My Mother and her shoe boxes

This is a hard post to write. Today is May 12. It is the day of my mother’s birthday. She also died, at age 60, on May 12. That day also happened to be Mother’s Day. It was a difficult day with too many coincidences.

Soon after she passed away, I was at the funeral home. My mom kept in shoe boxes every greeting card my sister and I had ever given her. She had asked my sister that the boxes be placed in her casket after her death. I didn’t know about either the boxes or her request, until after my mother died.

And so, there I was, waiting for the funeral director, going through card after card as I relived past decades. There were hand-drawn cards from our youth, with unsteady writing and crayon pictures. There were also the polished store-bought cards I had sent as an adult. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. Too many memories. In shoe boxes.

The director came up to me. I stood up and handed the boxes to him. Giving away those cards was hard.

Afterwards, I drove back from the funeral home, and I thought about many things. In the silence, I thought about how my mother didn’t want to emigrate to the U.S. and leave her family, friends and culture. I remembered the very hard life we had when we first moved here with just $1,500. I remembered well our dilapidated apartment in a beaten-down part of Brooklyn. But, in the end, my mother persevered. She wanted a better life for her children.

As I drove, I regretted that I had never thanked my mother for moving to the U.S. It was a long drive.

Growing up, my mother used to say to me: “Please work hard at whatever you do for a living.” It was her polite way of saying: “I’ve given up a lot so that you might have more–so, don’t waste my sacrifice.”

Why do I write this? First, I think many VCs like what they do because we really identify with people who want to chase the American Dream. I definitely do.

To me, being a VC is not just a job. It’s personal.

Second, I find that many entrepreneurs can point to a person, who unwittingly planted the seeds of entrepreneurship in them early in life. I have met with probably over 5,000 founders in my venture capital career. They come from many backgrounds and areas of life. Not everyone shares why they are starting a new company, but when they do, the stories are fascinating. I find that these intensely personal “drivers of drive” are very inspiring.

I’d like to close with two last items. First, if you’re an entrepreneur, I’d love to hear about why you are one. You can always get a job working for someone else, but yet, you’ve decided to start something new. Why?

Second, to my mother, I hope this somehow gets to you: a very belated and deeply-felt thank you….

12 thoughts on “My Mother and her shoe boxes

  1. Jo,

    Great post. Thank you for sharing. I just moved to Boston (from NYC) and I have started following you. You consistently publish great posts.

    My entrepreneurial drive comes from my Grandfather. Four years before The Graduate was released with the famous quote about plastics, my Grandfather started a plastics plant in Lynn Mass. In the 80s, he was part of the Tech boom around the 128 beltway. His most famous contribution was a seed investment in Parametric Technology. And at the turn of the 21st century, he was still at it. His last active deal was in mobile. It was 2001 and he was trying to turn mobile phones into barcode readers.

    I learned three important lessons from speaking with and watching my Grandfather.

    First, be opened minded and try to understand future potential. It is too easy to pass something off as infeasible if you’re thinking in today’s parameters. In 2001, way before the iPhone, my Grandfather envisioned a world in which people had personal scanners in their pockets that they could use to capture information or make payments. Naysayers looked at their primitive phones and the rigid retail channel and said it was not possible. It’s eleven years later and QR codes are everywhere and mobile payments are getting serious.

    Second, as the saying goes “another word for too early, is wrong.” Unfortunately, having an amazing vision of the future does not mean you will profit. So while my Grandfather understood where the market was going, he invested too early.

    Third, entrepreneurship is management plus vision. My Grandfather was a visionary. He saw plastics before any one else. He was looking at nanotech before “nano” was an everyday word. And he was pushing the boundaries of mobile when the hottest phone was the Motorola Star-tac. Unfortunately, he never fully realized the potential of his visions because he lacked management. This is not a knock. This happens all of the time. Two great examples are Clarence Saunders and William Durant. Saunders created the self-service retail store concept. Whenever you go into a store and grab a bag of flour (or box of cereal or jug of oil) instead of asking clerk to fill your order you can thank Clarence Saunders. Unfortunately, Saunders was a visionary and not a manager. As a result, he changed the way we live our lives but was unable to retain the profits from that innovation. Same with William Durant, who formulated General Motors. Durant knew that people wanted different lines of cars, not just one boring Model T. But his vision was not executed well until it was paired with great management in the form of Alfred Sloan.

    I spent yesterday with my Grandfather. He is 85 years old and still putting deals together. I’m very proud of him and fortunate to know and learn from him.

    1. Jonathan, you are very lucky to have such a grandfather. What a great role model. Thank you for writing and for the encouragement.

  2. Powerful post, Jo. Thanks for sharing.

    In short, the reason I’m an entrepreneur is that it’s not lost on me how many have sacrificed and even died in order for me to have a fair shot at life, in my own country of birth.

    My roots in the USA are in Georgia. As far as we can tell, my family has been in this country almost 200 years. That’s oral history only; we don’t really know since black literacy was sometimes punishable by death or amputation in the antebellum south, so much was lost.

    I’m the first generation in my family to not be born into American slavery, the Reconstruction peonage system, the Black Codes, or Jim Crow. The first with full rights of citizenship (including voting without the poll tests my parents had to endure), the first not forced to attend enforced segregated schools, live in segregated neighborhood housing, and the first to be able to rightfully use any public facility in the USA (hotels,restaurants, etc) due to the ICC ruling in 1961. The first who really has the full opportunity to pursue the American Dream after ~200 years.

    My own mother “emigrated” from the Jim Crow Deep South, and followed my father to California in the 1950’s. It was ILLEGAL for her to attend the University of Georgia at the time, so if not for a HBCU (Ft. Valley State College) she would not have been able to obtain a college degree in her home state. She subsequently went on to become an Asst. Dean at UC Berkeley. If not for her courage to uproot and move to a strange place, away from her own roots and culture, as opposed to growing up in open-minded, academic, intellectual Berkeley, I’d have been shuttled off to inferior schools in rural Georgia.

    So, any time I even think of not taking advantage of the sacrifices of my family and my ancestors in this country, I remind myself that I’m just one generation away from THAT America, and that self-determination and ownership of my career is the least risk I can take. Being an entrepreneur enables me to make my own decisions, and not be dependent on others’ determining my worth, abilities, or my aspirations.

    Best,

    Tim

    1. Tim, have you read “Warmth of other Suns” (at http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0679444327)? I read it last summer and your comment reminds me again that this country was really two countries for many centuries, divided along racial lines.

      It is amazing to hear about your Mother’s courage and determination. I think entrepreneurship is sometimes about getting lucky, but it more usually is about decades of effort, much like your mother’s journey. I am sure she is very proud of you, as you are of her.

      Hope you are well….

  3. Wow what an amazing post. Thank you for sharing this story!

    Having lived a very similar life to yours I found this post especially emotional and special.

    I too wish I had gotten the chance to say Thank You to my Mother before her passing. I hope this message finds its way to her somehow.

    Thanks again Jo.

    1. Hi David, you are too kind to write those encouraging words. Yes, it is eerie as to how similar our backgrounds are. We are e-twins separated at birth?

  4. Heartfelt and inspiring. A really great post with a personal touch. So rare to see in startup related blogging.

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