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Winning with Professor Salas

Damian Salas makes one thing clear to his students: If you take one of his classes, you’re going to do amazing things.

Damian Salas

August 28, 2014

It’s a typical first day of class. You take your seat. The professor takes attendance. Complete deadpan. And then he says:

“My name is Damian Salas. The most important thing you need to know is that I’m accessible. I have a problem. I respond to my emails within 20 minutes. I’m available to 10 p.m., seven days a week.”

The class laughs. Is this guy nuts?

“But there are rules,” he continues. “If you email me before 8 a.m. or after 10 p.m., you’ll have to wait for a response. I’m either sleeping or eating dinner with the family. Welcome to Launch It!”

Any student who has taken a class taught by Damian Salas MBA ’10 knows that he is more than a man of his word. He’s a cherished professor. He’s also a musician. A consultant. A loving husband. A father of two charming young women. A mentor. A friend.

He is also the director of the Close School’s Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community, a group of Drexel freshmen who live together and experience targeted programming that brings them on experiential field trips to visit startups throughout the region and beyond.

Before coming to Drexel, Salas worked in retail, real estate and rock and roll. He started companies. He’s run others. He worked in the non-profit sector, in HR, operations, biomedical commercialization and even consulting. He’s had great successes — and he’s seen his own measure of failure.

It is this wealth of experience that makes him such a dynamo in the classroom.

We sat down with Professor Salas to talk entrepreneurship, the value of winning and why Philadelphia is the place to be to start a new venture.

Damian SalasTell us a defining moment during your childhood.

The time I realized that my father had truly built something. He came to the U.S. as an immigrant from Puerto Rico and built himself up. First working in the fields of South Jersey. Then, he went into real estate building and development and did very well for himself.

One time, when I was maybe 13 years old, I was helping him install a drop ceiling in one of his properties. I had never done this before in my life. And right then I realized that at some point my father hadn’t done it either. But he had to figure it out.

It was a Eureka moment.

When did you realize you were an entrepreneur?

When I was 13. And then again in my 30’s. The first time was that moment when I was working with my dad. He used to have to figure out how to install boilers, heaters, plumbing and even HVAC work. And I realized then that he just did it. All himself.

It dawned on me again in 2008 when I was earning my MBA. I realized that in the work I was doing for 17 years with Horizon House I was disrupting how the company was being run and helping it grow by implementing new operational strategies.

What inspires you to get out of the bed in the morning?

To win. To solve complex problems. To beat the competition.

What happens if you can’t win?

Well, then it’s time to move on. For instance, I don’t play video games because I know I can’t beat the computer. I bought the first Xbox and I couldn’t win. So I don’t play.

What’s the difference between your drive to win and what you tell your students? Is it always just about winning?

When I talk to a student here at the Close School, I come in with the assumption that they have already won. Because they are students here. And they have all of these resources. It’s just a matter of finishing it. It’s all in the execution.

How hard is it to start something — say, a new venture?

It’s not hard to start it. You get some paperwork done and you have a company. It’s hard to sustain it. It’s a challenge when it comes to logistics. The operations and management of a company – now that is challenging.

Favorite band: As a college student, The Beatles. Now, PJ Harvey.
Favorite record: Physical Graffiti — Led Zeppelin
Favorite film: Unforgiven
It’s Sunday afternoon. What are you up to? Sleeping. Taking my nap.
Favorite food: Pizza
Dogs or Cats: Dogs. My dog is a Cockapoo named Cheese Curl.
Personal hero: My father. He’s still working, too.
Favorite Entrepreneur: Dr. Dre. He made some music, made some movies and made some headphones!

What is the best advice you ever received?

It’s simple, yet poignant. Just do it. Don’t think about it. I was at a point in my career where I was thinking too much. Thinking about taking the dive or positioning my career. And I had to just do it.

Damian SalasWhat’s your advice to young entrepreneurs who are building their own companies?

You’ve got to devote a lot of time to it. You have to handle the logistics internally. I’m talking about billing, shipping, or whatever those logistics are. You have to think strategically and then just do it.

What trends do you see in Philadelphia that make this a hospitable place for entrepreneurs?

I just came through Northern Liberties today. Can you believe how much has changed? Philadelphia has vibe now. People are doing things. And when people are not just doing things, but doing them in similar ways, there is a feeling that this place is going somewhere.

Why did you come to the Close School?

That’s easy, man. Disruption.

Why should students want to be part of the Close School?

They are going to gain the academic chops they need in today’s society. They’re going to get the resources, the know-how and the mentoring, too.

They’re going to change the world.

In the fall, you are teaching two classes: Launch It! and Social Entrepreneurship. What can your students expect?

You’re going to do it. You’re going to either launch a venture or change the world. It’s that simple.

I challenge my students. They can expect an absolute challenge about who they are, what they’re bringing to the table and how they can win.