By Shikha Kapoor '17
Hers is an unusual journey, as unusual as her name.
What’s the story behind her name?
She laughs, “My mother had a friend in college named Waverly, and she loved the name. Now there are some interesting challenges there. That friend was named after her father. So, Waverly is a male name. Secondly, she couldn’t figure out a middle name so she made Waverly my middle name. But I was always called Waverly.
So while the government authorities, insurance providers etc. know me as Helen, in my heart I am still Waverly!”
Talking about her formative years, she says:“As a kid I was very into theater. I went to the University of Pittsburgh, and completed two majors – one in Theater and the other in Computer Science. During undergrad, I also did two fellowships in teaching, and since then I knew I wanted to teach. I was awarded the Mellon Fellowship in Humanities, to pursue a PhD in theater, and I ended up doing that.”
“When I graduated in 1992, there were no theater jobs to be had, and doing a PhD in Theater History qualifies you to do exactly nothing. So I left academia to go into business, because I did have a Computer Science background.”
She says modestly, “I was very fortunate to have a friend introduce me to someone at a tiny boutique market research firm called Forrester Research, and I joined them as a Research Associate. I ended up spending the next seven years with them; while they grew like a rocket ship. That’s when I got a taste for high growth companies and entrepreneurship.”
So, that’s when the entrepreneurship bug bit her, I say to myself.
“I left Forrester in 1999 at the height of the internet bubble to get involved with startup companies. I started a consulting company and worked with various clients; and I founded a dotcom company that brought me to Chicago. Then the dotcom crash happened and the company did not survive in the form we had envisioned. I became an investor for a short period of time, and that is when I met Professor Ellen Rudnick (Executive Director, Polsky Center). Ellen once saw me lecturing in her class about what VCs were interested in, and she recruited me into Booth.”
What drove her to take up the role at Booth?
“I knew I wanted to teach at the university level, from the very beginning. That’s why I had joined the PhD program in the first place. I just had to take a detour because of the market and circumstances. When I had the opportunity to take what I had learnt in the marketplace, as my ‘life MBA’, and apply it to teaching entrepreneurship, it was a perfect match for me - a dream job.” The humility continues, “Booth was perfect for me. It took my diverse backgrounds and was a perfect marriage of the right things at the right time. I was completely lucky.”
Our conversation takes a philosophical turn as I marvel at how seemingly distinct pieces of her background eventually converged into a perfectly coherent goal. “Too often we think life is a destination, but it isn’t. There is no specific place we are trying to get to; we are just trying to live a great life. I always had five year or ten year plans, but I also always knew they going to change. So, when serendipity or luck happens, your mind is open to taking advantage of those opportunities.”
Is she still associated with theater? “NOT even a little bit! I would say that I picked up the wrong PhD to do. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably take up a PhD in Ethics or Law with a focus on technology. There is so much interesting change happening there. I occasionally do enjoy a Broadway musical, but I am much more interested in movies and television now.”
She is a huge fan of Game of Thrones. Last year she was contacted by a reporter from the WSJ who was looking for a business professor who could talk about leadership styles of characters in Game of Thrones!
T“I ended up getting more press and PR on my commentary on Game of Thrones than I did on my work in Entrepreneurship”, she smiles. “It was fun. I actually got to do one Huffpost Live segment on Leadership Styles in Game of Thrones.”
On her other interests: “I am a huge reader. I read a ton of science fiction and fantasy books. I am a crazy dog person. I love to walk my dogs around the neighborhood. I am also an avid golfer. I sometimes do a session on why women in business should learn how to play golf.”
On what she enjoys about her work: “I love the act of teaching. I love the New Venture Challenge. I love being in the classroom, followed by working one--on-one with the students. What I do not like is grading!”
On her thoughts about the evolution of the entrepreneurship track at Booth, “When I came 13 years ago, students would come to Booth and discover entrepreneurship. Now students come to Booth to work on their business ideas and learn entrepreneurship. That has been a big shift.”
Her advice to students is: “You must do what you love. Don’t feel like just because entrepreneurship is a hot thing, everybody has to do it. Test yourself out at Booth, and if you find that you are not that comfortable working in a chaotic environment, then that’s a good thing to learn. If everyone becomes an entrepreneur, then who will the entrepreneurs hire?”
What does the future hold for her? She laughs “I don’t see myself going anywhere from here. I want to be here. This is what I want to do. Every year I am working with students who are launching important businesses, and are changing the world. My plan is to keep doing what I am doing!”
Amen to that.
Shikha is a first year who is working hard at having an impact on her ever growing to-do list