Championing for your own entrepreneurial dreams takes a heck of a lot of courage.

But finding joy in advocating for the dreams of others? 

That takes someone with a whole new level of grit, determination, and passion for seeing others thrive.

Associate Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Texas Tech University Kimberly Gramm just so happens to be that person, and in this episode, she chats with Kade about what it takes to be a leader who finds joy in riding shotgun on someone else’s journey.

Kade Wilcox: Hi guys, Kade Wilcox here, host of The Primitive Podcast. Thanks for joining this week’s episode. We have Kimberly Gramm, she’s the Associate Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Texas Tech and runs the entire Innovation Hub at the Research Park, which is a really cool facility on the campus there at Tech. I really enjoyed hearing her insights on leadership and really pleased that you would join us for today’s episode. Thank you.

Kimberly Gramm: Entrepreneurs wear failure like badges of honor. This is how I know I’m living a life on this planet. And failure is the process by which we can iterate through and learn through. I feel like it’s the greatest equalizer, and I appreciate being a part of watching someone else’s failure and helping them to rebound and find the appropriate path for them. And even for myself, I lean a lot on the people that I surround myself with that have gone through challenges and have become successful despite those challenges and failures.

Kimberly Gramm and Texas Tech’s Innovation Hub

Kade Wilcox: Kimberly, thanks for joining us. I really appreciate you, you know, joining The Primitive Podcast. For those who don’t know who Kimberly Gramm is and the work you do, tell us a bit about your background and about the Innovation Hub at Tech.

Kimberly Gramm: Oh, absolutely. Thank you so much. I really do appreciate the invitation, and it gives me a chance to share some of the amazing things that we’ve got going on here in Lubbock, Texas. So I am the Associate Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. And so that’s a big title and a big way of saying I help to champion startups and entrepreneurs. And so I came on board at Texas Tech about five years ago, and essentially, to lay the groundwork and the foundation for developing programming that supports entrepreneurs and their journey. And when I say entrepreneurs, I say that generally. We support students and faculty and staff and alumni, and people in our community. We don’t really have any boundaries with the kinds of people that we help. We use best practices to develop our programs. And, you know, I think what we try to do is meet people where they’re at, so that if they have an idea or they have an invention or, and they’ve never done this before, that we are able to create a community around them because the entrepreneurial journey tends to be lonely. And we help them through these best practices to develop better humans, people who know how to solve problems.

One of the biggest challenges startups have is identifying appropriate product-market fit. Sometimes we create things people don’t necessarily think we need. And so we spend some time making sure that they do that through our programming. And so we have some competitive programs. We give them a chance to win some money because startups need money, and we help test their ideas so that we know that they work. And from a technical standpoint, that’s a big deal when you have, you know, an R1 university in your community. You want the science to make a positive impact in that community, and we call that a commercialization process. And so we – I run a Texas Tech University accelerator, and that’s a year-long program where, from beginning to end, we walk a team through everything from forming that company to a minimal viable product, their first revenue, and then how to pitch to an investor.

Kade Wilcox: That’s really cool. So really similar to Y Combinator, or something of that effect?

Kimberly Gramm: Yeah, very similar to that. The difference is we are associated with a university, and so we’re really education-focused. And a Y Combinator is backed by a venture capitalist. So they’re ROI-focused. So it’s a little bit different. But our best practices and our rigor are just as challenging as a Y Combinator or Techstars.

Kade Wilcox: That’s really cool. So what’s the breakdown of your participants, typically? Are they primarily students? Are they a good balance and mix between students and faculty, and community members? I mean, do you have kind of a general profile of those participating in the program?

Kimberly Gramm: Yeah, I’m proud to say that we have a diverse group of people that are participating. And so we have community participants, and those can be alums or just people that live in our community. We have student-focused programs, and so those will predominantly be students. And that’s to, kind of, get them inspired and, and think about coming to college and creating jobs instead of taking a job, right? And then we have programs that are a little bit more focused on deep technology—and so moving these technologies from the lab out to the marketplace. And so you’ll see teams of students and faculty going through those programs. But it’s very diverse, and I’m proud to say that we have a lot of participation, both from the community and inside the university.

