Charting Your Future: Reflections from Lee Pillsbury ’69

By: Shana Kathleen Claar
Lee Pillsbury mentors students

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson challenged us with this question: “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”

The words could not ring truer today, at a time when paradoxically, there are so many opportunities to act, to impact your world in a global way – and at the same time, when the pandemic and other threats seem to impose new restrictions to action.

How should you think about your actions – how they can shape your future, and positively shape the complex world you are about to enter as adults, professionals, and leaders? Here are a few reflections, occasioned by the 15th anniversary of The Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship (PIHE) at the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration (SHA).

How you think means everything

Having said that what matters is action, I’ll now suggest that productive action follows (always!) from thought, and that those who think positively are always the actors who create the biggest impact – for themselves and in their environment.

  • Surround yourself with people who are positive, energetic, enthusiastic.
  • Never begin any endeavor with anything other than a positive outlook.
  • Envision your goals, then go for them.
  • “Act enthusiastic and you will be enthusiastic.” – Dale Carnegie

Identify Your True Dreams and Goals

In the memorable lyrics of George Harrison, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Many people “float” through life, buoyed this way and that like a rudderless ship on the ocean, pursuing what’s in front of them or what they are “told” they should aspire to – without every identifying what makes really them tick, and going for it. I’d venture to guess those people are the bulk of humanity. Don’t let it be you. In your time at Cornell, and hopefully at PIHE, you have been given an invaluable gift: The skills to think critically and objectively about your place in the world, and how to apply a set of leadership skills to realize your objectives.

Here is an exercise I do myself every year, and I highly recommend: Take a notepad. On the top of the first page, list everything you want in three months. When you’ve completed the list, turn the page – and do it again! Stretch yourself. Think about all the domains in your life…your career of course, but also your family, your friendships, and don’t forget your love life!  When you’ve finished, turn to a fresh page, and list everything you want in six months. Again, stretch! Make lists for one year and three years and review them from time to time. Repeat this exercise at least once a year. Keep the list and I invite you to write and let me know what happens at the end of the first year.

To summarize, decide on your true dreams and goals…and recognize that you’re going to update and create a new set of dreams and goals every so often. Then, act to achieve them!

Never Stop Learning

The need for continuing education has never been more important than it is today. Twenty-five percent of what our engineering students are being taught today will be obsolete by the time they graduate. Recently, scientists reported particles apparently moving faster than the speed of light in defiance of all known laws of physics! My wife Mary and I have made lifelong learning a big part of who we are. In our thirties, we returned to graduate school for our MBAs.  In our forties and fifties, we became licensed jet pilots, learning physics, meteorology, navigation, and aerodynamics. Most recently, we’ve completed three courses in astronomy and cosmology. Along the way we became certified scuba divers and graduated from Ferrari’s automobile racing school in Italy.

As you focus on your dreams and goals, don’t forget to keep your horizon broad, and strive to learn more and more about more and more as you build your life and career. It will make you a more successful professional – and more important, a richer and more fulfilled human being.

Be Persistent and Work Hard

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Years later professor and politician Newt Gingrich echoed this sentiment when he said “Persistence is the hard work you do, after you get tired of the hard work you’ve already done”.

Enough said.

Pay Attention to Detail . . . Then Don’t Stop Until You Get It Right

Pay attention to the details. Outside of academia, it’s not about demonstrating what you know, it’s about learning what you don’t know and applying the knowledge in the greatest of detail.

When I started my career working at a Marriott Hotel in Chicago as a junior manager, the people at the hotel nicknamed me “The Golden Hammer.” I wasn’t particularly proud of that nickname…but I should have been! It was given to me because I was persistent and relentless in identifying goals for the enterprise and sticking to them – but also because I made sure everyone on my team did too.

Focusing on the details and get them right – every single time.


This is perhaps the most misunderstood quality of a successful person, but also one of the most important. For me, it’s about approaching life like you’re building your palace. Every action you take, whether pouring a foundation, or laying bricks, or putting in electrical wiring succeeds only because of the quality and amount of work you’ve done before. EVERYTHING you do goes into the building of your palace. Nothing is left out, overlooked, or ignored. Each level is built on the solid successes (and failures) of the one laid before it. Focus can come from many sources: Maybe it’s your inner drive. Maybe it’s your family. Maybe it’s your academic or intellectual training. Maybe it’s your yoga mat. Wherever it comes from, grab it, run with it and build your palace!

I started in the hospitality business when I was 15, working as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson’s. (Mary likes to say that I still have some of that “jerk” left in me.) I worked my way through hotel and restaurant operations, and when I graduated from the Hotel School, went into sales. After sales, I became a general manager, and ultimately EVP at Marriott International, where I launched and ran several businesses including Fairfield Inns, Residence Inns, Marriott Vacation Club, and the Honored Guest Reward Program among others. Since leaving Marriott to strike out on my own, I’ve launched twelve successful companies, and a venture fund, all in the hospitality and travel space. Everything I have done since I first worked as a soda jerk built upon my prior experience and knowledge, and I have drawn on that experience and knowledge to help me succeed in my next challenge.

So, what’s the takeaway? Build upon your strengths. Take advantage of what you have already learned. Build your career like you would build your palace. 

Be Different

“And I– I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost.

Again, enough said.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Become a “world class” storyteller.  Peter Gruber, former head of Columbia Pictures, and former Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, wrote a book I love, called Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. Here’s what he says: “Today, everyone – whether they know it or not – is in the emotional transportation business. More and more, success is won by creating compelling stories that have the power to move partners, shareholders, customers, and employees to action.” Historically, stories have always been igniters of action, moving people to do things, but only recently has it become clear that purposeful stories, those created with a specific mission in mind, are absolutely essential in persuading others to support a vision, dream, or cause.

Find your story. Frame it, articulate it, refine it, learn how communicate it with the utmost passion and conviction.

Maintain your integrity

The definition of Integrity from Webster’s Dictionary: “Integrity implies an incorruptible soundness of moral character, especially as displayed in fulfilling trusts.”

I was partners in business with one remarkable man for 31 years, starting when he became my boss in 1980. We talked once or twice a day, skirted in and out of meetings and projects together, and if he told me that he’d do something, call someone, send me something, he ALWAYS did it! I never followed up with him to ask: “Did you do such and such?” Why? Because I knew he’d done it. When he spoke, the world paid attention, because of the power of his word.

Life is not just a journey – It’s YOUR journey

When Mary and I made the commitment to create the Pillsbury Institute 15 years ago, we did so in the belief that Cornell and SHA finds, nurtures, and supports the most talented students in the hotel industry – in fact, in any industry. What we wanted to do, above all, was to give you, as students, another set of tools to realize your dreams, by bringing your unique talents as individuals to the pursuit of entrepreneurial paths, in a professional context. That is the path I have followed my entire life, and it has been a richly rewarding journey. I hope yours will be, too.

Stay focused, stay optimistic, stay happy – and stay in touch!

Lee Pillsbury

Leland “Lee” Pillsbury ’69 is a venture capitalist with a special focus on the hospitality industry. Culminating a more than fifty-year career in the industry, Lee is a managing director of Thayer Ventures, an early-stage venture-fund investment company that invests in technology companies in the hospitality and travel industry. He is also founder and co-chairman of Thayer Lodging Group, where he served at CEO until the sale of the company in 2014. He and his wife Mary founded the Pillsbury Institute in 2006.