Entrepreneur Joel Pennington heeds own advice by living a great story
Joel Pennington knew his technology genius could only get him so far, if he was to realize his ambition of living an extraordinary life, other skills would have to contribute toward that end.
Today, the Austin, Texas-based entrepreneur and 1995 Clemson University graduate is walking the talk he delivered to Clemson entrepreneurial students last spring.
“I was speaking to a College of Business ‘How to Start a Start-up’ class and shared my perspective that not everyone is destined to ride on the traditional career escalator. It wasn’t long after I graduated from Clemson and found myself advancing in a large multinational company that I realized my ladder was up against the wrong wall. What I really wanted was to live a great story.”
Pennington’s great story didn’t just happen, it evolved. With corporate and start-up stepping stones along the way, he has blazed a career path that has satisfied his entrepreneurial spirit, quenched his wanderlust, and provided well for his family. Pennington studied computer information systems, business, and marketing while at Clemson. Though his technology acumen would open doors for him, he knew other skills would be needed in order to excel in future roles.
“Though data networking was my strength, I knew it was important to have a strong business underpinning. Early in a career you can get by on your technical acumen, but eventually there’s a pivot point where supplementary skills take you to the next level, and that’s what happened with me. My business curriculum as an undergrad and the MBA I earned later on were keys to my future course.”
His business journey started with Nortel as a networks administrator in Atlanta. Shortly thereafter he was accepted into Nortel’s leadership development program and was awarded an expat package based in London; but while there, his quest for something more than a corporate life led him to Jetstream, a bay area technology start-up. When Jetstream ceased operations due to the economic downturn of 2001, Pennington built an off-road VW campervan and put 12,000 miles on it touring Europe with his Australian girlfriend, and now wife, Nerinda. It gave him time to ponder his life’s direction.
“After a year of circumnavigating the world, I landed in Melbourne where I earned my MBA and master’s in commercial law. A few weeks before completing my post grad work I received a call from a former Jetstream colleague who wanted me to co-found a home networking start-up in Vancouver, Wash. With the MBA and the broad brush exposure to finance, marketing, and management I received at Clemson, I felt confident I had the right toolkit for tackling something big.”
In 2005, ClearAccess was launched in the Pacific Northwest and grew rapidly with a cloud-based software platform that reduced the support burden for broadband help desks.
“Our software enabled technical support personnel to remotely access and manage the WiFi gateway deployed in the customer’s home. They could see the entire home network as well as how the devices were performing. It reduced in-home service calls as well as the likelihood of customers switching to other service providers, which are both costly,” Pennington said.
In 2010, ClearAccess was recognized as the Inc. 500’s fastest-growing telecom company in the US. In 2012, Pennington and his business associate accepted a buyout offer from technology giant Cisco Systems, which included a transition role for Pennington, and eventually a global cyber-security leadership role in Austin, Texas
The move to Austin presented another opportunity for Pennington, that of a vintner. In a fortuitous twist of fate, his Austin residence included a micro-vineyard as part of the purchase. After completing a two-year winemaking certification, he founded Slow Turtle and began producing custom wines for local wine bars, restaurants, and hospitality venues.
“One of the points I made to the Clemson entrepreneurial class was that when you venture outside your comfort zone, you’ll find other talents you’ve acquired over time help to offset any shortcomings you may have. For me, it was branding, strategy, and delighting customers. My original intent with Slow Turtle was simply to make small lot, rhône-inspired wines, but I saw an opportunity to let the customer have a seat at the table and participate in the branding. It’s been a positive and rewarding experience for me.”
At some point, Pennington’s adventure with Cisco will runs its course and he’ll then be faced with the decision as to what’s next.
“As I grow older I will inevitably start to slow down a bit. It seems like something to do with coffee could be stimulating for me mentally and physically. Following Hannah Davis’ lead (‘09 Clemson alumna), it might make sense to explore how I can fuse coffee and social benefit. For example, there might be an opportunity some day for me to empower a new generation of coffee entrepreneurs to acquire and roast better coffee. I see a crack in the market that a new approach combined with a technologically advanced roaster can help solve.”
Pennington thrives in this cycle of adding value to a large company, learning a new technology, then taking the new expertise to a start-up. When the start-up is acquired, he hits the repeat button.
“I’m pleased that Clemson is in the forefront of introducing innovative classes that help students bridge the gap between the life they live today and the life they wish to lead.”
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