Kade Wilcox: That’s really cool. Who, like, when someone goes through the accelerator, who are the leaders, or, you know, types of leaders that are helping those participating in the accelerator go from, kind of, the idea to market? You said it was a year long. So, like, what kinds of people, or principals, or whatever you want to call it, are invested in them over the course of that year?

Kimberly Gramm: That’s a great question. I take pride in the fact that I’ve been a champion for this thing called the MIT Venture Mentor System. And so I mentioned earlier that we use best practices here. So for the past, I don’t know, ten years, my colleagues at MIT and I have been engaged in a partnership. And so we’ve started a mentoring program with MIT’s best practices. And that mentoring program means that about 45 people in our community from various backgrounds — entrepreneurial, accountants, marketing, PR, technical experts, CFOs — give back thousands and thousands and thousands of hours to our teams. So in a cohort, we typically will have eight teams, and the requirement is that they meet with their mentors once a month. So it’s not a time strain on the industry mentor. But they’re very organized. And so that 90-minutes is a high-impact guidance session and question session. So we start those meetings off, “What keeps you up at night?” So as an entrepreneur, it could be anything. And so we try to deal with that first. And our industry mentors are trained to be able to manage that. Each team has a finance expert, a marketing expert, a technical expert, and then two that can be generalized to cover the overarching challenges that we know startups will deal with throughout the year-long program.

This is the cornerstone of pretty much all of our programming, and without our industry mentors supporting it, it’d be tough to have high-impact startups being successful without them.

The Entrepreneur’s Greatest Challenge

Kade Wilcox: That’s really cool. I promise to get to the leadership questions in a moment, but as an entrepreneur, I’m kind of just generally intrigued by, like, what you’ve observed and what you’ve learned through the years of doing this. Like, what have you found to be some of the entrepreneur’s greatest challenges, you know, when they’re getting started? Is it not too specific, but is it, or even too general, but is it the lack of a healthy business framework to understand? You know, they may be really good product experts on the product they’ve developed or, or whatever it is that they’re starting — they’re really good at that — but they lack finance skill, or they lack a framework to operate an entire business versus just doing the little thing that they’re really good at? Like, have you seen some consistencies or is it really different, you know, for each individual?

Kimberly Gramm: So, I think that I want to say that it’s over 270 startups that I’ve seen launch in my career. That’s a pretty big number. And so obviously, this is not based on data-specific data. I haven’t done a study on it. But one of the things that I think is very apparent is how men and women approach a startup. And I’m speaking in general terms here. But one thing that I think we think is very important when we mentor teams and mentor individuals is their coachability. And so if an individual, whether they’re male or female, comes to the table with an open mind to learning, regardless of where they are in their development and their skillset, they tend to far exceed our expectations. And that has some exponential result in terms of impact in their success. So if there was one characteristic that I want to see when I’m evaluating whether a team, whether we should invest in a team, whether that’s financially or whether that’s time, which sometimes is even more valuable, it’s a person’s ability to look across the table and understand and, and think about things.

You know, there’s a book out there called The Opposable Mind, and it talks about how successful leaders use an integrative approach. And so sometimes I may not know everything, but the idea that I can hold two opposable thoughts in my mind and evaluate them, and then move forward with some implementable actionable item that’s better for me as an individual and better for my business — it’s a powerful thing.

Kade Wilcox: That’s really, really good. It’d be fun to have a whole podcast on that, just coachability. And I love what you said, this, like, whole integrative approach. It makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing that. 

So back to kind of leadership, specifically. You have a lot of people you’re working with. You’re working with the entrepreneur. You’re working with a researcher. You’re working with academics. You’re working with, you know, teenagers. Right? Like young students?

Kimberly Gramm: Yeah.

Leading by Championing for Others

Kade Wilcox: You’re working with administrators. You’re working with community leaders. It’s a whole, kind of, a wide gamut of individuals. And so when you think and reflect on your own leadership and what you’re bringing to the table with what you’re trying to accomplish, what do you see your role as?

Kimberly Gramm: That’s an interesting question. I think that if I were going to use one word or one sentence, it would be championing the American dream. You know, I run a startup for startups. And I’m doing it in an environment called a university setting. And so there are lots of challenges that come with that. But I happen to believe that if we can’t teach research innovation and entrepreneurship problem-solving, essentially, to benefit society in a university, so that the American dream is alive and well, then where, where do we do that? And so, I try to find ways to engage our leaders and to engage the output. So, you know, WIP (work in progress), right? Like, what is that? That is, for us, at the Innovation Hub, the successful entrepreneur. And how do we measure that, right? And so I try to think about the person, and again, going back to meeting them where they’re at and making sure that I provide them the right access, which is a key term, access to the resources and the learning that they need to move them down that pipeline to be able to scale and grow.

