Sen. Mark Warner Talks with Hollins Students about Debt, Entrepreneurship, and Learning from Failure

warnerFielding a wide range of questions, U.S. Senator Mark R. Warner (D-VA) engaged via Skype with students from the Hollins business department’s Ethical Leadership class on April 30.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Business Kari Munro welcomed Warner, who reminded students, “I was a business guy longer than I’ve been a politician.” He spoke of starting two businesses after completing his undergraduate and law school education that “failed miserably” – one in energy and the other in real estate – before achieving success in the cellular telephone industry and as a venture capitalist who invested in high-tech companies.

Warner went on to serve as Governor of Virginia from 2002 to 2006. He has been a member of the U.S. Senate for the past five years, where he said “the single issue I’ve been most obsessed with is how we deal with our national debt, which is 17 trillion dollars.” He noted that the issue has a profound effect on college students because “if we don’t have a budget deal we’ll rapidly squeeze the ability of your government to make any kind of investments in education, infrastructure, or research, which is just a bad business plan.”

Warner added that Congress owed it to the women in the class “to leave them a balance sheet where you can still get things done.”

Students then queried Warner about what he learned from his business failures (“You shouldn’t be afraid to fail, people’s lives are generally improved by failure if they can learn from the experience.”); how his college years influenced his career path (“The one thing I wish I would have done in college is more writing.”); and dealing with conflicts between ethical principles and the law (“There’s no better time than college to simulate these situations and wrestle with them. You’re going to confront these kinds of choices in any walk of life.”)

A question about the Pay It Forward program in Oregon, which has been proposed as an alternative to student loans in that state, prompted Warner to talk about the explosion of student debt nationally. While he said he would “want to look at the Oregon program a little more, see what kind of track record it gets” before advocating it in Virginia, he touted a federal program that bases loan repayment on income. “I am looking at how we might expand that program. I want to make sure young people have the opportunity to try to be entrepreneurs. If I had $50,000 debt from college I’m not sure I would have taken that second or third chance, or even that first chance.

“As I travel around Virginia, I get more questions about student debt than Obamacare. If we don’t get ahead of this, it’s going to be the next fiscal crisis. Right now in America, there’s more student debt than credit card debt.”

Warner concluded the twenty-minute session by urging the students to participate in the democratic process. “This is your country every bit as much as it is mine. Your voices have got to be heard. The thing our country needs now are rational people of goodwill in both political parties. If you guys don’t vote, if you guys don’t get involved, we leave too many of the decisions to the outliers. That’s not healthy if we’re going to make sure our country is still the kind of place where everybody gets [a] fair shot.”