Ken Morse

Feb 01, 2011

Ken Morse was National Committee President of AIESEC US and on the International Advisory Council for AIESEC International during his AIESEC career, positions which later helped him to start and build a number of high-tech companies as well as the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. Below he shares with us his key learnings from these different ventures.

When, where, and how did you join and get involved in AIESEC? Please describe your AIESEC career (positions, traineeships, conferences) and what you feel you learned during that time.

I was taking intense French lessons when I was an undergrad student at MIT. I wanted to improve my proficiency so I asked around and the career placement office said that AIESEC would be a good way to get an internship in a French speaking part of the world. He said, “There is no AIESEC chapter here at MIT yet but if you promise to start one then I think that we can get you an internship.” So he called up AIESEC US National Committee President Ken Phillips and I went down and reported for duty with Ken who said, “Here is your internship. You asked for Geneva and it is in Geneva and it’s with UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland). When you get back, I expect you to come to the National Conference and learn how to start a chapter.” I said, “Fine. I will do that.” It was straightforward because Ken Phillips had good relationships at MIT and so I started the local committee and was the first LCP. I was also Reception Officer one summer for the whole Boston area. The whole Boston area had about 35-40 trainees so that was a reasonably good sized job. I also ran a conference on international housing and urban redevelopment. At the time, that was a big thing - how do you redevelop the city center? Later I started the ITOMS (International Transfer of Management Skills) seminars. I went to the National Conference not expecting to run for president. I had no plan when I got there to run for NCP. But the candidate that everyone said was going to be the next NCP was incredibly boring and uninspiring. Most of my friends encouraged me to run for NCP. So, I ran and won. I was a Political Science major at MIT and you could say that I put that training to use in short order.

I was NCP for a year. One of the reasons I won was because I had a fantastic Vice President, Boyd Griffin. After being NCVP, Boyd went on to be Secretary General of AIESEC International. I was International Advisory Council when Boyd was SG. That was quite unusual because, at that time, Europeans didn’t really like Americans very much. It was a very Euro-centric organization. But they overlooked the fact that we were Americans and liked us enough to elect us to those jobs.

What did I learn in AIESEC as NCP and as International Advisory Council? As NCP, I learned that it is all about SALES. It’s all about teaching the local committees how to sell, which involves listening, not just giving a canned speech. Sales is more about listening than anything else. Every time we gave a canned speech, it didn’t go anywhere. Every time we listened to the motivation of the companies that we were talking to and found out what they really wanted and why they were meeting with us, it usually worked out well, both for raising money for the organization and for raising internships.

The second thing that I learned is that if there are bad quality people, like “B” players or “C” players, we need to fire them. You might say, “It’s a volunteer organization. You can’t fire them.” You actually can. The best thing we ever did was to ask people to resign. It was very energizing for the other members of the committee when we drew the line and said, “You’re not cutting it. Would you please step aside and let someone else run the LC?”

Those two lessons had a lot to do with the success of the companies that I was later involved in building. One, it is all about sales, and not about products or technology, and, two, you’ve got to have “A” players, and only “A” players on the team.

I learned as a member of the International Advisory Council that it is possible to build new committees from scratch. I went all over Asia and Africa and parts of Europe to establish new committees. I did that on $3 a day. So a typical day would be to show up in a new country, for example Kenya. I had the name of the personnel manager at Shell and Shell was a supporter of AIESEC, and that was all I knew. So I showed up at the university, found the economics professor, pitched AIESEC to her, found out who 2 or 3 of the really good students were, recruited the students to go with me to see Shell, asked the very nice Shell guy to introduce me to some of the other local companies, and I then had raised enough money to pay the hotel bill before I left town, and then go on to the next country. That year, we established in that year about 20 countries; Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, chapters in Australia, chapters in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, some of the French speaking countries as well as Morocco and Tunisia. We needed to become a truly global organization and that year we had a lot of positive results.

