As a resident of Weston, Conn., about two towns over from Newtown and the father of a first-grader, Don Kendall, Jr., was deeply affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But rather than signing petitions or making calls to legislators, he teamed up with more than 40 investors, including venture capitalist Ron Conway and serial entrepreneur Jim Pitkow to launch the Smart Tech Foundation, which funds smart gun technologies.
In advance of a NationSwell Council event on gun violence solutions, Kendall spoke about the need for readily available, safer guns.
What led you to look beyond changing laws as the best way to reduce gun violence?
Until [Newtown], my work was really focused on education and social entrepreneurship; gun violence is not an area that I was schooled in. But I took the time to get to know the space well and met all the organizations I could to understand their theories of change and the key issues. Pretty quickly, I became convinced that traditional political advocacy to change this issue was a dead end. The business model of Washington is to take money from people on either side of this issue: you might not like guns so I give money to the National Rifle Association (NRA) to stop people like you, and you give money to the Democratic Party to stop people like me. It was promoting an us versus them. It was gridlock, and I didn’t want to contribute to that.
I took my bedrock beliefs in technology, innovation, capitalism, the rule of free markets and the feeling that business can solve big social problems, and I went looking for other ways to get involved. I came at the issue from the standpoint of believing I could play a bridging role because I am a gun-owner and a lifelong hunter, but I also saw what was happening to 30,000 people dying every year in thousands of accidents and thousands of suicides. I thought that could be stopped, but it would take somebody saying, “I’m one of you, and we can make a difference on this.” That was the impetus, the genesis of Smart Tech.
How does Smart Tech identify a promising smart gun technologies to invest in?
This industry is in its infancy. These projects are literally two guys in a garage kind of stuff. The amount of money that is flowing right now is miniscule. We take the classic venture approach: You look for a mix of different approaches, whether it’s some folks working on actual firearms, other products like gun locks and safes, and then the technology that needed to be baked into everything like user-recognition, biometrics and RFID (radio-frequency identification). We wanted to have a mix of things that we were fostering. Again, as a nonprofit, the goal is to stimulate innovation and bring attention to the whole space and not focus on any one effort.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
In the context of gun violence, you’re talking about building an entire ecosystem that didn’t exist and hopefully making people rich at the same time that they’re reducing the number of people that are killed every year, right? There’s an opportunity to do both. The analog that we researched for Smart Tech was the number of people killed and injured by automobiles. The story of automobile fatalities over the last four decades is one of constantly chipping away at the problem. It’s through government regulation mandating airbags, two-point safety belts and different rules for signage and how roads are constructed, but manufacturers also stepped in. Safer cars are ones you can charge a premium for. Thousands of different businesses have been started because of that, and a lot of wealth has been created. At the same time, the number of people killed or injured by cars has gone down and down and down. That, to me, is what’s exciting about doing the same thing in the gun space — if we can just get markets working the way that they should work and breaking some of these market failures that are blocking innovation right now.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
I transitioned from being a for-profit entrepreneur to being a “philanthropist,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean, at age 42. I had started a bunch of companies, a few had done very well, so suddenly I literally woke up with enough money in the bank for me and my family. It was sort of like, “Okay, well what am I gonna do now?” Looking back, it took me about six years to answer that question. The key insight for me (and this is maybe not everybody) was realizing that I could still be the person that I am, namely a serial entrepreneur who loves startups, frontier spaces and uncertainty, at the same time that I’m a philanthropist. When that lightbulb went off for me, it changed everything.
With so much gridlock stopping solutions to gun violence in Washington, D.C., and statehouses nationwide, what inspires you to tackle this problem?
It’s my first experience in a market where there’s a huge headwind, and that is extremely frustrating. I’m not going to say that it’s been fun, but I believe very strongly that I have some role to play in solving this social problem. If we can just get the markets working the way that they’re supposed to work, we can start making headway and saving lives. The stakes are pretty high. The stance of the NRA and the gun manufacturers lobby is wrong from a historical standpoint. They’ve chosen a stance on this issue that is against the arc of history, and I think they’ll ultimately be proven wrong. I believe that there’s white space in this industry for a successful company or a whole cluster of successful companies that can disrupt this industry, because the stance taken by the leaders is just wrong. It’s ripe for that disruption.
What don’t most people know about you that they should?
In addition to being a serial entrepreneur, I did grow up with a lot of privileges. Yes, I started a bunch of companies, and some are successful. But my dad was chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. He was a legendary business leader. I grew up in a wealthy setting, and it also meant that he wanted to help me. He was willing to pick up the phone. That was a huge advantage. I was acquainted with privilege, but I also had a real strong desire to stand on my own two feet and be a success on my own terms. That’s an aspect to my bio and my background, that if I’m being authentic and transparent like I’m trying to be, that needs to be factored in.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.