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What the Past 28 Years Have Taught Us About Disruption

I’ve been a bit obsessed recently with the story of Shelly Pennefather. I didn’t know who she was until about a week ago. But once I heard her story, I haven’t been able to stop talking about it.

The Pennefather story, which you can read here in this terrific report by ESPN, is a tale of faith, family, sports, friendship and – believe it or not – disruption.

Pennefather was a terrific basketball player. She was an All-American at Villanova in the late ’80s. And she went on to play professional basketball in Japan. (The WNBA didn’t exist at the time.) Pennefather still holds the all-time scoring record at Villanova (for both men and women). And people who watched her play compared her to Larry Bird. She was that good.

But in 1991, just a few years into a very lucrative basketball career, Pennefather returned to the U.S., retired from the game and became a cloistered nun. Pennefather now goes by Sister Rose Marie. And here’s what her life as a cloistered nun is like:

The Poor Clares are one of the strictest religious orders in the world. They sleep on straw mattresses, in full habit, and wake up every night at 12:30 a.m. to pray, never resting more than four hours at a time. They are barefoot 23 hours of the day, except for the one hour in which they walk around the courtyard in sandals.

They are cut off from society. Sister Rose Marie will never leave the monastery, unless there’s a medical emergency. She’ll never call or email or text anyone, either. The rules seem so arbitrarily harsh. She gets two family visits per year, but converses through a see-through screen. She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, she can hug her family.

This year, she hugged her now 78-year-old mom for the first time in 25 years. It’s likely she will never hug her again. Her dad died in 1998. Sister Rose Marie sent a letter that was read at her father’s funeral.

I have immense respect for people of faith. Sister Rose Marie felt a calling and chose to live a life most of us struggle to understand.

I’m also incredibly curious about what Sister Rose Marie would think about the world she lives in today.

When Sister Rose Marie became a nun, the World Wide Web was still an experimental project at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

People listened to music on CDs. Mixtapes were still a thing. Apple was an afterthought in the computing industry. People rented movies (on VHS!) from Blockbuster. We had “car phones,” not cellphones.

Pizza stores competed on how fast they could deliver. Starbucks was still a private company. Newspapers were immensely profitable. And General Electric was still a juggernaut.

The world is different now. And if I had to explain the past 28 years to Sister Rose Marie, I would tell her they’ve been one giant disruption story.

Almost every element of life has been disrupted. Between email, messaging and smartphones, communication is instant now. We now stream our music, movies and TV over the internet. Electric cars are here. Autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality.

Apple is now a luxury brand. Google, which didn’t even exist in 1991, is now a verb. Uber, Lyft and Airbnb have changed the face of transportation, travel and labor. Almost every restaurant delivers now. And Jeff Bezos, who launched Amazon in 1994, is one of the world’s richest people and the owner of The Washington Post.

As investors, we should learn from the past 28 years.

Life doesn’t stand still. Each year, thousands of companies are challenging the status quo and trying to disrupt business – and life – as we know it today. And the biggest winners are the most disruptive. Incremental change is nice and safe. But it doesn’t last. The companies that think big and dream big change the world. And they’re the most profitable investments.

So as an investor (particularly a startup investor), you should take a hard look at the companies you’re considering investing in. Are they disrupting big markets? Are they thinking big? Are they nimble? Are they competitive?

If they are, you should consider investing in them. If they’re not, learn from the past 28 years and pass. We’re living in a disruptive era. It’s time to get used to it.

Good investing,

Vin Narayanan

Senior Managing Editor, Early Investing


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