Gregg Vanourek '00, Founding Partner, New Mountain Ventures
Gregg Vanourek ’00 moved out to Colorado as a way to find a better quality of life. But as someone who had worked for a startup for years, he was never about to kick back and take it easy. What he came up with in the Rocky Mountains, with the help of his business partner, Christopher Gergen, is a way to approach life like a true entrepreneur. “If you think about the classic things that are associated with an entrepreneur — recognizing opportunity, being creative and innovative, having a vision of where you want to go, taking action and taking risks, having ownership of the enterprise that you create — all of those skills and approaches can actually be mapped over to your life, and not just your professional career,” Vanourek said. “In fact, if you do that, you can find that they’re very powerful if you bring those approaches to your whole life, including your work.”
To disseminate this worldview, Vanourek and Gergen decided to write a book. Titled Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, it takes a look at 55 business and social entrepreneurs who the pair sees as following this approach. Among those interviewed are Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner; Rob Glaser, the founder and CEO of RealNetworks; and two SOM alumni, Linda Mason ’80, founder and chairman of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, and Seth Goldman ’95, co-founder and “TeaEO” of Honest Tea. Vanourek said the point of profiling a group that also includes a Food Network host, a Presbyterian minister, a manager of a Montana dude ranch who runs a foundation for Native Americans, and a retired four-star Air Force General is to highlight how the right outlook toward business and life can significantly enhance both. “People are increasingly building their lives around purpose, connection, and impact, using an entrepreneurial mindset,” he said. “And we believe that this phenomenon is growing. It’s becoming universal.”
Vanourek and Gergen, who together run New Mountain Ventures, have moved to incorporate the message of "life entrepreneurs" into their business. It’s an interesting turn for Vanourek, who has spent nearly his entire career focused on the education sector. His previous company, Vanourek Consulting Solutions, built off his work for a think tank, a foundation, and a start-up that launched and managed virtual schools across the country. Before SOM, he was a research fellow for the Hudson Institute and later a vice president for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. In both instances, Vanourek was involved in education reform, specifically charter schools. While at SOM, he co-authored a book on the subject.
But Vanourek decided he wanted more from his career than just the public policy side. His father, Robert, made a career turning around companies, something that inspired Gregg to give the private sector a try. First, he needed to expand his skill set. “I thought that would be a valuable thing for me to go into that sector for awhile, although I always thought I would be a sector shifter, in the classic SOM tradition,” he said. “So SOM was a perfect fit for someone like me.”
Upon graduating, Vanourek combined his two interests and joined K12 Inc., a start-up online education company. When he began, the company had less than 10 employees, and when he left four years later it had more than 200. It was his role to develop online schools around the country. The job, he said, was incredibly demanding, with lots of travel. “I had an amazing frequent-flyer account,” he said. Newly married, he found himself becoming interested in a change of course. After nearly four years at K12, he resigned, retreating to his home outside Denver for some soul-searching. “I needed time to renew and rejuvenate,” he said. “I focused on figuring out my next move and just being healthy and prioritizing time with my family. I had a really busy ten years and needed to get off the train a little bit and chose to live my life by my own choosing, more emphatically.”
Vanourek and Gergen — a former K12 colleague — joined together to form New Mountain Ventures, but more importantly they combined their thinking about business and life. “Christopher has this notion of cultural entrepreneurship,” Vanourek said. “He started an art gallery/café in Santiago, Chile, when he was in his 20s. He teaches entrepreneurship to high school students. And I brought this focus on the good life, something Aristotle talked about centuries ago. I had done a lot of thinking and writing about it in college. We got together and combined these concepts, and that led us to a way for ordinary people to create extraordinary lives.”
Since writing the book, which came out this year, the pair hasn’t completely stopped consulting for the education sector. But it’s the idea of teaching people how to become life entrepreneurs that has given their company new focus. “It’s been very rewarding, running our own company and writing a book as a platform for it,” Vanourek said. “It’s something that we’re both very passionate about. It’s a real great time of our lives. We both have young children. And we’re very busy. Business has been good, and yet we also have the flexibility that comes with running our own company. I guess you could say we’ve become life entrepreneurs ourselves.”