And so I will go to the legislature to champion resources. I will go to the industry to champion resources. I will put together a board to champion a cause, called an innovation district, to create an extended community and an environment where people understand these things almost at the visceral level. Because without all of our collective leaders coming together around this, we lose competitiveness. We lose opportunity. And our students don’t get access to, you know, making change and making an impact the way they’d like to.


Kade Wilcox: That’s really good. How do you handle objections? I mean, how do you handle failure? I mean, just again, the kind of the stakeholders that you’re dealing with. You know, it’s a wide gamut. From students who may have failed ideas or administrators who are struggling to see, you know, the vision or legislators who are struggling to see the funding mechanisms or whatever the case may be. Like, how do you hold fast to this vision and this idea that you’re championing exactly what you just said? So how do you personally kind of process and deal with failure, objection, things of that nature?

Kimberly Gramm: So, I think that I’m going to tear a page out of, you know, an entrepreneurship manual here and say that you know, entrepreneurs wear failure like badges of honor. This is how I know I’m living a life on this planet. And failure is the process by which we can iterate through and learn through. And so I feel like it’s the greatest equalizer. And I appreciate being a part of watching someone else’s failure and helping them to rebound and find the appropriate path for them. And, even for myself, I lean a lot on the people that I surround myself with that have gone through challenges and have become successful despite those challenges and failures.

Kade Wilcox: That’s really good. Yeah, there’s so much to unpack there. I resonate with what you said about that whole badge of honor. But it also ties back to what you said about being coachable. You know, not only, you know, is it important and critical to be coachable from others, but leveraging and utilizing the experience of failure to be coachable versus digging in and kind of deflecting the things that you’re learning that may be you even caused in that failure. So that’s, I really appreciate the way you said that.

Be responsible for the energy you bring in the room.

How do you approach your own personal growth? Again, not to keep coming back to this, but you have a whole lot of different stakeholders. A lot of times, people in leadership may only have a handful of stakeholders. You kind of have quite a few stakeholders, and they’re all very different levels, right, in age and experience and responsibility. And so you’re constantly giving, you know, championing, you know, your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish to those groups. So then how do you then focus on your own group, your own growth, and stay inspired in the work that you’re doing?

Kimberly Gramm: Well, so I think my inspiration comes from my faith. I mean, that’s sort of the basis of, and kind of understanding who Kimberly Gramm is, is something I should point out here. And I look at my own growth as, you know, my responsibility. You know, God gave me life on this planet, and I’m trying to be the best human I can be. And so, what does that mean? When you get down to tactical things — I have a saying that’s on my whiteboard in my office, and it says, “Be responsible for the energy you bring in the room.” And I feel blessed every day to do the work for Texas Tech that I do and to be a part of this community. And so exposing myself to knowledge through reading, exposing myself to experiences like serving on a board, exposing myself to problems.

I know you and I served on the Alert task force, you know when our community and the communities around the nation were going through this pandemic. And being able to step up early and try to provide some responsiveness to the challenges is really important. But in a lot of those conversations, I wouldn’t have known the answers, but we worked together as a community to identify those things. So all of that gave me growth.

I’m currently in a Ph.D. program.

Kade Wilcox: As if you didn’t have enough to do.

Kimberly Gramm: And as if I didn’t have enough to do. I love to learn. I’m a lifelong learner. And I love to learn from biographies and podcasts, such as this, because, you know, sharing experience is almost as important as reading about them. And so it inspires me when people go from, you know, one place and elevate themselves, and learn about the challenges that they had along the way, and how they overcame them. It’s sort of, you know, it’s like my vitamin drink or whatever. It’s, it’s just, I love hearing about that. And I love being close to people that have accomplished things through the challenges.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. Any biographies that come to the top of mind for you? Like, I love biographies as well, mainly history biographies. But are there any biographies that come to mind that have had a particular influence on you?

