As the head of a unique entrepreneurship training program at MIT’s Sloan School, Travis Hunter is directly involved in supporting innovative startups across the globe.
But whether he’s in Asia, Latin America, or beyond he’s found that there are more similarities than differences in the businesses that “make it.” And that realization led to a set of guiding principles for startup success.
In this episode, you’ll discover how you can apply the solutions Travis has helped implement around the world right here in Boston.
- The 4 critical components of a successful startup
- How to identify high-growth companies
- What makes Boston a hub for startups and innovation
- Why humility is a must-have for entrepreneurs
- And more
David Elmasian and Travis Hunter Episode Transcript:
David Elmasian: Welcome to the Hub of Success. I’m your host, David Elmasian. Today, I’m with Travis Hunter, program manager at the MIT Sloan School of Global Programming. Previously, Travis was the director the Quincy Center for Innovation, where he expanded the program to support over 50 startups. During his time at the QCI, he oversaw partnerships with private and public organizations, expanded programming, and brought funding opportunities for incubated startup companies.
The MIT Sloan School of Management, as many of us know, was created by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Alfred P. Sloan was the CEO of General Motors and creator of the modern corporation. The school’s mission is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice. Travis, welcome to the podcast.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, thank you. Happy to be here.
David Elmasian: You’ve been working with small businesses and entrepreneurs for quite a while now. I’m sure you’ve learned quite a few things along the way. Many of our listeners want to hear your work at MIT Sloan as well as the Quincy Center for Innovation, so let’s get started.
Working at MIT Sloan, what expectations did you have before you started? You picture a job, you kind of picture how it’s going to be. They say to you, “Hey, you’re starting on Monday, Travis.” What was kind of going through your mind when you found out you got the position?
Travis Hunter: That’s a good question. I honestly, I don’t think I knew what to expect. I walked in day one and kind of just had a whole bunch of different kind of meetings with these very interesting stakeholders from other regions around the world through phone calls within the first week. I kind of started to get oriented and understand what it was that we were trying to accomplish. I knew that before coming in, but without actually speaking to our participants, that’s what really put some kind of life on it. I really understood how urgent some of these kind of really, really important issues that some regions are dealing with around supporting entrepreneurship actually are.
David Elmasian: Okay. That’s interesting, so you didn’t have any preconceived notions so to speak, but where there any big surprises you found out in the first week, not in a bad way, but just like, wow? You know?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, I think the thing that I knew was going to be the case but didn’t really feel it until I was actually at MIT is the sheer amount of just purely interesting people, ideas … I mean, every single day is incredible.
David Elmasian: Wow.
Travis Hunter: The people you meet and the ideas they have and the initiatives they’re trying to start, it’s just truly inspiring and it makes you want to go to work every day. It’s really incredible.
David Elmasian: That’s great. Not a lot of people can say that, right? So what’s your day to day like?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, so my day to day is pretty much a series of meetings with other international stakeholders or global stakeholders from these regions. They represent government, corporate, risk capital, entrepreneurs, and helping them understand what kinds of things are hindering high-growth entrepreneurship in a particular region and what kinds of different strategic interventions or solutions they can come up with to solve those problem areas. So those meetings are a good 30 to 40% of my time, and then the rest of my time is supporting this program.
The Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, as we call it, is a two-year engagement with these regions where we kind of help them do that process, help them apply our frameworks, understand what are the key drivers in their region for innovation-driven entrepreneurship, and find the right support mechanisms to implement to actually scale some of those companies and to make sure that they’re actually able to produce more of them.
David Elmasian: So how does the process start? How do you identify … First is it a country, a region? Or is it like a company? How does that process start?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah, so that’s a really good question, and that’s probably the most challenging part. A region can be defined through our program as either a municipality or city, state or province, or an entire country. Smaller countries we would consider a little bit more regional. An example would be Iceland.
And so how the conversation starts is typically I begin to engage with or another member of my team begins to engage with a fairly well-connected catalyst from the region that is able to bring together the right people to form a team that we would work with.
David Elmasian: So how do you find … Do you like Google them or something?
Travis Hunter: No, they come our way.
David Elmasian: Really?
Travis Hunter: It’s really interesting. They come from all different avenues, whether it is introductions through Sloan faculty members, other parts of MIT, faculty from other parts of MIT, other initiatives at MIT. We have a lot of alumni that will introduce us. They can come from all different avenues.
David Elmasian: Yeah, that’s a good point. Obviously we kind of take it for granted, myself born and raised in this area, you kind of take places like MIT Sloan for granted, like Oh yeah, it just exists, no big deal, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah.
David Elmasian: But it does have a big footprint, like you said, throughout the whole world, obviously.
Travis Hunter: Yup.
David Elmasian: So you get started with one of these regions or it comes to your attention, so where do you kind of … what do you find typically, you kind of start from there? What are usually the next steps?
