Beyond Vassar

Having Fun Being a Capitalist

By Jessica Winum

Adam Epstein ’87 is only 34, but already he has earned a law degree (Boston University School of Law), worked in a San Francisco law firm (Brobek, Phleger, & Harrison) and left it to open an in-line skate shop (Achilles Wheels); run a sports-oriented team-building business (Vertical Horizons); served as senior vice president of strategic development, general counsel, and secretary of, Inc., and president of; and is, at present, chairman and CEO of Superus Holdings, Inc., a company that operates and acquires businesses that develop Internet superstructure in emerging economies. Clearly, Epstein adores being an entrepreneur. In September, he paid a visit to campus to deliver a talk about his journey from Vassar to NASDAQ and back again. The VQ interviewed Epstein before (in person) and after (via e-mail).

You have moved around a lot in your professional life. Do you see that as a characteristic of the modern marketplace?

I think that it has become greatly more _accepted to have many different career paths, largely due to an increased overall societal emphasis upon quality of life, and not settling for discontent. That being said, I think that there will always be those who find situations that they like and are thrilled to stay put for decades, just as often as there are people who yearn wistfully for what lies elsewhere.

What is it about the entrepreneurial path that’s attracted you?

I have the attention span of a flea. I like building things, and I like to see the things that I build continue on. It’s important to recognize what you are good at and what you stink at. I think I am at least getting better at seeing a vision and being able to turn that vision into something, but as far as being the person who builds that over 20 years operationally, I’m not good at that. So rather than adopting each thing as if it were my child, I come up with good ideas and I put them together and I pass them off to people who will be able to operate them and continue the vision.

What is it about being an entrepreneur that you like?

Just being in charge of your own destiny. And the risk element–that’s exciting to me. When athletes transfer over to business, in order to generate the same excitement that they had in their athletic life, they tend to be risk takers. It’s a way of translating that energy and adrenaline from sports over to business. It’s also having the confidence that your idea is something that can change the way a business works or the way other people do things. And frankly, being able to deal with it not working too. That builds character in the same way that losing a five-set tennis match builds character. I think you’re defined by how you handle that.

What does your current position as chairman and chief executive officer of Superus Holdings entail?

I am responsible for shepherding and explaining the vision we have created to financial analysts, investors, and the media, as well as presiding over professional services relationships with accountants, lawyers, and bankers both in the U.S. and abroad. Since Superus is a holding company, I don’t run a particular business per se; each of our operating companies has its own management, but I am responsible for seeing to it that each company is creating maximum value for the shareholders, and identifying new possible companies for Superus to acquire.

What motivated you to join up with and then to move on to Superus Holdings?

Like anything else I have done in life, there was the challenge in each of these businesses of building something that people said couldn’t be built, or didn’t recognize the value of. I’m a lifelong competitive athlete; business represents an opportunity to compete while also changing the way people do things. Creating value where no or little value existed is a tremendous driving force behind entrepreneurs. and Superus are great examples of that, as was MailEncrypt.

What should students and alumni know if they are looking to enter today’s job market or to make a career change?

They think that somehow because of the way this new Internet revolution and this new economy have evolved that a Vassar or a liberal arts education is no longer good enough. That’s just not the case. I think the lessons learned from the new economy that are discussed in all the trade publications focus on issues that have been taught on this campus for [a long time]. Issues about making sure you have a broad-based background, that you engage in fiercely independent thinking, that you are respectful of people who have been in business longer than you have, and that you engage in open dialogue–those aren’t new lessons at all. Those are lessons that we have learned at Vassar for really much more than just a generation or so.

What do you wish you had been told as a student?

Two things: That no matter how well prepared you are intellectually for any endeavor, you need luck. I’m 34, I’m not a wily veteran of anything, but I have seen that you need luck. You need to be in the right place at the right time, and sometimes you’re not. You can plan everything and you can study markets and you can figure out all of the financial situations and you can come up with an idea that may seem like you can’t miss and it may not work and one of the missing elements may be luck. That’s not just lip service. People need to think about that because sometimes the luck is with them and sometimes it isn’t. The other thing is to remember that people don’t do anything on their own. We are just an amalgamation of other people and our mentors. You could be the smartest, most ambitious, and most creative person in the world but if you don’t have luck and you don’t have good mentors, you are probably going to underperform what your expectations are. And a really solid education–that you definitely need.