An Innovative Team: 55 Years of Dixon and Carol Doll
University of Michigan alum and Center for Entrepreneurship supporter, Dixon Doll, received the 2021 National Venture Capital Association’s Lifetime Achievement in Venture Capital Award. As a former Chairman of the NVCA, he was thrilled and ecstatic to learn he was being honored by his peers. He deservingly takes his place aside past winners who are credited as titans within the VC world and is seen by many as creators of the modern day venture capital industry.
But how did he get from North Campus to Silicon Valley? The answer is, he wasn’t alone…
How It All Started
After attending the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Grosse Pointe for 14 years, Carol decided to attend a bigger college. What better school in the area than the University of Michigan.
So one summer, while attending U-M, Carol was set up on a blind date. The fella she met that night was a gentleman fresh out of Kansas State University who had taken a summer job with a fellow engineer at the Detroit Edison Company.
The two instantly hit it off and the next summer Dixon returned to continue working at Detroit Edison. He decided to continue his education, so he applied for and got into the University’s masters of science in electrical engineering program.
During her senior year at U-M, Dixon finished his masters, she graduated in May, they married in June and left for a summer job at the Lincoln Lab in Boston, realized he didn’t want to be a full time researcher, and came back to Ann Arbor so Dixon could start the PhD in electrical engineering program that fall.
They lived in new married housing off campus, living near several of their graduate student friends who had done the same, several having their first children. Carol started teaching as a speech therapist and traveled to different schools with a caseload of 120 children. The two enjoyed the life they had created, forming a close knit community that created memories they still cherish to this day.
Beginning To Take Off
Dixon had a part-time consulting job, while working on his PhD, which had him traveling across the country to meet with clients. He started working for a local startup in Ann Arbor called DATAMAX, which focused on forward error correcting modems, but that business quickly failed.
Around this time Dixon was offered a teaching assignment at IBM System Lab in New York City. He would leave on a Monday and return home each Friday from New York City. With this, along with his consulting experience, and his desire to continue in venture capital, he began to seek out the best spot to provide him access to the players in the industry. While at IBM, Dixon published one of the world’s first books on data communications, Facilities, Networks and Systems Design.
So with Dixon traveling to NYC each week, Carol, who was still teaching at the time, enrolled in a master’s program in education, taking courses at night. Knowing she still had their support system around them (graduate school friends, her parents, her sister) she continued life with the family in their new home in Ann Arbor Hills. The Dolls had also become extremely close with some new friends, Coach Bo Schembechler and his family.
Striking Out On Their Own
During his travels out of DTW, Dixon learned what it took to build a book of business. Along the way he met a lot of interesting people.
One of those individuals happened to be the father of the internet, Leonard Kleinrock, who had gotten Dixon motivated on his own thesis for his PhD on the performance modeling of the internet based on traffic, link capacity, and physical design.
He also met some great entrepreneurs, such as Bill McGowan of MCI. Mr. McGown had a great place in Washington where he hosted networking parties made up of local regulatory people, other consultants, and others from around the country.
“I found these meetings extremely useful as casual learning experiences and opportunities to bond with other like-minded individuals,” said Dixon.
While their children continued to grow up in the midwest, Dixon continued traveling to meet with clients in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. After two years he was offered a position with ACCEL Partners, a top notch VC firm, one of the world’s first telecom venture firms. He raised and managed funds successfully for approximately a decade.
While Ann Arbor had been their home for 18 years, the couple decided they wanted a new challenge and were excited to settle on San Francisco. The family said goodbye to Ann Arbor and hello to their new west coast home. At that time, San Francisco was without question, the innovation capital of the world.
During the next twenty-plus years, Dixon would help early-stage companies reach their potential in the US as well as companies in Japan, China, and South Korea. The firm also made investments in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.
From Third Coast To West Coast
With their children mostly grown, Carol sought out new interests that weren’t as readily available to her in Ann Arbor, such as the Bay Area Contemporary Art, and the San Francisco Opera, which was something she heard every Sunday at her grandparents home growing up.
Carol joined the San Francisco Opera board and has been part of it for more than 22 years. Recently the couple was awarded the 2019 Crescendo Award by the San Francisco Opera for their continued support. She’s also been on the board for the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco and Chair of the Northern California Arthritis Foundation.
She didn’t stop at just joining organizations, as an entrepreneur herself, she started a few of her own. She’s the president of the Dixon and Carol Doll Family Foundation, she created the Innovative Creative Edge Fund which pursues virtual experiences around the state of California to help keep opera alive while they can not be on the stage (especially during the Covid-19 pandemic).
When it comes to organizations focused on causes she believes in or problems she feels aren’t being addressed, Carol said that Dixon often tells her, “if you don’t like it, start a new one and get it going.”
Dixon and Carol are also the co-chairs for the 100+ year old St. Ignatius Church on the campus of the University of San Francisco. She’s working with Jesuits on campus to establish social justice programs that can be developed and appeal to the community, not just those in the Catholic Church.
Carol said they have “sought to be philanthropists in the community, with our time and our talent, not just our treasure.” The two continue to be very hands on to effect change in all organizations they are part of.
Back To Their Michigan Roots
In 2016, Dixon and Carol made a generous gift to endow the position of executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE).
The two feel strongly that the University of Michigan teaches all the core aspects of subject matter better than anyone else in the country. But conventional wisdom and bright instructors aside, they felt that what was missing were people encouraging students to take chances.
They feel every student that walks on campus has a smattering of entrepreneurship in them, whether they know it or not. Their hope is that they would walk over to the CFE and find out more about it. They knew the CFE fosters more prudent risk taking.
Carol and Dixon also wanted to make sure that students from all disciplines and majors would continue to have a place to come together and find one another to apply their backgrounds and knowledge to something innovative.
Their own granddaughter is a freshman in nursing at U-M and recently found out that the School of Nursing has found ways to collaborate with the CFE and to be more innovative with other schools on campus. This is exactly the desired outcome the Dolls had hoped to achieve through their support of the CFE.
A Lifetime of Achievement
Still, Dixon considers himself and Carol a team, and the team is responsible for their success. That’s right, a Michigan couple through and through, it is all about the team, the team, the team.
One of the ways this team has looked to share in their success is to always give back. They know it is a big world and there are so many who could use help. Dixon says that you can’t just take, take, take.
“These are the growing years,” Carol said. “Experiment in things you aren’t familiar with, like a course you think you would never take. Find out who you are and what you’re good at and what you like.”
“I want students to try a few experiments with controlled risks,” Dixon added.
Finally, from a couple who would know a thing or two about listening to pitches, they recommend that students work on becoming comfortable with pitching themselves. They said to use the four years while at the University of Michigan to figure out who they are and how best to advocate for themselves.
Wise words to think about when discussing opportunities with a professor, speaking with a recruiter, or even introducing yourself to say, a blind date?