(Photo by Chris A. Williams)
Ben duPont started cutting deals as a young man. In the 1970s, the social web wasn’t quite yet available, but he still wanted to connect with the world. So at 13 he earned his ham radio license.
“My parents made the negotiating mistake of saying that if I got a license, they would let me put an antenna on the roof,” duPont said. “It was huge.”
It surely was a learning experience.
Today, duPont still keeps his log book and can flip through its pages to show some of the places he connected with via other fellow ham radio geeks: Luxembourg, Poland, West Germany, Yugoslavia, Grenada. Even the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. That’s where he got his interest in the wider world. And his business savvy? Well, it probably helped that when he was negotiating with his parents, he was negotiating with one of Delaware’s most celebrated governors and a U.S. Congressional candidate (in his 20s, Ben was a spokesman for his father’s short-lived 1986 Republican presidential run).
Given his name and family lineage, it would be easy for him to still be an executive with DuPont, the iconic company where he worked for more than 12 years in business development, including a focus on medical imaging and chemical innovation. But in 1999, he led a spinout of yet2, a marketplace for intellectual property. In 2009, he helped launch yet2Ventures, a venture capital arm.
That work has made him a prototypical Delaware businessman — he lives here, but his work is largely focused elsewhere. He spends at least one week a month in Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto, and no Delaware tech startups have cracked into the yet2Ventures portfolio. duPont is on the board of one those companies — Mobeam, a shopping app that has accrued more than 10 million downloads in 16 months — but it’s based on the West Coast, with a tech team in Chicago.
— Anthony Pisapia (@anthonypisapia) November 21, 2015
But earlier this month, there duPont was at the Delaware Innovation Week closing party in Wilmington, snapping photos of the winners of innovation awards. It was a decidedly local affair, but duPont looked like a proud father.
In some ways, he is. Because for all his business traveling, he is getting more involved in a fledgling local tech community. As a cofounder of the first coding school in the state, Zip Code Wilmington, he wants to help others shape the future of Delaware in the same way his family’s namesake chemicals company has dominated the First State’s economy for much of the last two centuries.
“There is kind of a ‘tipping point’ going on in Wilmington,” duPont said in a follow-up email.
One of the fastest deployments of a nonprofit coding school in the country all began a year ago in a meeting with Gov. Jack Markell.
“I put a PowerPoint together and showed up in his office and half a dozen of his cabinet was there,” duPont said.
He told the governor that Delaware needed a coding school. As a venture capitalist who regularly flies out to Silicon Valley, duPont knows how hard it is to hire good programmers. He also witnessed how coding bootcamps — like General Assembly — helped fill that need. Afterward, Markell’s economic development director, Alan Levin, went out and surveyed banks around the state and created a spreadsheet of 625 jobs that required a proficiency in programming.
From there, duPont pitched the existing coding schools and bootcamp programs. “Why do we have to reinvent the wheel? We’ll be your east coast office,” he offered.
One of them was initially interested, but wanted to meet with the governor before committing.
“God bless Governor Markell, who actually showed up in their offices,” duPont said of a West Coast meeting.
Unfortunately, the bootcamp still backed out.
“It’s probably better this way. It’s homegrown,” said duPont, who lives in suburban Rockland.
Two other local business leaders joined with duPont to create Zip Code Wilmington. Jim Stewart, the CEO of Epic Research, and Porter Schutt, a partner at the investment management firm Brown Advisory. The program launched this fall, and their first 17 graduates from an applicant pool of more than 100, are set to graduate. Nearly all have already been placed with hiring companies, confirmed someone close to the process.
Back in 1993, Ben duPont was working for the DuPont corporation when the internet as we know it was still in its infancy.
“I saw the Mosaic browser for the first time, and I thought ‘holy crap,’” duPont said. “I haven’t been able to sleep well since, because there’s so much going on.”
A few years later, in 1998, he was tasked with marketing DuPont’s patent portfolio. That project is how he launched yet2, which duPont calls “the eBay for corporate intellectual property.” After yet2 was spun out of DuPont, he helped launch the venture capital firm yet2Ventures.
Mobeam, the portfolio company on whose board of directors duPont sits, lets consumers scan their cellphones for payment at cash registers. When the startup was unable to hire enough developers in Silicon Valley, it was forced to look elsewhere.
Mobeam picked Chicago, because that’s where they could hire coders. “We could have just as easily put it in Delaware,” he said. Next time, duPont hopes to do just that.
On the third floor of 1105 N. Market St., the same building that even today supports duPont’s ham radio antenna, Tariq Hook helps coding students learn Java programming language. Hook, the Big Bad Wolf of coding, stresses to the students that they need to be able to “answer your own questions.”
Many of the most popular coding programs nationally teach quicker-to-learn and newer languages like Ruby, but given Delaware’s corporate community, Zip Code has focused on languages they’ll hire for, said Head of School Anthony Pisapia, who works for partnering nonprofit Tech Impact. Zip Code was built on a model of placing students with big companies like JPMorgan Chase and Chatham Financial, and less with tech startups, which Delaware has fewer of.
The apprenticeship was a key part of duPont’s vision.
“Neither Jim [Stewart], Porter [Schutt], or I wanted to start yet another charity that we have to hit up all our friends to contribute too,” he said. Rather, the goal was to create “a profitable non-profit.”
Hook marvels at the support that all three cofounders have given. “We have resources to actually do all of the things that we want to do,” Hook said. “They make things as easy us possible for us to make an impact in what we’re working on.”
The apprenticeship program also helps make the school affordable. Pisapia, the head of the school, said that duPont is passionate about making “sure that folks who want access to education have access to education.”
“I believe Zip Code Wilmington marks the beginning of Ben emerging as Wilmington’s chief visionary,” said Pisapia. “He has a big vision for Wilmington.”
“I’m in there every day. I just thrive off the energy coming off that room,” duPont said. Despite his civic pride, there’s no doubt that duPont will continue to travel and maintain far-flung business contacts. Many say that is one of his best assets for the state.
“Ben’s presence in the Palo Alto VC environment brings a strong Silicon Valley presence to the startup community in Delaware,” said Charlie Horn, the Arizona private equity executive and entrepreneur whose $3 million donation in 2012 founded the Horn Program for Entrepreneurship at his alma mater, the University of Delaware.
But even that global view comes with local interests. “From what I’ve seen, he cares deeply about two things: his family and Wilmington,” said Pisapia, of duPont’s wife and kids, a 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, both of whom have an interest in computers and coding.
duPont seems to confirm: “Part of my motivation is to make something fun here so that when my son or daughter grows up, that Wilmington is an option for them.”
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