The Chicago Innovation Awards – Part 4
I’m at 40,000 feet on Loren Bukkett’s Gulfstream G450 trying to squeeze out his views on two accolades at the Chicago Innovation Awards—the ones they gave to Governor Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. So far Loren is holding out on me.
I splash the last of the Hennessy into our snifters when this doggerel runs through my head: Loren pontificates that prizes to politicians will puncture their perfect performance and I ponder what precisely he proposes.
The plane bucks in turbulence and I almost fall out of my seat. The altitude and liquor sure are working on me—as you probably noticed. Even in a pressurized jet, you’re effectively at 8000 feet or more and liquor packs a terrific wallop. I hope it loosens up Loren before it claims me entirely. My strategy is to get him jawboning on one thing and then slide into the main issue.
I take a deep breath of thin, dry air and get Loren’s attention. “Let’s talk about the keynote speaker, Andrew Mason. He won a Chicago Innovation Award back in 2009. Groupon had only 100 employees at that time and now it’s got 12,000 people all over the world and 1.6 billion in revenue. Not bad for a music major from Northwestern.”
The plane yaws and I continue: “Groupon was an amazing pick for the Chicago Innovation Awards. That year, the company was still in its infancy.” I might have added, in all this turbulence I feel like a baby rocking in a cradle.
Loren sizes me up before answering in his acerbic tone. “Most of what Andrew said was just a short version of the same talk I heard him give several times.”
“Really? I only heard it once before.”
Loren pauses a long moment. “One part of it is new to me—his admission that in 2009 he campaigned to beat Abbott Labs for the People’s Choice Award. He used false negative attack ads and now he’s bragging about it! Maybe he’s joking—I hope so. I’m just glad it didn’t work.”
“It earned him a big laugh from the audience.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s funny.”
“Don’t you like anything about Groupon?”
Again, he takes his time responding. “I like it that his customer service comes out of the Chicago Improv. That’s highly creative.” He pauses again. “He sometimes just throws tidbits like that out there without explaining the significance. To me, this one is striking. If that kind of thinking is systemic—and I believe it is—then the company should succeed.” He goes silent then blurts out: “And naturally I like the acceleration in growth.”
I’ve been keeping an eye on Aussy. She’s still taking notes but I notice her quick worried glances at her husband. He’s taking longer and longer to join his ideas together and I sense that it’s time to drill down to the core:
“Loren, what did you mean when you told me the Chicago Innovation Awards just ruined their perfect record?”
He knits his formidible brows. “I warn you, John. Don’t go there.”
“Is it that you don’t think political awards are appropriate?”
Loren tightens his lips and finally responds. “Actually, on one level, I agree with it. I like to see local government throw its weight behind entrepreneurs as much as possible. Bringing in the governor and the mayor to this event draws a bigger crowd and that’s positive too. But Rahm’s been popping up at these things a lot, I have to ask myself why. If he’s really contributing something, that’s fine. But if he’s just riding the backs of these hard working young people for political gain, I don’t like it.”
He swallows his Hennessy and sets the empty glass down hard. “How can they can give the 2012 Visionary Award to a mayor? They should’ve used the politicians as keynote speakers and left it at that!”
“Maybe they won’t count those awards in the stats.”
“That would render the whole event meaningless!”
“You mean like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat?”
He jerks his head to the side as if he’s been jolted, then turns back and glares at me. “I choose to take that as hyperbole. But yes, that’s it precisely.”
“But you still endorse these guys?”
He passes a hand over his unkempt brow. “I like Emanuel’s sentiment when he says investors create all the jobs. And when he says that government only helps create the atmosphere for success, I agree with him. He may be the only progressive politician I ever heard rub those two ideas together. But entrepreneurship in this town is driven by the whip of massive unemployment. At the same time, the banks won’t lend. I scarcely call that an atmosphere for success.”
He draws in a sharp breath of rarified air. “I know, I know–I told you these cruel circumstances are forcing the creative renaissance that we see. It’s true. They are. But that’s not any way to sustain growth. So many of these fervent young entrepreneurs will start out with initial success only to have their hopes dashed.”
I’m amazed at Loren’s intellectual capacity. And he holds his liquor a lot better than I do even though he rarely drinks. I have to admit it, even when he’s sloshed he’s the sharpest knife in the drawer. So I try a dig: “People like it when Rahm says he’ll lengthen the bike path. You can’t deny that thunder of applause.”
Loren thumps the table with an angry fist. “A bike path! Pshaw! Civic projects! He’s mayor—that’s all he is. Don’t expect more than that.”
“He lengthened the school day so kids don’t have to pick between math and music.”
Loren stops and smiles. “That I like!” He waves a finger at me slowly. “That takes backbone!”
“Tell me about the governor.”
He snorts. “He’s a party guy. What did Quinn ever do to merit—what do they call it? The Distinguished Innovator Award. Did he invent anything? No—he raised taxes because the state is going bankrupt. While he drives business out, he talks about the state investing in companies. On whose dime? That’s not free enterprise. That’s messing in my backyard.”
“Do you withdraw your support?”
He winces. “A governor should lean on the banks to free up capital. I’d applaud an effort like that. But he talks about education reform, high speed rail, clean water—the usual high-ticket malarkey. You want to know what really happened tonight? They propped those two guys up front like carved idols and bowed down in homage! It’s the golden calf all over again!”
“Loren, it’s a political season and this is still Chicago. These guys are trying to get in front of any crowd they can.”
“This is a distinguished event! There’s no reason to encourage that kind of behavior!” He shakes his head. “The old political machine grinds on and on, year after year–I can’t get involved in that!” Then he yawns and says something unintelligible. “I’m tired. Interview over.” He closes his eyes.
I figure he just got something off his chest—he relieved the pressure—and now the liquor and altitude can take over.
Just when I think he’s asleep he speaks softly, eyes still closed: “John, did you ever see the Great McGinty? The motion picture…Preston Sturges…written and directed…brilliant…such a long time ago…it still tells the whole story…nothing has changed…”
Again I think he’s asleep when he mumbles, “Next time you want to interview me, pick a different topic.”
I give him a salute as he drifts off to sleep.
Aussy tucks a blanket around him and then turns to me with an accusing look. “I hope you’re satisfied,” she says.
Those are the first words I hear from her the whole flight and it’s all scorn. Then she tosses a blanket in my face. As I make myself comfortable, I get a nasty feeling that she’ll arrange a slow plane with lots of layovers for my return trip. Ω
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