Ed Zschau — The Polymath Professor Who Changed My Life (#380)

Photo by Daniel Kelly

“Entrepreneurship isn’t about starting companies. Entrepreneurship is an approach to life.”
— Ed Zschau

Ed Zschau is the Interim President of Sierra Nevada College, and he brings to the college 17 years of leading technology companies. He founded System Industries in Palo Alto, California in 1969, and as its CEO led it to a successful IPO in 1980. In the 1990s, he was the General Manager of the IBM Storage Systems Division headquartered in San Jose, California. Ed has a total of 10 years of teaching experience as a professor in the graduate business schools at Stanford University and Harvard University, and he has taught high tech entrepreneurship courses for a total of 22 years in the engineering schools at Princeton University, Caltech, and University of Nevada, Reno. In addition to serving on the boards of major public companies such as Reader’s Digest and StarTek, Ed has helped to start and build several technology companies during the past 20 years, some of which were founded and led by his former students.

In the 1980s, Ed represented the Silicon Valley area of California for two terms in the US House of Representatives, serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Also, during the 1980s, he was a General Partner of Brentwood Associates, a venture capital firm, and he was the Founding Chairman of The Tech Interactive, (formerly The Tech Museum of Innovation), a non-profit educational institution in San Jose, California.

Ed holds an A.B. degree (cum laude) in Philosophy (bridging with Physics) from Princeton University, as well as M.B.A., M.S. (Statistics), and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University and a Doctor of Laws degree (Honoris Causa) from the University of San Francisco. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow of the California Council on Science and Technology.

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#380: Ed Zschau — The Polymath Professor Who Changed My Life


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Want to hear another episode with someone who brings music to every aspect of their life? — Listen to my conversation with Jamie Foxx in which we discuss learning lessons from our elders, parenting, workouts, and more. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#124: Jamie Foxx on Workout Routines, Success Habits, and Untold Hollywood Stories


QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.




  • The Princeton engineering course in which Dr. Zschau and I met, and how I convinced him to let me in. [06:40]
  • Ed’s background in competitive figure skating and what it taught him about the value of practice, dedication, persistence, and determination. [09:29]
  • Where did Ed’s meticulous attention to detail originate? [14:02]
  • Learning by doing: the many benefits of the case method. [18:13]
  • How does Ed define entrepreneurship? [22:31]
  • What’s the role of optimism in entrepreneurship — and, by extension, life — where things can and often do go horribly wrong? [24:57]
  • As a teenager going into young adulthood, what did Ed think he was going to be when he grew up? [27:17]
  • As an aspiring physics philosopher obsessed with Einstein, what drew Ed to Princeton as an undergrad? Did he find it to be the challenge he was expecting? [29:23]
  • How did Ed get into teaching, and what led to his belief that career planning is overrated? [32:27]
  • After seizing the opportunity to teach when he’d never taught before, how did Ed actually learn to become good at it? In what ways did his high school experience with extemporaneous speaking help? [38:01]
  • What extemporaneous speaking competitively taught Ed about preparation and adaptation. [41:28]
  • How does Ed think about focusing for extended periods or opening himself to opportunities? [46:35]
  • Why did Ed decide to run for Congress? [48:55]
  • What were the two advantages of committing to serve a maximum of three terms — if elected — in the House of Representatives? Why does he, in retrospect, believe he’s made more of a contribution to a better future as a professor than he would have had he won his campaign to become a senator? [54:11]
  • After losing his Senate race to the incumbent by a narrow margin, what were the following days and weeks like for Ed? As someone who was generally used to success from his efforts, what did he say to himself at this point? [58:14]
  • What was Ed’s decision process like when trading his investor hat for that of a CEO at this time? Over the course of his life, what’s been the primary motivation for most of his decisions? [1:00:42]
  • How does Ed differentiate between the things that will have the greatest impact for others and feeling peer-pressured to commit to something? How does he ensure his skills are put to their most efficient use? [1:03:23]
  • How does Ed’s parenting style compare to his deliberate teaching style? [1:07:23]
  • Ed believes the best way to help people find their way is through encouragement rather than direction. What does this look like in practice, and how did his own parents instill this in him? [1:09:25]
  • Where did Ed’s overarching goal to live a life that matters originate? Has he ever wavered from this goal? [1:13:20]
  • Influential books — particularly biographies — that have inspired Ed, and what he would recommend for aspiring entrepreneurs to read. [1:15:58]
  • What Ed is most excited about these days, and how he’s tackling the modern problem of making higher education affordable through technology. [1:21:32]
  • The mantra by which Ed lives his life, how his mother would respond whenever he’d pivot according to this mantra, and the childhood nickname that follows Ed to this day. [1:28:58]
  • How Ed has always brought the sound of music to his endeavors — whether in finding an optimal solution to a linear programming problem or encouraging students to do things in their own unique way. [1:31:52]
  • How Ed’s desire to change the world has influenced and inspired the lives of many — including me — to hopefully continue his work. [1:39:17]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:42:55]