It takes intellect, leadership, and dogged determination to become an entrepreneur,” says venture capitalist Bill Poduska. “Entrepreneurs never really feel they’re not going to be successful. They just proceed against all odds.”
Poduska began his career at NASA’s Research Center in Cambridge, where he ran a small lab. In 1972, he co-founded Prime Computer, one of the first landmark technology companies along Boston’s Rte. 128.
In 1979, he founded Apollo Computer. It was during his years at NASA working on the Apollo Space Mission that he developed the software expertise which drove Prime and Apollo to the computer industry’s highest ranks.
“I had no less than absolute certainty that the business enterprise was going to be successful,” he says. “I just didn’t have any doubt that it was the right thing to do.”
He later founded Stellar Computer, which merged with Ardent and became Stardent Computer. It went from a hardware to software business and is now known as Advanced Visual Systems in Waltham, Ma., where Poduska is chairman. He also is a partner in seven firms and is on nine corporate boards.
In 1985, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, where he was honored for his technical and entrepreneurial leadership. “It was the highest honor I ever received by a long shot,” he says.
“When opportunity knocks, I’m ready. I’m always ready to get in the game. Opportunities knock repeatedly, but each opportunity only knocks once. If you don’t take it, it’s gone. What I tell my colleagues and my children is, ‘Boy, be ready.’
“Creating companies is the thing that has given me the most passionate drive over time. There is hardly a finer challenge than to build a company and to build products that serve people.
“What it comes down to is you. There are no alibis; no tomorrows; no well, we would have, could have, should have done this or that. It either works or it doesn’t, and every morning when you look in the mirror you know why.”
Now 61, Poduska says he tests his mettle every day.
“You can’t count last Saturday’s score in this Saturday’s game. You have to have the courage to move ahead. Don’t hold back because if you do, you may end up with a lot of money in your pocket but you sure don’t end up with much character.”
Raised in Memphis, Poduska was the son of a homemaker and a man who ran a TV repair shop. His parents instilled in his bones that he would go to college. He began school at West Point, but transferred to MIT, where he earned three degrees in electrical engineering and computer science in 1959, 1960 and 1962.
His parents valued education, equality for men and women, and honesty and truth. “Integrity was my family’s passion. It was close to an obsession,” he says. “Ethical things were paramount to the point where we disassociated ourselves from people who did not value them. You do not do any dishonorable thing. You just don’t. And if you slip, you correct it instantly.”
Poduska says he most would like to be known in the world as a man who helped people. “I would like to be known as a person who really, really tried to help other people in terms of jobs and opportunities, and in terms of the products my companies have put forth,” he says.
Recently Poduska and his family gave MIT $1 million. The reason, says Bill, is largely because that to give and to help others is the ethical thing to do.
His family recently created a foundation, he says, to make giving a thoughtful, purposeful project and to bring the next generation of family members into the process.
Part of the money will go to fund a scholarship. “The thing that makes us feel the best is that we have some long-term effect on the lives of these young people. It’s a great, enduring investment,” he says.
For pleasure, every year he and his extended family take a trip. This year there will be 35 of them bound for Calgary, Alberta.
Also for fun, Poduska owns two helicopters and a plane. He loves to fly to his houses on Martha’s Vineyard and in New Hampshire. He also runs six miles every day.
His greatest success has been his five children and eight grandchildren, he says. “I’ve been blessed. They are happy, healthy, and productive.” As for his own health, he says, “I’ve had a couple scares.” Three years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “I was cured. It was a miracle of medicine.”
Life, though, he says, is good. “I made some mistakes and there have been sadnesses, but if I had my life to live again and I could predict what would happen, would I want to? Absolutely not.
“Life is an odyssey. The uncertainty of it and the fact that there can be pain, is what life is all about.”