Linda Dickerson Hartsock On Leadership: Find A Mentor, Be A Mentor, Think Like A Startup

By Stan Linhorst
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with the executive director at the Blackstone Launchpad at Syracuse University. SU is one of 20 universities around the world with a Launchpad to support and mentor entrepreneurs.

Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

Linda Dickerson Hartsock has spent much of her career working with startups in the Hudson Valley and in Central New York.

Last year, she became executive director at the Blackstone Launchpad at Syracuse University Libraries. SU is one of 20 universities around the world with a Launchpad financed by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to support and mentor entrepreneurs.

The foundation is associated with the Blackstone Group, a large equity group based in New York City. Its CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, has a particular interest in entrepreneurship and growing the next generation of business, community and civic leaders.

Question: Tell me about the Blackstone Launchpad. What is it?

A: The Blackstone Launchpad at Syracuse University Libraries is a campuswide experiential education program, designed to help faculty, staff, student entrepreneurs and alumni acquire the skillsets of startup thinking. We take them through the stages of creating and launching a company. We connect them with campus and community resources as well as resources in the Blackstone global network.

We invite students from all disciplines to think about entrepreneurship and develop start-up mindsets. We have about 1,100 students from more than 40 countries that are part of the program.

The program started about 2012, when Blackstone began exploring models for entrepreneurship. We went through a very competitive application. The foundation picked five universities in New York state: Syracuse, Cornell, NYU, SUNY Buffalo and SUNY Albany. So we’re one of five in New York, and one of 20 in the world.

The Blackstone approach is not to locate in business schools. The assumption is that students who are in world-class programs like we have here in the Whitman School already have great resources on campus.

We are the first in the country to have been located in a library. Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, also has their Launchpad in a library. For us, the library is significant, because it makes a profound statement when you place the center of entrepreneurship at the center of academic life. Bird Library is the busiest building on campus, and it’s open 24 hours during the school year.

For centuries, great ideas started in libraries. So I think it’s fantastic that we’re here.

Question: How can SU alumni with a startup idea in the Syracuse area use the Launchpad?

A: Very simple: Shoot an email to We’ll help to explore their idea.

Question: Tell me about leadership influences growing up.

A: I grew up in Wappingers Falls, right outside of Beacon. My mother (Viola Silvestre) likes to say I was always the one organizing the kids in the neighborhood. I have been interested in the idea of service since I was little. My perspective on leadership comes from the servant-leader approach.

If I had a mantra, it would be find a mentor, be a mentor. The idea of find a mentor and be a mentor is important, I think, for Syracuse to grow and prosper. I have been fortunate in my life to have learned from wonderful mentors, both in the Hudson Valley and here in Central New York.

Watching mentors has given me a perspective on traits that I admire in leaders.

I admire leaders who come at it from the perspective of servant leadership. They base leadership on common sense and compassion and intellect and wisdom and collegiality and collaboration, which I think are hallmarks of leaders. They mentor younger people and inspire them.

I am a first-generation college. I am the product of an Irish and Italian immigrant family.

My parents taught my sister and me: Your job is to be a good role for your children. Make a difference in your community.

Contribute and be part of it. Make a difference.

My father (Joseph Leslie Delaney) did not have a high school education. He taught us to learn and to appreciate learning. He bought us a set of encyclopedias. I read every night after dinner with him. He got his high school GED while I was in high school. He was the maintenance man for the plant manager at IBM in Poughkeepsie, who was chairman of the board at Marist College. He inspired my father to put both of his daughters through Marist. That person, Dick Cole, to this day remains a mentor to me.

I see a lot of first-generation college students at the Launchpad, whose parents came here as immigrants and they are first or second generation. Their families may have small businesses and they’re saying: I am going to take on this business and figure out how to move it into the modern age of technology. Or they say: I’m going to start something myself, and I want to learn because my parents learned through the school of hard knocks.

Question: What advice would you give someone taking on or aspiring to a leadership role?

A: When people think about leadership, they typically define it by ambition and drive. But I think it’s surrounding yourself and learning from people who are smarter than you, people who you respect and admire. People whose personal traits and skillsets give you important lessons to learn from.

Then you are working hard to become one of those people yourself.

Being a leader in any organization, a large one or your own startup, will require startup thinking. It will require innovation, creativity, attention to detail, passion, discipline, drive, a calculated ability to tolerate risk, to do feasibility analysis and assessment stuff.

Be open and honest and transparent and find good people and bring them along in the organization. Learn from people you admire and respect in your professional and personal life.

Question: Give me five or so tips that you would want an entrepreneur to know.

A: Have a plan. People think they can pitch something off the back of an index card. You need a well-formulated plan. It needs to be thought through. There’s a structure to entrepreneurship. It’s not just the art of the deal.

It is the science of putting together the pieces that go into a successful venture.

At the same time, the second lesson is be flexible. The world changes. Your life changes. Particularly for young students today. You’re entering the gig economy. There’s a good chance you will have to reinvent yourself at least a dozen times throughout your life, whether it’s with the same organization or more likely in different organizations and most likely having to have some entrepreneurial gig through it. So be flexible. Embrace change.

The third is understand risk.

We think of entrepreneurs as folks who just go out and take big risks. But they’re not big risks. They’re calculated risks. They’re well-thought-out risks. So understand what goes in to managing risk and how you can make a better decision by managing risk.

Fourth, be optimistic. You will fail. Life is full of failure. Life is full of challenge, whether it’s by choice or by circumstance. Figure out how you embrace failure. Learn from it and keep going.

The last one is something I was famous for in the Hudson Valley. Success is equal parts vision and perseverance. You need to stay with it. And you need to stay with it by building partnerships and collaboration. There is no such thing as a lone-wolf entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is a team sport. Build a good team. Focus on partnerships. Collaboration. Then fuse vision with persistence and perseverance.

Those five skills will get you through life.

I worked in the Hudson Valley leading an organization comparable to CenterState CEO at a time where we went through rapid employment displacement. In the early 1990s, we lost 70,000 jobs in 18 months from large companies. We reinvigorated that economy by infusing technology, entrepreneurship, innovation and community revitalization. If you look at the Hudson Valley now, it’s very much an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Question: Do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur?

A: I do. I think there’s a lot of conversations about are entrepreneurs born or made. I think they’re both.
I think science shows that there are aspects of entrepreneurial behaviors that are sort of hard-wired into your personality. But anyone can learn those lessons. It’s one of the reasons we encourage people to take intro to entrepreneurship at Syracuse and in the Whitman School.

Question: What would you want the local civic, business and political leadership to do to encourage startups and entrepreneurship?

A: It comes down to partnerships and collaboration. We’re stronger together.
Again, go back to that notion of being the mentor as we see this generational change in the community. Encourage and nurture young leaders, both business and civic leaders. Pass on wisdom and advice, but at the same time be open minded and learn from them, because they have a lot to teach us.

That reciprocity, I think, will go a long way.

It takes 20 years to change a community. I think Syracuse is 10 years into it. We’re at an interesting inflection and tipping point. If we can manage this change and bring those two generations together, working together, learning from each other, merging vision and persistence and wisdom, I’m optimistic about this community’s future. I see it in the eyes of the entrepreneurs who walk into the Launchpad every day.

Question: What would you tell naysayers who want to preserve the status quo?

A: Change is hard — change is hard.
It’s exciting and fun to do a startup. It is far, far harder to reinvent and revitalize and reinvigorate places that are going through change. The work that this community is doing is incredibly hard work. It takes time, and it doesn’t take unbridled optimism. It takes that commitment to work together, having vision, having persistence, sticking with it.
Change is hard. No one said change is easy.

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