An engineer, you fled Soviet Ukraine in 1976, came to Detroit, and, like so many educated, were told to take a lower-skilled job—in a supermarket or as a leather dyer—but you refused, sending out 200 resumés and landing an engineering job. You went on to start three successful power plant companies, the second of which brought you a personal fortune of about $400 million. What made you resist the crummy jobs and hold out for your dream?
I never had a doubt, maybe because I was young and ambitious. I went to the library. I got the phone books—electric utilities, power companies. I was just sending the resumés relentlessly.
The guy interviewing you for your first job, at Bechtel, spoke terrible English—like you did at the time—and you reverted to engineering calculations and drawings to communicate. True story?
He was Chinese. It wasn’t much of a conversation. He was saying something I didn’t understand. I was saying, “Yes, yes, yes.” And that was the interview.
At your first start-up, Indeck, you had a falling-out with your partner and had to litigate to get about $25 million due to you. So you started SkyGen and controlled everything. Huge success. Built 15 power plants. But then you sold it in 2000 for $650 million. Why?
The expansion in the industry was unsustainable. It was going to end. And as a private company, we had to continuously raise capital. Other, larger companies like Calpine [which bought SkyGen] had such an easier time raising capital that we couldn’t compete.
Invenergy, your latest company, builds wind farms, with 2,000 megawatts in operation, and natural gas power plants, with another 2,000 megawatts. You’ve completed $7 billion in transactions. Where is this headed?
We’re only at the beginning. The new wave of renewable energy in this country represents only a couple of percentage points of our energy supply. There is still a very substantial expansion to go.
You pitched in $7 million to start the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s business school [where Polsky got an MBA the hard way, one class per semester over five years]. I asked you this when we first met nearly a decade ago: Can entrepreneurship be taught? After all, you seem driven in a way no professor could account for. [Polsky said in 2003 that purely entrepreneurial skills cannot be taught.]
My view hasn’t changed. What has crystallized is that having education in some fields is very helpful, regardless of whether you actually practice [in those fields]. The study of entrepreneurship is helpful regardless of where [you] work. If people learn how to swim, they don’t have to be world-record holders.
So entrepreneurial management within larger organizations is valued, too, not just for launching your own start-up. Of course, larger companies aren’t the loyal employers they once were.
The big companies are no longer people’s companies. They are companies of the senior management—to satisfy the egos. You can quote me on that.
Chicago has some notable entrepreneurial successes: you, the youngsters over at Groupon, Pat Ryan starting another insurance company. But it’s hardly a hotbed of start-ups and innovation. Why?
I agree with you 100 percent. It’s a culture of large corporations. Entrepreneurial companies are not being as recognized or as celebrated as in other places. Culture sometimes takes contracts to change.
Photograph: Bob Stefko