Jodi (Griesemer) Gernon is the first to admit that the tumultuous, exhilarating world of start-ups, entrepreneurial endeavors, and seat-of-the-pants potential isn’t for everyone.
“In a start-up, all bets are off,” she says. “You have to figure out what problem the company is trying to solve, and it has to be a problem you want to work on. You have to create it and develop it from the get-go.”
As the director of Harvard Business School’s Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, Gernon guides HBS students, faculty, and alumni down the entrepreneurial path while using the experience she’s gathered over decades in the innovation and entrepreneurship realm. Gernon also leverages the expertise of the HBS faculty and the school’s seasoned serial entrepreneurial alumni.
Despite the risks, the appetite for being an entrepreneur seems only to grow. Start-ups, she says, offer a fast path to more leadership, less politics, and plenty of opportunity to prove yourself at a younger age than a traditional route. Start-up founders do all tasks out of necessity so their work is never boring—but it can be all-consuming. “Early start-ups aren’t for people who like structured environments,” she says. “You have to be flexible and agile and comfortable with the unknown.”
An Innovation Guide
After decades working for and with fledgling companies, the HBS role Gernon assumed five years ago puts her in a position of experienced advisor for those ready to change the world with a new product or business innovation. It also keeps her on the cutting edge—the place where she’s most comfortable.
“I love this job because it keeps me young,” she says, acknowledging the incredible appetite for and curiosity about entrepreneurial success in students. “I couldn’t do any other role at HBS than this role. I work with investors, funders, joiners, students, alumni, faculty. I travel and try to understand innovation in the world and share that. I feel like I can help a larger group of people in this role than I could at one company.”
At this exalted business school, Gernon’s approachable style is focused on entrepreneurship, with particular attention to deep, world-changing ideas. It’s the entrepreneurs that come through her door, she says, who can identify a problem and have a plan to solve it … who keep her going.
Entrepreneurs aren’t always naturals. When they aren’t sure how to get from point A to point B, she guides them. Sometimes, she sends them back to square one. After all, she’s taken this path many times before. “I have all these years of experience,” she says.
“I am at the stage where I can help and that’s tremendous. I feel like I am coming to a point now where I can give back.”
Demystifying Entrepreneurship’s Complexities
Gernon is drawn to both the multilayered entrepreneurial process and the product.
The process of getting a company launched includes evaluating everything from initial problem to existing competition to market interest to business plans. She uses her business expertise and a fine-tuned global approach to evaluate social impact.
If her professional checklist sounds like project work at WPI, that’s because it started there. “WPI was a great experience,” she says. “It set me up for looking at opportunities and new way to solve problems.”
“WPI let me become more collaborative and a team player—that was important when I went out into the working world. ”
Always a strong student in math and science, Gernon’s upstate New York hometown was far from WPI’s campus and even farther from her plans to head off to medical school. But her father encouraged the third of his five daughters to look at engineering schools—so she sent applications to MIT, Clarkson, WPI, and RPI.
“My grandfather is a doctor,” she says, “and I honestly thought I would go to medical school. But WPI offered that path too. WPI sounded like a natural fit for me.” Med school plans detoured into a fortuitous blend of engineering work at WPI and eventually, a keenness to improve healthcare. “There are so many problems in healthcare and so many opportunities to fix them,” she says.
WPI Provided Foundation and Challenge
Gernon formed a community through her years at WPI and especially thrived in the role of SocComm (Social Committee) chair. She was tapped by Skull, and she was a sister of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. She remembers the impact made by biology professor Helen Vassallo (who became a strong female role model for Gernon) and her academic advisor, John van Alstyne.
“He took the time and cared about what you were doing,” she says. “I just knew I could go to him. He was a good person who wanted to see you succeed.”
Academically, WPI’s project work helped Gernon visualize her future. “WPI let me become more collaborative and a team player—that was important when I went out into the working world. And with my IQP and the emphasis on writing and the humanities, I knew how to communicate in the workplace and that helped me.”
Even WPI’s pass-or-do-not-graduate Competency Exam (which was discontinued in the ’80s and was the bane of many seniors’ existence) offered a challenge both terrifying and motivating. “I wish they never stopped that,” she says of the Comp, which required months of preparation and nerves of steel. “It was a big deal, and it gave such a big sense of accomplishment.”
Gernon’s IQP was especially memorable for its seemingly futuristic topic—evaluating the potential impact of robotics on the everyday worker with GE—and bestowed the exact perspective WPI wants to impart. “As an engineer, you have to look at society’s issues and what technology will do to society,” she says. “With today’s rapid technological advances, societal impacts that were never even imagined are emerging and are unacceptable—and innovators can’t ignore that piece of the puzzle.”
