Ed Roberts: A Singular Figure in the Field of Entrepreneurship and the World’s Greatest Mensch Ever

by Bill Aulet

The singular figure in the field of innovation-driven entrepreneurship passed away suddenly at the age of 88. He was also my mentor, protector, and dear friend. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the people who reached out to offer their thoughts and check in. It was a tough week.

That being said, we must honor Ed, remember the greatness in him, and cherish how lucky the world was to have a man like him. I was going to try to write a tribute summarizing his life, but I could not do it justice of what he meant. The official MIT announcement below captures the details pretty darn well.

The best I think I can do is to share the eulogy I gave at his funeral and share the video. I know funeral videos may not be a lot of people’s thing, and I respect that, but while this funeral/memorial was particularly emotional and sad, it was also powerful, beautiful, inspirational, and poignant, and captured the man better than any printed words possibly could. It also helped the healing process and reminded us of so many important lessons that we should never forget.

Below the video are the notes from my eulogy. It did not exactly transpire the way I planned it or can even remember it now, but hopefully the text will be helpful to fill in holes.

Bill Aulet Eulogy

MIT President Rafael Reif Eulogy

Ed Roberts Funeral Service

Bill Aulet Funeral Service Remarks

Thank you everyone for coming out to Ed Roberts’s funeral service. It has been a very tough 48 hours and our deepest condolences most of all to his wife, Nancy, and his wonderful, wonderful family. His family bravely and powerfully spoke beautiful, beautiful words that must have been so hard to craft and deliver.  We are here for you and we cherish them. They help us all in the healing process. I must do as well, it is hard to follow President Reif’s comments, but I must, so here we go.

“Professor Ed Roberts MIT Entrepreneurship”

Five words that are inextricably linked forever.

As you know at MIT, we love data.

So last night I Googled these five words and got 6,790,000 results (in 0.51 seconds). It’s 23.9M results for just MIT Entrepreneurship if you remove his name so he is 28% of all references.

Then, of course, for a benchmark … actually egotistically … I Googled “Bill Aulet MIT Entrepreneurship” and the results were so humbling but so appropriate.

Results: About 51,700 results

That tells you in numbers what we know to be true. Ed stands alone as a singular figure when it comes to MIT Entrepreneurship and even more broadly when it comes to the field writ large. There is virtually nothing with regard to entrepreneurship at MIT that cannot be traced back to some of Professor Ed Roberts’s DNA … in the classroom and outside of it. For instance, everything I do started with him. And so many others.

Not only at MIT but beyond, he created the field of research of entrepreneurship as a serious field in the early 1990s.  Before that, there was essentially nothing.

How did this happen?

Visionary, But Even More So, Inspirational

Ed would ask what you thought … and listen …  he wanted a big vision … and then after some debate and refinement, he would say, let’s do it. Expanding our center, designing and teaching new courses, running extra-curricular programs that are now central to the MIT experience …  Ed helped you raise your line of sight, design the course/program, and then motivated you.

Tough Task Master

He was taught by one of the toughest, Jay Forrester. He demanded the best. I do remember him bellowing at me in that loud voice when he got excited (or in all CAPS if it was an email), “This is not Harvard (he never let me forget that I have an undergraduate engineering degree from Harvard before they had an engineering school, which he thought was crazy), this is not IBM (my employer when he met me), this is MIT and we do things differently.” He pushed you to be your absolute best. He loved a good argument, but he was always willing to change his mind (except in politics), but you had better bring facts and data. Would not suffer fools well.  The great Brad Feld who later went on to become a famously successful venture capitalist (which means you have to be fearless) recalls the days when he was getting his Ph.D. at MIT under Ed Roberts and when he heard Ed’s booming voice coming down the hallway, he would run to the bathroom and hid in the stall standing on the toilet to avoid him.


But at the same time, he was incredibly supportive …

He provided sage advice. He was a fabulous mentor as noted by the seemingly endless outpouring online over the past 24 hours. He is referred to by so many as “my mentor.” He was really good at this.

If need be, he would drop his shoulder and help out. Nothing was above him. He was always the kid from Chelsea who married his childhood sweetheart and never, ever forgot his roots. Never any pretensions about him.

And also, extremely importantly, once you discussed something and went forward, you always knew he had your back. He was not a fair-weather fan. Quite the opposite. He liked a good fight to get things done (sometimes a bit too much honestly but hey, no one is perfect.

Extended Family

He would never forget a good deed or student. His memory even to the end was amazing. He was also gracious. His network as you see today seems infinite. It was like Plato, no matter where I went I met people coming back who knew and worshiped Ed. Over the past 48 hours, even though the outreach has been minimal because this all happened so fast, I have been inundated with emails and stories that I never knew.

That is why and how you get 6.79 Million hits for Professor Ed Roberts MIT Entrepreneurship in Google search.

