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A Look at Glass Artist Jim McKelvey

Aired January 6, 2013 - 14:00   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Few people's interests are as boundless at Jim McKelvey's. He is an artist intent on mastering an ancient technique.


JIM MCKELVEY, CO-FOUNDER OF SQUARE: Every time I come into the studio, I've got some sort of new challenge. The material never disappoints me.

GUPTA (voice-over): An engineer whose ideas sparked an evolutionary technology.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not looking for the newest, best object to own, he's looking for the newest, best idea to birth.

GUPTA: An entrepreneur and an activist, someone who seems to excel at everything he puts his mind to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jim is sort of this renaissance guy, whatever he tries to do, he does exceedingly well.

MCKELVEY: We tend to believe that things are impossible that are very possible.

GUPTA: Jim McKelvey is a truly unique thinker with a passion for solving problems, but we chose him for THE NEXT LIST because he's using his intellect, focus and sheer force of personality to change the lives of people he touches.

MCKELVEY: Art is what can't be proven mathematically, right, it's where science ends. It's the part that makes you feel good, but you don't know why. The way the object feels in the hands or looks, you can almost, if it's perfectly created, explain it to somebody else afterwards. But in the creation part, you can't.

This is 230 degrees of Fahrenheit. It's hard to shape glass. It took me years of practice and as a result I've never gotten bored with it it's difficult. Every time I come into the studio I've got some sort of new challenge. And something that I would like to learn how to do better and the material never disappoints me.

You can see how the glass is constantly moving. My job is to basically shape it and balance it at the same time. If you can do that, you get these wonderful shapes. Glass really rewards risk. A lot of times with glass, you're just waiting for the piece to cool down or for some temperature to adjust and there's split seconds where you've got a fraction of a second where you get to make a move a particular way and you don't get to repeat it if you do it wrong. So there's a performance to it it's sort of like dancing.

You can't really think about it and do it well. You just have to do it enough that it becomes sort of mechanical and then you can sort of free your mind to design.

DOUG AUER, CO-FOUNDER, THIRD DEGREE GLASS: I know the art is very important to him. He's very particular about the style of his work and I think the glass faucet idea is a good example of that.

I'm Doug Auer. I'm the co-founder of Third Degree Glass Factory. I think he's actually very precise about how he makes those. It doesn't look like it because they look so fluid and free forming. It's very difficult to create those shapes it requires sort of freezing that fluid glass in a moment of time.

MCKELVEY: The best stuff is made on the edge of control. You want the glass so hot that it will move as freely as it possibly can. But not any more freely or you'll lose control of it. And I've lost a lot of these, but the ones that make it are great. Beautiful. That was awesome.

AUER: He's taking something that no one else has done. It's a functional object, but he's really created a work of art out of that glass faucet. It's very appealing.

MCKELVEY: The studio isn't something I was intending to do, but I ran into another glass blower and we were lamenting the fact that there was no good place to work. And we decided we had to build it and literally we jumped in my car, drove down the street and bought this giant old contaminated warehouse. It was a mess and spent the better part of two years fixing that up and opened what became one of the world's most successful glass studios called Third Degree.

AUER: What kind of guy is he? He's very busy, the term serial entrepreneur. We call him a parallel entrepreneur. He's constantly got three or four different things going on.

MCKELVEY: Square is the future of payments. The idea came out. I was working with my friend, Jack and we decided to start a company. But the question was what was the company going to do and I was in my studio trying to sell a piece of glass and I couldn't complete the sale because the customer had an American Express card, which I couldn't accept.

And after losing the sale, I realized, just frustrating to lose a sale. I looked at what I had been on the receiving end of as a merchant. And there's a lot of abuse of small merchants. They're not treated fairly. There are a lot of hidden fees, they're small and powerless. It was a lot of stuff that the merchant had no control over and no knowledge of. So I was sitting there talking to jack. And I'm looking at my iPhone, saying I'm holding in my hand everything I needed to save that sale, why couldn't I do it? I should be able to do this it wasn't possible at the time so the next step was to make a reader.

And so that was my job to build a reader and figure out a way to make it cool. After Square came about, we've now seen a bunch of disruption. But there's certain times when an old system needs to be replaced by a new system and that's a chaotic process, but that's what makes us grow.

AUER: He's a risk-taker. You know, he's somebody that he'll put himself out there and take a chance on something that he's excited about. And some of the ideas are great and they work. I think in this case, I guess we both got lucky. Obviously, it changed my life. This is something that I could have never even dreamed up.

My mother said, tells people, when they say how is Doug doing? People think he's an artist. The poor guy is probably eating bread and drinking water. And she says, he's living the dream. And she's right and had I not met Jim that day, yes, this wouldn't have been possible.

