Michael Sonnenfeldt: Grit And Focus Trump Intelligence

“Luck tends to favor those who are prepared and willing to take the risk.” Micheal Sonnenfeldt

Michael Sonnenfeldt is an accomplished entrepreneur and philanthropist. Michael has been actively involved over the last twenty-five years at senior levels in numerous non-profit organizations focused on the environment, national security, Middle East peace, international peacekeeping, the US/UN relationship, the removal of land mines and communal development.

He recently released a book called "Think BIGGER and 39 other Winning Strategies From Successful Entrepreneurs".

In this interview, we discuss his journey and passion for understanding what makes entrepreneurs tick, how do they overcome obstacles and what can we learn from their stories.

Emy diGrappa (00:00):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on ThinkWY.org.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (00:13):

And this is a common theme we see with many entrepreneurs where their circumstances that they grew up with, in one way or another, they want to be proving something, and something completely different.

Emy diGrappa (00:32):

Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why? Each week, we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care? And what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming? And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities, serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why? (silence)

Today, we were talking to Michael Sonnenfeldt. He is an entrepreneur, and he is also the author of Think Bigger. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (01:33):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (01:34):

Thanks for talking to me today. This is about your story. Where did you grow up?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (01:39):

I grew up first in New Jersey. But then in Boston. And finally, uh, when I was in fourth grade, moved to the suburbs of Long Island outside of New York, and that's, I consider myself a New York resident.

Emy diGrappa (01:53):

And where did you go to school?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (01:54):

I went to the University of Michigan, and promptly dropped out after six weeks, in 1972. And then I worked for a couple of years, and went to MIT both undergraduate and graduate.

Emy diGrappa (02:06):

Oh okay, excellent.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (02:08):

Uh, in the business school.

Emy diGrappa (02:09):

In the business school.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (02:09):


Emy diGrappa (02:10):

Okay. And how did you get interested in entrepreneurship? Because that's what it mainly says about you.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (02:17):

Right. The book that I've just written, Think Bigger, and 39 other winning strategies from successful entrepreneurs, was written in part to answer that question. I wanted to know what makes entrepreneurs tick. Um, and so I interviewed 25 different entrepreneurs who are amazingly successful, but in a totally wide range of activities in the economy. And I wanted to see if there were any common themes.

                 The book came out of an organization that I founded 20 years ago called Tiger 21, which is the largest network of high net worth, first generation wealth creators. Mostly entrepreneurs. And today we have 600 entrepreneurs. So we have a laboratory of entrepreneurship. And the reason I'm answering your question this way, I have, in my case, I had a father who was an extraordinary person. Chief interpreter of the Nuremberg Trials at age 23.

Emy diGrappa (03:14):


Michael Sonnenfeldt (03:14):

He was a German refugee, who had made his way through a long journey to the United States, enlisted, was a private in the Army, and then became chief interpreter by these weird, uh, circumstances. He was Hermann Goring's personal interpreter. And the irony of this Jewish refugee from Germany coming back to be Goring's interpreter, uh, obviously is quite amazing. But then he came home and, uh, became a world famous engineer.

                 I have the final 17 patents on color TV, which he invented at home. He was working for RCA, so it's not like today where, if you're an inventor, you can make a lot of money. He was an employee of RCA, and they gave him all the tools he needed to be a great engineer. But with all of that he was quite intolerant, and inflexible. And that drove me to be on the one hand, proud to be his son. But I would never wanna work for somebody who reminded me of that kind of intolerance and inflexibility.

                 And this is a common theme we see with many entrepreneurs, where their circumstances that they grew up with, in one way or another, they want to be proving something, and something completely different. And as I've spoken about this, it's amazing how many people have come up and said, "I never connected those dots but it's so true." Just one other thing about entrepreneurs, amazing amounts of ADD and ADHD, learning issues. And people say, why is that? And it turns out if you're very bright but you have these issues, if you go to a corporation, it will play to your weaknesses.

                 But if you can create an environment around you where you can hire and build a team that fills in the gaps, and then allows your natural intelligence to come through, many entrepreneurs are creating their own world to allow their amazing ideas or energies to bloom fully.

Emy diGrappa (05:18):

How does our public school system play into that?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (05:20):

That's a whole different issue. I would say that one of our most critical challenges in America is our education system, in many regards it's a national disgrace in my opinion. Because for whatever reason, there is not a national consensus that education is at the heart of the strength of a society. You know, in, um, president Eisenhower's famous farewell speech, he talked about the strength of a society being a balance between military strength, financial strength, and its institutions.