Travis Hunter: To kind of start from the beginning, usually they end up having a first phone call with me or first meeting with me, and the questions usually revolve around how do we recreate what’s happening in Kendall Square, Silicon Valley, a lot of these kind of regional hubs? And our answer to that typically is that we don’t want to try to recreate or replicate what’s happening in these regions. Instead, we want to build off of what are the comparative advantages that these regions already have going for them. So that is unique location, unique talent pools, actual industries that may have gone by the wayside to some degree, but they have a very unique mix in every single region. We want to build off of that.
So that’s kind of where our conversation typically starts, and then I tell them a little bit about the program. It’s basically just a practical way to implement some of these initiatives, and then we talk about what a team might look like. So they start to bring together the different types of stakeholders that they maybe already know, or if they don’t know, they’ll start to reach out to them. That process of forming a team and then applying to our program is anywhere from two years to about six months in the making.
David Elmasian: Right. I’ve got to imagine money’s involved in all this, right?
Travis Hunter: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
David Elmasian: So how is that involvement, where does it come from? Do you guys supply it? Do the entrepreneurs supply it? Do the municipalities supply it?
Travis Hunter: That’s a good question.
David Elmasian: Where does it all come from?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, so there is a cost to the program. It’s a tuition that the stakeholders have to pay in order to go through the program. They typically split it up amongst the different organizations that are involved in the team, just to kind of make sure that there is some sort of financial incentive for them to stay involved. The program is two years, which is a fairly long period of time, and so people change positions, stuff happens, and we just want to make sure that they have a vested interest in actually seeing this succeed. Then if they actually want to implement some sort of strategic intervention, as I called it, either a policy or programmatic intervention, that usually costs something, as well. So the team later on in the program decides how they want to fund that. It could be some mixture of public, private funds. It could be a university that sponsors it. It really depends on the team and what they’re trying to accomplish.
David Elmasian: Right. So how do you work through all the red tape, especially with dealing with municipalities? That must be a big issue, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah, so we don’t, as MIT. Our teams do, and they know their regions a lot better than we do. We kind of rely on them to know how to navigate that. But the team members themselves are typically very high level stakeholders from their region, and so a lot of times, they have the strategic budgetary authority needed to be able to implement some of these things, and so we kind of rely on them to take that piece.
David Elmasian: Okay. So is it like getting accepted to MIT, meaning lots and lots of people apply and only a very small percentage get accepted into it? Is that how it works?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, we do get a lot of applications. It’s a real difficult thing to put together a team like this that’s going to be really effective, and so it takes a little bit of time for them to set that up. So our acceptance right now … We accept up to about nine regions per cohort. We build these regions out into a cohort that are all in the same classroom together. So you have probably 80 or 90 executives, they’re all kind of going through this together.
So we accept about nine teams per year, and we probably get applications anywhere from 16 to 25.
David Elmasian: I know I’m getting off base here, but I’m picturing, when you talk about a room full of people, I’m picturing like dictators from the past, like Noriega sitting next to whatever. So these are really business people, is that a good summary? Or just every walk of life?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. They represent corporate, risk capital, entrepreneur, university, and government. So they are fairly high level stakeholders from their respective stakeholder category. Depending on the regional scope, as I mentioned earlier, it could be city, province, country level, the stakeholder should be representative of that regional scope. So if it’s municipality, it might be a mayor or one of the mayor’s deputies. For the corporation side, it’s usually the CEO or one of his deputies or her deputies from the largest MNC that might have a headquarters located in that region. From the entrepreneur side, it’s usually somebody that’s succeeded, failed, has been through the system. It’s somebody you’d want to go and listen to a fireside chat with. It’s a pretty well-known-
David Elmasian: Right, personality.
Travis Hunter: … entrepreneur from the region. Yeah. And then from the university side, it’s usually the president, provost, vice chancellor, someone of that ilk from a top technical school. Sometimes the top business school, as well, depending. And from the risk capital side, that is usually one of the top VCs that’s located in the region, but having worked with a lot of regions at this point, we don’t always see a really healthy risk capital community. So sometimes, that is more of an angel syndicate. Sometimes it’s actually more on the banking sector side if it’s not fully fleshed out in the region yet.
David Elmasian: Right. So it still just seems like a very unique mix of people. Is there a lot of mediation that goes on?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. Oh yeah. That’s the best part. They’re getting out of their home kind of …
David Elmasian: Yeah, turf. Right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, exactly, and they’re getting away from a lot of those political pressure that exist back home, and they’re going into a classroom setting where they’re able to really speak their mind and share what they believe is necessary for their region to succeed with these other high-level stakeholders that are also from their region, and so they can have a very honest conversation about that and then move forward and actually develop a strategy together, which is kind of the crux of that. But they’re also in it, like I mentioned, with teams from all around the world, and so they’re kind of seeing what similarities and what differences exist in these different parts of the world through the eyes of their equivalent in that other region.
