The Girl With the Curl: A Q&A with Lisa Kurek
"There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
And when she was good,
She was very, very good
But when she was bad she was horrid."-Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme
Lisa Kurek says that nursery rhyme has helped define her life. It harkens back to to her childhood, when her father would sing it to her. She repeats it effortlessly today with her head-turning hair style and as managing partner and director of Biotechnology Business Consultants, a nationally known start-up consultancy firm based in Ann Arbor.
"My father used to say that to me as a kid because of my curly hair," Kurek says. "I fought it (her big, puffy hair) until I had my second child and I finally said, 'I can't do this anymore. I have got to get rid of this hair. I can't fight it anymore.' I had a very good friend who did my hair who begged me, 'Let's cut it off. Let's cut it off.' So finally one day we cut it off, but I said we had to leave one curl."
It's a curl that has attracted attention to Kurek for the last 18 years.
"It cracks me up because people ask me, 'How do you do that?' Do they think I travel with a little curling iron to do this? It's just a little bit of hair gel and whoop, there it is," Kurek explains. She says that "a lot of people know that poem. They will come up to me and say, 'Are you really that horrid?'"
She answers them with a laugh, and it's a clever enough chuckle that leaves people guessing the real answer. One thing is for certain, Kurek is good at her job. She left the corporate sales world and joined Biotechnology Business Consultants as a partner in 1997. The original founder retired in 2006, leaving Kurek to take the reigns. In recent years, the company received funding from the state's 21st Century Jobs Fund to help early stage technology firms write applications for government grants. The end result so far has been $80 million in non-diluted funding (meaning the entrepreneurs didn't have to sell part of the company for the cash) to 150 Michigan companies since 2002.
So yes, Kurek is very, very good. But is she horrid? Well, she does know how to have a good time. "I have a philosophy in both my business and personal life: If you're not having fun, don't do it," Kurek says.
That means she has talked a former colleague into buying cowboy boots in Memphis when all the poor guy wanted to do was sit in a hotel room, watch sports highlights, and enjoy room service. She told him it was either boot shopping or go to Graceland. She decided to take up piano lessons again as an adult. In a class of 70 kids and 12 adults, she was the only person old enough to vote who played in the recital.
"And I had a ball," Kurek says. "Some of the other adults who took lessons came up to me and said, 'I can't believe you did that.' Why not? That's me."
Her personality is summed up in that little shock of curly hair. It speaks to her decision to enter a male-dominated profession, a situation she decided to make empowering rather than intimidating, and her relentlessly can-do approach.
"It's kind of tripe, but life is short and it's full of wonderful things," Kurek says. "You have got to do them while you can. You don't wait and say 'I'll do that later'. You say you'll do that now, because you can."
Kurek recently agreed to sit down and answer some questions with Concentrate's
Jon Zemke.You made the jump from a good job to being your own boss. What do you tell people who are about to make this same leap of faith?
Don't look back. If you make the decision to do it you just look ahead and do it. When you are your own boss you need to make decisions. I have always said there is no such thing as a wrong decision, but you have to make a decision. The worst decision is no decision. Midwesterners have a different perspective on failure than business people on the coasts who often see it as more of a merit badge than a scarlet letter. Is there a way we can change that attitude locally?
The short answer, no, I don't think so. The only thing that teaches people is experience. So this is something is going to take a generation or two to ingrain in Michiganders?
If it ever will. Does everything have to be the same everywhere? I know we want to make this as entrepreneurially successful as the coasts. But is that the right thing to want? I want our entrepreneurs to be successful, but do they have to be successful in the same way and to the same magnitude? I don't know. In light of the current seed capital crunch, what is the best things start-ups can do to attract seed capital?
Attract the people that will attract the capital. Entrepreneurs often have a hard time with it. It's much more about team building and finding those folks on the team that are complementary to what you do instead of just like you. It's human nature to think I know how to raise this better than anyone else, but in most cases you don't.What's the worst?
I don't need anyone else besides myself. It's my invention. I know better than everyone else. I don't need anything from anyone else if it costs me a piece of my company. That's the worst thing you can do. Do you want 100 percent of nothing or one percent of a huge pie? The bigger the pie gets, the smaller the piece you need to make it worth your while. Your company has helped a lot of start-ups lock down a lot of non-dilutive funding from government grants. Should we expect this sort of funding to increase in the age of growing government influence in business and federal stimulus funding?
I hope so. I hope way more money of this type comes. The reason the government puts this money out is to close these funding gaps where the technology risk is very high and seed money doesn't like to come in. I sure hope more of this money comes to play. Its been very successful money.State and local leaders are putting a lot of resources toward creating a world-class R&D cluster with the University Research Corridor. Does the URC have the potential to reach the stature of something like Research Triangle within the next 10 years or are we setting the bar too high?
Hope springs eternal. Whether the URC is the vehicle to get there, I don't know. In 1998-99, Michigan tried to do that with the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor. Had you asked the question 10 years ago you could have switched out the "URC" for the "Michigan Life Sciences Corridor". It didn't have the staying power. Political organizations modify and change programs. Things don't happen in one year or two years or four years.U-M often considers itself as in a class of its own, and often acts as such. Do you see that culture changing?
In the 15 years I have been working in this community, the University of Michigan's interaction outside of its own walls has increased substantially. The doors have opened and working collaboratively has grown tremendously. I do see the university's culture changing but it's slow.You have blogged about the importance of entrepreneurs openly speaking to others about their business ideas. Is there a line between garnering feedback and protecting a good idea?
Probably, but it's a lot further away than entrepreneurs think it is. My philosophy is there is no room for paranoia in entrepreneurship. You need tons of stuff from tons of different people. You can't do it on your own. HandyLab acquisition, good or bad deal for Ann Arbor?
It's a success. The company spun out of the University of Michigan. It created products. It got acquired. Isn't that what we talk about happening? But what's the value of having successful start-ups if they keep moving away?
We have to realize we live in a global economy and you can't set boundaries around how economies work. Some will stay and some will go. They can't all stay here. They won't be successful if they all stay here. We just need to grow enough of them and so more will want to stay.
In a bit of a role reversal, The San Francisco Business Times recently held up Michigan's efforts to reinvent its economy as an example for California to follow. Should we believe the hype?
Hype is good. When I read a story about myself and I see inaccuracies in it, I get upset. Then I think, 'No one else knows those things are inaccurate and I just got a bunch of visibility.' Should we believe the hype? It doesn't matter because we just got hugely promoted. That's great.
So let's not worry about it as much as enjoy it?
And see if we can't live up to it so more people start saying the same thing. Sometimes perception precedes reality. Conservative-leaning talking heads love to say that government doesn't create jobs, but your company has helped local start-ups find millions of dollars in government grants. It sure seems like government is helping create a lot of jobs around here.
You can make the environment friendly or unfriendly to creating jobs and the government needs to make it friendly. If we weren't funded by the state of Michigan to help those entrepreneurs do what they do then a lot of those jobs wouldn't be here right now.Government-backed programs like Ann Arbor SPARK are often cited as key pieces of the puzzle when it comes to reinventing Michigan's economy. However, they are often criticized by people who preach supply side economics and decry anything with a tinge of government as socialism. How should we be making the argument for things like SPARK to those who will never give it any credit for its accomplishments?
There is philosophy and then there is data and SPARK has data and metrics to show it is successfully supporting the economy here. You have to look at the data.
Jon Zemke conducted in Kurek's offices on North Main and condensed it over a few days. His last story was A Q&A with Dug Song
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.All photos by Doug Coombe
Pigs in flight at Lisa's office
Lisa drawing a self portrait
Self portrait by Lisa Kurek