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After ...Apprentice... Success, Alum Reflects on MIT Years

By Jiao Wang
STAFF REPORTER

MIT graduates have ways of making their presence felt in the world, not only in their traditional disciplines of science and engineering, but also in the humanities, in industry, in business, and on national television.

Although Ankur Mehta ’04’s memorable debut this January on “Beauty and the Geek 2” did not win him the $250,000 prize, Randal D. Pinkett PhD ’02 succeeded in singling himself out for hire by Donald Trump in the fourth season of NBC’s “The Apprentice.”

During the years Pinkett spent at MIT from 1996 to 2001, he completed a MS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, an MBA from Sloan in the Leaders for Manufacturing Program, and a doctorate in Media Arts and Science.

Pinkett currently serves as founder, president, and CEO of BCT Partners (http://www.bctpartners.com), a consulting services firm serving government agencies, corporations, foundations, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations, according to the company’s Web site. The Tech had the opportunity to interview to him during Independent Activities Period. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

The Tech: What advice would you give to today’s young entrepreneurs?

Randal Pinkett: My advice would be to try to create a winning team. Historically when we think about entrepreneurship, we think about the sole entrepreneur, Bill Gates or Michael Dell or Steve Jobs, but my experience with entrepreneurship is that it takes a team to be successful. Rather than think about what you can do as an individual, think about who you can work with to pool your collective strengths and your collective resources to build a strong team and pursue an opportunity together.

TT: What advice would you give to MIT students in particular?

RP: I would say, to take full advantage of what MIT has to offer such as the business plan competition, resources at the Sloan School of Management, and various clubs that are organized around specific courses or specific disciplines. There is a tremendous amount to explore. If a student is interested in pursuing an entrepreneurship or a business venture, I would strongly encourage them to take the time to seek out those resources and take full advantage of them.

TT: If you were to come to MIT again hypothetically as a student, would there be anything that you would do differently the second time around?

RP: I would have spent even more time establishing new student relationships and strengthening those relationships. It is tough to do because obviously MIT is very demanding and time-consuming, but I think relationships are very important. It is easy to allow schoolwork to take all of your time. If I could do it again I would have budgeted or allotted more time just to build relationships and get to know people, because the relationships that I did establish have been very fruitful, really positive ones, and really a blessing to me.

TT: Once you leave MIT and get out into the real world, to what extent do you feel that the classes you took at MIT contributed to your overall success as opposed to extracurriculars or other activities that you were involved in?

RP: Almost as important as what I learned when I was at MIT was the way that MIT taught me how to learn. We live in a very rapidly evolving society, so a lot of what we learn has the potential to become obsolete. The material I learned in the classroom and from my books was just as important as learning an overall approach to learning. The latter gave me the ability to pick up new things and to learn new things because I was constantly being challenged during my time at MIT.

I now run a consulting firm and we’re constantly having to learn new technologies and new methodologies. In that respect, my MIT education was helpful because I became accustomed to picking up new, advanced topics relatively quickly.

TT: When in your life did you decide to go into business?

RP: I’m been in business since I was a kid. I opened up lemonade stands as a child. I used to open up flea markets where I would sell my old toys. When I got into college at Rutgers, I opened up a compact disc store in my dormitory. I started my first official company, MBS Educational Services & Training while I was finishing up as an undergraduate at Rutgers. As I was finishing up at MIT, I started BCT Partners, where I currently serve as the founder, president and CEO.

I have known that I wanted to be an entrepreneur my entire life, but it was probably in college, at Rutgers, where it was clear to me that my past experiences were preparing me for business ownership as a direction to move forward.

TT: I have read that you are into charity, that you believe part of what it means to be successful is to help other people succeed and to give back to the community. When you do business, to what extent are you out to make a profit?

RP: At my company, BCT Partners, we believe in what some call the “double-bottom line,” that is, financial returns and also social returns. I always talk about how important it is for BCT Partners do well and earn a profit, but also to do good and to make a difference and have an impact. It is very much reflected in the work that we do at BCT Partners and in some of my other charitable activities.

TT: Why did you decide to become a contestant on “The Apprentice”?

RP: I decided to become a contestant on “The Apprentice” for three reasons. First, I saw the show as my opportunity to highlight my abilities as a business person on a nationally televised program. I believed the show would translate into opportunities for me and also for BCT Partners.

Second, I went on the show for the opportunity to work with Donald Trump and to learn from a multi-billionaire how he runs his organization and what lessons he has learned as a businessperson that I can apply to my life.

Third, and finally, it just looked like fun. It looked like I would have a good time, I would be challenged in new ways, I would meet new people and just enjoy myself. I’m happy to say that I think all three of those reasons have come to fruition.

TT: I looked at the r sum s of some of the other people and it seems to me that you have the most extensive education. To what extent do you feel that an education was what distinguished you from the other contestants?

RP: Interestingly, my education received a lot of attention throughout the season. I felt at times it overshadowed my experience as a businessperson and as an entrepreneur. I have been involved in starting five companies and I have five degrees. I have always felt that a combination of both led to my success. My educational background definitely contributed and was extremely valuable, but my experience as a businessperson — working with people, leading teams, organizing activities and delegating responsibility, etc. resulted in lessons learned that I was able to glean from having run an organization myself.

TT: Can you describe your typical working day?

RP: [Laughs] It’s been pretty crazy since the show ended. My typical day before I won was primarily just doing business development for BCT Partners: meeting with prospective clients, listening and understanding their needs, and trying to see if there is a way that we can provide a solution to those needs. I did a decent amount of public speaking before “The Apprentice” to community groups, high schools, corporations, etc. Nowadays, my speaking engagements have increased four or five times over what they used to be. I also do a lot of interviews: television, radio, newspaper. I do at least one a day, if not five a day.

Looking ahead, first and foremost, I begin my assignment with the Trump Organization later this month. My official first day is February 20th and we will be doing a press conference in Atlantic City.

In addition to my assignment, I am also managing a number of different opportunities. I’m working on a deal to do a national commercial, I’m working on some product endorsements, a number of public appearances including different red carpet events … .

I’m close to signing a deal for my first book, “Campus CEO,” which describes strategies for creating a business enterprise on any college campus. I was able to do this with my firm, BCT Partners, a multimillion dollar management, technology and policy consulting firm, just as others were able to do this such as Yahoo!, Google and Bad Boy Records. I am also in discussions with publishers concerning my second book, “Black Faces in White Places,” which chronicles my experiences as well as those of my college roommate, Dr. Jeffrey Robinson, also a black man, as African Americans who have successfully navigated predominantly white institutions.

TT: Did MIT teach you any values or lessons in life?

RP: MIT taught me the value of excellence. There are so many talented people at MIT and they are all clearly accomplished … and they come from different places, different walks, different areas of expertise. MIT reinforced the notion of really mastering subject matter and being excellent at what you do. The courses were challenging. The people were extremely bright and the environment was so conducive to being the best that it really pushed me to another level.

TT: During your time at MIT, did you ever lose hope or confidence and if you did, how did you regain it?

RP: I did have a tough transition to MIT and it took me awhile to adjust to the rigor of the coursework … My first full-fledged semester was very difficult. I had to rely on teaching assistants and professors to work with me to fully grasp the material and develop a new work ethic and a new set of studying skills so that I could be successful. It took me about two semesters to adjust and to refine my approach to studying … and then from there, I was in much better shape.

My first few exams and quizzes were less than stellar [laughs]. That took me for a bit of a loop, but I recovered and just put in more time, more energy, and sought out help. I wasn’t afraid to ask for help, which was extremely important.