I also learned in the international organization that it was very important to manage carefully and intensively. Inspirational speeches are not enough; you need to do the hard, detailed work! You couldn’t just assume that things were going to go well. You had to manage them. No detail could be left undone or unnoticed. I really micro-managed all of the activities of the countries. They liked it. Starry-eyed people say, “Oh, just trust us.” I say, “Trust and verify.” So I learned to look into every detail, to trust but verify. People don’t mind being micro-managed if the team is winning. And we were a winning team because we sweated the details.

Since graduating, you have been involved in a number of high tech start-ups. Tell us about your experiences and what lessons you learned from them.

I went to Harvard Business School after AIESEC and then went on to my entrepreneurial career. The first company that I started was a trading company to advise and assist European and American companies to do business in China. I basically commuted regularly, and lived off and on in China, for 8 years. One of the key learnings there was early-on; I got a glimpse at the corruption in the system. That was in 1972-1980 and now it has become more visible, more endemic, but the cancer was there then. The second thing that I became acutely aware of is that the national sport of China is to copy Western technology. They have a completely different viewpoint about international property and copyrights. I saw it, I observed it and I had it happen to one of my companies and I had to deal with it. There were some times when the Chinese asked me for bribes. I said, “I am from New England. We have our own values over there and I won’t do it. I won’t recommend it; I won’t let any of my companies do it and I won’t allow it. If you want our technology and you want to work with us, the deals have to be clean.” I was able to be successful without paying bribes, because we had the best technology for China at the time. They were very adept at playing us off against other competitors, who were willing to play the game their way, but we still won because I only worked with world-class companies.

After China, I was recruited to become one of the co-founders of 3Com Corporation by Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Internet. He had been working on starting the company for 3 years. He said to me on the phone, “We’ve got the technology. We’ve got the business plan. But we need someone to help us with sales and marketing. I want you to come and help us out.” I knew Bob because we were classmates at MIT and friends. It was just a question of the right time. He needed help. I had been in China for 8 years, which was long enough, so I was delighted to accept the offer. I went out there and joined with him and Howard Charney in Palo Alto. When we started the company, we were located at 3000 Sandhill Road, Building 1. All of the venture capital firms are there. Harvard Business School has its research lab in exactly the same offices that were once ours.

After 3Com, I came back to Boston as employee #8 of Aspen Technology in the role of Head of Sales and Marketing. They provide world-leading software for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries: process modeling, process simulation, and process control technology.

What made you move from 3com to Aspen Technology?

I wanted to move back to Boston. I had met the woman of my dreams and she said that she would move once, but not twice. So, we went to Boston as I knew I wanted to raise my kids here.

I did two stints at AspenTech, totaling 17 years. The first time I joined it was for stock only, no salary, because they didn’t have any cash. I worked for a year for stock and expenses. My wife, Laura, was working so we were able to make ends meet. I held more or less every customer-facing job at Aspen. I was on the Board of Directors. I was Head of Europe, Middle East and Africa for 5 years. I started Aspen Tech in Japan and then Aspen Tech in China and helped build both organizations.

I left AspenTech once to start two other companies. One was a biotech company where I was the CEO. The other was an expert systems company called Applied Expert Systems, or APEX. APEX is the one that cratered. We went from 88 employees to 4 in one afternoon. That was a tough day. What did I learn from that? If your CEO doesn’t love customers, if your CEO is not passionately committed to delivering value to customers, then either you should get him out of there or you should get out of there, because it won’t succeed. It’s all about the customer!

