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Alumni Focus: Tech Entrepreneur Jim Patterson ’89 Talks Career Success

by John Syme

Jim PattersonJim Patterson '89 was an economics major at Davidson in the go-go 1980s, when interest rates and inflation (if not financial anxiety) were a lot higher, and less regulated, than today.

Those were heady times for a business-and-finance-minded undergraduate.

"You could take something you learned that day and apply it to something that was happening in the marketplace. You could see it unfold," said Patterson.

Today, he is helping Davidson student entrepreneurs take that real-time approach to the business world they are entering-even as the pace of that world has increased exponentially beyond his own wildest undergraduate dreams.

Following a soaring corporate career that began at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and flourished during 15 years of experience in cable telephony at Sprint, Patterson founded Mobile Symmetry, a wireless network identity platform, which he sold in 2011 to Reliance Industries, Ltd. of India. Now, he consults for, advises and helps lead a wide array of companies in a variety of roles.

And he is back on campus often in support of Davidson's Transition to Impact programming.

"There are a lot of entrepreneurs-and successful former ones-in the Davidson and Lake Norman area," Patterson said. "At first I was surprised at how much talent exists in the shadow of Davidson, neighbors and friends, colleagues and co-investors."

A true entrepreneur, at first he stood back and took stock of the growing relationships between the liberal arts and sciences and the world of entrepreneurship and global business.

Then he jumped right in.

"I think a lot about how to develop people to form effective teams," he said. "The most effective small business teams are not all technical experts, and they're not all number crunchers. They're not all any one thing. But they understand how to communicate, work through conflict, and focus on solving customer problems."

Entrepreneurship and the Liberal Arts

Patterson's own 15 years at Sprint, for instance, unfurled across a variety of functional areas including finance, network, general management and sales. He traces his success in those many areas to his liberal arts view and the skills that naturally go with it.

"I think in terms of the specific role of the leader, of the relationships between technology and the development and translation of user requirements into software," he said. "That's why I think entrepreneurship at Davidson is a very good fit. I think the liberal arts is the most fertile soil in which to formulate and launch products.

"One of the great things I learned at Davidson was how to access information. It was really more sleuthing than searching. Then, you had to test its reliability. There was a lot of bad data back then, and there's a lot of bad data today!"

In any age, information alone has never been enough. In 2013, the ability to weave theory and practice together using the threads of analysis and effective communication is a linchpin of success. That's true internally at a company and externally on the open market.

"Leaders have to understand how programming staff thinks and are motivated," he said.

"You can't be an entrepreneur by yourself. You may be the one that has the vision, but the team that has to keep that vision moving has to know where they're headed. You have to be able to communicate that.

"Today, with a few clicks, you can access terabytes upon terabytes of data. But you have to have marketplace sense. That's born out of understanding multiple perspectives, asking questions from several angles, and correlating data," he noted. "And the liberal arts perspective trains you to think about problems from multiple angles."