OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Rob Austin McKee
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PeopleWise: Rob Austin McKee

Rob Austin McKee is an Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Houston–Downtown and the former Vice President for Business Development at Flexios, a medical device startup working on a solution for hand tendon repair.

He earned his Ph.D. and MBA from the University of Houston and currently conducts research in decision-making, leadership, personality, and visceral states. His work has appeared in the Journal of Management, The Leadership Quarterly, and Business Horizons.

What does a typical day look like for you?

As a professor, I have three areas in which I contribute to the University: teaching, research, and service. Teaching is just what it sounds like—I prepare and deliver lessons to students, primarily at the MBA level. I love that part. Service usually involves working as part of a committee to achieve any number of things to improve the University, help students, or engage with the community. For instance, I serve on a committee that selects students to receive scholarships. Finally, research involves conducting a mix of investigative and practitioner-based studies with the goal of publishing them in peer-reviewed journals.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

Definitely the in-classroom experience! Whenever I’m teaching, I feel like I’m a better version of myself—I’m articulate, charismatic, funny, and engaging—everything I wish I could be all the time. Having meaningful interactions with my students is absolutely the best part of what I do.

What led you to your current role?

I would like to say it was all part of some master plan, but my path involved a lot of luck. I come from an underprivileged background that constricted my understanding of the world and my place in it, including my perspective on what was reasonable to achieve and how many opportunities existed to better myself. But each step I’ve taken towards self-improvement has motivated me to take the next step. And I’ve learned that self-improvement involves helping others, whether in a classroom or through the volunteer opportunities that I’ve been lucky enough to find.

What advice or wisdom would you share with OwlSpark founders?

First, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. People generally don’t mind being asked for advice because it makes them feel important and knowledgeable.

Second, be careful how you interpret and implement the advice, information, and stories you hear from others, even if those others are successful entrepreneurs. What they say may not be relevant to your situation. What they say might be based on conjecture or on cognitive biases. What they say might be completely invalid. It is nearly impossible for us, as individuals, to appreciate the role that luck and other external factors have played in our successes. We like to attribute our successes to our decisions and actions. It makes for a much more compelling narrative.

What’s next for you?

Until now, my life felt like a checklist that needed to be completed before my real life started. When I was in high school, I felt like my real life would begin when I graduated. Then I went into the military and thought my real life would begin when I got out. Then I got an Associates, a Bachelors, a Masters, and a Ph.D., all the while feeling like my real life was just on the other side of that accomplishment. And now, I’m working toward another significant milestone, earning tenure. But I’ve realized that my life has been happening the whole time. So, I’m making a greater effort to live in the moment and to be happy with what I have and what I’ve accomplished, instead of just focusing on the next milestone. There’s probably some clever analogy there about how life is about the journey and not the destination. So, I’m open to the possibilities that life presents to me.

What are you passionate about outside of your work?

I love rock climbing—it’s a great analogy for life. There’s something to be said about when to take risks, when to be cautious, and how to balance strength and precision. I’ve grown a lot as a person through climbing.

I also enjoy doing volunteer work—I’m active with organizations like BakerRipley, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, and, most recently, Empowered Women of Purpose. The last two I mentioned both work with inmates to help promote an entrepreneurial spirit and the growth of small businesses. For me, it’s about way more than that—I get to show these men and women how big the world really is and all of the opportunities that are available to them.

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