Kimberly Gramm: So, I love reading those, but one that came to mind recently, cause I also watched the movie, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is such an inspiration for women and equality and, you know, I think being a champion for things that, you know, aren’t always understood. And so I loved her story and loved that movie. I thought it was, it was great.

Balance Isn’t Easy

Kade Wilcox: That’s cool. Yeah. Yeah. That’s cool. So how do you, how do you balance all this? You surely have a personal life. You have a work life. You have a faith life. You have a Ph.D. life. Like you have all these things mixed in this bag that are your life. How do you find yourself balancing aspiration and wanting to get something done with just kind of a normal rhythm of life? You know what I’m saying? Like, how do you, how do you try to practically balance all these things?

Kimberly Gramm: So it’s not easy.

Kade Wilcox: Or maybe you don’t.

Kimberly Gramm: It’s not easy, but it’s interesting. I’ll tell you a little nugget about myself and then that’ll explain. Someone not too long ago said I should take this test — it’ll help me to identify my management and leadership style. Right? And they take that information and they marry that up to when you’re going through a search, and to make sure that there’s a good fit. And so I learned something really interesting about myself that I didn’t know. And so when you’re characterizing all of these different things, which don’t necessarily look like they’re in alignment, but in my mind, and somewhere in my heart, they are aligned. But what I learned about this, the test, was this: circle all the words that people use to describe you. I don’t even think I engaged my mind when I did it.

Then the second question, and there were only two, circle all the words you use to describe yourself. So I’m thinking, “What kind of insights could they get out of this?” But apparently, it was based on 30-years of research. I did it. And the gentleman came back. He did not have my bio, did not have my title. And he talked through scenarios of how I lead and manage. And I thought to myself, “How in the world did he come to that conclusion?” And the result was, there were a few sorts of nuggets to take away from that. But, one of the things that I found was really interesting and enlightening was, he said that I’m on two ends of the spectrum. And so, which means I love information and data, but it’s what I do with it that makes me unique and in this sort of group, percentile group.

I love to implement and execute. And so I don’t like to learn things that I’m not actually going to take that information and execute. So here I am in a university environment with all of these smart people, and knowledge, and scientific studies, and research going on. Which is, like, for my brain, it’s my happy place. But then there’s this, sort of, race car Formula 1 driver, where I want to take, I want to pull from there, I want to take that, create a strategy, let’s go…

Kade Wilcox: And then do something.

Kimberly Gramm: Right! And so when he said, “You should be,”  — you know, they tell you what they think that you should be doing — and they’re like, “Oh, you should be a partner at JP Morgan.”

I’m, like, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I’m not doing that.” And he’s like, “Okay, well, what are you doing?” And I told him, and he’s like, “Huh?” You know, he was surprised. And thought, you know, I’m, you know, in this role, creating an entrepreneurial environment at universities, and I’m that champion. And he’s like, well, that makes a lot of sense. And so I think that you know, I’m able to do things that I think I’m uniquely designed for. And I try to not, you know, hold myself to, you know, certain other standards because I’m doing something that I think is very purposeful and very intentional about what I believe is important. And hopefully, other people will think it’s important, too.

Influences on Kimberly Gramm’s Leadership

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. That’s awesome. What have been some of the biggest influences on your leadership, whether it be people, whether it be books, whether it be experiences? Like, when you think of, kind of, what has shaped you, and what’s been the greatest influence on who you are now, what, what are those things?

Kimberly Gramm: Well, there’s a couple. I mean, obviously, I have to say, my grandparents. They immigrated from, you know, Poland and Germany during World War Two. So the nugget there is really the power in taking a risk, the power in the unknown and having the foresight to think that there was something bigger and better out there. And how scary that must have been, you know? From my parents, you know, I think about hard work. My dad was an engineer. My mom was a nurse. He started his own company. He had all kinds of inventions and patents. I learned about work ethic and values, good values, and things that, you know, are important to developing a strong community. Brene Brown, she’s a researcher at the University of Houston, has written and done research on vulnerability.

