself. You have to think about it. We’ve set very aggressive goals for ourselves for 2030.
When you consider decarbonization and climate, and the environment technology is the key. Because of the opportunities and challenges they present, I think all of them are tied to technology.
What can you do to encourage your employees to keep their eyes on the future, new products, and creativity?
You must eliminate risk, and encourage experimentation. You have to be explicit about the desire to go after these new opportunities, with the knowledge that they’re not all going to work. You don’t have to be afraid of taking risks. As companies grow, they tend to be more cautious about taking on risk. Everyone doesn’t want to take on risk. Well, turns out, if you want to innovate, you’re going to have risk. The innovators are our heroes. The patent recipients are celebrated. There are, I believe, around 32,000 patents. See something new at our annual patent awards celebrations. You can see someone receive an award for having received 50 or 100 patents throughout their career. It’s always experiment, test, fail, try again, and then eventually, hopefully you get some success. That’s what you want.
Is it possible?
There are many hack-a-thons, contests within the company. Our internal funding process is well-developed. Of course, innovation does not occur within the corporate walls. You have partners and alliances that you’re always collaborating with. You have companies you acquire because they’re at the bleeding edge of experimenting with new things and so that can accelerate innovation. We have Dell Technologies Capital which invested in approximately 130 companies. [since 2012]. It’s all about 5G and AI and machine learning and cybersecurity, and things that are relevant to our future. Some of these businesses are successful, while others are still in the early stages. Many of these companies will fail. That’s just the way the ventures work, but we’ll learn a lot from those companies.
It was your teenage years when your business venture began. This is almost four decades ago. Do you notice any differences between yourself and today’s young entrepreneurs?
I had a dinner at my house on Friday night with about 10 founders of companies, and they were all, I’ll say, 10 to 15 years younger than I am. There are many interesting and innovative companies out there, some already publicly traded, others in the process of going public. This is because these companies have a more purpose-oriented approach to their business than we do. I’m investing in a lot of these companies that have a deep belief that they can make a positive impact in the world. While I believe philanthropy can be great and support it, I feel that for-profit businesses that are motivated to make a positive impact on society will drive more change than just philanthropy. And you’ve seen this time and time again in finance for example, and microfinance, with microlending. It’s clear that for-profit companies have huge impacts.
What are you most curious to know about these young founders? Which questions are they most interested in?
It’s interesting. They ask about how you grow and evolve a team, because they’re struggling with that—the hyper growth. And then they get into how you raise your kids and how do you make sure your kids don’t turn out to be horrible and stuff like that. They are interested in learning how to balance a family.
Many founders of your generation have moved on and are doing philanthropic work—or just relaxing on a beach—full-time. What’s kept you engaged in your work at Dell?
It seems funny to me because it’s what I love. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s exciting. What we do matters in the world, and if somebody took it away from me and said you can’t do that anymore, I’d be really sad.