The Entrepreneur Next Door
Rice alum David Zumwalt may have a penchant for making history, but his keen sense of humor and passion for family have kept the former MOB member as down-to-earth as ever.
People still talk about it today: a human “cockroach” so enormous, so irreverent that it crawled into the Rice history books and has nested there to this day. It made its debut on Texas A&M University’s Kyle Field on Oct. 25, 1980, the same day the Owls beat the Aggies 10–6, when the Rice Marching Owl Band (MOB) — which prides itself on never actually marching — gave onlookers a halftime show to remember. It wasn’t the first time David Zumwalt ’81, a former MOB member who helped pull off the stunt, made history — but it was certainly one of the most memorable.
“I was a Drum Minor in the MOB my senior year, pregame announcer and a part of the scriptwriting team,” said Zumwalt, a Baker College member and fellow who serves as executive director of the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park (RTPark). Orchestrating the insectile spectacle taught him some lessons he still relies on. “Challenges such as designing and executing a halftime show both Rice and Aggie partisans find entertaining, while ‘desecrating’ Kyle Field with a cockroach and leaving the field to a standing ovation, are no less complex than most any in business life.”
It’s a claim Zumwalt is well qualified to make, since he has founded and directed several technology and communications companies over the past two decades. The most notable among these is CNet Inc., a software services business that merged with publicly traded, multinational Glenayre Technologies in 1997. (Glenayre later sold the CNet name to the well-known media company that now holds it.) Zumwalt also served in founding and executive positions for technology and telephony companies such as Privacy Inc., Go-Comm Inc. and Exceleron Software Inc.
His fascination with telecommunications, technology and software began in the late 1970s, while he was pursuing his bachelor of science in electrical engineering at Rice. Zumwalt apprenticed with Southwestern Bell when the company was planning and rolling out electronic switching in its north Texas offices, and he became fascinated with the upcoming divestiture of AT&T and the imminent deregulation of the industry.
Path to the Future
Competitive telecommunications was in its infancy when Zumwalt graduated from Rice and joined Compucon Inc. The company actively supported the development of terrestrial microwave and satellite communications networks — and it also supported Zumwalt’s nascent entrepreneurial ambitions. He left the company to form CNet with fellow alumnus Scott Greenwell ’82, and the two “faced all the struggles, panics, stresses and joys of growing that business over an 11-year period in a dynamic environment.”
To succeed in the chancy venture, Zumwalt drew on the life skills he honed at Rice: patience, persistence, leadership, an appreciation for delayed gratification — and diplomacy.
“Untangling roommate incompatibilities, grappling with multicultural and religious issues, testing the limits of on-campus capacity, and the inevitable privacy concerns that arise in a co-ed college all served up very useful skills for later application,” he said.
He also credits some of his favorite Rice faculty and staff members with helping him develop personally and professionally. Physics professor Harold Rorschach, who made Rice history as the first nonresident associate of Jones College when it still housed only women, was, Zumwalt said, “an outstanding and approachable Rice professor, especially for wide-eyed and disoriented freshmen.” Through Professor Patricia Reiff’s instruction, he discovered a passion for astronomy and space science, and Baker College master Jeff Kurtzman reignited Zumwalt’s love for music. History professor Charles Garside brought out his very best manners, and Zumwalt said he still uses sociologist Bill Martin’s “days behind for the undergraduate” equation. (“Who knew sociology had equations?”)
He remembers other Rice faculty and staff members with fondness, too: political science professor Gilbert “Doc C” Cuthbertson, who taught Zumwalt’s favorite class at Rice; Bert Roth, the “archetypical and original” director of the MOB; and faculty resident associate Maria Leal, who liked the way he sang in the shower — although Zumwalt said he didn’t realize his voice was carrying.
While these Rice friends helped him discover and develop latent passions and interests, it may have been Zumwalt’s freshman chemistry class that most affected his future path. Fresh out of high school and with a straight-A record, he planned to take the world of elements and electrons by storm — until he earned a 30 on his first chem test.
“That did plenty to make me rethink my career aspirations, not to mention my opinion of my scholastic aptitude,” he said. “Rice quickly demonstrated to me that achievement and excellence are in abundance, and there’s always someone more talented and gifted, more committed and hard working, or just plain smarter than you.”
