“How are you going to sell this thing? What are you going do to make people want it? And after that how are you going to produce it? How are you going to be competitive? How many other people are making the same thing?” says Harvey Gershensen, one of the original mentors of Gateway VMS.
When I ask him about his perspective on the mentoring program, this is his take. Harvey talks further about how the idea behind the experienced mentor is not to simply state what they know; rather, they are to apply their experience to a particular venture’s problems. Often, that problem is on the business side of things: marketing, demand, etc.
Right off the bat, when I sat down with him at CET, Harvey comes across as fun, sarcastic even, but no-nonsense. He’s an 88-year-old World War II veteran with a background in science and business; in other words, he’s been around. He describes for me a bit about his mentoring requirements. “We require them to record what happens at mentoring sessions. We require them to set up an action statement, we require them to set up the next mentoring session. So we’ve developed a good system. If they don’t want to work that hard, they drop by the wayside.”
But dropping by the wayside doesn’t seem to be the norm. Harvey, just like others I’ve met with at GVMS, focused on the successes. He spent a good portion of our interview listing off those successes, something I’ve discovered is common practice among the mentors.
I ask him where he sees himself, moving forward.
“Me, personally?” he says.
“You, or GVMS.”
“I’m 88 years old, buddy. I’ve got a time limit!” And for the second, or third, or fourth time in this interview, we’re laughing. But he has a way of joking, and leading it to something real. “Let me give you a statement I’m fond of using. Change, progress are not synonymous. There’s a lot of change, very little of it is progress. St. Louis is getting to be known as a good place for startups, and it’s mostly this street right down here. Cortex.”
He explains that part of what he’s talking about is the culture around startups. We aren’t in the bygone days of the shirt and tie. Now, there are ping pong tables and fruit bars. It’s the Silicon Valley culture. And while it’s different in many ways from when Harvey ran a battery manufacturer upon returning from the war, there has always been a common thread to what makes a venture successful. “It’s universal. The things that make you successful are to create the demand and then fill it. It’s not rocket science. GVMS serves a great purpose because it’s not the end of your development but it gets you off the ground.”
When we started the interview, and I introduced myself as a graduate student, his response was “That’s not terminal, you’ll get through it,” and laughs and says it’s the same way he viewed his degree at Washington University. To me, this is analogous to the experience of a new venture. Graduate school is the start of a new phase in an individual’s development, as is the formation of a startup. And to this end, Harvey’s role at GVMS is to provide some of the tools necessary for success.