David Elmasian: So isn’t it kind of … and again, I know I’m over-simplifying it, but isn’t it kind of similar to what we talk about when we look at a traditional incubator?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. Yeah.
David Elmasian: In that you’re kind of putting all these things together, providing them some resource and just saying, “Hey, let’s run with it.”
Travis Hunter: Yeah, it is very similar. It takes a lot to put together an incubating, having kind of been able to see that process happen, and a lot of times, every one of these stakeholders is required to make a really successful initiative.
David Elmasian: Right. So could you share some success stories that come to mind?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, of course. Yeah. We’ve got a number of different teams that have had really high level explosive change in the region, and then we’ve had other teams that their strategic intervention was very specific and it’s not something you would see in the new every day, but it actually made an impact in the local entrepreneurial community. So I can give you a couple examples just to kind of put some flesh on that.
David Elmasian: Great.
Travis Hunter: Our team from Singapore, after analyzing their innovation ecosystem, they realized that there are these two cultural components that are kind of working against each other. One is there’s this tremendous fear of failure, and so your social sphere a lot of times will push you to take a government or a corporate job after graduating from college. It’s just kind of the social pressure, right? Rather than start a business, which is a lot more risky, harder to provide for family, et cetera.
David Elmasian: I know, I live it every day.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And that fear happens everywhere, but it seemed to be much more pronounced there. And so that, as well as an existing program called Student First, where students could essentially go to top universities and then when they returned to Singapore, they would essentially have to pay off that bond or that debt with the government by taking a government job for a set period of time. Once you’re in one of those career tracks, it’s really hard to jump. And so what our team from Singapore did was after realizing that these two components are really working against entrepreneurship, they tried to kind of change that or modify that. They created a fork to that Student First program called Entrepreneur First, where students can now come back to Singapore and start a business with government support. So our team took that even further. They implemented a new venture capital firm that the government has also invested in, and they’re also developing some entrepreneurial curriculum to help fill in any of the gaps that the students that would become entrepreneurs are coming back with and need to learn more about.
David Elmasian: Right. Yeah, that’s great. That’s interesting. So really, like I said, you kind of start in these ecosystems throughout the world and applying best practices that have learned through the school and really literally spreading the word.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah, exactly. We’ve worked with over 47 different regions at this point, and so we’re starting to get some really deep insights into what is successful regionally, you know, Latin America versus MENA versus Southeast Asia, and so on, but we’re also, as you mentioned, we’re able to pull from some really fantastic examples that have been supporting entrepreneurs at MIT or elsewhere outside of MIT that we’ve seen.
David Elmasian: There is outside of MIT? Come on. So do you work specific regions? Or you assign like a whole bunch? How is it broken down?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, so I work with any region that comes across our program. We try to construct a cohort, as I mentioned earlier. It has about eight or nine regional teams in a cohort. We try to make sure that that is fairly well distributed across the different continents, across the globe.
David Elmasian: As opposed to having a specialty, so to speak, like, “Hey, I’m the cohort for South America,” or …
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah. No, as a team, we don’t necessarily specialize in a particular region of the world. Our frameworks are … We’re still developing, still improving, but they are pretty broadly applicable to different regional ecosystems.
David Elmasian: Okay. All right. Is there a lot of travel involved? I know you said everybody kind of comes to Cambridge, right, but do you guys go out in the field?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, we do a little bit, actually. Over those two years, we have four workshops with these stakeholders. The first two and the last one are at MIT, and that third one we host internationally. One of the teams within that cohort can basically apply to host all of the other teams and us in their home region and kind of show off what’s great about their regional innovation ecosystem.
David Elmasian: Right. Have you participated in some of those?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah. We have hosted workshops in Lima, Peru, Tokyo, Singapore, New Zealand-
David Elmasian: Wow.
Travis Hunter: … London, and so on-
David Elmasian: That’s quite a diverse locations.
Travis Hunter: Yeah. Yeah.
David Elmasian: I’d imagine Lima, Peru, is a lot different than New Zealand or something, right?
Travis Hunter: Definitely. Yup. And it’s really inspiring, I think, for the other participants in the program that aren’t from Lima but are able to go and see firsthand what’s happening. Because all of these kind of major innovation ecosystems have a lot already being done, but there are very specific things that they can tweak or focus in on to make it more effective, and so it’s really inspirational for the other teams.
