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Chantal Pittman: Passion for Learning Fuels Serial Entrepreneur

Chantal Pittman speaks at UT Entrepreneurship Week

Chantal Pittman, Texas Executive MBA '12, is living proof of the benefits education can bring to entrepreneurs.

With an undergraduate and master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by two successful startups, Pittman still saw the value of an education from the McCombs School of Business.

On her first day of class at McCombs, thanks to alphabetical seating, she met Ryan Pitylak, MBA '12, her eventual co-founder for digital agency Unique Influence. They sold the company two years ago, but both continue to work there, with Pittman serving as chief operating officer. 

You've launched successful telecom, lighting, and advertising startups. What's been your approach to such varied industries?

There's always the excitement of learning that industry, business, or skill set. You just have to know how to run a good business. There are slightly different challenges, but fundamentally it's 80 percent the same.

Did you grow up in an entrepreneurial family?

My family wasn't particularly entrepreneurial, but very hardworking. I grew up just outside London, which is typically a sort of risk-averse environment. The British are more conservative, generally. It's also not typical to grow up with stories of people starting companies.

When I was seven or eight years old, I got a report card from one of my teachers that said, "She's very bossy." It was frowned upon for a woman to be in a leadership role, so I didn't really know it was an option for me.

You studied engineering at MIT. Why did you shift to business?

When I graduated in the mid-1990s, management consulting was very hot. Since I hadn't taken any business courses, I thought it would be a good education. I went to work for Capgemini. All these big companies had gotten so inefficient over the years, and consulting companies were making them far more efficient, hitting the bottom line pretty significantly. That seemed like a really interesting problem, and I like solving problems.

What did you learn from your work in consulting? 

Engineering prepares you to problem solve. Consulting is a business version of that: You go into a struggling company and you have to figure out why it's struggling. Then you help fix it without just firing or upsetting everybody — doing it in a win-win way where they feel like it's their solution.

If you say, "You've been doing it the wrong way for 10 years, here’s my solution," it never gets implemented. Consulting is really good life training on how not to only come up with the best solution but actually to get it implemented.

How did that lead to your work in venture capital?

A couple of people at Capgemini said, "Let's go start our own little venture capital company. We can see where there's opportunity. We're going to seed companies, help them grow, and make them successful." That's when the idea of VCs helping manage companies was starting. Prior to that, it was about throwing money at things.

From there, you launched your first two companies.  

The first company, OnePoint Communications, was in the telecom industry. We saw some of the changes happening with deregulation and there was an opportunity. One of the guys came up with an idea, so we launched, grew it, and sold it to Verizon. 

Then a friend was starting an LED lighting company, io Lighting. She had a vision to reinvent the light bulb, because it could be tiny. It was a great idea. I jumped on board with her, grew it, and sold it to Cooper Industries, which is now Eaton Corp.

As a startup co-founder, how do you view your role?

I'm the "make it happen" person. I've always had partners who have been the visionary. It's very rare to find a visionary who's also very disciplined and can execute. It's just two different types of brains. In a startup, it's really important to have that mix of skills.  

Pittman (center) at UT Entrepreneurship Week

What attracted you to McCombs for your MBA?

I always wanted an MBA, but the time was never really right. People said, "You've already had a couple of successful startups. You don't need an MBA." But there's something about having the credibility: It's validation for people to invest in you. They know that you know what you're doing.

And I was trying to pivot. I was working in Chicago but living in Austin, and I didn't really know many people or companies here. I wanted to work in Texas and McCombs is the best business school in Texas. The executive program has a great schedule. I just needed to carve out a little bit of time every other week.

What was the biggest surprise at McCombs?  

I wasn't expecting the network. I met my co-founder. I met great advisers, professors whom I stay in touch with.

The entire class stays in touch. We all drop everything for each other. It's really powerful to have relationships with good people.

As someone who's launched companies in several industries, what's next?

It's going to be something that has an impact on people's lives, like health care. But I don't know exactly what yet. I haven’t done a social justice business yet. Hopefully, the fourth one will be a bit different.

Do you have an overarching career philosophy?

Try to be open to opportunities. This is weirdly hippie, but if it's the right timing in the industry and there's an opportunity, things will magically happen. It's about being open and aware of what's going on. Then when you do grab on to something, you've got to consume yourself with it to make it work. You can't be one toe in — both feet, all the way.

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