Meet the innovators with Howard Wright – from NBA to CEO
Much has been written about the similar levels of commitment and dedication needed to succeed in professional sports and in business. Comparisons have been made between the required levels of drive and focus coupled with an ability to handle unseen challenges and stay on track.
But there are very few people who manage to achieve success in both fields and that is why I was particularly keen to sit down with Howard Wright.
Howard played in the NBA after graduating from Stanford, but these days you are more likely to find him in the boardroom than on the court. He is currently the CEO of C360 an immersive, HD video streaming solution that delivers a personalized viewing experience. C360 cameras were recently deployed by ESPN to cover the NCAA Men's Frozen Four.
I asked Howard whether he always saw himself heading up a startup even when he was pounding the courts in Stanford.
"To be honest, no. Back in college, the focus was always to be a responsible corporate citizen and give back to my community. A funny thing happened along the way to being the best student that I could be. I kept getting just a little bit better and a little bit better in basketball. I never became great, but I was good enough to fulfill a childhood dream and play three seasons in the NBA.
More than anything else, that experience connected the dots for me between maniacal focus, dedication, devotion, planning my days, months and years to a very specific goal, and then achieving that goal.
These days I find myself drawn to athletes of all sports. That discipline, the time management skills, the focus, the dedication. When I go recruiting, I look for somebody that has collegiate sports experience, in addition to being a fantastic student. It's my own bias but I find that it holds up quite well in corporate America."
This is something that fascinates me because of my experiences playing rugby at a high level some years back. I have always felt like the discipline I learned playing a team sport had value to my corporate career. I pushed Howard to explain the link further.
"Working in a startup is like being a corporate athlete. It's about how you feed your body and your mind. You need to stay responsive to investors, board members and potential partners. The energy and the stamina required in a day or a week must be managed with intentionality. This is a full-contact sport that we're playing in the startup world, and you can only get by with so much caffeine!
This is especially true during a pandemic where normal work patterns are broken down.
The resiliency that you build as an athlete is very important in this period.
Sometimes you don't feel like getting out of the bed to go to the weight room or the track or to the gym. But it's in those quiet hours, when nobody else is looking, that leaders step up and galvanize the team to become something bigger than its individual parts.
That dedication to a sport is remarkably similar in the startup world where you may have early calls with European partners or late calls with partners in the Far East and anything in between."
After making a living playing basketball, Howard spent years in the corporate world, first at Qualcomm and then at Intel before joining a startup for the first time. I wondered how his experience working at these giant companies had prepared him for the startup world and what differences he noticed.
"One is the velocity. I knew we had to run fast, but in the startup world you have to thread several needles at the same time, and you can't miss any of them. The second thing would be my naivety taking on the role of CEO. Previously I had been CEO minus one or CEO minus two, but it turns out I was only privy to about 65% of the information. Suddenly there was a whole new world of responsibility for me, and it really made me appreciate the iconic leaders I had been mentored by and remain friends with, including Irwin Jacobs, Paul Jacobs, Peggy Johnson, Aicha Evans and several others.
Everything matters more when it's your signature closing the deal. Being a CEO in a startup carries more weight than anything I have done before and I'm thoroughly enjoying leaning into that responsibility."
Not for the first time since I started sitting down with founders, CEOs and entrepreneurs to catalog their experiences, was I struck by the humility of people who have risen to the top of their profession. Howard takes his role as CEO very seriously, but he never takes himself seriously. I had such a fun, light-hearted and sports-heavy conversation with Howard, so that when I came to my last question, I was caught out by the direction he took it. I like to finish by asking what the one thing someone would change about the startup ecosystem might be.
"I would change some of these stereotypes around diversity and inclusion. It is sometimes still considered rare, if not remarkable, that I'm an African American CEO.
Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of African American quarterbacks in the NFL, and the underlying, insidiously racist assumption was they couldn't lead. Now we live in a world with Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, or any number of top ten quarterbacks and it's unremarkable what color they are.
I would like to lead by example and have my company be wildly successful across all the various metrics, to tear down those last bits of residual cynicism, and for my color to be unremarkable. And it's not just me. I'm sure that women, LatinX and LGBTQ executives all feel the same way.
If this is the meritocracy that we've said it is, then we should add equal access to the capital. We should have access to the same resources and the same tools.
Give any of us a chance to show how profoundly successful we can be in the leadership roles, managing fiscally, executing ruthlessly, communicating with our boards, and generating more investment in terms.
That's what I would change, so that 10 years from now my position as an African American CEO won't be rare or remarkable."
I found myself very moved by Howard's frankness and his unapologetic demand for equal access to opportunity. Diversity, equity and inclusion is absolutely built into the fabric of Microsoft and Microsoft for Startups, but it remains important and necessary to keep that commitment at the forefront of the way we do business and to focus on making a difference more than talking about it.