David Elmasian: Yeah, I’d imagine. So we’ll circle back to the travel element of it, but let’s go back in time a little. Let’s do a time machine. You’re the director at the Quincy Center for Innovation. Tell me about that position and what that experience was like for you?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, that was one of the best experiences I could’ve had to set me up for what I’m doing right now. It was a lot of fun, it was a lot of hard work. Quincy is in a very unique position, for those of the listeners who don’t know. Quincy is one of the major cities south of Boston, and it’s right on the subway line. So a lot of the people from Cambridge, Somerville, downtown Boston, are able to commute easily to and from Quincy, and so it makes it an ideal location for a lot of startups to actually start early on when they don’t have a lot of cash flow. So trying to keep their expenses low, being on the subway line, it just makes sense for a lot of teams. I don’t think that that was real obvious at first to a lot of people, and so it took a lot of work. I was grinding, going to events, meeting people, kind of sharing-
David Elmasian: Networking.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, exactly. We’ve got space-
David Elmasian: Yeah, meet and greets.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah, exactly, and it just took some time, but once we started to get some traction, the word got out, we were full, we were at capacity, which was great. Great problem to have, I guess. And yeah, it was just a really, really fun experience.
David Elmasian: What were some of the startups that kind of walked through the door, so to speak?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah, so we had startups from all different industry verticals. We were really general, and so we had robotics teams, we had SMEs that were starting to develop, some consultants. We had teams that were more in the farming industry, we had teams that were in the ed tech space, so it really ran-
David Elmasian: Really, the farming industry?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah.
David Elmasian: In Quincy, Massachusetts? Wow.
Travis Hunter: I know. It was very funny.
David Elmasian: Okay, so seeing all these various startups, you have to take something away from all that in terms of your learning curve. What were some of the things that you kind of learned from seeing these startups, the ones both succeeded and failed? I’m sure there was a lot of failure, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah.
David Elmasian: Startups, that kind of the nature of it. But what were some of those things that you kind of took away and you look back now and you say, “Wow, you know, I really learned that back then”?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, because a lot of the teams were really early stage, I think the biggest takeaways for me were are what are the critical components to put together an early stage team, put together the funding, make sure your value prop makes sense, a lot of the primary market research and getting out and talking to customers. I was able to see it through the lens of a lot of these different startups and understand how that changes from industry to industry or how it doesn’t change. So having been in the entrepreneurial world myself and then being able to be expose to this, through so many different industry verticals, it was a wonderful learning experience.
David Elmasian: Right. Two things, I think … Let me think of, some educating guessing here. You inevitably probably got involved in political issues, because if I’m not mistaken, the innovation center was funded by the Chamber of Commerce, which is in the city of Quincy and you know with that, and then the other part of it too is, wasn’t there a lot of vendor relationships that people are always hitting you up for, “Hey, don’t you want to buy ABC,” and all that. Do you remember those fond days?
Travis Hunter: Oh, yeah. Yeah, and that was one of the tough pieces, is … It’s something, a term that I didn’t really think about and I hear now more often at MIT is this idea of being kind of an honest broker. Because we were a nonprofit, because we were nonpartisan, we were not trying to take any sides, especially with vendors or with venture capitalists or angel investors, we were really trying to make sure that we were an unbiased filter to what actually made it through to the teams that were working out of our space, and we didn’t want to filter that too much, I mean, they’re grownups, they can-
David Elmasian: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes, right?
Travis Hunter: … handle themselves. Yeah, yeah. But we also didn’t want them to get bombarded. It’s not common in some parts of the U.S. to have such a concentration of small businesses that it is a really good feeding ground for some sales people, and you’ve just got to make sure that they realize that’s not what they’re there for.
David Elmasian: So did you ever have to literally throw some people out from time to time?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. Oh yeah, yup. Not even from time to time, maybe on a daily basis.
David Elmasian: All right, well, we won’t name names at this point. You can tell me after the podcast some of them. And again, I don’t want to get into the whole political thing, but I’m sure there was also an element of that, too, and the reason I bring it up is not necessarily fishing for anything in that direction, but I imagine that kind of taught you or gave you some experience when you moved on to MIT Sloan, where you are dealing with politicians, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of these types of initiatives that are supporting entrepreneurship, supporting job growth, innovation, any sort of buzzword that can be politically used as a platform or a speaker, we did see that in Quincy, I see that in all the regions I’m working with through MIT REAP, the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, again. That’s unavoidable, but it’s also … With REAP, we actually call these individuals advocates, because they can actually be-
David Elmasian: That’s the politically correct term?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. Well, they can be extremely helpful, because they are a speakerbox. People listen to them, right? For better or for worse.
David Elmasian: Yeah, right. For whatever reason, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah.
David Elmasian: Yeah, okay. So it’s really taking that squawk box, so to speak, and pointing it in the right direction so it’s a benefit rather than maybe sometimes can be a negative?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yup. Exactly.
