Entrepreneurs are everywhere.
Or at least it seems that way as Albuquerque’s innovation economy takes off.
Part of that could be because that’s how Gary Oppedahl sees himself in the role of the city’s economic development director. His task: to implement a four-year plan to activate the entrepreneurial community here and to change the mindset, even at City Hall.
Welcome to entrepreneurial boot camp, let the myth-busting begin.
“THIS is a startup,” he says. THIS is the 11th floor of Albuquerque’s City Hall. It’s not the first place people imagine as the center of ideation, vision and passion – a place that “pivots and swarms,” as Oppedahl describes the entrepreneurial mindset that moves swiftly and learns from failure.
By most accounts, that mentality is paying off. By September 2014, nine months into this startup, he declared Albuquerque had hit critical mass and now has a momentum of its own.
The breakneck speed is intentional: the first year was to build a buzz; this second year is to engage the community; the third year will be to pivot and swarm; and the fourth year, to finish strong, closing out Mayor Richard Berry’s term.
That’s an intense timeline, “a short runway,” as only the son of a Navy jet fighter pilot could put it. “I’ve got four short years. On Dec. 31, 2017, we turn out the lights.”
That frontier spirit
This startup is like his other startups, he says, as he works on three fronts: to bring in jobs, attract companies and cultivate new businesses.
“I’ve got big, hairy audacious goals. I’ve got to find my own money because the city doesn’t have any,” Oppedahl explains with a laugh. “I get to learn some new language. Long hours and low pay, just like all my other startups. Wisdom is in the definition of terms.”
On this day, Oppedahl stands with the mayor who hired him, exchanging friendly jabs about their Norwegian and Danish roots, respectively.
Just to clarify, Oppedahl says, “They’re not the same.”
What they do share is a belief in that “frontier spirit,” which they believe is reawakened in Albuquerque, and a team effort to create a psychological shift that will outlast them, Berry says.
Albuquerque’s cachet appears to be reverberating in places like Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas. Here, “everybody knows everybody,” Oppedahl says.
“I call it air, arts and access, and the access piece is huge,” he says. “We can introduce you to anyone you need to know in the state in a couple of weeks.”
The entrepreneur personality
While Oppedahl might seem like the quintessential entrepreneur – he describes himself as an idea guy and visionary – he’s quick to point out he can’t do it alone.
“Because I can’t execute,” he says. “If it’s just my brain and the 3,000 voices in my head, it’s not going to work well.”
Quoting a mentor, he says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”
That’s why he says the word entrepreneur embraces many different personality types. “It takes a hipster, a hackster and a huckster to start a company,” he says.
The risk-taking mindset of entrepreneurs gets all the attention, but Oppedahl says what is more crucial is that the entrepreneur is the person dissatisfied with the status quo and vows to use creativity and innovation to improve the situation. The leap begins with, “Look, this could be better,” he says.
His father was that man. “He was quintessential intrapreneurial,” Oppedahl says.
By the time Oppedahl went to college, he’d lived in 18 different places as his father flew Navy jets “on and off carriers, the most difficult flying there is.”
When considering retirement, Oppedahl’s father resisted the pull to fly for commercial airlines, with great salaries and secure jobs. Instead, “he had a blast” innovating right where he was planted. His father persuaded the Navy to send him to get a doctorate in nuclear science.
“He got to design the skin on the Viking space probe. He got to work on the world’s first-ever lunar accelerator. He got to work on the world’s first floating point calculators.”
His father always told him to look for opportunities no matter where he was. “Entrepreneurs are very good at doing a lot with what they have,” Oppedahl says, pointing out the word comes from the French root for “take action.” “Entrepreneurs just do it.”
Oppedahl made his mark at Intel Corp., where he was part of the startup of Fab 7 at the Rio Rancho plant in the early 1980s. A formative lesson came out of the executive board room, when Intel needed to pivot away from DRAM technology and go big-time for microprocessors. Bankruptcy was imminent.
“(The three top executives) all looked at each other and said, ‘The board’s going to fire us,'” Oppedahl says. “I think it was Gordon Moore who said, you know what guys, if we were the ones to come into this company now … saying, OK, these three guys have messed it up, and we’re going to come in and save the day, what would we do?”
The three of them walked out, then walked back in as though they were walking into a whole new company, one that specialized in microprocessors … and the rest is history.
Between leaving Intel in 1996 and now, Oppedahl started five companies, including Health Care Services and Cell Robotics.
During that period, at age 46, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer – a screening that caught the cancer was dictated by the insurance required for the key person in a company.
“You’re not supposed to be screened for prostate cancer until you’re 50,” he says. Without that, “I wouldn’t have made it.”
The life lessons that came out of that exprerience fuel his passion for what he’s doing now. That includes living a life that allows him to say, as a cancer survivor at age 55, “I don’t see a difference in my 8-5 and my 5-8.”
What helps regenerate is time with family – wife, three adult children and four grandkids, “soon to be five” – with time at the lake and board games like “Fish Bowl, Cards, Qwirkle, Rumi-Cube. And many other games that we make up or make up our own rules for.”
His perspective shift was that “the most important person is the person right in front of you. The most important thing you can do is be a blessing for that person.”
That’s why he takes to heart the mayor’s missive about how he is to bring forth entrepreneurs of all makes and models: “Keep them safe, help them succeed.”
“I’m on the ‘help them succeed’ part,” Oppedahl says. “And it’s a lot of fun.”