Survive, Revive and Thrive: A Reflection of My Sit Down With President Spinelli of Babson College
On September 25th, 2020, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Stephen Spinelli, President of Babson College. Previously, Dr. Spinelli served as the President of Philadelphia University and, most recently, as the Chancellor of Thomas Jefferson University (after the merger of the two schools). Before this, he was the Vice Provost of Babson for almost 15 years and the Director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. In his early life, he was also the co-founder of Jiffy Lube and the CEO of American Oil Change Corporation. As a Babson MBA alumni, he has genuinely built a career in franchising over three decades, but he is just getting started.
Naturally, one of the first questions I asked was, "What made you decide to pursue a Ph.D. as opposed to a career of building businesses?" After all, he had left the corporate world and entered the world of higher education. He responded, "I truly never made a decision, I just lived my life," further exclaiming that he "has always lived the Babson mission of Entrepreneurial Thought and Action and that learning was always a component of who I was - it was in a sense, a natural process." President Spinelli expressed that he never truly stopped building businesses; he is now educating young entrepreneurs to develop their own businesses. Of course, he has also been on the board of many corporations to date.
The next question I sprung to President Spinelli was, "Could you have ever imagined an event such as COVID-19 could have taken place, and if so, was there a contingency plan in place? Did you think it would last this long?" He answered jokingly, "Jack if I did, I would have changed some of my investments!" However, he labeled the COVID-19 as a "once in a lifetime event, akin to the Great Depression, or WWII… The reality is that we cannot hide; we need to be on top of it at all times. However, while these are difficult times, I am honored to be President, as it is a definitive moment… It is an opportunity in disguise to be able to capitalize on the aspirational nature of the human condition by seeking change and dealing with it while trying to understand all the variables one can as well as wow we will interact with them." He left me with three words: "survive, revive, and thrive," which he considered being integrated, not sequential, and will serve as his motto going forward into bringing Babson out of this pandemic and into the future. He noted that he heard many perspectives and that all had to be taken into account to decide how the school should proceed.
When probed deeper about the decision made last semester to send Babson students home, he pointed to two considerations: (1) health and safety, and (2) academic contingency and excellence, both of which were monitored by daily meetings to guide the decision making. On the same token, he claimed that it was the hardest decision that he has had to make at Babson: the decision NOT to close the college, but rather to send students home and shift to an all-virtual environment, being one of the first schools to make this decision. While he was not happy with this decision, it was what had to be done and was decided by a group after weighing all possible outcomes by reflecting on the guiding principles. While the decision was met with harsh criticism and an initially harsh campus reaction, he was prepared for this. Not to say he didn't lose sleep over the decision.
On a more jovial note, the next topic was in regards to his daily life at Babson. "I can't help but notice that you eat at the dining halls regularly. Are there any conversations or comments that you have overheard that have stood out?" First, he joked that students were sometimes too open in what they said about their personal lives! Second, he more seriously pointed out the number of aspirational discussions he hears on campus, which have served as a source of inspiration, and that it is incredible to hear that students are so focused on creating value. Furthermore, he noted that the conversations were more visionary and more mature than he could ever expect at the college level, but that made him proud to be the leader of this community and hopeful for the future. President Spinelli also mentioned that he misses the communal meals and the connection and agenda possible through face-to-face interactions. Also, he misses working out and traveling on behalf of the school and his personal life. He exclaimed, "Zoom is now the biggest part of my life!" and that certain interactions would not be possible without it.
Shifting to rising out of this pandemic, I asked, "What changes has Babson made that you feel will be a great improvement as we advance? What does the ideal campus look like going forward?" He proudly pointed to the strategic plan that resulted from a joint effort between the many leaders and friends of the Babson community. This mission will be furthered by the motto of "entrepreneurial leadership every year in ecosystems" and the Babson brand's expansion through the human condition of entrepreneurship. Beyond this, he stressed the importance of "new lingo, one of WebEx and Zoom being an inherent part of our being," and that if we can change the world through the intersection of education, social media, and networking, our impact becomes increasingly scalable.
Lastly, I asked, "If we were to sit down again like this a year or two in the future, what would have had to happen for you to say Babson (and yourself) was successful in the overall mission?" He stressed the school's institutional goals, such as the founding of the Blank School for Entrepreneurship, with many thanks to Arthur Blank, which was made possible by a donation to fund new hirings. While there are new goals in entrepreneurial leadership, the mission of Babson has remained the same. Even though Babson is moving into the future, he pointed back to the idea of "survive, revive and thrive" and noted that it would be ignorant to say we have survived this pandemic. "It is not over yet" and we have to continue to survive while also planning for the future and promoting greater learning. Beyond this, President Spinelli wants to make Babson an institution for life-long learning. When one says "my lawyer" or "my doctor," he also wants us to be able to say "Babson, my school" and for us to become the "go-to" learning community for life. That is, "my learning partner." A bond that does not end after formal graduation. Hence, we move into the motto's thrive portion by ensuring Babson's strategy lends to this.
A special thank you to President Spinelli for taking the time to sit down with us at Rebellion and sharing his thoughts with us.
Written by Jack Argiro
Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Michael Ding & Gihyen Eom