Love and the network in an I-Thou world
How many people end conversations with clients by saying, “I love you” or giving them a hug and a kiss? Deb Mills-Scofield does. At the end of the day, when the work is done, she ascribes to Martin Buber’s I-Thou philosophy: we exist only in the way we encounter others.
Putting aside for a moment Mills-Scofield’s phenomenal success as a groundbreaking systems engineer turned consultant/venture capitalist/ teacher, she remarks on the great abundance of happy intangibles she has met with over the years: “I have a fabulous husband, incredible kids, a super dog, a wonderful life, and a great network.”
Mills-Scofield attributes her very existence to a network of people who vouched for members of her family during World War II. Most of her family died in Auschwitz, and those who fled the Nazis scattered throughout Europe to countries where someone was willing to sponsor them. “You needed to know someone in order to escape,” she says.
As a first generation American, Mills-Scofield still upholds a deeply-rooted expectation that others will grant her a measure of freedom and generosity if she shows up on their doorstep. Her own family history has made her believe in people, not rules.
She likes to push boundaries, to “see where the lines are and whether they are hard and fast.”
Don’t tell her that she can’t graduate from Brown University in three years because she will. Don’t tell her that, while she’s there, she can’t create one of the country’s first-ever undergraduate concentrations in cognitive science. She’ll do that, too, and then sling all of that timely knowledge into the creation of the most lucrative messaging system patent in the history of AT&T Lucent.
And don’t tell her that at the age of 22, with the cachet of her Bell Lab experience behind her, she can’t walk uninvited—and without a graduate degree—into any executive’s office at AT&T and speak her mind. Hierarchies make no sense to her; they impede innovation.
Mills-Scofield grew up in Rumson, N.J., where she and her sister attended public schools, but every Tuesday, her mother took them into Manhattan to visit the museums. The girls were also encouraged to take another day off every week—to stay home and play. When the school superintendent called Mills-Scofield’s parents to express his concern about their daughters’ frequent absences, Dr. Mills asked what their grades were. “A’s,” the superintendent informed him. Her father replied, “Oh, good—it’s working!”
“Right from the get-go,” Mills-Scofield says, “my mental model for education was that it is the responsibility of your parents and yourself. That was ingrained in me early on, and that’s how I went through school. I thought that’s pretty much how the world worked.”
Mills-Scofield’s educational model is her life model. It begins with people, not the canon. It is driven by the individual’s urge to know and to create. It does not revere the status quo.
“My favorite line to my clients is, ‘So, where is it written?’” she says. “Challenging orthodoxy is a central theme for my whole life, which is all tied up in the network. I view life as an experiment: learn, apply, iterate. That’s what your network is for.”
Mills-Scofield explains her own network this way: Her consultancy is her livelihood and passion, her venture capital firm, Glengary, is her way of giving back. She helps the entrepreneurs she invests in to get their ideas off the ground by connecting them to her clients, who want innovative products and services. Her insanely curious Brown students keep her on the edge, and therefore, better able to mentor her clients and guide entrepreneurial projects.
“In my mind, it’s a total system,” Mills-Scofield says, and perhaps only a mind like hers could hold it all together.
But in her deeply humanistic I-Thou vision, Mills-Scofield attributes any success to people and their capabilities. Technology is spectacular, she admits, but while it enables us to reach each other faster, it also lets us hide and stay entrenched in our ways.
“That’s why the network is so critical,” she notes. “I keep learning new things. It’s a gift. It’s a proxy for me because I can’t be everywhere anyway. Let the network work on its own and pay it forward.”