A Tribute To David T. Morgenthaler

Anyone who has ever taken on a challenge, including starting or growing a company, knows that a great mentor is one of the most important assets one can have. On June 17th, one of my most important mentors, David Morgenthaler, passed away.

David didn’t just succeed at venture capital—he helped to invent the industry. I was born just a few years before Morgenthaler Ventures was founded, and I was in sixth grade when David invested in one of the most famous upstart tech companies the world has ever know—Apple Computers.

By the time I met David, he was well into his eighties. But I’d grown up in Northeast Ohio— where he lived and worked since the late 50’s—and I’d also graduated from his alma mater, MIT, where I knew he was the patriarch of the “original” U.S. business plan competition—MIT’s 50k. So, when I became the founding CEO of a new venture development organization called JumpStart, it’s safe to say I was ready, eager and maybe even a bit nervous to meet him.

JumpStart was a new idea for Northeast Ohio at the time, but I suspected if anyone could understand what we were attempting to do, it would be David. Luckily I was right. As I soon came to appreciate and understand very well, he was always ahead of the curve—he understood the core idea, goals and objectives behind JumpStart immediately.

David’s support of JumpStart was critical in our early days. He provided immediate credibility by lending his name and reputation to our $30 million fundraising campaign in 2007. Those who knew David well will tell you he was a very discerning person who asked lots of challenging questions before (and after) he provided an endorsement. He didn’t champion people and causes often and when he did, he certainly didn’t take it lightly. As a result, David’s support made a tremendous difference.

As I got to know David better, he recommended me for a seat on the board of theNational Venture Capital Association (NVCA), an organization he once chaired and who later awarded him their very first lifetime achievement award. Not only was his nomination, and the opportunity to serve, a tremendous honor for me, it provided a whole new insight into David’s famed acumen for leadership and public policy.

Of all the successful venture capitalists we’ve had in the U.S., there have only ever been a handful who have had David’s natural talent for public policy and advocacy. He didn’t just know how to grow companies and generate impressive returns, he also understood how the public sector could motivate hundreds of billions of dollars to be invested in startup technology companies in future decades.

Whether he was helping leaders in Congress pass a law that would change the U.S. economy forever or helping a local entrepreneur in Cleveland, David knew exactly how to negotiate the maze of stakeholders, business challenges and “politics” to make sure important challenges were overcome and ultimate goals were accomplished.

For anyone who appreciates history, David’s leadership in the efforts to convince Congress to lower the U.S. capital gains tax and to allow pension funds to begin investing in venture capital are textbook studies in industry and economy-changing political advocacy. They also represent two monumental milestones in the growth of the U.S. venture industry.

The last time I saw David was in April. We visited for 90-minutes at his home in Lakewood, Ohio to talk about the venture capital industry, the work of the NVCA and, of course, JumpStart and all the work that remained to be done in order to advance Northeast Ohio’s entrepreneurial economy.

In typical fashion, David peppered me with complex, well-researched, very specific questions about my thoughts, perspectives and JumpStart’s efforts. It was a great visit with my now 96-year old mentor/friend and, as always, I left with homework. He never stopped asking questions, learning and teaching.

Two weeks after David passed I had the opportunity to address the audience atJumpStart’s annual community event, where I shared some of my work with the NVCA Diversity Task Force and discussed the many inclusion-based initiatives we have launched at JumpStart. Like so much that has happened at JumpStart over the years, this work was heavily inspired by David, who was a fierce opponent of discrimination in his day and played an important role in getting the Young President’s Organization (YPO) to admit its first Jewish and African-American members.

There are hundreds of people in Northeast Ohio and across the U.S. who considered David Morgenthaler a friend and mentor. It is my hope those who were touched by his extraordinary life will pass his learnings forward, so that a new generation can benefit from his experiences and insights as they take on new challenges and opportunities.

That’s what David would want. In fact, I think that’s what he would demand.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Mentoring, Thought Leadership