Lyon & Bendheim speaker Sterne reminds students to “stay grounded”
April 05, 2012
Miss this spring's Lyon & Bendheim lecture? Watch now!
On March 8, Robert Sterne, E73, AG75, founder and director of Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, PLLC, shared the story of his rise from engineering student to patent lawyer with students and alumni for the spring Lyon & Bendheim lecture. For eight years, the Lyon & Bendheim Lecture series has aimed to highlight Tufts alumni who, because of their tremendous achievements and hard work, find themselves at the highest levels in their respective professional fields.
“Where are all of the engineers?”
Sterne’s time on the Hill coincided with the Vietnam War and, subsequently, the height of the anti-war movement. He walked through campus in full military uniform as one of the 23 students participating in Tuft’s NROTC program, but his uniform wasn’t what fully separated him from his peers. “In 1973,” Sterne recalls, “most Tufts students did not want to be engineers and half of the engineering majors changed majors in their first year.”
One of the few, but proud, he kept on.
If it meant pursuing his passion, Stern was happy to “swim against the tide”. He spent his Masters thesis developing a “computer-simulated computic communicator” for severely disabled non-verbal users. This remarkable device allowed silent speech by spelling out words letter by letter via blinking.
Normally such a feat sparks a career in invention, but a neighbor of Sterne’s recommended the law—specifically patent law. It was a revelation. "I could spend all my time professionally on cutting edge areas of electronics, working with inventors who needed patent protection,” he says. “I thought this was about as sweet a combination as you could come up with."
Just keep swimming
On his first day of law school, Sterne’s professor tried to persuade him from the patent law path. But following his father’s advice (“study hard and everything will work out for the best”) and his instincts, Sterne now heads Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, PLCC, a patent law firm that has represented entrepreneurs, start-ups, and industry leaders from Google and Apple to Broadcom and Silicon Graphics. On his almost 30 years in patent law, he reflects that it’s been “more professional fun that I could even imagine.”
He credits Tufts’ value of high academic performance for his good start. “Being an engineering student in such a diverse liberal arts and intellectually inquisitive environment taught me to think outside of the box and to embrace new ideas,” he says. “[Tufts] taught me to stay grounded and humble, particularly when success finally arrived.”
Sterne’s Advice for Professional Success
“If you have entrepreneurial instincts,” Sterne says to current Tufts students, “I urge you to follow them and follow them now, when you’re young, full of energy and optimism, and still naïve to what you’re up against. Naiveté is good.”
- Sometimes it’s all about timing and being in the right place at the right time.
- Fail to plan and you plan to fail. Embrace change and think outside the box.
- Protect your business models and ideas to the maximum under the Intellectual Property laws in the U.S. and other potential markets.
- Think for yourself; follow your gut. Experts are not always right; do not trust conventional wisdom.
- Have strong, effective, and experienced management of your enterprise; no entrepreneur can be good at everything. (And be sure you own the strategy and focus of that enterprise.)
- Don’t underestimate teamwork. People working together as an effective and highly motivated team beat brilliant individuals operating alone every time. Build trust and stress teamwork.
- Do not trust money sources, especially Vulture Capitalists; they are not your friends.
- Always maintain high ethics in business. Do what is right and not what is expedient at the time. Always be concerned about making a mistake in judgments that can come back to haunt you. Seek advice from trusted advisors.
Reflecting on the lecture, Camilia Silva, A14, says, “It was interesting to hear how he overcame several struggles in the early years of his career because he believed in his firm. As he said, ‘sometimes it only takes luck.’”
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