David Elmasian: I said that. You didn’t say that, Travis, all right? So getting back to MIT Sloan, one of the things when I was doing some of my due diligence on what you guys do, and I certainly don’t want to say that I understand it all, because I don’t, but one of the things that kind of … and you touched on this as well, too, one of the buzzwords that I saw was innovation-driven entrepreneurship, and that kind of fascinated me because usually you hear innovation, you hear entrepreneurship, but really, what does that really mean and how is that applied to what you’re doing?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, so innovation-driven entrepreneurship is something that we’ve kind of coined, in a way, to denote startups that have a high growth trajectory, teams that are probably going to scale if they succeed, scale rapidly. It’s a lot different than the opposite we would consider a small to medium enterprise, an SME, and SMEs don’t really make the same type of job growth and economic impact in a region as what we call an IDE. So we make that delineation on purpose because the regions we work with, we want them to kind of focus in on these high growth companies to make as much impact as fast as they can, because a lot of these regions are dealing with really serious changes in their talent pools. A lot of it has to do with automation, the future of work, a lot of these buzzwords that you’re hearing. This stuff is real, and so we want people to understand that there is a difference between supporting SMEs, which there is a lot of support out there already, and supporting high growth startups.
David Elmasian: So could you give me an example of one of those?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. High growth startups are things that are … How we define it would be a company that is providing a new to the world or new to the region innovation for their business or their sector, examples of which would be Uber, Lyft, you can also consider teams like WeWork. WeWork is a very interesting change in the way of doing business. It’s not necessarily a tremendous technological innovation, but it is changing that market dramatically. So any of the really big, kind of startups that you hear about in the news a lot, a lot of those are considered IDEs.
David Elmasian: Okay. All right, that makes a lot of sense. So you want to get the big bang for the buck for innovation, and so yes, like you said, the smaller organizations may have an impact, but there’s a lot of attention paid to that, and this is a good return.
Travis Hunter: You can get a pretty good idea from the offset of what they’re all about, what they’re focusing on, whether or not their team is actually able to handle something like that. Bringing together a bunch of PhDs in one particular area might not be the right recipe for success, or maybe it is, right?
David Elmasian: Sure. Sure. Speaking of that, what are some of the common barriers that you’ve seen? Is it usually … and again, I know one size doesn’t always fit all, but is it usually from the government side? Is it the academia side? Is it the business side? Where do you kind of expect to see, okay, we’re considering this region, what are the obstacles that we’re typically going to see? Is it usually from one of those groups?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I don’t know that any of them are in themselves the barrier or causing the problems, necessarily, but a lot of times it is kind of a history of different policies or just a change in the business environment generally. Examples of some of these problem areas that people would focus in on are like technology transfer out of the university, or how hard is it to get a license to be able to actually use this technology in your business? Some places, that’s not easy. MIT in particular is kind of known for having a really smooth technology licensing office and process. They’re able to get those licenses and move into kind of a startup mode a lot faster than a lot of other universities.
In other countries, sometimes a technology licensing office is just not set up to do that, right? Another example would be tax law or bankruptcy law or just what happens when you fail, what does that do to your reputation? Is there a stigma around failing? In the U.S. we … you hear it a lot if you’re listening to these types of podcasts, you know, failure is the best thing you can learn from, everybody embraces failure, but that’s not true for most of the world. So what kinds of things are actually causing those stigmas?
David Elmasian: So is it a social stigma? Or maybe a legal stigma? Or both?
Travis Hunter: It could be both. An example, there’s definitely a lot of parts of, for instance, Latin America where if you fail, if your company goes bankrupt, your company’s debt is now your personal debt.
David Elmasian: Wow.
Travis Hunter: That really stops a lot of people from trying again-
David Elmasian: I’d imagine.
Travis Hunter: … right?
David Elmasian: Sure, yeah.
Travis Hunter: I mean, one, they’re scared of failing again, and two, they might not get out of the hole from whatever debt that they took on through their company.
David Elmasian: Right. Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective. Again, being born and raised in this country, you don’t really think about it in those terms, but yeah. Not to say that anybody really wants to go bankrupt in our country, either, but you do get that fresh start if you try and you fail and you move forward. How many stories have we heard, like you said, of people … maybe not necessarily going bankrupt, but have failed miserably and then the second, third, fourth time and then they do succeed. So yeah, that’s an interesting element, one I would never have considered.
So what’s some of the upcoming things that you guys are looking at in the program? Anything in particular?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, so right now, we’re looking at how we can kind of scale this program. Right now, like I said, we’re limited at how many regions we can work with just bandwidth-wise. This is fairly customized to the region. And so we’re trying to determine what model makes sense to actually scale this program to make it more impactful to more regions. And so yeah, that’s really what’s on our plate right now as far as growth.
David Elmasian: Okay, so I know you mentioned at the beginning, how many regions was it again that you typically work in total with at any given time?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, about eight to nine regions at once.
David Elmasian: Okay. So-
Travis Hunter: Well, so there’s a caveat to that. Sorry, I should’ve explained this earlier. We break them into cohorts of eight or nine teams, and we accept a new cohort every year. But it’s a two-year program, and so that means that they’re overlapping with the cohort before them, eight or nine teams from the previous cohort, and then those eight or nine teams will graduate halfway through this particular cohort’s two-year term and then another eight or nine teams will come in. So they’re getting exposed to lots of different regional stakeholders.