But what I want to really talk about is Ed Roberts the man. And this will be much harder, but it is so much more meaningful.

As tough as Ed could be, and he could be tough, he was even more supportive and empathetic towards others as humans. As just one example, as some of you may know, over the past 30 days, the MIT Sloan Dean, Dave Schmittlein, had a very difficult medical diagnosis and had to resign. Even with all of Ed’s health issues, which he hid from almost everyone, he could not spend enough time trying to help Dave, and Dave was infinitely comforted by him.

About seven years ago when I was having a very dark time because of family issues, he noticed and took me out to lunch at Legal Seafoods in Cambridge and wanted to know what was going on.  When I told him, he sat and listened like a combination of a therapist and a saint and then patiently told me that family had to come first as it always had for him, and that I needed to go home right away and he would cover for me. He was right and he did. I will never forget. Family first.

Nancy, Valerie, Andrea, and Mitch, I think you know, he put you all and those grandkids above all else. Nothing and I mean nothing came close. It was unambiguous. Family must come first, which is a line I reuse often now with my people to this day. Our hearts can only imagine what you all are going through. Words fall far short. But in the end, while we thought Ed would live forever or at least outlive us all, he had more energy at 88 than most 20-year-olds.

We are all human. We all must die. And the question is, did you lead a meaningful life? Did you love, laugh, and leave a family legacy? Did you give back? Did you exit with no regrets? Did you get the most out of your time on this earth? In all those dimensions, Ed did not cheat life. Some have said he was larger than life. No, let us not kid ourselves. No one is larger than life literally. But let us rather celebrate the fact that he was human. He was someone who embodied a life lived to its fullest.  It epitomized getting the most out of the finite life we have. He maximized it to the final day. That is all we can ask. I hope this gives you all some peace. We are all better for having known him and the world is certainly a better place.

I would like to close with a final comment and a personal story.

It seems a bit of poetry to me that today is February 29th. It is a leap year. Why? Feb 29th doesn’t come around often. Well, Ed was even rarer than a February 29th. Infinitely rarer.

In life, we don’t get to meet very many generational figures and humans, but we did get to with Ed Roberts. He was a singular figure in the history of entrepreneurship. As you heard from President Reif, he created the field of entrepreneurship as a field of serious study in top universities across the world. His 1991 book, “Entrepreneurs in High Technology,” marks the beginning of this era today that is now pervasive across thousands of universities globally. There has never been anyone like him nor will there ever be again. He was a generational figure in terms of accomplishments, but as you have heard from the other speakers today and more importantly, as a human.

Please bear with me on this last personal story because I need it to land this plane.

I will never forget the day I did one of those DNA tests to find out your ancestry, 23and Me, given to me by Trish Cotter; well let’s just say I didn’t come over on the Mayflower or anything, and I knew I was a complete mutt, but this made it ever clearer. Still, the results were interesting.

I was so excited that included in the many ancestry categories was 4% Ashkenazi Jew. Well, my excitement was nothing compared to Ed’s who proclaimed that he always thought I was Jewish and welcomed me to the tribe with unbounded enthusiasm even by his standards.

Well, you were a father figure to me, you welcomed me in so many ways. I always refer to you as my mentor but in closing let me say, you were much more than just a mentor, you were my mensch. The best mensch ever. You changed my life profoundly and that of thousands of others.

May your memory be a blessing.

Ed, Rest in Peace and I’ll see you on the other side.

Edward B. Roberts ’58, SM ’58, SM ’60, PhD ’62, a visionary management professor who studied entrepreneurship while building a flourishing innovation ecosystem at MIT, died on Tuesday. He was 88 years old.

Over a remarkable seven-decade career at the Institute, Roberts was a prolific scholar and mentor who founded what is now the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, a unique resource that has guided thousands of innovators as they have brought inventions and ideas to the market.

Roberts, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management of Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management, was an energetic and encouraging presence who espoused the value of founding companies organized around a clear core idea, and of having significant new technology to apply to that idea. Generations of MIT students as well as faculty found a path forward for their startups as a result, benefitting from the structure of the Martin Trust Center and influenced by Roberts’ work.

Dear members of the MIT community,

I write to let you know of the passing of an MIT icon: Professor Ed Roberts ’58, SM ’58, SM ’60, PhD ’62, who died Tuesday morning after an illness.

As an academic, Ed set records for speed – at 33, the youngest person ever tenured at MIT Sloan, until he was barely edged out by Lester Thurow – and for endurance: His 60 extraordinarily fruitful years on the MIT faculty put him in a league of his own.

Ed was always doing things no one had done before, from being the first person to earn a PhD from MIT in system dynamics, to helping found the first internet company in China, to pioneering the very idea that entrepreneurship is a craft that can be systematically studied and successfully taught.