As a leader, I’m not gonna know all the answers, but accepting the fact that I can go and find them and/or ask others that I respect and value and that have been consistent in their leadership. You know, it’s not a zero-sum game. And so her books and understanding how to be the real you have been really inspiring to me. And it’s the things that people don’t necessarily talk about. You know, and most recently, our local leaders. I mean, I feel like I’ve been given a gift with Chancellor Mitchell, and President Schovanec, and President, you know, Rice-Spearman, Mayor Pope. I mean, wow. Those people have managed through crisis and inspired me to stay calm while you’re going through it.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. I couldn’t agree with that more. It has been fun to watch, you know. It’s interesting how people really gravitate towards everything on the federal level, but really, you know, the people making the greatest impact on our lives are local. And, like you were saying before the podcast, it’s like Lubbock is really unique in the sense that it has some remarkable first-class leaders. You know, people you’ve never even heard of, you know, doing things that maybe even not, you know, be in the public eye, but are just remarkable leaders. So I’m glad you brought that up. And I couldn’t agree more. My favorite question to ask all our guests is, like, if you could go back 15, 20 years and speak to your younger self based on what you know, now, what advice would you give yourself 15, 20 years ago?

Advice Kimberly Gramm Would Give to Her Younger Self

Kimberly Gramm: Well, that’s a big question, you know, and I’ve thought about this. And I think that I would probably lead with, “Be kind to yourself.” You know, as a young person trying to find their way in life and trying to find your purpose, it’s not always obvious, you know? And I think that sometimes we see ourselves through the eyes of others, and that can sometimes shape what we think we should be doing versus listening to ourselves. And I think, you know, enjoying life and finding your passion is a function of experiencing and being present. And if we’re distracted by our phone, or if we’re distracted by everything going on in the media, you know, it can remove us from that. And I think that that’s a really, really important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself. You can’t love others and do for others if you’re not — you have to be in a good place, both your mind, body, and spirit.

The other thing I would say is — you know, my dad passed away at the age of 59. It shocked our family. We had to sell his company, and it was a really hard time. You know, this idea of — we all say we have to make more time for the people we care about and love, but somehow things always seem to get in the way. And I think that if I, if I had known now what, you know, I should have known, then it would be to spend more time with those folks learning from them.

Kade Wilcox: That’s really powerful, especially what you said about really kind of experiencing and being present, you know? That requires a certain level of real intentionality to slow down, choose, say no to other things, and be present in the moment or with people or whatever. And it’s, it’s really challenging, you know, to balance because like, I feel like to be successful requires a tremendous amount of resolve and aspiration and effort and grit and determination. And yet to be present, and sometimes to be full, you know, at the moment, requires you to, kind of, shove that to the side. And so to balance those things, what you’re sharing is, is really important, but outrageously difficult, I think.

Kimberly Gramm: It really is. I don’t know that I have a silver bullet for what that solution looks like. I just try to pay attention to time. It’s more valuable than, you know, than money, or anything else. I think that when I’m here, for example, and talking with you, that I’m connected with you and what we’re trying to accomplish here. And I do that with our entrepreneurs. I build relationships through that intention. And I hope that people feel that and sense that. I might not be able to spend a lot of time with you, but the time that I am spending with you, I hope that I honor that. And you know, there’s a saying, “People may not remember what you say, but they remember how you made them feel.” And I think that’s one of the greatest qualities a leader can have.

Kade Wilcox: That’s really good. Yeah. That’s a – it’s a perfect way to end. I can’t remember who said it either, but they talked about being where your feet are, you know? Just be where your feet are. Oh, Bob Goff. Bob Goff talks all the time about just being where your, where your two feet are. And I love what you just said about really honoring the person you’re with by being fully present. I mean, I never thought of it from that perspective, but whether it’s your kids or whether it’s your spouse or whether it’s your friends or whether it’s an entrepreneur or whether it’s a client or whether it’s a stakeholder, it’s really unintentionally disrespecting them when your mind is already three or four steps down the road.

Kimberly Gramm: Exactly.

Kade Wilcox: But you’re with them. So thanks for that challenge. That’s really good.

Kimberly Gramm: Absolutely.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. I appreciate you being on the podcast today. It’s really fun to learn from you. You know, our guests can’t see this, but I’ve got a whole page of notes over here that I can’t wait to kind of reflect on and dig more into. So thanks for your time today.

Kimberly Gramm: No, thank you. I, you know, to shine a light on what people are doing in this community has been — it’s not an easy thing to do, and I respect the fact that you’re doing it. I want the world to know how great Lubbock is. And Lubbock is great because you’ve got people like you that are, you know, shining the light and telling our story. And I think that’s amazing. So thank you.

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