David Elmasian: Right. So in this program, I’m sure you’ve come across some really exceptional people, right? Any of that come to mind, that really kind of stand out from some of the others?
Travis Hunter: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Every team has somebody. I would say people that have inspired me the most, one would be, his name’s Bolaji [Finna 00:30:08], and he’s from Lagos, Nigeria. He has been an incredible inspiration to me and our team at just against the odds, persevering in a way that is supporting entrepreneurs in the region and really supporting just success amongst all these different types of backgrounds and initiatives within Lagos, Nigeria. Unfortunately, Bolaji has since passed away, but he has been an incredible inspiration to our team.
Another example would be Jun Tsusaka. He’s a venture capitalist from Tokyo, and I don’t think I’ve met a person in my life with that much energy and positivity. He just thinks that they’re going to change the world, change Japan at least, through this kind of work. So I mean, it’s just wonderful to work with these types of people.
David Elmasian: Right. So one of the advantages you have is, you really have a global view, right? You don’t really think locally. I mean this in a positive way, you’re not going to have a schmo like me show up and say, “Hey, are you going to help me out there, Travis?” You know what I mean? You really work on a global basis. So how has that changed you personally? Or has it changed you personally?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think I see problems differently now. When I start to think about … I mean, we’re sticking with this kind of entrepreneurship vein. When I think about starting another business or some of the friends of mine that are starting new businesses, I have such a different perspective on what that means and what’s required and kind of how to view what’s happening in the rest of the world and how that kind of macro down to micro, how does that actually affect your day-to-day decisions? That’s for everybody to figure out, but I think that I’ve been able to get a very different perspective through this program.
David Elmasian: Right. Yeah, and I think that’s also prevalent throughout society as a whole, it’s really happening that way. We’re really viewing the world as a much … It is a much smaller place than it used to be, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, absolutely.
David Elmasian: Yeah. So I told you I was going to circle back to travel, so let’s talk about some of the places you’ve been, some interesting places you’ve been. Top three destinations, if I said to you, “Hey, here’s a ticket, you can go,” where are some of the places you’d pick first?
Travis Hunter: Oh, that’s tough. So my top three-
David Elmasian: It’s tough because you’ve got so many choices, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know. A few. Not too many. My top three are Tokyo, Tokyo is one of the most inspirational, beautiful, interesting places I’ve ever been. Next would be Thailand. I absolutely love Thailand. Third would probably be Shanghai. Shanghai has got an incredible amount of energy and buzz. Again, it’s just … you can’t help but notice the speed of innovation and growth. It’s all around you. It’s overwhelming.
David Elmasian: Yeah, I’ve heard some people kind of use the perspective that it’s kind of like our country was maybe a few years ago, you know?
Travis Hunter: Yeah.
David Elmasian: Like to bursting.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, I think China is in a … China’s big, so it’s really difficult to kind of say that about all of China.
David Elmasian: Sure.
Travis Hunter: You have to kind of pick out different regions, but that is true for a lot of major regions in China. More so for Southeast Asia, I think. Having been to Thailand, Thailand is in a very interesting place where they’re already inherently super entrepreneurial, and we learned that having been and visited and seen it, it is, it’s like seeing the U.S. kind of grow into or grow out of, I guess, their industrial revolution and just the tremendous growth that comes with that. I mean, fortunes being made, being lost. It’s unbelievable to see.
David Elmasian: Right. Yeah, there is something about Thailand. I’ve never been myself, but I’ve heard from several people that have been, there’s something about it that just hooks them.
Travis Hunter: Yeah.
David Elmasian: You know?
Travis Hunter: Yup, absolutely.
David Elmasian: I’ll have to add that to my list. So how did a kid from Alton Bay, New Hampshire all of the sudden become this global citizen of the world? That was a big leap, right? That was a big change. I’m not casting aspersions on where you grew up, but …
Travis Hunter: Oh, yeah, I grew up in a wonderful place, yeah. But there weren’t many people.
David Elmasian: Right. So what was life like back in the day growing up in a small town like that?
Travis Hunter: Yeah. Yeah, so I grew up in a pretty rural area, mostly with family around me. We have kind of a, almost a family compound where I had aunts and uncles living nearby, cousins, everybody all around, which was really nice and it kind of made me really value family. And then kind of growing out of that and seeing how much bigger the world is from a small town. I mean, it’s kind of that same old story that a lot of people probably have. I don’t know, it’s a strange, strange path. I don’t really know how it happened, to be completely honest.
David Elmasian: Well, because one of the things that … I don’t want use the word shocking, it wasn’t shocking at all, but you went to school in San Diego, and again, there’s a big difference between New Hampshire and San Diego. What went into that decision, and what was it like when you got there?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, maybe that is what it is, right? Maybe it is pushing yourself to check out other parts of the world, exposing yourself to very unique situations. My decision to go to San Diego was purely to be on the West Coast and learn how to surf.
