David Tarver is an African American entrepreneur, engineer, corporate executive, and community leader. He is the author of a new book, Proving Ground: A Memoir
that traces his successful high-technology business from youthful dream to adult reality.
Tarver was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. He received bachelor's (1975) and master's (1976) degrees in electrical engineering from U-M, then went to work for AT&T Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey. Tarver left Bell Labs in 1983 to co-found Telecom Analysis Systems (TAS), a manufacturer of advanced telecommunications test instruments.
Tarver built TAS from a tiny startup to a multimillion dollar company with customers in more than twenty-five countries. In 1995, he engineered the sale of the company to Bowthorpe (now Spirent) plc, for $30 million. From 1996-99, Tarver spearheaded development of a Spirent telecommunications test equipment business that achieved sales of over $250 million and a market value in excess of $2 billion. He left Spirent as president of the telecom equipment business unit at the end of 1999.
In 2001, Tarver founded the Red Bank Education and Development Initiative (Red Bank, New Jersey). The community based not-for-profit catalyzed dramatic improvements in academic performance and opportunities for Red Bank children. He has also served on the National Advisory Committee for the University of Michigan (U-M) College of Engineering, the U-M Alumni Association board of directors, the Red Bank (NJ) Board of Education, the National Commission on NAEP 12th Grade Assessment and Reporting, and several other civic and not-for-profit organization boards. In 2007, he returned to Michigan, where he resides with wife Kishna Sharif Tarver and daughter Nadiyah Louise. Since returning to Michigan, Tarver completed and published Proving Ground
, and is now lecturing on entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship
The Prodigal Entrepreneur
You might say I was an entrepreneur before entrepreneurs were cool.
I grew up in Flint with an intense desire to start my own electronics company. In 1976, after graduating from the University of Michigan with a master's degree in electrical engineering, I moved to New Jersey to work at AT&T Bell Laboratories. Bell Labs, as it was popularly known, was at the time the world's leading R&D center for electronics and telecommunications. I figured that after gaining a couple of years experience there, I would be ready to start my own business.
Seven years after signing on at Bell Labs, I resigned and started a business in my basement. I managed to recruit two colleagues to join me in the improbable venture. Many of my Bell Labs peers couldn't understand why I would leave a lucrative position at a prestigious R&D lab to start a company, from scratch, in my basement. Rumors circulated that I had experienced a nervous breakdown, or had simply gone crazy. It was even harder for those peers to understand why two recently married, well-regarded colleagues would join me in the effort.
The reason for my departure from secure corporate life was simple: I was simply fulfilling my youthful dream of entrepreneurship. My entrepreneurial efforts coincided with those of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell, though all three of those guys pursued much larger opportunities than I did. Another difference was that while their passion and certainty led them to drop out of college to pursue their dreams, I took the more mundane path of completing college and gaining professional experience.
Another difference: my company, Telecom Analysis Systems (TAS), was a strictly bootstrap startup. There were no angel investors or venture capitalists clamoring to fund our venture, nor were there business incubators, accelerators, or government grants available to assist us. We funded our business from savings, and with an SBA guaranteed bank loan of $150,000 (The interest rate in 1983, at prime plus two points, was 13%!). None of that mattered to me. I was hungry for a "pure" startup experience in order to prove to myself and others that I could "do it." After all, in the immediate aftermath of the civil-rights movement, it wasn't clear just how successful an African American tech entrepreneur could be. Some would say it is still unclear today.
After a rocky start, we managed to put TAS on a firm footing. Starting from just $100,000 sales in 1984, we grew to several million dollars in less than five years. We never experienced an unprofitable year – an almost unheard-of result for a technology startup. We sold our products in more than 25 countries, with Japan being our largest export market. In 1995, we sold the company to U.K.-based Bowthorpe plc (now Spirent plc) for $30 million. I had realized my childhood dream, and had proved what I had set out to prove. It felt unbelievably satisfying.
In 2007, I moved back to my home state of Michigan. I found a very different place from the Michigan I left in 1976. My childhood home, Flint, which had provided such great education and opportunities, has been devastated by high unemployment, high crime, and rampant illegal drugs. As a result, motivated, high-achieving students – commonplace in my day – are now rare. Detroit, Pontiac, Saginaw and other urban centers have experienced similar devastation. On the other hand, Michigan has evolved from a lethargic one-industry state to a place that is absolutely teeming with entrepreneurial talk and activity. As I see it, Michigan faces two key challenges as it seeks to develop a more vibrant entrepreneurial culture. One challenge is to fix our broken education infrastructure so that more kids growing up today in places like Flint and Detroit can realistically dream of starting their own innovative companies. A second challenge is to direct some of that entrepreneurial talent and fervor at solving problems that are uniquely felt by our state. These include problems that are receiving significant investment, such as green energy, and those that aren't, such as more effective education and community development methods.
After departing the technology company I founded, I started an organization to give kids in my local New Jersey community the kinds of educational, social, and recreational opportunities I had in Flint. We achieved notable success by fostering innovation amongst the area's schools and not-for-profit organizations. We facilitated those organizations' development of specific business plans – we called them "service plans" – for addressing the needs of the most at-risk children. We carefully monitored the community's progress, then publicly cited and praised the organizations that achieved the most success at an annual "Academy Awards" style red-carpet event.
During my formative years, I was fortunate to have internship and co-op education opportunities that familiarized me with business and technology long before finishing college. Many entrepreneurs of my generation, including the aforementioned Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell gained similar experience (As I said above, those three didn't even deem it necessary to finish college.). Michigan companies would do well to expand and enhance co-op and internship opportunities. Such programs are win-win: they inject useful work and vitality into corporate environments without long-term obligations, and they provide students with the means to gain early experience and to afford ever-increasing college expenses.
Entrepreneurs specialize in addressing unmet needs and creating value. One doesn't have to look far in Michigan to realize that we have no shortage of unmet needs, and we hunger for those "job creators" who can unleash the value-generating potential of the unemployed. Therefore, the state's current focus on entrepreneurship is a good thing. While we must welcome and encourage all kinds of entrepreneurs who pursue all manner of opportunities, there is no greater satisfaction, in my opinion, than doing well by doing good.