From early in her career, Debi Kleiman knew she wanted to help build and nurture businesses. Initially, she worked for the U.S. Department of Labor under Robert Reich during the first term of the Clinton administration. Leaving policy and Washington behind to earn an MBA at Harvard Business School, Kleiman then learned about the business world through myriad roles. At consumer packaged-goods giants, she delved into consumer behavior. At startups during the dot-com boom and nascence of social media, she came to know failure and success. As president of a nonprofit trade association, she experimented with new ideas and helped a cutting-edge community flourish. In another leadership role at a large corporation, she found out how it feels to have her entrepreneurial wings clipped.
Now as executive director of The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, Kleiman wants to share her knowledge with the Babson community. “I’ve always been drawn to positioning and branding and strategizing,” she says. “I want to help companies grow and tell their stories in a compelling and meaningful way.”
What was your first job after grad school? I met my boyfriend, who became my husband, in business school, and he was from Texas. So I moved to Houston to be with him and took a job in new-product development at Coca-Cola. Growing up in the Coca-Cola system as a marketer is an incredible opportunity. I received training that serves me even today as I think about the different ways that I can help startups. We’d look at consumer behavior for insight into what people wanted, how they behaved, what they needed that they didn’t know they needed, using innovation in new-product development to further the brand in a way that made sense. Thinking differently, solving problems in a creative way, not following an established path. I think being entrepreneurial has always been part of my DNA.
Do you have entrepreneurs in your family? My husband is a serial entrepreneur. He’s had several companies over the years, venture backed and nonventure backed and bootstrapped, and mostly in the tech arena. My mom also was an amazing role model. She was this incredibly successful woman in business from a time when that wasn’t all that common. Her success wasn’t without its hardships and difficulties, but she always found a way. She had three daughters, and at times she was a single mom, and she would say, “You guys can do whatever you set your mind to.” There were never any thoughts of limits or obstacles that we couldn’t overcome.
Did you ever work in a startup? I did when I was in Houston. I had left Coke and worked for a year at a company in the online-photo space, which was a new space then. Think Shutterfly. We were doing the frame part, allowing people to see the picture in the frame and buy the frame. It was the early days of the dot-com boom, and it was a total disaster and completely blew up. But I had a blast. And, you know, as they say, I learned a ton about what not to do. After we moved back to Boston, I met this incredible entrepreneur, Diane Hessan, who had started a technology company called Communispace. It’s now called C Space, but when I got there, we were probably 50 people. From the time I started until the time I left, we were literally double-digit growth every month. We would build online communities for Fortune 1000 companies to allow them to connect in the 24/7 virtual environment with their consumers for insights and feedback into developing new products and branding. We were doing things that people had never done before, and it was thrilling. I was there for five years. We sold the company, and I learned tons along the way.
Where did you go next? I became president of MITX, a nonprofit trade association in Boston that connects and grows the digital innovation community, from startups all the way to the big boys like Microsoft, Google, Akamai. We asked questions like where is this all going? How do we help Boston become a hub for innovation in this space? How do we connect companies to help each other? So it was about networking, education, and partnering with other organizations that had similar missions.
Why did you leave? One of our member companies asked me to be the managing director of their Boston office. They wanted to infuse more innovation into the office, so it was an opportunity to flex some muscles that I had never gotten to flex. But I found it difficult to be entrepreneurial there. Honestly, though, coming here to the Blank Center was my dream job. I get to work with startups every day, but I also get to think creatively about an organization that’s doing great things. It brings me back to all those things that I love—working with startups, being creative, building something.
What are your plans for the center? We do a great job today. We are world- renowned for a lot of things in the entrepreneurship space. But we need to be thinking ahead in terms of what being an entrepreneur is going to mean in the future, helping our students think bigger about their ideas and the kinds of companies they want to build. For example, don’t just think about a product; think about a company or a really big idea. I also think that technology plays a big role in any kind of company that you’re going to build, so we need supporting tech labs and coursework. We need more of a maker, builder attitude. Go over to Olin College, and you see tons of things being built. We need a little bit more of that here. Also, how do we get more people fired up to be engaged with Babson and the kinds of companies that are being built here? I want to tell our story in a way that’s interesting and compelling and ignites people to get involved. —Donna Coco