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3 startup lessons you can learn from this Texas Olympian turned entrepreneur

Whether it's in the gym or the boardroom, the ability to pick yourself up after a failure is key to success, as this former Olympian learned. Getty Images

I've hit rock bottom more times than I can count. As a gymnast, I overcame injuries that would have ended many other athletes' careers — only to watch my Olympic dreams slip out of reach. As a businessman, I built a successful startup — and then lost it all.

The main thing I've learned? Setbacks can be productive if you're willing to learn from them. Today, as I lead a successful company, I constantly inform my decision-making with the lessons I learned as an athlete and entrepreneur.

Three of those lessons can help everyone — both in the gym and in the boardroom.

First, never give up.

When I was 12, I trained under gymnastics coach Ralph Reeves, the toughest coach I ever had. I would spend hours perfecting my craft — getting up on the pommel horse as I tried not to look down at my cracked and bloodied hands. Upon finishing each routine, Coach Reeves would utter one word: "Again."

Not, "Nice work, how about one more?" or, "Can you do another?" Just, "Again." And so I would get back up on the pommel horse — again.

As the Junior Olympic Games, the pinnacle of high school gymnastics, approached during my junior year, it looked like my hard work was about to pay off. Then, I blew out my knee and tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus while training. Refusing to let my injury determine my fate, I went on to win my first national championship.

Next, I headed to the University of Oklahoma to learn from legendary gymnastics coach — Paul Ziert. While my high school coach gave me my discipline, Paul gave me my style. My teammate Bart Conner taught me the true meaning of "first one in last one out." He led by example, encouraging the entire team to practice extra hours. His ability to inspire without uttering a single word stayed with me.

I eventually graduated from the University of Oklahoma as a five-time All-American and NCAA champion with a spot on the Olympic roster. But due to President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, I never got a chance to participate.

I was devastated, but I picked myself up — again — and transitioned to the business world. More setbacks awaited.

Second, forgive others.

In the mid-1980s, I started my first company. But before I knew it, the relationship I had with my business partner had soured and I found myself broke, divorced, and living in a tiny apartment on a loan from my ex-father-in-law.

That episode would have been enough for a logical person to never open another business — to never trust anyone again.

Call me illogical. After this incident, I went on to build and sell multiple successful companies. I say this not to brag, but merely to prove my bona fides to other entrepreneurs who are just starting out and facing their own challenges.

It's crucial to forgive your colleagues, your subordinates, even yourself. I didn't dwell on losing my Olympic dreams; I moved on to compete as a businessman. And I didn't vow revenge on my ex-partner, I forgave him.

In fact, if I ran into him on the street, I'd thank him for teaching me the greatest lesson of my life. The day I stopped hating my ex-partner was the first day I felt joy again.

Finally, trust, but verified.

As an athlete, I had to trust and listen to my body, my doctors, my coaches and trainers to overcome my injuries. After my experiences, I've learned to pay very close attention to what people are saying — and more importantly, what they aren't saying — in the boardroom. Reading body language and getting to know people before you do business with them is just as important as studying their qualifications on paper.

Today, as I lead a business, I spend countless hours strategizing for and planning out my board meetings. Sometimes my preparation lasts three times as long as the actually meeting. But as I learned throughout my athletic experience, preparation is the best way to ensure success.


If you're an entrepreneur, you will eventually experience a business setback. It's inevitable. But the next time you do — pause, make a game plan, and think to yourself, "again."

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Michael Wilson is the CEO of Healthcare Highways.

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Building Houston

 
 

Forbes has identified 1,000 entrepreneurs as rising stars in the business world. And three of them call Houston home. Photos via Forbes

Three Houston entrepreneurs are basking in the national spotlight.

The trio — Vernee Hines, Carolyn Rodz, and Siddhartha Sachdeva — were just named to Forbes' Next 1000 list of the country's up-and-coming entrepreneurs. They're among the 250 standouts who make up the second installment of this year's Next 1000 class.

Forbes says the year-round Next 1000 initiative "showcases the ambitious sole proprietors, self-funded shops, and pre-revenue startups in every region of the country — all with under $10 million in revenue or funding and infinite drive and hustle."

Forbes accepts nominees for Next 1000, and then "top business minds and entrepreneurial superstars" pick those who make the final cut. Among those minds are LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; baseball legend Alex Rodriguez; Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; and Carla Harris, managing director of Morgan Stanley.

"Americans are launching new companies at a historic rate, aided by the accelerated shift in the way we live and work and an influx of technological tools that made it easier for anyone to start their own business from anywhere," Maneet Ahuja, senior editor of Forbes, says in a news release. "The latest class of Next 1000 entrepreneurial heroes offer hope for the future as we emerge from the pandemic on the path towards economic recovery."

Hines, Rodz, and Sachdeva are the initiative's three Houston representatives in the summer 2021 group.

Hines co-founded UpBrainery Technologies with Ghazal Qureshi in 2020. UpBrainery operates a tech ecosystem aimed at disrupting educational and classroom norms through the use of proprietary technology, according to Forbes.

UpBrainery's marketplace provides an AI-driven software platform and research-based, results-driven curriculum to students, parents, teachers, and organizations. So far, UpBrainery has helped more than 5,000 students. Clients include Whataburger, Nasdaq, the Houston Rockets, the Girl Scouts of America, and Girls Inc.

"Because I deeply understand curriculum and the theory of education, I understand the biases marginalized students face every day, and I co-founded UpBrainery with the goal of eliminating historical education biases, leveling the playing field for underrepresented students, and providing a technology solution that reaches even the most disconnected student," Hines says on her company's website.

Rodz co-founded Hello Alice with Elizabeth Gore in 2017 as an accelerator for women-owned businesses. Today, the Hello Alice online platform serves as a one-stop shop for all aspiring entrepreneurs, connecting them with funders, services, and professional networks, Forbes explains. To date, it has raised $8.5 million in funding.

"Hello Alice is what I wish I had when I started my first business 15 years ago," Rodz told the Golden Seeds website in 2020. "After a career in investment banking, I made a long, hard, expensive transition into entrepreneurship. It wasn't until I sold that company that I realized how much I learned."

"When I started a second business, I discovered networks and opportunities I didn't know about the first time, and doors opened up," she added. "With Hello Alice, our goal was to put all entrepreneurs on an equal footing, giving them the knowledge, opportunities, and connections they need to thrive from day one."

Sachdeva founded Innowatts in 2014. The company offers an AI-powered SaaS platform that helps electricity providers operate more efficiently and transition toward sustainable energy, Forbes says. Innowatts has raised nearly $27 million in funding.

"The COVID-19 crisis has brought challenges for the energy sector, but there will always be a need for accurate forecasting and real-time intelligence," Sachdeva says in a recent news release. "Innowatts has flourished by using its groundbreaking AI technologies to help customers build resilience and cope with the unprecedented shifts in power consumption caused by the pandemic."

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