- 20. November 2008

Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Conference

Okay, so I’m bragging.

As the wife of the CEO, I don’t often do this, but this past weekend was not only fun, but inspiring. I’ve just had the pleasure of attending the annual Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Conference with Comscore’s leaders, Magid and Gian, and Gian’s wife Sarinda. Having won the regional Entrepreneur of the Year title for the Mid-Atlantic Region back in June, Magid and Gian were invited to attend the national competition, which culminated in a gala on Saturday night, hosted by Jay Leno.

Hosted in Palm Springs in all its glory, the conference was quite an event. E&Y put on a first class event, all around. Speakers included people like Jack Welch, and Robert Nardelli, CEO of Chrysler (who, IMO, deserves a lot of credit just for showing up.) My favorite quote of the week came from Jack Welch, who, when espousing on the topic of how companies could survive the current economic environment, said: “Your competitors: buy them or bury them. And by that I mean dismember them — pick off all their best people.” (Hmmm…good advice, Jack)

Offering all the glamour and glitz of the Oscars, the gala on Saturday night was the highlight (although Gian, who grew up in the UK during the sixties couldn’t quite get over the Joe Cocker concert on Friday). Complete with champagne, a red carpet, and yes -- even Joan Rivers, the gala was attended by a black-tie crowd of over 3,000 that was just as handsome (if somewhat more geeky) than the Hollywood version. Jay was about the best I’ve ever seen him — hilarious in his prepared bit, and just as good with his spontaneous comments, making fun of politicians and entrepreneurs alike. Our own Dustin Hoffman, as Gian was referred to in a recent Fortune article, was right at home. Even Magid, coined ‘the grim-looking CEO’ in the same article, was all smiles.

It was quite an honor to have made it that far. To get there, Magid and Gian were among 250 regional winners who had been selected from over 3,500 applications from across the country, representing every possible type of company under the sun. Unlike the Oscars, no one knew who the four finalists were in each of the ten categories until they were dramatically announced that evening, via a very fancy video profiling each of the finalists. Low and behold, Magid and Dustin were named one of the four finalists in the Services category, placing them in the top 1% of all applicants. Very exciting.

But when the big moment came, and the envelope was opened with the requisite drama and drum roll, alas, they did not win the big enchilada in their category. That honor went to —and here’s the rather funny part — James Barnes of Oakleaf, which is a waste management company. Sparing you Jay’s comments about how happy he was that “finally, there were some ‘non-Italians’ in the waste management business,” and the jokes at our table about how we ended up in that category (which were very funny), Oakleaf, with its many green initiatives, is actually a very impressive company. Instead of physically hauling trash, the company contracts with retailers, restaurants, property management companies, hospitality companies and corporate clients and hires haulers in the immediate area to do the actual removal. Oakleaf was started with a $45,000 loan in 1995 and has grown at a 30% per year clip to become a company with 750 employees and annual revenues of more than $700 million. Walmart, CVS and Home Depot are three of its flagship accounts. Not too shabby. This was a well deserved honor for them, and all the other winners of the evening.

But the bigger takeaway was this: what a club to be a part of. Having overcome a very colorful and storied collection of overwhelming personal and professional odds, this group of entrepreneurs has made a huge impact on the economy. They have collectively created tens of thousands of jobs, supported hundreds of thousands of people, generated untold millions in taxes, and even at today’s valuations, created billions of dollars of market cap. Pretty impressive.

Another great point Jack Welch made is that as the G20 were gathered in Washington this past weekend trying to figure out a plan for the current economic crisis, that “they should be looking at this crowd -- 3,000 miles west.” I couldn’t agree more. Many, if not most, of these entrepreneurs were not from elite backgrounds or Ivy League schools; most were not 4.0 types. Rather, they were often from humble beginnings, but had the ideas, determination, creativity and pure guts to drive to success. To me, that’s America -- at its best. At this point in our country’s history, I believe it is more important than ever that we encourage and harness this energy. I’m not suggesting that this group will provide a silver bullet to all our economic woes, but they will surely provide an important pillar. They look at an economy like the current one and find opportunities. And they will ultimately profit from them. It’s quite a club.

So as I write this from the airport the next day, in my back-to-reality jeans, getting ready to board my flight and take my middle seat back to DC, there is a lot to reflect on. But my net takeaway is this: despite all the uncertainty about our country’s near-term economic future, I am sure of one thing: I’m going home with winners.