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University alum urges students to take risks to receive rewards

By Ariana Assaf, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 5, 2012

At an address Wednesday as part of the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law Program speaker series, University alum Jon Sobel urged students to take risks in order to reap rewards.

Sobel spoke to an audience of more than 50 Law and Business students, professors and administrators as part of the speaker series, hosted by ZEAL to connect speakers with backgrounds in business and law with current University Law and Business students.

ZEAL was launched in fall 2011 and funded by Sam Zell, who graduated from the University Law School in 1966 and founded Equity Group Investments, a Chicago-based investment company. The program aims to connect business students seeking legal advice to law students looking for a practical application of what they learn in class, and offers courses specific to law students who are interested in entrepreneurship.

Sobel graduated from the University Law School in 1990 and has since worked for many major companies, including Yahoo, Tesla Motors and CBS. He most recently became CEO of Sight Machine, a company that develops technology to improve manufacturing.

Sobel’s presentation, titled “Risk: Frameworks for Law and Life,” focused on how risk relates to entrepreneurial thinking. Sobel encouraged his audience to welcome risk, rather than constantly try to fight it, adding that it “is always dwelling in the background … but you cannot create something unless there’s risk.”

At the conclusion of his lecture, Sobel discussed the risks he took while working with Tesla, a company that manufactures electric cars. He described how at one point, the company was losing money by spending more on the production of cars than they were earning from the sales, forcing them to procure a government loan.

He said the company’s actions sparked debates concerning whether or not Tesla would survive, but he pointed out that the company was simply managing its risks and seeking to “identify if a decision increases catastrophic risk … and plan for graceful failure.”

“Tesla is masterful at taking risks intelligently,” Sobel said.

Sobel also discussed his first years working with Yahoo, during which the company was dealing with up to 40 lawsuits at once. Some of these issues were worth several million dollars, whereas others were based in reputational risks, he said. Sobel advised attendees to recognize the importance of monetary versus personal value when dealing with lawsuits involving high-profile businesses.

Sobel said communication and presentation skills are essential for students looking to go into business, stressing the importance of strong communications skills not only in law and business, but in life.

He added that he wasn’t quite sure how going to law school would help him at first, explaining the common thought process at the time was that being a lawyer was a foolproof method for success.

“I wrote off (my time in law school) as a waste,” Sobel said. “But now I’m so glad that’s what I did.”

He also cited the structured thinking he learned to perfect in law school as an important tool for his success.

“That enabled all the other stuff I did after (law school), and I never would have expected it,” Sobel said.

Sobel concluded his speech with words of wisdom that were met with a rousing round of applause.

“Fight to win with everything you have,” Sobel said. “It’s the only way you will continue to grow.”


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