In Aspen Tech, the message was, “It’s all about sales. It’s all about managing every detail.” We went to turn around the European operation. We had 32 people in Brussels. It wasn’t being managed well and it wasn’t delivering results every quarter. I spent 80 hour weeks getting on top of every detail and I explained to everyone, “I know that vacations are sacred here in Europe, but we can’t have any vacations the last month of the quarter, because we need to have all hands on deck. We can’t possibly do it on 40 hours a week. We are going to have to work longer than that. Each one of you will need to get an office at home and I will pay for the equipment. We need you to be able to work on weekends.” Nobody quit. We started making the numbers and we actually achieved 18 consecutive quarters of on-target performance. We grew from 32 people to 300. I recruited more or less every one of those 300 people. We were recruiting only “A” players. I learned that recruiting and making the numbers is really a bear and it’s what it’s all about. The boss is the Chief Recruiting Officer, the Chief Talent Officer as well as the Chief Sales Officer.

Then, AspenTech went public. We had “technology” in our name and the stock price went nuts. We were a billion dollar market capitalization, which after 17 years worth of work is probably appropriate. I received a phone call from the Dean of the Business School at MIT and he said, “Thank you for your donation, but I would rather have your body than your money.” So he recruited me to help him build up the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, which I did for 13 years. I retired from running the MIT Entrepreneurship Center 3 years ago. When I started, we had 2 professors, 2 entrepreneurship courses and about 150 students taking those 2 courses. Within 10 years, we had 31 courses, 37 professors, and 1600 students taking entrepreneurship courses each year. I worked with the admissions guys at MIT Sloan and we went from having 4% of the people coming to MIT saying they wanted to be tech entrepreneurs to having at least 40% of the incoming class saying on their application that they wanted to come to MIT to be a tech entrepreneur.

What I learned at MIT is that we were the first business school to introduce a sales course. We taught high tech sales and sales management. That was very important. We did a lot of collaboration with Harvard Business School and with the MIT School of Engineering. The fact that it was multidisciplinary and that we worked up and down the Charles River was seen as very valuable to our mission. The other thing that I learned is that universities have a kind of caste system. There are the tenured professors and everyone else. So it is very important to have the support of the senior faculty for any initiative, particularly a growth imitative like the one that we accomplished with a lot of help. I got help from Professor Ed Roberts, the Chairman of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. The lesson in academia is that you have to have the support of the senior faculty. Of the 37 professors that we had teaching those 31 courses, only 10 were paid; the others were volunteers, practitioners from the local ecosystem. I was extremely lucky; we couldn’t have done it if we weren’t in Boston. The beauty of Boston is that there is a concentrated entrepreneurial ecosystem where people like to give to back. The other thing that I learned is that there is no better way to bond a community together than to have a party. So we had receptions twice a year for all the people contributing their time and intellectual treasure.

Another major life lesson is that there are 3 things that you ought to do in your life, but you can’t do them all 1/3, 1/3, 1/3. You have to concentrate on different things at different times. In the beginning, the number one thing is building your career because it is the only thing that will make you successful: work X brain X time. Then family. But later on, you want to give back to the next generation. That is why I took a 90% salary cut to go to MIT. I wanted to give back to the next generation. Laura and I still help tech entrepreneurs, and we probably will continue to do so for at least 10 more years.

What am I doing now? Still giving back. In the public policy arena, I serve as a member of President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. A third of my time is spent teaching workshops for CEOs of young companies on how to build successful, global businesses. The workshops are sales, marketing, building the team, and growth financing. I teach those workshops in different countries, from Romania to Turkey to Spain, Scotland, New Zealand. I teach those workshops in some cases together with my wife Laura, and other friends. A third of my time is spent angel investing in ambitious start-ups. Another third is consulting major corporations on Innovation. I also teach sales to MBAs at ESADE Business School in Barcelona. Many of the students at ESADE have studied engineering and they want to come back to business school in order to start a tech company, so it is a good fit.

How did your experience in AIESEC help you in your professional career?

AIESEC gave me a lot. I learned about leadership. I learned that people are in it for what they can believe, much more than for money. I learned about sales. I learned never to take “no” for an answer, and if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Those were great lessons.

AIESEC is a great idea, and a great organization. I never met an NCP that I didn’t like.

If you would like to contact Ken and ask him any further questions, you can reach him at

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