A chance meeting with a former Navy SEAL at Culver’s Family Camp a few years ago has completely changed entrepreneur Michael O’Connell’s approach to life. O’Connell ’89, the owner of Grayson Cellars in California’s Napa Valley, spoke to students in The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur program about his experiences during a recent visit to campus.
During Family Camp, Culver would host the families of wounded military personnel. During his family’s stay, O’Connell’s talks with the SEAL turned into a search for more information about the SEAL philosophy. It eventually led him to participate in the SEAL Fit program, developed and operated by former SEALs. He learned during the five-day session that “you can do 20 times more than you thought you were capable of.”
O’Connell is now certified as a SEAL Fit instructor and helped plan and run a session for the CMA football team two years ago.
There is nothing too big. Nothing off limits. Nothing too difficult. Nothing too far away.
One of the lessons that came out of his experiences has been his willingness to be open to new situations. “I challenge you to expose yourself to different things,” he told the students. “Don’t limit yourself when setting your goals. There is nothing too big. Nothing off limits. Nothing too difficult. Nothing too far away.”
But it will take perseverance. O’Connell demonstrated that with a mismatched deck of cards. After giving some of students a card when they entered the class, he asked all of them to draw a picture of the back of the card he was holding, using their cards as a model. Some of the students’ cards did not match O’Connell’s card. Other students didn’t even have a card.
He originally allowed 15 minutes to finish, but the time limit quickly changed to three or four. Then he selected a student he knew and gave her a dollar for winning the drawing competition. And that, he said, is the life of someone just starting a business. It can be difficult, frustrating, and, sometimes, it feels like the winner was chosen simply of because of a family friendship.
“And, you know, it is,” O’Connell said. After 12 years in the wine business, he still has those frustrating days. “It’s part of being an entrepreneur,” he said, and you better have the personality to handle it.
O’Connell gave an example when “having a thick skin really paid off.” During his senior year at Culver, he was wait-listed at the University of Michigan in November. So he started writing letters to the admissions director, updating him of every new development. In March, he received a letter saying he wasn’t going to be accepted. But he persisted and on May 15 the admissions director called him personally to tell him had been accepted. “I still remember his name and address,” O’Connell said.
Now, he is an alumni admissions interviewer in the San Francisco area for Michigan’s engineering school. Every student he sees has great test scores and an outstanding GPA. What he is most concerned about is what separates each student from the pack. He can have four applicants who are captains of their robotics team, but only one teaches robotics at the local junior high, too. He is naturally going to recommend the person who takes his talents to the next level. Tell college admissions people about those experiences, O’Connell said, write about “what is unique in your life.”