OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Rob Austin McKee
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PeopleWise: Rob Austin McKee

Rob Austin McKee is an Assistant Professor of Leadership and Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston–Downtown and the President for Business Development at Flexios, a medical device startup working on a solution for hand tendon repair.

He earned his Ph.D. and MBA from the University of Houston and currently conducts research in decision-making, leadership, personality, and visceral states. His work has appeared in the Journal of Management, The Leadership Quarterly, and Business Horizons.

What does a typical day look like for you?

As a professor, I have three areas in which I contribute to the University: teaching, research, and service. Teaching is just what it sounds like—I prepare lessons for students and teach them in eight-week MBA courses. My service takes the form of serving on committees that better our community, whether it be giving out scholarships or forming progressive initiatives for the University. My research, on the other hand, involves me conducting a mix of investigative and practitioner-based studies.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

Definitely the in-classroom experience! Whenever I’m in the classroom teaching, I feel like I’m at my best—I’m automatically articulate, comical, engaging, and extroverted—everything I wish I could be all the time. Being able to interact with bright students is definitely what makes my career worthwhile and brings out my best side.

What led you to your current role?

It was definitely a bit of luck. I come from an underprivileged background that constricted my understanding of the world and my place in it. This also included my perspective on what was reasonable to achieve and how much opportunity exists to better myself. Each step that I’ve taken towards self-improvement has motivated me to help others, whether in a classroom or through the volunteering opportunities that I’ve been lucky enough to find. This motivation drives me every day to engage with and help others as well as continually improve myself.

What advice or wisdom would you share with OwlSpark founders?

First, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. People generally don’t mind sharing advice because it makes them feel important and knowledgeable. Asking others for their opinion is vital because it gives you perspective.

Second, be careful how you interpret and implement information or stories that you may hear from others, even if they’re successful entrepreneurs. What they say may not be relevant to your situation, and it may be based on conjecture, personal experiences, or their own cognitive biases. It’s nearly impossible for us as individuals to appreciate the role that luck and other external factors play in our successes. It makes for a much more compelling narrative.

What’s next for you?

Until now, my life felt like a checklist that needed to be finished before my life could start. When I was in high school, I told myself I needed to finish high school, and then my life will begin. Then I did the same with the military when I enlisted after high school. After that came my undergraduate, masters, and doctorate. Now that I’m older, I realized I was waiting for nothing and that my life was already happening. Thus, I’ve to start to make a greater effort to live in the moment, being happy with what I have and what I’ve accomplished, instead of longing for the next step of my life. The next milestone on the horizon for me is achieving tenure at U of H, but beyond that, I’m staying open to the possibilities that life presents to me.

What are you passionate about outside of your work?

I absolutely love rock climbing—I think it’s a great analogy for my life. There’s something to be said about when to take risks and when to balance strength and precision. I’ve definitely grown as a person through climbing.

I also enjoy doing volunteer work—I’m active with organizations such as the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, BakerRipley, and, most recently, Empowered Women of Purpose. The last two I mentioned both work with inmates to help promote an entrepreneurial spirit and the growth of small businesses. For me, it’s about way more than that—I get to show these men and women how big the world really is and all of the opportunities that are available to them.

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