NYC’s ‘Godfather of Tech’ leads the way in the Big Apple

Kevin RyanTo pigeon-hole Kevin Ryan MBA’90D is to miss the real story.

“People refer to me as the chairman of Gilt, which I am,” he explains. “But I am also the chairman of other companies, some bigger than Gilt. Really what I am is a serial entrepreneur.”

It’s an accurate claim, though lacking another description – extremely successful.

Kevin’s success as an Internet entrepreneur is abundantly evident, and it was perhaps illustrated most clearly in Fortune magazine’s description of him in a 2014 article as the “Godfather of Tech” in New York City. He can claim the title because he grasped the potential of the Internet at its earliest days.

There was not a direct link to his Internet success. He worked in Europe after INSEAD then moved to the U.S. to work with United Media. Rather than follow an entrepreneurial path on graduation, his inclination was to “manage people, to run things.”

With United, which among its activities distributed comics, he managed the launch of the company’s website in 1995.

“This was early days and I decided then that the Internet was going to be one of the biggest things to happen in my lifetime,” Kevin explains. “I realised what the Internet could mean for our own comic strips and I thought, if I can put them on the Internet, you could avoid paper and go directly to the consumer.”

It was at this juncture for Kevin that the desire to run things joined hands with entrepreneurial drive and a “godfather of tech” was born. Over the next two decades he has started and grown several Internet based companies, created hundreds of jobs, played a central role in New York City’s emergence as a major player in tech, and even seen his name bandied about as a possible mayoral candidate of the grande ville.

His first breakthrough was DoubleClick, the online ad technology giant that was eventually sold to Google for $3.1 billion. Along with Gilt, his Internet interests today also include Mongo, an open source document database, The Business Insider, an online publisher, and he acknowledges interest in exploring other areas, such as health care, that have unexplored online potential.

“The most fun is in building something from scratch, creating great jobs and great opportunities,” he observes. “I am a leader of people and it means managing diverse teams and many different businesses. Even though it is all Internet driven, they are completely different businesses.”

To an extent Kevin’s success, which also embraces strong social and political interests, has roots in his year at INSEAD. He had spent several years in his youth living in Europe with family, then ended up in banking in London, so the decision to do his MBA in Europe at INSEAD was made easy.

“I loved living in Europe and there was the great appeal of the INSEAD programme in general, along with the fact it was a one-year duration,” he explains, adding that at the time he had significant financial experience, so the one-year programme helped him minimise study in fields in which he had expertise.

“The INSEAD experience was exceptional and everyone I know says it was the best year of their life,” he continues. ”I absolutely loved the year and made friendships that last to this day. When my wife (Pascaline Servan-Schreiber, MBA ’90D, met at INSEAD) and I invited about 100 guests to our 10th anniversary, the majority were INSEAD people.”

Ironically, he recalls, at the end of his studies at INSEAD, he was disappointed the programme was just one year, a factor that had originally attracted him.

Kevin has more than merely maintained his ties to INSEAD. He has headed the U.S. alumni association, served on the INSEAD board and volunteered for related activities, including panel discussions and accepting a speaking opportunity with the school in Singapore. His motivation with all these activities, he says, stems from the fact that the INSEAD period in his life was an extraordinary experience.

“Marketing and entrepreneurship were among my favourite classes, but all the classes were valuable,” he recalls. “I found I also learned a great deal from my fellow students. For example, when I was at INSEAD it was just before the first Gulf War and I remember being in one class and one of the students was an Israeli pilot. He explained exactly how the war would play out, and he was right.”

Kevin’s enthusiasm for INSEAD is based on several factors. “INSEAD is an entrepreneurial school, it is innovative and was one of the first to go with a one-year programme. The Singapore campus has been a brilliant success.”

“More CEOs have been INSEAD alumni that any other school in Europe,” he continues. “The school has no dominant culture like you would find at a big institution. As an internationally focused institution, it was ahead of the curve, when it moved into Asia, it was ahead of the curve.”

One change Kevin would welcome would be for INSEAD to become even better known.

“Reputation is important when you want to be the best business school,” he explains, and throws out the challenge. “One way to make it better known is through the alumni base and, fortunately, that is now growing by 1,000 graduates a year.”

As with INSEAD, Kevin is engaged in many activities not connected to his business interests. For instance, social agencies with which he has been involved include Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch.

“I am interested in organisations such as these because they are dealing with some of the most difficult issues of our time,” he explains. “The U.S. and Europe have challenges, but nothing like those in Africa, for example. However, when you witness closely the work of such organisations, you can assure yourself that the world is becoming a better place every day. Twenty-five years ago when I graduated, Eastern Europe was still just beginning to emerge, many Latin American countries were run by military dictators, so it is a much better world now, even in Africa.”

In assessing his business success, he points to a three-step model: Come up with the idea, build the team, grow the business. Of course, it requires a certain kind of insight to begin with, and the common thread that unites the steps is execution. “It’s the key to success.”

And while he admits being mayor of New York City could be a great job, he does not see it in his future. He consults regularly with current mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been an avid enthusiast for developing the city’s tech sector. Advocating for such progress in the city is more appealing to Kevin than a political role, at least for the present.

With his Internet credentials, Kevin has a special vantage point from which to view the future of education, in particular with respect to the impact it will have on INSEAD.

“INSEAD will remain a fantastic MBA choice, even with the emergence of online programmes,” he says. “There are just too many things that you can’t do from your living room.”

This from an Internet visionary.

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