How to Turn $1,000 into $10 Billion: The Mentoring of Michael Dell

By EverwiseMay 7, 2015

One part of Michael Dell’s story is familiar: the 19-year-old college kid founding a company with $1,000 and making it into a multi-billion-dollar tech powerhouse.

Not so well known is the story of the behind-the-scenes mentors who helped him make it happen. That’s what we’re going to look at in this post.

1. George Kozmetsky

Yes, it’s a numbered list. Michael Dell didn’t limit himself to a single mentor; he learned from several different people at various stages of his career.

One of the earliest and most influential was technology innovator and University of Texas academic George Kozmetsky. His door was always open throughout his 18-hour days, and a young Michael Dell would sometimes stop by for breakfast and advice.

Kozmetsky joined the Dell board in the company’s early days, and gave his protégé the full benefit of his experience.

“George Kozmetsky’s guidance in management issues, workforce motivation, and strategies needed to remain technologically competitive has been invaluable in helping Dell Computer Corporation grow to be a more than $2 billion company, Dell said in later years. “His wisdom and guidance have enabled many innovative ideas to reach fruition, directly benefiting not only their creators but also the American people at large.”

When Kozmetsky died in 2003, Dell referred to his old mentor as “a towering figure in my life and in the life of this company”, and added: “He will be missed, but his contributions and his legacy here at Dell certainly live on.”

2. Lee Walker

Did you know that Michael Dell was shy as a young man? The mentor who helped him overcome it and become a successful leader was Lee Walker.

Dell brought Walker, then a 51-year-old venture capitalist, into his company in 1986 to serve as president and chief operating officer. Walker ended up not only implementing Dell’s ideas and helping run the company on a day-to-day basis, but also mentoring Dell and helping him build up his confidence and managerial skills.

In the four years he spent at the company before retiring for health reasons, Walker helped Dell understand how to turn his entrepreneurial ideas into effective business plans, and tutored him on various aspects of running a fast-growing business.

3. Mort Topfer

After Walker left the company, Michael Dell continued to turn to more experienced executives for advice.

One of them was former Motorola executive Mort Topfer, who joined the company as vice chairman in 1994. At first, Topfer only planned to stay and advise Dell for a few months—he was 57, and he and his wife had already built a retirement home in Nevada.

But Topfer ended up staying five years and becoming a mentor to Michael Dell. He brought experience in management restructuring, and helped Dell make the transition from fast-growing tech firm to multi-billion-dollar corporation. Topfer also encouraged Dell to focus more on strategy, while he himself handled the budget and day-to-day operations. Even after he stepped down as vice chairman in 1999, Topfer remained one of Dell’s closest advisers, and served on the board of directors for another five years.

Passing On the Gift of Mentoring

Michael Dell has never forgotten the help he received from his various mentors. He’s now working to provide mentoring to other young people through The Dell Scholars program, an initiative of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

The program awards 300 scholarships annually, providing students not only with financial funding, but also with mentoring to help them succeed in achieving their ambitions. In return, the scholars are expected to “serve as positive role models and change the trajectories for their siblings, friends and their communities.”

Lessons from the Mentoring of Michael Dell

Here’s what Dell’s experience can teach us about mentoring today.

  • Seeking out a mentor is not only a smart strategy for personal development; it’s also a smart business strategy. Dell’s mentors brought the experience to complement his entrepreneurial drive.
  • Successful protégés often become much more well known than their mentors, but are usually quick to recognize and acknowledge the help they received along the way.
  • As well as mentoring others directly, another way to pass on the gift is to organize broader programs that help many people access mentoring opportunities.

Interested in being a mentor to the next Michael Dell? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.



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