From fostering character to keeping things simple, it’s often words of wisdom that teachers offer during casual conversations or informational sidebars that have the biggest impact on students.
With back-to-school season upon us, a dozen entrepreneurs shared the best advice they ever received from a teacher:
"My 12th-grade anthropology teacher told me: ‘When you’re feeling bad, do the work and let the feelings take care of themselves.’ This turned out to be great advice for running a business. Every startup, even the most successful, is a roller coaster. When the bad days hit, you can’t let them stop you. I’ve found that the act of doing the work often makes you feel better."
—Amy Pressman, president and cofounder of Medallia, a provider of customer experience management solutions
"My second-grade teacher, Ms. Caruso, gave us a seemingly simple writing assignment: Describe how to build a peanut butter sandwich. On the day we turned in our assignments Ms. Caruso had bread, silverware, and jars of peanut butter and jelly.
She collected our papers and began reading them one by one: ‘First you take the bread, (Ms. Caruso took the loaf of bread still in the bag) then you take the peanut butter and put it on the bread. (Ms. Caruso took the jar of peanut butter and placed it on top of the bread bag). Then you take the jelly and put it on top of the peanut butter.’ (Ms. Caruso took the jar of jelly and placed it on top of the jar of peanut butter).
The class was laughing because we had a Jenga tower of groceries and not a peanut butter sandwich. As it turned out, not one person in our class had accurately described how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This exercise taught me the importance of precisely transmitting information to others so they can execute on a vision."
—Catalina Girald, founder of Naja Lingerie, an undergarment manufacturer
"My high school English teacher Melody Wong pushed me to take the AP English exam, even though I hadn’t taken the class. I ended up scoring a five, the highest possible mark. Her encouragement taught me that sometimes you can do things even if you don’t have the right pre-qualifications. Just go for it and you might surprise yourself."
—Jess Lee, CEO and co-founder of the social commerce website Polyvore
"The greatest advice I ever received was from an acting teacher who insisted that I ‘really listen and really do the task’ while performing. Those words have echoed in my mind time and time again whether I am directing, interviewing, hiring, or presenting to clients. Working with clients or colleagues, I find that by truly listening half of my work is done. When you take the time to really listen, you connect and can hear what the other party really feels, needs and wants, and you can move forward without second-guessing or worrying."
—Terry Rieser, cofounder of TAG Creative, a New York-based marketing firm
"One of the stern nuns in my high school once told me: ‘Don’t give me excuses; change your behavior.’ Although this was in response to a somewhat minor situation it has stayed with me and dictated so many decisions in my adult life. It is always easy to explain why something didn’t work the way I wanted it to, why I was not making the money or achieving the success I wanted. Each time I found myself looking for a reason why I didn’t hit the mark I realized I was making an excuse and I needed to change my behavior."
-Patty Lennon, founder of Crowdfund With Ease, a crowdfunding consulting firm
"The best advice I ever received was from my high school political science teacher, Peter Duynstee. On the first day of my junior year, he said the only lesson he wanted us to take away from his class was a simple one that he wrote on the blackboard: CHALLENGE AUTHORITY. This simple message is pretty stunning, seeing that he taught at a Catholic school, but he wanted us to question leaders, not accept the norm and do our own thing. It’s stuck with me for life."
—Jim Zambrano, CEO and founder of First Abroad, a gap-year travel agency
"My 10th-grade chemistry teacher, Dr. Jerry White, noted that I tended to over engineer problems and said to me: ‘Don’t over think it. The answer to most of life’s problems require nothing more than common sense.’ I keep this in mind every time I’m struggling for an answer to a problem I’m trying to solve."
—Aashish Dalal, founder and CEO of the parking app ParkWhiz
"My business professor Catherine Duggan said that every bit of business history was made by someone who was relatively unknown the minute before they decided to do something that changed the world. Sure, those folks seem famous and daunting now, but when they started—just like we did, in a business school dorm room—no one knew or cared about them at all."
-Robert D. Biederman, CEO and cofounder of the consulting firm HourlyNerd
"In high school some of the concepts in chemistry class got hard, and there were things being taught that many of us didn’t understand. We just wanted to give up. Anticipating that some of us might quit learning altogether, our chemistry teacher told us this was normal and it might even go on for several days. When this happened, he asked us to just show up in class anyway without worrying if we would really learn the concepts. We did and eventually we grasped what was being taught. This advice really helped me later; whenever things get hard and I don’t want to deal with them, I show up anyway and at some point I am able to figure them out."
—Harman Singh, founder of the online education platform WizIQ
"My physics advisor told me to look for your top strength, for something that you can do better than anyone else, then focus your energy on it. For entrepreneurs, this means positioning your company in such a way that it can be No. 1 in the area of choice."
—Johann Schleier-Smith, cofounder of Tagged, a social discovery platform
"My high school chemistry Dr. Minne taught me a lot about atoms and bonds, but it was a lesson of actions, not words, that has stuck with me. I missed the spring final exam because of sports commitments, and Dr. Minne let me make up the test at his house. When I arrived, he sent me up to his study and simply said ‘Leave the exam on my desk after an hour and a half. I have to run.’ As I looked around the room, I quickly realized that his bookshelves were filled with every chemistry book imaginable, all of which held the answers to the questions laid out before me. The temptation was obvious, but I resisted. Putting me in this situation taught me about my own character, but also silently passed along the piece of advice to trust in others, and to believe in them as he believed in me."
—Matthew Bellows, founder and CEO of Yesware, a software provider
"My high school guidance counselor, Mr. Neil Ginsburg, noticed that I wasn’t making good eye contact with him during a meeting. I’ll never forget his words to me: ‘When you don't look someone in the eye, it suggests you don’t feel good about yourself or that you’re hiding something. Making eye contact is one of the best ways to build a relationship or kill one before it begins.’"
—Kat Gordon, founder of the annual marketing event The 3% Conference