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Raz's Book Tracks How Inspiring Entrepreneurs Created Paths To Success

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NPR's Guy Raz is known for bringing us the stories of successful businesses and their founders on his podcast How I Built This.

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GUY RAZ, BYLINE: If you know who Mark Cuban is, you've probably seen him on "Shark Tank."

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Who are the sharks?

MARK CUBAN: I had a healthy dose of fear. Do I have enough to pay the bills? The bill collectors were calling. You didn't want to, you know, hit the button on the answering machine 'cause - Mr. Mark Cuban, I've left 17 messages.

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RAZ: When a lot of people think of the word mogul, I suspect many of them would put Richard Branson at or...

RICHARD BRANSON: I didn't know failure, so the idea that somebody would say no is something which I could not, wouldn't have been able to understand.

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RAZ: So it's possible you've never heard of Cathy Hughes before, but the company she started, Radio One, it became the largest African-American-owned broadcaster in the U.S.

CATHY HUGHES: I used to brag to my elite investors. I used to say, I will be the most profitable company in your portfolio one day. And they were like, OK, keep that dream alive, Cathy.

MARTIN: And now he has turned some of those conversations into a new book. All these entrepreneurs tend to have something in common. Guy borrows the idea of the hero's journey to explain it.

RAZ: You know, person has a crazy idea. They leave the village. And then they go on this journey to building something incredible.

MARTIN: And while there's always an element of risk in this journey - that's what gives the story its tension - these entrepreneurs aren't just jumping off a cliff with a wish and a prayer. They do the groundwork and they understand enough to take very calculated risks.

RAZ: I mean, there's this myth that entrepreneurs are these kamikazes, but the reality is that the vast majority of entrepreneurs I've had on How I Built This don't do that. They actually really do mitigate their risks. They do a lot of research and a lot of work.

I mean, one example that I love when I think about it is Ben & Jerry's. You know, we think of these two guys as these hippies who just founded this ice cream shop in Burlington, Vt.

MARTIN: Right, like it was random.

RAZ: It was random. They actually stood outside several street corners with a counter to count the number of people passing by every hour to determine what part of Burlington had the most foot traffic. You know, that - this was a very methodical decision that these guys made.

MARTIN: My favorite illustration of this is Daymond John, the creator of FUBU fashion line, one of the judges on the TV show "Shark Tank." I happen to love "Shark Tank." I loved learning about how he started his business, his own hero's journey, the fact that this guy, for years, did not give up his job at Red Lobster...

RAZ: Red Lobster.

MARTIN: ...As a waiter.

RAZ: Yes. He felt like the big companies Adidas and Nike weren't really speaking to his community. He grew up in Queens. He was in - you know, involved in the hip-hop community. And he wanted to make a brand that he was proud of. FUBU stands for For Us, By Us. And he was literally, you know, sewing labels onto Champion T-shirts for many years before he started to make his own T-shirts and his own line of clothing, but all the while kept his job at Red Lobster, knowing that, you know, if this all collapsed, he could still earn tips and a salary.

MARTIN: You write that the most successful entrepreneurs are those who think not just about, you know, the disruption of it, the excitement of making a new thing or the bottom line but the culture of the company that they are building. What are the challenges of that? What are the pitfalls of getting it wrong?

RAZ: I think most entrepreneurs, from the very beginning, have to think about baking culture into what they do. And culture and mission are sort of intertwined - right? - because it's not just about selling a product for people to spend their money on. It's about building something that connects with people. And I think the most successful companies have created cultures that are clear, that are generally kind.

MARTIN: Is that just what we want the world to be, though? I mean, how do you make sense of Amazon, which has had so many high-profile stories, questions about the culture there?

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, I think it's an important question to raise. You know, you look at a company like Amazon, which is not featured in this book, and Jeff Bezos has not been on the show, and it's - you know, from what I've read and from what I understand, it's a pressure cooker.

But I think many, many big companies in the United States and around the world are looking at some of the smaller startups and really trying to reassess how they think about culture because it's complicated. Entrepreneurship is not - it's - we can't lionize it as if it's this kind of magical thing. It's more complex than that. And what we try to do on the show is to focus on entrepreneurs who we hope and we think are representing the best of what it means to be an entrepreneur because, ultimately, being an entrepreneur is not running Airbnb or Slack or Uber or any of these big companies. It means having a small HVAC company.

You know, my dad was an entrepreneur who had a jewelry store with two employees, one of which was my mom. You know, that's what it means to be an entrepreneur in America. And I - when I think of entrepreneurs and when I think of the people who listen to the show, I think of somebody who has an Etsy shop or somebody who has a e-commerce site on Shopify.

MARTIN: Yeah.

RAZ: Like, that really is what it means to be an entrepreneur in America.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you this because you ask it to all your guests on the podcast. Is your success more attributable to luck or hard work?

RAZ: I ask that question not looking for a binary answer. I mean, I think it's really designed to just see what - you know, how the person has reflected on their career 'cause I usually ask it after having interviewed them for many hours.

And, you know, in my case, I think a lot of my success has to do with factors beyond my control. I think privilege is something that we have to talk more about in this country. You know, my parents were immigrants, but I grew up in a safe and secure environment. I'm a white man. I had privileges that came to me simply because of the way I look.

The more we talk about it and understand it, my hope is the more we'll understand that we need to increase opportunity and that opportunity has to be available to everybody. I also, of course, worked hard. Everybody works hard. But people who wait tables work hard.

MARTIN: Right.

RAZ: But, of course, there's also an element of luck. You know, in my case, I think that, you know, if I didn't meet my wife, who I randomly met at a barbecue 20 years ago in Washington, D.C., that neither of us was meant to be at, I don't know if I would be doing what I'm doing today because this is a person who I go to for advice and for ideas. And that was lucky. I mean, that - the fact that that happened was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. And I think there's always an element of luck in any story.

MARTIN: Guy Raz - his new book is called "How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths To Success From The World's Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs." He's the host of a podcast by the same name, How I Built This. Guy, thank you so much for talking with us.

RAZ: Thank you, Rachel. It's always great to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.