                 And within that third bucket of institutions has to be its education system. Because we're in the 21st century, and most of our jobs, uh, there's an estimate that 46% of the jobs today are at risk to automation, computerization, ar- uh, artificial intelligence, and robotics. We've never had that kind of threat before, and the only way we're going to meet that challenge is by having kids educated for the 21st century. And frankly, we're not quite meeting that mark.

Emy diGrappa (06:30):

Right. So a lot of kids who you call ADD or ADHD, they fall through the cracks and maybe become bored in school because they don't fit the exact learning model.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (06:42):


Emy diGrappa (06:42):

I also wanted to just mention that when I was thinking about the word entrepreneur, that before the industrial revolution, everyone had to be an entrepreneur. And you didn't go to work for a factory. So what's changed in our mindset that people don't see themselves as natural entrepreneurs, but they have to go to work for somebody, and they have to have benefits, and they have to get a 401k instead of taking a risk. And thinking outside of that box, that has been created.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (07:15):

It's a great question, 'cause when you just mentioned it I was thinking, people were probably more self sufficient than entrepreneurial, and I think there's a difference. They had to, they had to be more self sufficient. And people always rise to the occasion when they have no choice. But when they have a choice, people tend to, you know, congregate in tribes, and not everybody in the tribe was self sufficient. Perhaps the leader was. But I think today, what we need to look at is how different the world was even from a decade or two decades ago.

                 For entrepreneurs today, they have challenges that they've never had before. We live in a global world. So 30 years ago, if you were, uh, inventing equipment, or, you know, in a radio business or something, you would design it, manufacture it, and you'd have a fairly long period of time to sell that product. I recently resigned as, uh, the chairman of a solar lighting business, Carman Technologies. I put it together, and had some success in Canada.

                 And one of the companies that we deal with is a German company called Focus that manufactures little computers that are at the heart of certain solar systems, it's the brain that tells the battery to send the energy to the light, or the solar panel to charge the battery. And these are little computers. When we manufacture those computers in Germany, often within a week or two of it hitting the market, an exact, identical clone is on the market in China on the Chinese website.

                 So the world of competition is completely different, because unless you can find unique ways to protect your property rights, very often there are places in the world that will steal them or misuse them. The other thing is scale. You know, when I was starting out in business, if I could get 100 customers, or 1,000 customers, that would be one thing. But if you were Mark Zuckerberg, you're saying, how do I get two billion customers? And when you're thinking about products and services, it's no longer hundreds of thousands, or even millions, but it's now in the hundreds of millions and billions.

                 When Apple comes out with a new phone, they're thinking about how many hundred million of those phones can we sell? So it's a completely different world today than it was just a few years ago.

Emy diGrappa (09:42):

Wow, absolutely. What was your first business?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (09:43):

My first business was when I was about 10 years old, with my next door neighbor, selling laser plans, if you can believe it, on the back of Popular Mechanics magazine.

Emy diGrappa (09:57):

(laughs) That is great. What business story can you tell me that was a success? Or even a failure?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (10:03):

Sure, sure. When I was 17, uh, I mentioned I had gone to the University of Michigan and then dropped out. And during the next year and a half, uh, I worked for a warehousing company that my wife's father owned, with his brother. And one of their facilities was, uh, a pier on the Hudson River from, on the New Jersey side, right across from where the World Trade Center was. And in those days, I was meditating, and for lunch I would go out to the end of the pier, and meditate on the lip, right on the water, that was 1,000 feet out, because that's how long the pier was.

                 Well it turns out if you're 1,000 feet out, you're only 3,000 feet from the New York side, and Wall Street was bursting. And I said ... I looked to Wall Street and I said, all these new computer centers and investment firms were growing. And I looked back to the Jersey side and it was all abandoned rail yards and old industrial buildings. And I had an idea to convert this building that I was working at into a, uh, office building with, perhaps, condominiums, and hotels, and so forth.

                 That was an idea of a dreamer, so to speak. Well, eight years later, I purchased that building with my partner. He was, uh, 57, I was 25 at the time. The building had been the largest building in the world, when it was built in 1929. Surpassed by the Pentagon a few years later. And once we started renovating it, it immediately became the largest cover- commercial renovation in the country.

