Techonomy: A Lesson In Humility

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By Benji Rosenzweig

I recently attended Techonomy Detroit at Wayne State University, a technology conference where tech freaks and geeks like me gathered from all around to see the latest that Detroit has to offer. I learned a lot at the conference, but as a representative of the Detroit Jewish News/Red Thread Magazine, I was a man on a mission to find a way to connect Techonomy with readers in the Jewish community.

My initial thought was the obvious pitch — ratio of Jewish attendees and speakers to non-Jewish. But that’s a story you don’t need me to shed light on; just take a look at past Nobel Prize winners. Jews have a disproportionate number of successful (and recognized) scientists, artists and entrepreneurs compared to our population. Techonomy is a natural place to have a large number of Jews. Story: meet trash bin.

I noticed a Twitter exchange between @rabbijason, a local rabbi and fellow tech freak, and @jewintheD, a local website focused on the Detroit Jewish community. Rabbi Jason stated “There is a Jewish angle for everything.”

If that was true, why couldn’t I find mine?

I thought I had struck gold as soon as I heard the sweet voice of Guy Halfteck from the startup Knack. I recognize an Israeli accent anywhere, and sure enough, a quick look at his bio proved not only an impressive business career, but also a stint as ship vice commander in the Israeli Navy. I was particularly interested in the inclusion of his IDF navy career in his bio. We were at a conference taking place at WSU, a place known for being a hotbed of political animosity between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student bodies. I mentioned this to David Kirkpatrick, the founder of Techonomy, who responded by informing me that “Guy’s being in the Navy, or our mentioning it, is not a political statement. It’s a fact and part of his bio.”

Harrumph, now what was I going to write about?

I was handed the answer on a silver platter during a moment of self-reflection this Rosh Hashanah.

Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick and Guy Halfteck, founder of the startup Knack

I thought about the incredible people I had heard speak at the conference and how down to earth, even humble they were as they shared their successes.

There it was: Humility is a universal concept.

The character traits, behaviors and commandments that are written about in Jewish texts are universal traits that everyone can appreciate. As Jews, we don’t own “Honor thy mother and father,” “Thou shall not steal,” the concept of humility, modesty, honesty or gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). No one religion or ethnicity has the corner on those traits, but we definitely put a lot of emphasis on them as Jews. Every now and then, I’ll hear or see something and think, “I remember my grandfather teaching me that.”

I had a few of those moments at Techonomy.

Speakers, whether Jewish or not, had a lot to be proud of, yet they showed up with a sense of humility and gratitude. As they shared the knowledge and experiences of their respective companies, they spoke from a place of strength rather than ego.

Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans, spoke about “his team” of the best and the brightest young folks in the technology world. He wasn’t talking about himself; the only talent he referenced was of the people with whom he surrounded himself. They were the talented ones. He said that he hires qualified people, not college degrees, and “If someone is good at what they do, even if they don’t have a college degree – they will get hired in a second!”

Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation talked about the momentum that the region is building and how our efforts only payoff if we work together. More importantly, “How do we take the momentum we have and be inclusive about it to ensure kids poor today aren’t in 20 years?”

Possibly the greatest example of humility I saw was from Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, who held a private question-and-answer session for the media. Jason Raznick of Benzinga asked Jack for advice on how to run a company of that scale. Jack had a few gems for Jason, one of them being, “I take the bus to work every day. I can see what real people wear, hear what real people talk about, know what technology they are using and what interests them. Some things I can’t do from the insulation of a fancy car-ride to work.”

Eric Malley of Quicken Loans and Benji Rosenzweig

I thought about what Jack said many times over the High Holiday. Jack, a billionaire, takes the bus to work to be in touch with real people. How many things do I do to try and impress people? Where can I be more real? My lesson in humility is best wrapped up by what Josh Linkner of Detroit Venture Partners said about Detroit: “We need to stop apologizing for what Detroit is not and start celebrating what Detroit is.”

This means we all need to be real. Know who we are and who we are not. Only then will be able to present ourselves with strength and humility — rather than ego. The Techonomy experience has been a lesson in humility I will never forget.

 

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