By Hope Katz Gibbs
It has been said that Rosetta Stone CEO Tom Adams is a born entrepreneur.
In true British style, the Swede who grew up in France before moving with his parents to England at the age of 10, raises an eyebrow at the idea. But then confides that he believes it’s a possibility.
“I think being a good entrepreneur is an instinct,” says Adams from his Rosslyn, VA headquarters, an office that takes up the seventh floor of a high-security building overlooking the Potomac River. “But sometimes it takes a while to realize that running a company is your life’s calling.”
Adams actually thought he’d grow up to be a lawyer. “Law is a profession that trades in words, and when you don’t speak the native language it’s very hard to accomplish that goal,” he admits. “But I always have been up for a challenge, so when I moved to England when I was a child and didn’t speak any English, it seemed like something I should set my sights on.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Bristol University in England, Adams’ dream moved closer to reality when when he landed a job as an assistant at a law firm. “However, I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.”
So the then-20something set a new goal. He had already dabbled in a few entrepreneurial ventures, such as buying property, and he liked being an investor. That led him to join a commodity merchant house that bought and sold minerals and oil. For the next six years, he lived in Mongolia and eventually became the chief negotiator who worked with miners to sort through the international relations deals required to sell the country’s major exports: copper, livestock, and cashmere.
He continued to try his hand at entrepreneurship using his Mongolian connections. “I helped my mom, who was then 55, set up a cashmere import company in Sweden,” he says. “She was a language teacher, and had a knack for business. It was a huge success.”
Adams also invested in a livestock company with a friend, and while that didn’t turn out to be as profitable as he hoped, it was a great learning experience. “I knew at 28 that running a company was what I was supposed to do with my life.”
That’s when Adams decided to enroll in business school. He got his MBA at the internationally renowned INSEAD, a school that required its students to speak three languages, and it only took one year to graduate.
“It was the perfect fit,” Adams recalls.
After graduating, he landed a job at Enron in September 2001 — five days after the company’s president, Jeffrey Skilling, was fired.
“I turned up for work, and they forgot they had hired me,” he says. “Then came the tragedy of 9/11, and then Enron went down in flames. As the whole thing spiraled out of control, it took me a few months to get my head around what I’d do next.”
Deep down, Adams knew he wanted to start his own company. “I also knew that embarking on a brand new venture could be a lonely, exhausting experience,” he notes, so he went looking for a job where he could maximize his multilingual skills, global business experience, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Soon after, he met the leaders of Rosetta Stone. “The company had gained a reputation as an effective language-learning tool,” he explains. “The core belief of the founders was that learning a language should be natural and instinctive, and that interactive technology can replicate and activate the immersion method powerfully for learners of any age.”
In the last seven years, Adams has helped Rosetta Stone grow into one of the world’s leading language-learning solution providers, offering more than 30 different languages to millions of people in more than 150 countries.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Adams was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2008 Award Winner in Greater Washington.
What advice does Adams offer other entrepreneurs?
1. Be a visionary. Most entrepreneurs are “big picture people.” Know that and get good at having others be creative and come up with solutions, but guide them through the process. You’ll accomplish your goals, and build a strong team that feels valued.
2. Ask the impossible of very smart people. Of course, you want to be sure that you have the best and the brightest on your team. That means hiring people who are tops in their field. As the world goes global, it’s easier to hire foreigners who bring a new set of skills and ideas to the company. Don’t be shy about looking abroad for talent.
3. Don’t be afraid to be bold. Taking risks is practically the definition of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur. You have to have the heart, soul, and guts to stand up to conventional thinking. Don’t be afraid. Just do it.
4. Allow your subordinates to challenge you. I never think I have all the answers. As a boss, I think it’s important to create a culture where you let your subordinates challenge you. One of the core beliefs at Rosetta Stone is “speak up, speak out.” I am very careful about whom I hire because I’m going to listen to their advice.
5. Always have a seat at the table. While it’s tempting to have your second-in-command handle some of the day-to-day business, be sure you are at every important meeting that takes place. This will keep your hand in what’s really going on in your company, and it will enable you to know when changes need to be made.
6. Building a successful business is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Keep it interesting, keep working hard, and stay dedicated to your mission. That’s what I plan to do with Rosetta Stone, and I can’t wait to see what we’ll develop into in the next 20 years.
About the Historic Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone is an Ancient Egyptian granodiorite stele engraved with an inscription that records a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts: the upper one is in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle one in Egyptian demotic script, and the lower text in ancient Greek. Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts (albeit with some differences between them), it provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Originally displayed within a temple, the stele was probably moved during the early Christian or medieval period, and eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.
It was rediscovered there in 1799 by a soldier of the French expedition to Egypt. As the first ancient bilingual text recovered in modern times, the Rosetta Stone aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher the hitherto untranslated ancient Egyptian language. Lithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating amongst European museums and scholars.
Meanwhile, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original stone came into British possession under the Capitulation of Alexandria. Transported to London, it has been on public display at the British Museum since 1802. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.
Ever since its rediscovery, the stone has been the focus of nationalist rivalries, including its transfer from French to British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, a long-running dispute over the relative value of Young’s and Champollion’s contributions to the decipherment, and since 2003, demands for the stone’s return to Egypt.
Study of the decree was already under way as the first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803. It was 20 years, however, before the decipherment of the Egyptian texts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822; it took longer still before scholars were able to read other ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature confidently.
Major advances in the decoding were: recognition that the stone offered three versions of the same text (1799); that the demotic text used phonetic characters to spell foreign names (1802); that the hieroglyphic text did so as well, and had pervasive similarities to the demotic (Thomas Young, 1814); and that, in addition to being used for foreign names, phonetic characters were also used to spell native Egyptian words (Champollion, 1822–1824).
Two other fragmentary copies of the same decree were discovered later, and several similar Egyptian bilingual or trilingual inscriptions are now known, including two slightly earlier Ptolemaic decrees (the Decree of Canopus in 238 BC, and the Memphis decree of Ptolemy IV, ca. 218 BC). The Rosetta Stone is therefore no longer unique, but it was the essential key to modern understanding of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization. The term Rosetta Stone is now used in other contexts as the name for the essential clue to a new field of knowledge.