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In today’s youth-centric tech industry, Michael Dell, at 56, is somewhat of an elder statesman. The Dell Technologies chief executive occasionally hosts dinners for young entrepreneurs at his Austin, Tex., home, where guests seek out his advice on matters of life and business. Dell was once where they are: he started a tech company as a teenager in his college dorm room and dropped out of school. Thirty-plus years later, he’s a billionaire. The details of his journey, however, are more complex. The PC assembly business he created at the University of Texas in 1984 became a Fortune 500 company that experienced dramatic twists and turns. Dell won a battle against activist investor Carl Icahn for control of his company and took Dell private in 2013. A few years later, he orchestrated the purchase of EMC Corp., one of the highest-valued tech acquisitions in history. He then took his company public again in 2018.
Those events and others shaped Dell, who details his nearly four decades as a business trailblazer in a new book, Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader. Dell spoke with TIME about the lessons he has learned, the changing role of the CEO, and his belief that for-profit businesses have potential to make the world a better place—and be more effective than philanthropy.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
In the book, you talk about your growth as a leader, as well as the mistakes you made along the way. What were your most valuable mistakes?
One of the things I learned early on was that not everyone had the same values and beliefs. We had to be very explicit about what was OK and what wasn’t OK. As you expand a company, especially around the world—this is maybe not the most elegant way to put it, but—there are places in the world where if they didn’t catch you doing it, it’s OK. Well, that’s not OK in our company. So we had to be super explicit about that and I think by being explicit, we hopefully didn’t attract people that wanted to operate in a different way. And when there were things that were consistent with that, it wasn’t like a hey, I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again. It’s like, no, no. You don’t do that. You’re gone. And I think having an extremely clear boundary around what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable… some might say wow, it’s really harsh.
Telling someone, I’m sorry, you made a big mistake, and you have to leave… That’s a difficult conversation, isn’t it? Is that a skill you’ve honed over the years?
Someone once described this to me as the art of difficult conversations. One of the people who was coaching me back in the ‘90s actually gave me a book. I think it was called Difficult Conversations. We talked a lot about that. And yeah, I wasn’t great at it at first, for sure. But certainly figured out that that was incredibly important. And by the way, the vast majority of people take feedback actually quite well when it’s done in a constructive way. Of course, how those conversations go is incredibly telling.
More than a decade ago, Dell laid out some ambitious goals for 2020—around things like inclusion and sustainability. These days, more and more people expect CEOs and companies to play a role in addressing societal problems. What led you to spell out those goals back in 2010?
Let me back up to the early ‘90s. We were producing enormous numbers of computers and it’s doubling every year. And at some point, you kind of figure out wow, this is a machine with a defined lifespan. At some point, it’s no longer useful. What the heck happens then? We better think about this pretty carefully, because if you make a million of these things, eventuality there’s a million that are no longer being used. Then you make 10 million, you make 100 million, et cetera. You start to think deeply about the lifecycle and the materials and the ingredients that go in these things. What if these things end up in a stream somewhere or a dumpster or a ditch? So I challenged our team. Let’s really do a molecular level look at everything we’re putting in our machines to say which of any of these ingredients could possibly, over time, be dangerous or harmful. How do we eliminate those? So we started thinking about how do we use the cleanest, greenest materials. We started thinking about recycling and life cycle. When I was going to sleep at night, putting the head on the pillow, I’m thinking, ‘Holy bleep, all these things have my name on them.’
Sure, when these machines turn up in a landfill, everyone knows where they came from.
I don’t want to be known as the guy that created an environmental catastrophe, right? When all we were trying to do was make computers.
Among your CEO peers, what do you think is driving their increasing engagement in societal issues?
You’ve probably seen some of the same data I have, but the Gen-Zers… I think a high percentage of them believe that companies should aim to do good in the world. I don’t think that was the case 40 years ago. And maybe this is because organizations have a bigger role in the world than they used to. Maybe it’s because other organizations have a lesser role. I don’t really know. We don’t feel compelled to weigh in on every issue, but there are certainly issues that we feel sort of intersect with our business and our stakeholders and our shareholders and also things that we can do something about, and meaningfully impact.