                 And we were the leaders of what today is billions of dollars of real estate activity on the New Jersey shore, right across from, uh, Manhattan. And we built that into, uh, quite extraordinary success. We sold it, today there's a Hyatt Regency Hotel on the pier, and condominiums, and many office buildings, about 20,000 people work in the complex. But we sold it, uh, when I was 30. So it was a pretty amazing period from when I was 25 to 30 to, uh, have the opportunity to be involved in something like that.

Emy diGrappa (12:13):

Have you ever read the book Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (12:16):

I have not.

Emy diGrappa (12:18):

You have not? It just reminds me of, of some of the things that you're talking about. And how he in- went around and interviewed all these great, successful entrepreneurs. And what made them successful.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (12:31):

Right, right.

Emy diGrappa (12:31):

Yeah. So anyway, what would you say, in thinking about your age, at 25, to 30, and how that was an amazing time, what would you say to young people right now in that age range, the millennials (laughs). What are they learning, and what advice would you give them?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (12:50):

On the one hand, um, I'm obviously deeply concerned about the political and cultural discourse in our country. And one of the things that I'm most, uh, pleased to be working on is creating a foundation for young entrepreneurs on the premise that it may not be the same today for a young person, thinking about how to seek their fortune, if you will, as it was 30 years ago. But on the other hand, uh, the most important lesson is what I learned from my mentor and partner, which is that it- the deal of a lifetime comes across your desk every week, you just have to be looking for it.

                 And a lot of people, uh, have a lot of excuses for failure, and they blame others' success on luck. But luck comes to those who are prepared and willing to take the risk. It's not a random event. Luck, like a magnet, is, uh, attracted to people who are prepared and willing to take the risk. So I, I would say that, um, uh, in many respects, there's a bold, new world with many new opportunities. And it's a changing world. And it's not easy, the entrepreneurial journey.

                 But, uh, if you're successful, uh, you can change the world in wonderful ways. And you know, one of the thing that's, I found during the book is many entrepreneurs, obviously many entrepreneurs started businesses because they wanted to seek their fortune. But that wasn't always the primary motivation. Sometimes they saw something that they could do better, they could change the world. Social entrepreneurs who have no personal profit gain are still building amazing organizations to serve their communities, and serve, uh, humanity, if you will.

                 And, uh, it takes a certain type of person with a certain type of fortitude and grit, and, uh, intensity to be successful. And I guess one thing that I would end this is with the first chapter in our book called Know Thyself. Not everybody is cut out to be an entrepreneur. It takes a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of drive and, uh, intelligence. And I think people should really understand who they are. They should find a way to get in touch with what their anchors are.

                 There's a professor at, uh, MIT named Ed Shine who talks about career anchors. For some, it's security. If you need the security of a paycheck every week, you probably shouldn't be an entrepreneur. And there's no value judgment of that. Each person has different, uh, needs and some people wanna be part of an organization, and many organizations can do things that individuals can't. My father is an example, completed color TV as a engineer at RCA, sent the fe- first weather satellite up for NASA.

                 He couldn't have assembled the resources to do that on his own. The only person in history that seems to have been able to do that is Elon Musk with Space X. But if you wanted to be in the space business and, uh, explore the stars, so to speak, you wouldn't be an entrepreneur, you'd wanna be part of a great organization. So there's room for both, but you should know what your own motivations and strengths and weaknesses are to really make a difference.

Emy diGrappa (16:11):

Okay. One last question. Does it take money to make money?

Michael Sonnenfeldt (16:18):

The experience that I've had is when people have the right mix of a great idea, the kind of character and integrity that is required to build and lead an organization, and the right kind of grit and determination so that when one door gets slammed in your face, you just keep knocking on the next door. When you have whatever those combinations are to be a great entrepreneur, you will find the money somehow. Uh, I don't believe it takes money to make money. In fact, the generation today of the greatest entrepreneurs are almost all first generation wealth creators.

                 And 30 or 40 years ago, 80% of the wealth in America was held by heirs and heiresses, and only 20% was held by entrepreneurs. Today, it's just the reverse. 80 or 90% is held by people who have created the wealth, because we've had such an explosion of entrepreneurial success. Uh, and I think that answers your point. It couldn't, it wouldn't be possible in one generation to have created 80 to 90% of the wealth, if, if it was true that you needed money to make money.

Emy diGrappa (17:39):

I think that's encouraging, actually.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (17:40):


Emy diGrappa (17:40):

Thank you so much for talking to me, Michael.

Michael Sonnenfeldt (17:42):


Emy diGrappa (17:43):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy diGrappa. This Think WY podcast is brought to to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at ThinkWY.org. (silence)