MCKELVEY: It's easy for me to focus on something that's fundamentally flawed. I see this problem and I want to eradicate that.




MCKELVEY: I don't actually sit down and come up with an idea. Basically I try to free my mind from distractions. My mind wanders and it wanders naturally on to problems.

HOWARD LERNER, FOUNDER, KALDI'S COFFEE ROASTING COMPANY: I think Jim has a real analytical mind and is very creative. My name is Howard Lerner and I'm the founder of Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company and a close friend of Jim McKelvey.

We'll sit down and we'll have dinner and we'll just kick around ideas, how do we get people to collaborate. How do we get people to learn better. How do we get complex problem-solves in unique resource light ways. It's gratifying, there's nothing better than sitting down with a genius and brainstorming, right? That's a gift.

MCKELVEY: I'm trying to be creative. I try to relax and I try to do things that make me think -- travels wonderful, talking to people who speak different languages, going to places where I'm uncomfortable. Putting myself in places where I'm uncomfortable is a great way to generate ideas.

This is 1966 Muni M-20 Charlie. It gets gas mileage. It gets 20 miles to the gallon. My brother surprised me for my birthday and a real surprise, I got blindfolded, threw me in the back of my dad's car, he said your birthday present is flying lessons. There was no way I was going to back out. My whole family was there. I got in the plane and took off, I was terrified. I like that I can't think about anything else while I'm flying.

I concentrate while I'm in the cockpit. It's a very focused moment. It's, it clears my head out. There's a great feeling of freedom. I also love the fact that it matters that you have to do it right.

LERNER: He's not looking for the newest best object to own. He's looking for the newest, best idea to birth.

MCKELVEY: Great works ever literature are not created by individuals. They're created by this ecosystem. It's the author. It's the editor. It's the publishing company. It's the agent and it's the friction between these people that create the great things that we read. And those people need to get paid.

If you take away their money, you can destroy a system that has been evolving literally for thousands of years. Publishing has been protected because the books that they've traditionally sold are very expensive. You disrupt that when you become fluid like a digital book.

E-books, the model changes and the publishers have not been able to evolve a model that allows them preserve the value in their system and that's what I'm working on right now.

I don't want to sit here 20 years from now and have to explain to my kid why there aren't any good books any more. I don't want to see the people who have been doing good work lose their jobs and have to go do something else, because that's meaningful work. People who write, they need every bit of resource they can get.

LERNER: If you've ever had an idea and you thought this is a great idea, someone should do this. He's someone who has the idea, does it. Puts a team together and makes it huge and while they're making it huge, he moves on to the next thing. That's what he does.

MCKELVEY: I don't look for opportunity. Just pick something, that's upsetting, that wrong, that you feel needs to be changed and go out and change that. So my advice to people a who are looking to get rich, or to, you know, change the world is exactly the same -- pick a problem. I believe in global warming. Yes. I believe it exists. Yes. I believe we better do something.

Before I started Square, I was very frustrated at the transportation world because there were no good electric cars on the market. And nobody seemed to be building them. So I decided I would build one. And I started designing an electric car.

The problem is to build a vehicle like that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. But in the meantime a group out of England has built a very efficient electric delivery van. In the United States, it would cost about 25 cents to run a standard van and about 6 cents to run this electric van.

It's super efficient and it uses a fraction of the carbon and use a fraction of the energy. It just needs to be built so they asked me to join them and I flew it in, drove the van and said, yes, I want to help you guys any way I can.

I think the big motivation is do something that's good for the planet. That's sort of an arrogant statement because I think ultimately you have to do that through something that works economically. If you just keep subsidizing green initiatives, they're not going to work.

My motivations are mostly frustrations with problems. I just see something that's wrong, and I'm thinking, who's going to fix this? You know, if not you, then who? You know, name somebody else who has more time, more resources, more -- you know I've got tremendous resources right now. They should be directed somewhere.




MCKELVEY: I took two years of piano lessons in fourth grade. My mom forced me to take it because she never had piano growing up. She wanted to be able to play. I hated it because my teacher wouldn't let me play anything interesting. I got bored with it and sick of it and I quit as soon as mom would let me and didn't touch it for 20 years.

And then I heard this piece on the radio and I thought it was impossible for a human to play that. I couldn't imagine being able to move my hands that fast and I got obsessed with it. It's the third movement of the "Moonlight Sonata."

I went on and checked out the music. I saw all the notes, at the end, each one is just a note, a finger on a key, can you teach your fingers to do that? I practiced everywhere. I would just go to the music school at the university or any time I was on the road, I would go into hotels and play the piano and at first I would get kicked out because I was bad.

Towards the end people thought I was the entertainment for the night and I thought well that's pretty good. So I judge my skill as how quickly I got kicked out of the Ritz-Carlton and the Hyatt. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri I grew up five miles from here in my dad and mom's house.

