Sept. 28, 2023
Matt Higgins, co-founder and CEO of RSE Ventures, former vice chairman of the Miami Dolphins and current executive fellow at the Harvard Business School, told Culver Academies students about his struggles growing up in poverty and having to help provide for his family by scraping gum under tables at McDonald’s at 13 years old.
“The path to being successful is to make yourself indispensable at whatever job you're given,” Higgins told more than 140 students at an event on campus on Thursday. “I’m standing here today because I did the job that others wouldn’t want to do, and I didn’t care what my peers would think.”
Higgins spoke Thursday at two events sponsored by The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur. During the first hourlong program, Higgins answered questions from some of the 15 students in a strategic business management class about his book, “Burn the Boats.” During the second hourlong program, he described his rags-to-riches story and how he went from being the spokesman for then-New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani, to executive vice president of business operations of the New York Jets to founding RSE Ventures with Stephen Ross, to being a guest shark on the TV show “Shark Tank” and being a Wall Street Journal best-selling author.
“Burn the Boats” is a blueprint for those who are hesitant to take that first step, and Higgins spoke to the students on how to overcome obstacles, manage any fear and anxiety, and take risks.
Higgins said a common mistake entrepreneurs make is to look for validation for their ideas from friends, family and others.
“They look for validation when validation doesn’t exist because the opportunity arrived before there was evidence. So you need to cultivate your own internal navigation system so you can give yourself the validation,” he said. “All great innovations are gut sandwiches. They begin with a moment of intuition and insight. You try to layer in some data to support it to make sure you’re not crazy. But at the end of the day, the green light is intuition.”
He told students to surround themselves with pragmatic optimists who believe they can change the world but can also provide some practical advice.
“I have never met a wildly successful pessimist in my life,” he said.
He also told the students they should “reframe their discomfort with hard things,” realizing that feeling is natural when someone is putting themselves outside their comfort zone.
“Consider the alternative: a life of mediocrity, a life of complacency, when you’re never doing hard things,” Higgins said.
He said people who choose to try to be exceptional are going to feel that anxiety and use it as a tool “that will catalyze excellence.”
“I feel it every day I’m putting myself in a position where I’m like, ‘Are you crazy?” he said. “I decided to consider it part of the human condition and part of the feedback loop.”
He also told the students that as entrepreneurs they need to learn to press their advantages. As an example, he said, young people should be willing to work harder than others to give themselves an advantage. He said another advantage he had when he was spokesman for the New York City mayor was his ability to communicate.
“Choose your moments,” he said. “I would choose my moments to be deferential, to be dismissed, to be ridiculed from time to time. But where I was strong, where I knew I had an advantage, I would press that advantage. My advantage was I could deal with the toughest media in the toughest city in the world in a way people twice my age couldn’t handle.”
He said the cumulative experience the students are getting at Culver Academies is setting them up for the rest of their lives.
Higgins also spoke on the pressure some may face with needing to know what they want to do with their life right now. He encouraged the students to start identifying the core aspects of their personality and values system.
“A lot of time people bypass the ‘who am I’ questions, and they go straight to the ‘I want to be,’ ” Higgins said. “The ‘who am I’ questions will lead you to what you want to be.”
Higgins told the students to meditate on ‘who am I,’ and relieve themselves of the stress of knowing their ultimate job. There is no clear trajectory to where each person wants to end up.
“Move in the general direction of your ultimate ambition, and then make the next best decision,” Higgins said.
Higgins was the first speaker in The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur’s annual speaker series.
“The annual speaker series aims to expose our audiences to those entrepreneurs who lead in innovation, who demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities, and who are clearly reflective in their practices,” said J.D. Uebler, director of The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur.
The speaker series is made possible through the endowment established by Ron Rubin ‘68.