David Elmasian: There you go.
Travis Hunter: I mean, Point Loma was a wonderful school to go to, very happy with my decision, but I could’ve stayed back East and gone to other schools that are better known back here, right?
David Elmasian: Right.
Travis Hunter: That just wasn’t kind of calculated into my decision, for better or for worse. I wanted to check out a new part of the country.
David Elmasian: Yeah. Well, it turned out okay. It gave you exposure to kind of what you were looking for, right?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, exactly. That’s very true. Going out there not knowing that kind of startups, entrepreneurship, this stuff was going to be my future. I went out there thinking that I was going to become a medical doctor, and through exposure with friends and others, I slowly got drawn into this world.
David Elmasian: Right. Yeah, no, I had a similar experience. I was born and raised in this part of the country as well, too, Boston area, and I had an opportunity to move to California and it was a similar thing. It gives you a perspective, you know? It was funny, because again, I don’t want to make this about me, but people would say, “Oh, you’re from back East,” and I’m like, “Yeah,” and then, but I’d also hear them say … somebody would say they’re from like Phoenix, and they’d say, “Oh, you’re from back East, too.” I’m like, “Phoenix is not back East.” I guess it’s more further east, but it definitely … and then coming back here, it gave me some perspective because I saw how people aren’t different, but just the differences, there are differences, and just nuances. But it gives you that perspective. So I imagine that happened to you, as well, too.
Travis Hunter: Oh yeah, definitely.
David Elmasian: Especially with what you’re doing now.
Travis Hunter: Yup, absolutely. Culture between West Coast, East Coast is very, very … or New England more specifically is very different.
David Elmasian: Right. Yeah. So we’re called the Hub of Success because we are kind of a Boston-centric thing. You live in the metro Boston area right now. Nobody can ever predict what’s going to happen down the road, right? But what makes Boston attractive to you specifically, and I know MIT is obviously a big part of that, but what makes it attractive to you, and do you feel like you might be sticking around for a while? Again, I don’t want to get you in trouble if you have plans, you know.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, no, no. No, honestly, I love Boston. It’s the biggest city that’s close to home, so it feels like home. I’ve been coming down to Boston from New Hampshire since I was a kid. But Boston in general as far as kind of innovation ecosystems go, it’s on a tear. It’s really, really awesome to see the growth that’s happening. But it’s also, there’s this interesting kind of culture that’s being developed that is not New York, it’s not Silicon Valley. It is a culture of kind of this reciprocity and people helping each other, and it’s a lot smaller and more approachable, which makes it a really, really awesome place to be able to start something new.
David Elmasian: Yeah, less intimidating, and I think, it’s funny you mention that. One of our previous guests, Max from ThriveHive, he mentioned that, as well, too, how like you said, he can walk down the street and bump into people that he knows through this startup community, whereas like you said, other parts of the world or other parts of the country, it’s not as concentrated as that. It’s a big benefit.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, that’s very true.
David Elmasian: So like I said, you’re going to be sticking around for a while. You’re multilingual, correct?
Travis Hunter: I’m working on it. I know Spanish pretty well. I lived in Spain for about eight months at one point, so building off of my high school Spanish, I was able to become pretty proficient. Now my newest thing is I’m trying to learn Chinese.
David Elmasian: Wow. Wow. That’s a task, huh?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, it’s not easy. It’s definitely not easy. It’s not phonetic, it’s not obvious, but once you start to recognize some of the characters and stuff, it’s beginning to flow. But I’m in the early stages.
David Elmasian: Why don’t you say something in either Chinese or Spanish that I wouldn’t know what the heck you’re talking about?
Travis Hunter: Sure. [Chinese 00:39:29] Travis Hunter.
David Elmasian: That’s cool. I think that’s fantastic, because like I said, it goes in with that whole global theme and how I’d like to think that eventually we’re all kind of speaking the same language, right? The whole world.
Travis Hunter: Yeah.
David Elmasian: Which I think we’re kind of heading that way. Not in my lifetime, for sure, but maybe in yours. You never know. You’re a young guy.
Travis Hunter: We’ll see. We’ll see.
David Elmasian: So I know you work at an exciting place. There’s a lot going on. But I don’t care who you are or what you are, sometimes it becomes a routine. But in your case, when you wake up in the morning, what gets you going? What says, “Man, I can’t wait to get to work,” or get started? Is there anything in particular? What really motivates you, is really what I’m asking.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, you know, it’s some weird combination of feeling fortunate to be here, just new opportunities to learn something that can help myself, help my friends. It’s one of the most inspiring places I’ve ever been, being at MIT. I think that that’ll carry with me throughout my career, throughout my life, beyond my tenure here.