The project was also memorable for another reason—unequal participation. Gernon says one teammate was dealing with problems unrelated to the IQP and didn’t do the work. The impact on the project was significant and created conflict, although it fostered personal growth.
Thirty-plus years later, the experience lingers. “When our advisor asked if we all contributed equally, we had to answer, ‘No,’” she recalls. “It taught me that if you’re part of a team, you have to pull your weight—otherwise it’s not a team.” Even today she bases some of her management approach on that specific project and honors what each person brings. “I am more sensitive to how teams work,” she says.
Path to Entrepreneurship
After graduation, Gernon joined GE’s Manufacturing Management Program, where she gained training and leadership experience throughout the organization. “It was an incredible program,” she says, although it required near-continual travel. “I didn’t even have an apartment,” she says. She again considered going to med school but eventually submitted an application to Harvard Business School’s MBA program—almost on a whim and without expectations.
The night before leaving for a six-month Paris-based assignment, her one-off application cracked open a door. “They said, ‘We want you to come meet with us,’ but they really wanted to know if, as an engineer, I could make it,” she says. “Fifty percent of my grade would be class participation. They wanted to know if I could speak in class and convey my thoughts in an effective manner.”
With one rerouted flight to stop at Harvard before heading to Paris, her life changed. She joined the HBS Class of 1991 and thrived. She worked as a brand marketing manager for Pepsi between her first and second years at HBS—even acting as Pepsi’s marketing rep for the 1992 Super Bowl. “But the reality is that I don’t drink soda—and if I did it would be a Diet Coke,” she says laughing. But she enjoyed the fast pace of the work and her achievements in the environment. “I loved the creativity and energy of a consumer products business,” she says.
Finding Her Own Path
After graduation from HBS, Gernon assumed sales, marketing, mentor, advisor, and consultant roles with companies in the healthcare and medical device space. The early roles found her comparing her job to the thrilling, fast-paced world of Pepsi and finding it lacking. She missed the creativity and the speed to market she found with Pepsi.
When she joined a start-up shortly thereafter, her role combined sales, marketing, and business—wrapped in that I&E environment. “I was hooked,” she says.
She also learned how to fit her passion for entrepreneurship into her life away from work. After she founded Launchitivity, which advised healthcare start-ups, Gernon and her family—husband and three kids (now 21, 19, and 17)—moved between Massachusetts and Toronto. To keep pace with work and family, she took what she refers to as a step back from the full-time role.
“But I never disconnected,” she says. “Opportunities are lost when women totally remove themselves.” Gernon continued to work for start-ups and helped them define early product attributes and evaluate market opportunities as part of the initial founding teams.
World Urgency for Innovation
Now at the Rock Center, Gernon is thrilled to work with people who have the same passions to make a change, although they don’t all come at it in the same way. There are some who just want to fix problem that can help society—but they haven’t identified the problem.
“They are enthralled with being entrepreneurs, but don’t have a problem they’re solving,” she says, noting that she helps them explore options, but sometimes she just has to tell them to come back when they can be more specific. There’s good reason for that, she says. “If you’re not passionate about a problem, you’re never going to make it through the process.” she says With grueling, and typical, 18- to 20-hour days, entrepreneurs can’t tire of trying, so they have to be focused on something they care about.
“But the ones who are passionate about a problem? Those are the ones I am excited about,” she says. “There’s one student who is trying to make it easier for students to package their student loans and the project is running at the speed of sound. Another is investigating a substitute for palm oil, one of the largest causes of deforestation. Yet another, motivated by a personal experience of a delayed emergency response, is developing an app to help rapid response teams get to the correct location of an emergency. This is saving millions of lives. We’ve built a village here to support these people.”
Gernon remains involved with WPI through her work with Donna Levin in WPI’s I&E Center—as mentor-in-residence with the Women’s Innovation Network (WIN). She’s impressed by the university’s growth and the students’ capabilities. “I think the students are so much smarter than I was,” she says. “I’ve seen some of the scientific posters, and the work seems so much more advanced than what we did.”
The competition for global innovation isn’t lost on Gernon. “I truly believe entrepreneurs will create the new jobs,” she says. “Seventy percent of new jobs come from 30 percent of the companies. We have to innovate at all costs.” The future of work, she says, rests on countries recognizing the need to innovate and create.
Being part of innovation’s forward momentum is incredibly satisfying for her. “I feel like I’m part of something,” she says. “I’m trying to share what I know of innovation and entrepreneurship with the world and to evangelize the opportunities that are available. And if I can help get these projects another half-mile down the road … it’s so rewarding.” [ J ]