March 31, 2006

C.U. Learns Entrepreneurship

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In a keynote address held yesterday in honor of the first annual Entrepreneurship @ Cornell celebration, Helen Johnson-Leipold ’78, chairman and CEO of Johnson Outdoors Inc., intertwined her father’s anecdotes and personal business experiences to exemplify the diversity within entrepreneurship.

Although Cornell’s Johnson School of Business was named after Johnson-Leipold’s great-great-grandfather, Johnson-Leipold believes that it was her father who created the Johnson family businesses that stands today. Currently the Johnson family businesses consist of four global companies, including S.C. Johnson and Sons, Johnson financial group, Johnson Diversity, Inc. and Johnson Outdoors Inc.

With each company holding a leading position in its market, the family businesses have a combined revenue of almost $10 billion. Yet, what Johnson-Leipold believes to be the most crucial asset in the family industry is the entrepreneurial spirit that her father cultivated, in which innovation is essential.

Johnson-Leipold explains that there is not one profile that creates a successful entrepreneur. Instead, triumph is achieved through fervor. She warns, however, not to allow a vision to be overlooked by passion.

As a means of representing Johnson Outdoor Inc., a leading manufacturer in outdoor recreational supplies, Johnson-Leipold surprised one audience member whose seat was marked by a red X with a canoe.

“When I speak at places, I always give a boar away so they invite me back,” Leipold joked.

The winner of the canoe, Camille Clark ’09, has had few opportunities to canoe in the past growing up in inner city Chicago and anticipates using it during the summer time. Johnson-Leipold’s gift reflected a reoccurring theme of her speech. Throughout her address, she stressed a focus on the people and community. To deliver this message, she showed films of her father sharing his unique business stories, each of which emphasized a sense of obligation towards society.

This idea struck chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems, John Casella, who is at Cornell as part of the entrepreneurship forum, as something that entrepreneurs should consider.

“I think it was really interesting to listen to Samuel Johnson’s [Johnson-Leipold’s father] perspective about what’s important for entrepreneurship,” Casella said. “Just as he said, it’s important to give back more than you take. He had a successful business while keeping it in the right framework which is to make a difference.”

In the future, Johnson-Leipold hopes that the Johnson family businesses will uphold her father’s values while expanding.

“We plan to be one of the leading outdoor recreational companies in the world,” Johnson-Leipold said. “It’s a high hurdle, but I think we can make it there.”

Archived article by Blair Robin
Sun Staff Writer