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Global Tech Leader Michael Potter has Sac State Roots

Entrepreneur Michael Potter thinks creatively, maximizes his options and takes calculated risks.

Computer rendition of Regional and Continuing Education buildingAll this led him to start a multimillion dollar European telecom company, be involved in international space research and head a high-tech venture capital firm, all before the age of 40. He is a man who calls critical thinking a basic survival skill for success today.

The Sac State grad parlayed his education, a bachelor’s degree in government in 1984 with a minor in business, into a unique global career. He believes that students should make education work for them by building a knowledge base that will serve as an investment for the work world.

Potter’s academic career is as intricate and diverse as where it led him. He transferred to Sac State after completing an associate of arts degree in business at a Southern California community college where his father was a professor.

He says it was the opportunity to integrate different concepts and disciplines that was the strength of his Sac State education. While at Sac State, he crossed disciplines to take courses outside his primary areas, such as a class in violence and terrorism. By following his intellectual passions, he says, he built a solid framework for his life’s direction.

“It is one of the few places you can mix a degree. You have an excellent business program and government program and you can mix them to get the best of both. I even designed some of my own classes,” he says, recalling one course in international human resources management that he created and completed.

“I wrote a paper for a management class that was a profile of the ‘knowledge workers’ of the future. It emphasized that people must be able to learn, analyze, synthesize, to write and communicate. I concluded that those people would find a relevant place in the workforce.” He says the understanding he built in writing that paper gave him insight into the rapidly changing world of business.

“Today it is moving so fast people have to integrate things from technology to business to psychology to history. That whole method of approaching and solving problems that you learn in getting a liberal education is what brings relevance for the liberal arts. (Life) is not an either/or—things must coexist. Potter says there have been three transformational events in his life—his experience and internship with the Sac State Sacramento Semester program; his year at the London School of Economics; and attending the International Space University. In each instance he took a calculated risk that launched him forward in his career.

His experience with the Sacramento Semester program and his internship with then-freshman assemblymember Tom Hayden have stayed with him for a lifetime.

“Sac State was the only place where it was possible to have that kind of an internship for the State of California,” Potter says. “What I learned could only have taken place at Sac State.”

In the early 1980s Hayden assigned him to learn about computers and produce some computer-based projects. He also had Potter prepare an analysis of interlocking boards of directors, a project that Potter says helped understand how many people become leaders in industry. The lesson stayed with him.

“It was transformational. Not only did I meet my wife in the Sacramento Semester program, but I met people who were highly educated. Even though I could not always agree with them—and we had tons of disagreements—at least we shared our views in a constructive atmosphere where people could challenge each other. It forced me to think, to articulate well and to defend my positions. It was a program that has made a great difference in my life,” he recalls fondly.

Potter and his wife, Margaret McCarthy, helped celebrate last year’s 25th anniversary reunion for the program. Over the years, they have stayed in touch with several Sacramento Semester classmates. Following his graduation from Sac State, Potter was accepted in the International Affairs graduate program and went to England as part of his studies.

In England, Potter met “an eccentric professor” with the London School of Economics who was one of the world’s top experts on the Soviet military during the Cold War. Because of this professor, he moved from the Sac State graduate program and entered the London School of Economics, where he completed his work in international relations with a specialty in military and security studies.

He finished there in 1986, and spent the next three months at the U.N. summer school in Geneva, where he was a researcher for the 18-nation disarmament committee. That was followed by a position at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy think tank in Washington D.C. At the center the competition for arms control and nuclear weapons policy jobs was ferocious, so Potter temporarily took an analyst position in the telecommunications part of the organization.

Potter believes it was education that set the framework for his success. He says, “I’ve had all these strange twists and turns, but one thing has been consistent—it’s always been international business and technology. That theme is always the same.

“What I hope for people when they leave graduate school in Sacramento is that they will have built a framework for looking at the world…critical thinking in those creative ways… That’s the true test of success. Grade point average just happens to be important because it’s part of what students have to deliver, but hopefully they will walk away with a way to look at the world.”

A student has a responsibility for his or her own education, Potter says. “If the teachers are passionate about what they teach and the students become passionate about it, then 20 years later, while you won’t have total retention, you will have the ideas and the concepts.”

Potter’s third transforming experience was attending the International Space University in 1988. “I was working at the think tank in Washington when someone said, ‘There is a scholarship available. Do you want to go?’” he recalls. “So, I quit my job for a three-month program at MIT. You get a certificate in space studies. To me it was an opportunity.”

Those fundamental educational building blocks led him on to hold his current position as director of Paradigm Ventures, an international venture capital firm focused on high technology. Prior to that he was a founder of Esprit Telecom, a European telecommunications provider. He served as a founding board member of the European Competitive Telecommunications Association and is also a director of Global Connect, a Danish phone company.

Potter’s career has taken him around the world. Today he is as at home in Europe as in this country, and all because he followed his curiosity and took advantage of unique opportunities in creating his educational portfolio.

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