In your book, you talk a lot about the ways technology can help solve problems in the world. What are some of the key problems that you think technology could do more to alleviate?
So look, I’m an optimist. If you’re not an optimist, you’re not going to start a company. I also think it’s just a better way to live your life. Let’s take inclusion, diversity, equity. Well, it turns out if you step back and you say, all right, there’s maybe eight billion people in the world now, and the demand for skills has never been greater. There’s a real opportunity here to increase the aperture of how organizations are thinking about talent and bring more people into this world and create tremendous opportunity. And, there is a lot of science to suggest it’s starting to happen. I believe there’s going to be more progress. I’m not saying it’s on autopilot or just happens by itself. No, you have to be intentional about it. We’ve set very aggressive goals for ourselves for 2030.
If you think about decarbonization and climate and the environment, technology is the fulcrum. All of these problems, opportunities, challenges I believe are at some level tied to technology because their opportunities were computational power and networks and communications and all the ingredients of technology would go into solving the problems.
How do you encourage employees to stay focused on new ideas, introducing new products and services, pushing creativity and innovation?
At the root of it, you have to erase risk and you have to raise experimentation and incubating new ideas and testing things. You have to be explicit about the desire to go after these new opportunities, with the knowledge that they’re not all going to work. Risk is not a bad thing. One of the things that happens in companies as they get bigger is they become risk averse. Nobody wants to take a risk. Well, turns out, if you want to innovate, you’re going to have risk. So we make heroes of the innovators. We celebrate the patent awardees. We have, I think, 32,000 patents now. You want to see an exciting thing, come to our patent awards celebrations that we have and see somebody get an award for getting 50 patents or 100 patents during their career. It’s always experiment, test, fail, try again, and then eventually, hopefully you get some success. You want to encourage that.
We have lots of hack-a-thons and contests inside the company, those kinds of things. We have a pretty developed process to fund internal new ventures. And of course innovation occurs not just within the boundaries of the company. You have partners and alliances that you’re always collaborating with. You have companies you acquire because they’re at the bleeding edge of experimenting with new things and so that can accelerate innovation. And then we have another thing which is very important: Dell Technologies Capital, which has invested in about 130 companies [since 2012]. It’s all about 5G and AI and machine learning and cybersecurity, and things that are relevant to our future. And these companies are experimenting and some of them will be successful. Most of them will fail. That’s just the way the ventures work, but we’ll learn a lot from those companies.
You famously started your company nearly four decades ago, when you were in your late teens. Do you notice any differences between yourself and today’s young entrepreneurs?
I had a dinner at my house on Friday night with about 10 founders of companies, and they were all, I’ll say, 10 to 15 years younger than I am. A lot of super interesting companies, some of them are already public, some are about to go public. And these companies were born more with the purpose orientation that we now have. I’m investing in a lot of these companies that have a deep belief that they can make a positive impact in the world. Philanthropy is great, and I support philanthropy and do a lot there, but actually I think the for-profit enterprises that have an intention of doing things that benefit society are driving a lot more progress than philanthropy by itself. And you’ve seen this time and time again in finance for example, and microfinance, with microlending. You see for-profit enterprises making a huge impact.
When you talk to these younger founders, what are they most interested to hear from you? What are they asking you about?
It’s interesting. They ask about how you grow and evolve a team, because they’re struggling with that—the hyper growth. And then they get into how you raise your kids and how do you make sure your kids don’t turn out to be horrible and stuff like that. They want to know a lot about how you raise a family and manage that balance.
Many founders of your generation have moved on and are doing philanthropic work—or just relaxing on a beach—full-time. What’s kept you engaged in your work at Dell?
To me, it seems kind of like a funny question because I love what I do. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s exciting. What we do matters in the world, and if somebody took it away from me and said you can’t do that anymore, I’d be really sad.
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