David Elmasian: Right. So if you’re walking down the street and … Maybe you’re waiting in line at Starbucks, how about that, and you happen to strike up a conversation with someone and they say to you, “Where do you work?” and you tell them, and somebody says to you, like I’m saying to you right now, “What’s life like at the hallowed halls of MIT?” How do you describe MIT to somebody that really isn’t familiar? Maybe they just came in from somewhere else.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, that’s a good question. I usually don’t lead with the fact that I work at MIT.
David Elmasian: Yeah, it seems a little … yeah. But no, but if they ask?
Travis Hunter: You know, MIT’s like a very … has a very humble culture, and just in all of these other-
David Elmasian: Kind of like another big name school that we’re thinking about?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
David Elmasian: Which we won’t name.
Travis Hunter: Yeah. A lot different.
David Elmasian: All right.
Travis Hunter: So it’s a very, very different type of atmosphere, and so it’s very approachable. People that want to get involved or are already involved, that kind of humility just allows for more creativity, more kind of frictionless idea sharing. It’s really, it’s a unique place.
David Elmasian: Yeah, I’ve experienced it, not firsthand, secondhand. Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of people that have graduated from MIT in different schools. One in particular that comes to mind, he went to the school of engineering, and in the capacity he was in in a job when I worked with him, he was a software engineer, but I remember him distinctly, and this wasn’t all that long ago, but I remember just like yesterday, he had that, kind of that humble attitude.
He talked about some of the pranks the engineering school did. He was involved in one that did the cop car on top of the roof and all that kind of stuff, which was a lot of fun. But I remember he said to me, he says, “You know, Dave,” and he says, “My father was a butcher.” He said, “You know, I have no pretenses about what …” but he was a brilliant guy. When there was a problem, there was something that needed to be fixed and it was like all heck was breaking loose, who would we go to? It would always be him, right?
So yeah, I think that’s been a consistent thread that I’ve seen firsthand, as well, with the school. And I don’t think a lot of people would kind of consider MIT that way, because you think, “Oh, MIT and geniuses,” and that’s true and all, but there is a difference, and I think that’s a positive, good difference, that people can just be people not have pretenses, right?
Travis Hunter: Yup. Yeah, MIT is full of people that just love interesting problems. I mean, that’s what it comes down to.
David Elmasian: Right, there you go. Yeah. That … See? You said it much better than I could. So what’s coming up for you, Travis? Professionally, personally, whatever you want to share.
Travis Hunter: Next steps are to be able to help expand this program even further, and then after that, I’ll probably end up getting back into the startup world, whether that means pulling together a team and starting something based on one of my own ideas or joining another team that I’m already friends with. So I think that’s probably what the future will end up holding for me.
David Elmasian: Yeah, that would make sense. All right, let’s wrap it up. We could talk about this for hours, literally, but nobody’s going to want to listen to me for hours. You. So there’s a new segment, I’m going to throw this at you, it’s an easy one, I promise, that we’re introducing today. You’re the first guinea pig on. It’s called Check Your Tech, all right, because I am kind of in a technology business, kind of sort of, right? Are you an iPhone or an Android person?
Travis Hunter: iPhone.
David Elmasian: All right. Mac or PC?
Travis Hunter: Mac.
David Elmasian: Of course. Facebook or Instagram? Now I’m showing my age, because these probably are not different things, but from my perspective, I kind of think it is.
Travis Hunter: Neither.
David Elmasian: All right, that’s okay. Alexa or Google Home?
Travis Hunter: Alexa.
David Elmasian: All right. Netflix or Hulu?
Travis Hunter: Both.
David Elmasian: All right. How about Roku, Apple TV, or Chromecast?
Travis Hunter: None. Samsung Smart TV.
David Elmasian: Nice. Gmail or Outlook?
Travis Hunter: Neither.
David Elmasian: Ooh, neither?
Travis Hunter: No, I’m pretty …
David Elmasian: Wow. That stops me in the tracks right there.
Travis Hunter: Yeah, I’m fairly privacy conscious, and I could-
David Elmasian: Huh, you don’t like either.
Travis Hunter: There’s probably no way to actually be anonymous or hidden, but I know that those two are probably not our best options.
David Elmasian: Good point. All right, this one’s an easy one. Taco or burrito?
Travis Hunter: Burritos. San Diego, California burritos.
David Elmasian: I had a feeling you might say that. So what makes the perfect California San Diego burrito?
Travis Hunter: Really good, crispy french fries, fresh guacamole, and just all the fixings. Really hot salsa.
David Elmasian: All right. So you and I could talk for hours. I appreciate you taking the time, Travis. You’ve been listening to Travis Hunter. We’re on the Hub of Success Podcast. Thanks so much, Travis. How can people get ahold of you or learn more about your program?
Travis Hunter: Yeah, of course. You can visit us at REAP, R-E-A-P.mit.edu, and me personally, feel free to look me up on LinkedIn, Travis Hunter.
David Elmasian: Great. Thanks so much again.
Travis Hunter: Thank you.
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