Chris Norris: Thinking like an Entrepreneur
Chris Norris is the Director of the Ciocca Center for Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara, a new interdisciplinary center created to advance innovation and entrepreneurship on campus. Chris serves on boards at Efinix (quantum programmable technology), Solar Ear (solar hearing aids), St. Anthony’s Foundation, Elevated Honey and Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Before joining Santa Clara, Chris was the CEO of Alta Devices, spent 17 years at Cypress Semiconductors, and began his career at Intel. Chris received his Master’s in Electrical Engineering from Santa Clara in 1992.
In this conversation, we discuss Chris’ career journey through hi-tech, solar and investing venture capital companies, how to think like an entrepreneur regardless of your career, whether Chris is optimistic about the future of entrepreneurship, and how the Ciocca Center is spreading the entrepreneurial mindset. The beginning of this episode features a special message from March 25 about the COVID-19 crisis and recommendations for what to read during the shelter-in-place.
Chris is embracing working from home.
Gavin Cosgrave: How did you develop an interest in entrepreneurship?
Chris Norris: I was raised in this little town in Idaho, population: 23. My dad was an engineer at the Idaho National Labs, then decided to farm. So he had a dairy farm for my whole childhood. When I went to college, I had two things on my mind: escape the farm and run my own business. I knew going to school would be the right start.
At the University of Idaho, I had a professor who told me about a research sabbatical he had done in Silicon Valley. I didn’t know what Silicon Valley was, I thought it was just a valley where they mined stuff. But I ended up getting an internship at Varian Associates in Palo Alto. When I drove down here the first time and saw HP, Apple and palm trees, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
When I realized everyone was building integrated circuits, I shuffled around my senior year course load and focused on getting a job in Silicon Valley. My idea was to start at a big company that’s well respected, then go do a startup. I went to Intel and spent my four years there, then I went to Cypress Semiconductors which had just 300 people. I thought I’d spend four years there then start my own company. Then 17 years went by.
I was 40 and running a big division with 500 employees, but I was just in the boardroom the whole time. I decided one day and realized that if I wasn’t already in that job I would never take it, so then I knew I couldn’t stay.
GC: What does it mean for someone to have an entrepreneurial mindset?
CN: Yes, we have to explain that you don’t have to start a company to have an entrepreneurial mindset. An entrepreneurial mindset is helping people learn to think in a way where they have a natural empathy with their stakeholders and their needs; another is seeing problems as opportunities in stead of barriers; the willingness and ability to manage and tolerate risk; and an overall awareness of value creation. If you’re going to build a company you better have all of those, but if you’re trying to find a job or make a difference in a big company or guide your family through hard items, even fixing up your house, those are skills that are valuable.
We try to help students acquire those skills while they’re in Santa Clara so that when they come out they can add that to whatever academic disciplines they’ve been studying and have a shot at building the life and career that they want for themselves.
The way we do that is by providing an academic infrastructure. We’re hiring new faculty and helping faculty develop new courses, sponsoring faculty workshops, and creating extracurricular projects for students that are interdisciplinary. We also have a suite of activities that are more traditionally about starting companies, mostly competitions and accelerators. There are a lot of resources for students who do want to start their own venture, but the bulk of my time is spent implementing these interdisciplinary academic programs.
GC: Are you optimistic about the future of entrepreneurship?
CN: I definitely am… now I guess the ‘why’ part I have to sound smart on. I read this paper when I was working at Alta about climate change and I still remember this quote that says, “If we all do a little, a little will get done.” I’ve always felt that way even though it’s tongue in cheek. The point of the paper is that we have to think really big about what we’re going to do in this world and a lot of things aren’t as simple as turning off the water to your lawn.
I’ve always felt that the only way we’re going to make a difference isn’t just what we do in this country but what we enable the rest of the country to do. We have huge populations that are coming into their own, want and deserve a lifestyle like ours, but the carbon load and planet’s load of providing that are really limited. So how are we going to provide that other than helping a new generation of students and adults solve that problem?
The next generation of students is very well tuned-in to those problems. I’m optimistic about that and about the awareness of the problem and willingness of working on it. We have to keep encouraging people to keep thinking really big and think global. What can you do that will scale to help a billion people in different continents?
When people fool around with something that seems trivial to me, they still learn an awful lot about building a team and selling something. So I believe that those lessons turn into something good downstream and I certainly know that it’s good experiential learning. I fundamentally don’t think people are driven by getting rich. The entrepreneurs I’ve met are usually driven because they believe in something bigger than themselves and they want to build that.
GC: What does an ideal Saturday look like for you?
CN: For the past 10 years or more I’ve been in one form or another of long-distance training, either marathons or century bikes or triathlons. Nearly every Saturday is up at 7 and home no earlier than 2 and that whole time is spent running, biking, swimming or a combination. I wake up and think, “I do not want to do this.” But I now know that halfway through the swim, I’ll start to be happy I’m there, and by 2pm, I’ll think, “That was the ideal Saturday.”