Zumwalt said that while his time at Rice improved his discipline and focus, it also softened some of his competitive drives. Since then, he’s learned that even the best-laid plans sometimes sink under the tumultuous waves of market conditions, capital restraints and simple bad luck. But Zumwalt also has learned to measure success in language that doesn’t include “big houses” or “bank accounts.” His yardstick for success comprises two words: “Always try.”
“I have learned that a very thin line separates failure from success, so how we live and how we handle failure say much about how we handle success. There are any number of ways to keep score, but I believe success is less an outcome and more a way of living.”
That’s one reason why, in 2005, Zumwalt agreed to the challenge of nurturing the fledgling RTPark. After more than two decades of entrepreneurship, he was ready for something new.
“When I was approached with the opportunity to apply my past experiences to the greater challenge of economic development in a commercially crucial but financially stressed region, I found it hard to resist,” he said. “I also sensed this was something I had been called to do.”
Many tilt at windmills as they work hard to shape careers and families to match their dreams and expectations. Life, however, molds us on its own timetable and in many unexpected ways.”
The Challenges of Economic Development
The RTPark was born in 2002 out of the U.S. Virgin Island’s search for untapped resources that could provide opportunities for the region’s outstanding businesspeople. Agriculture and tourism had been the major pillars of the local economy, but those sectors offered few opportunities for the island’s rising young business and technology stars.
“The result was a ‘brain drain’ from the Caribbean basin, as many of the region’s outstanding talents relocated to the mainland to pursue better opportunities. This robbed the Caribbean of many gifted leaders who might otherwise be contributing more directly to the future of these islands.”
When key decision makers from government, academia and commercial enterprise came together to search for a potential panacea to the USVI’s commercial woes, they quickly found it in the islands’ role as a significant switching center for subsea fiber networks.
“The USVI is home to one of the very largest concentrations of bandwidth in the hemisphere, and a significant amount of Internet and voice traffic is carried through our switching facilities,” Zumwalt said. “In a way, the USVI is to global data what Memphis is to the delivery of overnight packages.”
To capitalize on this bandwidth, the islands’ local leaders worked together to “design an engine that could focus the region’s many assets to foster a vital, growing and globally competitive new technology sector in the economy.” The resulting RTPark provides a physical hub for technology-centered businesses interested in establishing operations in the area. It leverages the islands’ fiber connectivity and encourages workforce development through strategic partnerships and significant local tax incentives.
Although the park conducted much of its early work behind the scenes — organizing capital resources, identifying prospective partners and honing its business model, among other things — its recent progress has won it a place in the sun.
“In 2007, we secured a breakthrough agreement with Global Crossing to provide data center solutions for tenants and partners — to which we’ve added key alliances for telecommunications and managed services — and we are negotiating with strategic partners for e-commerce transaction processing capabilities,” Zumwalt said. “We currently have a television station as a tenant, with additional tenants and partners on the way.”
Another Path to the Future
While Zumwalt is happy about his successes as head of the RTPark, they are not his proudest accomplishments. That distinction falls to his third- and fifth-graders, Emerson and Maggie, and to his wife, Emmy ’85. (Zumwalt does, however, admit to being proud of “the rather unusual distinction” of appearing in Playboy magazine: “April 1981, page 15, in the huge pink bunny suit, related to a MOB halftime show.”)
The importance of family is a consistent theme in Zumwalt’s story. He sold CNet in 1997 in pursuit of a schedule that was more conducive to a strong family life. One of his favorite places is a Singaporean hotel where he and Emmy learned their first child was on the way. And, most days, he drops his kids off at school on the way to work and is home again in time for dinner. If he must work at home in the evenings, he waits until Maggie and Emerson have gone to bed.
Zumwalt says his wife and children “continually inspire me, in the words of Jack Nicholson, to ‘try to be a better man.’” He also credits his father and fellow alumnus Gary Zumwalt ’57 and his mother and grandfather with being highly influential.
“They passed on many qualities for which I am profoundly thankful: my father’s temperament, patience and sense of fairness; my mother’s persistence, faith and strength in the face of adversity; and my paternal grandfather’s quintessential example of what every man truly aspires to be — a humble, loving father, grounded in faith, who led an exemplary career and actively sought ways to be of service to others.”
While Zumwalt strives for that kind of excellence, he’s not afraid to let go of the wheel, either — and he encourages Rice students to do the same.