Thomas Lehrman ’95 was a history major who went into business – but a moment in history shaped much of his career path.
Right after college, he worked almost two years as a financial analyst before he started his own New York City-based research and consulting firm, Gerson Lehrman Group, with a business partner.
But Lehrman wanted to do more and wondered if there was an opportunity to work in public service – so he went to law school at Yale, intending to become a prosecutor.
During his first couple of weeks of law school, 9/11 happened.
This tragedy got Lehrman interested in the defense against terrorism and less interested in becoming a prosecutor. He ended up holding several different internships in government, returning full-time to the U.S. State Department to work on counterterrorism.
While there, he headed up a new office focused on weapons of mass destruction. The office’s goal was to prevent catastrophic terrorism, especially nuclear terrorism.
“That was sort of a different kind of entrepreneurship, building a new office in the State Department,” Lehrman said.
After a few years in D.C, Lehrman decided to move back to New York, where he rejoined the company he started and worked as an investor coach.
Lehrman views his entrepreneurial journey in three different stages. “My view is that you can be entrepreneurial in a lot of different contexts,” he said.
In a traditional sense, he gained entrepreneurial experience while starting Gerson Lehrman Group.
He also used and learned entrepreneurial skills during his time in government, which he said was necessary because so many things were changing at that time.
An entrepreneurial mindset was also needed when Lehrman co-founded the first charter school in Brooklyn.
Although Lehrman separates his growth as an entrepreneur into these main sections, he actually got his first taste of entrepreneurship early on, when he was a Duke student and invested in a sandwich delivery service.
He’s been at his current job as an investor with Haystack Partners since 2014.
Lehrman said he knew he’d eventually become an investor early in his career when he was trying to get his business off the ground. Because his company received so much help, he said, he knew he would want to one day give back through small investments to other businesses.
At Haystack, investors focus on tech and tech-enabled businesses – both consumer-oriented apps and enterprise businesses that offer software for services.
Haystack approaches its investments differently than some firms. The company will identify a particular theme or sector it’s interested in, and investors will then reach out to leading companies in that area.
“You have to go out and develop relationships rather than wait for deals to come to you,” Lehrman said. “Not only are we proactively looking for the best teams, but this gives us the flexibility to change themes as new things are introduced.”
Lehrman said he looks for well-developed and mature teams.
To decide whether a team is well-developed, he asks himself two questions: One, is he comfortable opening his professional network to the team?
“If we can’t say yes to that, we should probably say no to the business,” he said.
And two, would he be proud if his son or daughter worked at the company?
“That really shows the integrity of the founders, whether employees will have good role models and be mentored,” he said.
Duke I&E @EshipAtDuke
Duke I&E @EshipAtDuke
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