An Unlikely Coincidence

I am one half of an unlikely “coincidence”.

Leslie Bradshaw runs JESS3, a rising star in digital agencies that specializes in graphical representations of complex ideas.  She’s recognized by many as an up-and-comer, does press and wins awards, and is generally a tech badass.  We also graduated Junction City High School in the same year and had most of our classes together.  And until about five years ago, we had never had a serious conversation about the internet.

Our graduating class was around 150 kids and JCHS is a typical school: good football team, average test scores, a few more people living under the poverty line than elsewhere, but your basic country high school, pulling kids from a 15 mile or so radius of forest and farmland. When I went there, the only computer class offered was a typing class.

This is important. I graduated from high school in the year 2000, when we still didn’t understand what the internet was going to be, and schools hadn’t yet caught up in terms of technology education. I recently saw a TED talk by a 12-year-old who started his own app development shop; he lives in the heartland of computer tech (CA) and attends a school that has teachers and students using iPads.

So how is it that two kids from a tiny rural high school in Oregon, with no real technology program and no family members in tech, end up running successful internet agencies and being quoted about the future of technology?

On the surface, Leslie and I have plenty of differences. The work we do isn’t terribly similar: she is mostly concerned with business, I’m mostly about product. JESS3 tends toward the creative demonstrations, Churnless tended towards the behavior change tools. Even our client list is very different: her brands and events, to our non-profits and products.

And there are the personal differences as well. Leslie is an attractive, stylish blonde who can get rough when she needs to but tends towards the “professional”; I mostly wear second-hand jeans and cowboy boots and am certainly less smooth in a meeting. She went to a university in a major city; I went to a small liberal arts college. She’s the older child of a pair of Californians; I’m the younger child of a pair of Oregonians. Leslie moved to the Junction City school district in sixth grade; I was there from first on.

There are plenty of similarities as well. At JCHS, Leslie and I were both involved in publications (yearbook for her, newspaper for me). We were both in student government, played on sports teams, and did any number of things that most high-achieving students do. While we never dated, it wouldn’t have been surprising if we had.

But there were plenty of other kids with the same interests; why are we different?  Why did we end up running internet companies and the rest of our class didn’t?

For one, I think both Leslie and I had distinctive parental pairs who were closely involved in our lives. We were encouraged more than pushed, allowed to behave as adults from a fairly young age, and both of us remain close with both parents and siblings. We have intensely practical fathers, and empathetic, socially-oriented mothers. Our siblings were both two years apart from us in school, and so we both had intensive period of differentiation as we tried to separate ourselves in a school often pushed siblings uncomfortably close together.

Our personalities are also similar. We’re both highly verbal; we enjoy talking our way through problems, rather than going off into a dark room to find a solution on our own. We both are opinionated in a distinctive way, convinced of our rightness not for ego (OK, maybe some ego) but because we think doing it “right” actually matters. We tend not to half-ass things. People either love or hate working with us. We are our own worst enemies (what worthier enemy is there?). We both pursued other careers (crisis communications for Leslie, academia for me) before coming to the web.

And we had parents who were risers. Leslie’s dad never went to college but started doing night shifts as a CAT driver at a ski resort and worked his way up through the ranks to be GM. My father started as a delivery boy for the company where is now territory manager and is also without a college degree. Our mothers both had vocational degrees (though mine has gone on to continue school after both my brother and I graduated college) and are in related compassionate care careers (social work, nursing).

Somewhere in all of these similarities and differences, the fact remains that two kids from a tiny school in the middle of nowhere have independently created successful internet companies. I tend to believe that it is mostly a coincidence, that the internet employs a great many intelligent young people today, and any small sample of internet folks will find some odd crossed paths. Certainly Leslie and I are the same “type” in many ways, but many of that type don’t go on to run internet companies; it is that particular draw of entrepreneurism that I still have trouble explaining.

Maybe there really is a government conspiracy, exposure to mutating agents, or something in the Oregon air to blame. It would certainly make for a better story, particularly if we both simultaneously gain the ability to fly.

(An appreciative nod to Leslie for giving this a read through to confirm the facts. And for being awesome.)

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