JAMES MCKELVEY, SR.: He was very smart. He learns things very quickly, very quickly.

MCKELVEY: Can you throw it to poppa?

LAURA CHAUVIN, DONALD DANFORTH PLANT SCIENCE CENTER: I've known Jim since we were teenagers. He was the smartest kid in my high school class. Bar none. Jim is sort of this renaissance guy. Whatever he tries to do, he does exceedingly well. He perfects. And if it's science, or technology, that's one thing. And I think it's kind of a rarity that you can get somebody who embraces those technologies, but also has a gift for music. Has a gift for art or more than a gift, a passion.

MCKELVEY: My father was the dean of the engineering school and I'm an engineer by training. In my experience, the people who solve problems are happier people. So for mom, for mom, I learned to be fearless. My mother grew up poor in the depression. I watched my mother grab a live cockroach off the wall and hold it in her hand while she finished talking to one of my dates, scared my date so much she never came back. This was my mother. Edith McKelvey was afraid of nothing.

Yes, I can talk about it. Mom got depressed. I grew up in this perfect family. Never had any mental problems, right? It was out of my scope of what was possible. Like I didn't, I didn't think that that could happen in the McKelvey family. Because you know, my brother and I don't even have any cavities, you know.

I mean, just hadn't had any problems, didn't know how to deal with problems. Mom got depressed, and I thought that she could kill herself. But that thought just went, that doesn't happen. So when it did happen, I realized, that I was so wrong about, I was so narrow that I had just, it wasn't that these problems didn't exist, they hadn't existed for me yet.

My mother's suicide gave me the ability to see pain that I had never seen before. It really woke me up and I wish mom had made it because she would be really happy.

LERNER: I think he's got a lot of people inside of him and he's got a great support team. I'm proud to be part of that as well so is his wife and father and brother. But the most important team member is the positive Jim when the negative Jim is there and we all have the negative in us, we all have the person saying you can't do that, this is too hard. That lasted about eight seconds with Jim. I've seen it it's a glimmer. You have to look very closely. But it comes and then it's gone.

JAMES MCKELVEY SR.: You think well -- if you had a son, what would you like him to, how would you like him to be? Well, all I can say is, that's the way he is.

MCKELVEY: We tend to believe that things are impossible that are very possible.



MCKELVEY: As I get older, I'm able to sort of wrestle with bigger problems and maybe think that I can do something about them. In our city, there's an opportunity gap that's huge. And that opportunity gap needs to be addressed or I think at some point you're going to destroy the city.

You'll have all of these rich guys with their security fences and a lot of poor people. On the other side of the fence, pretty angry, my city, particularly has a very bad unemployment. There are a lot of desperate people and desperate people do terrible things and one of my friend's sons was murdered.

He came into the country from Russia, which is a place you really wanted to leave. He comes out with his wife and his kid, who is ten years old. He spends ten years in the U.S. and his kid gets shot delivering a pizza. You shoot a pizza kid?

They got no money and he just came to your house, so you know you're going to get caught. I went home. I was devastated, talking to my wife and I said, what can we do? I thought about the fact that at the same time I had I work with all these companies that are desperate for programmers, I thought why isn't that guy a programmer?

I had this idea that maybe we could connect these and I thought about it for weeks and then they asked me to give a speech to some of the richest, most powerful people in the city. In the middle of my speech I was like, you guys are all sending your kids to private schools, you're avoiding this problem, let me tell you about my friend's son. It was a pretty rough speech, but it woke them up.

CHAUVIN: He had them in the palm of his hand as he spoke. You could have heard a pin drop.

MCKELVEY: I said we can fix this. I said I can't prove we can fix it, but we can at least take a shot at it and we can take a shot at it without building a giant non-profit, without naming buildings after people. We can just get butts in seats and get some people who can write code, we can hire them right now at Square.

CHAUVIN: It was a standing ovation. People said, I'll help. It was -- it was pretty remarkable.

MCKELVEY: The audience just came alive. I mean, people were interrupting my speech. I will help you and this spontaneous outpouring of people that wanted to do something.

Launch Code is a crazy idea. And the idea is that we should be able to train people who have not had quote, "good education," to be competent programmers. I've had a bunch of companies that have agreed to take our programmer interns.

HARRY IMSTER, PRESIDENT, FOUNDRY SOFTWARE: So I've immediately volunteered to become a sponsoring company. We believe there are plenty of people who are smart enough, and driven enough to be developers. They simply haven't had the opportunity to work with someone to get those skills. To many, writing software seems to be a mystery. A lot of people think that it requires some special skill or brilliance. It doesn't.

MCKELVEY: This thing can blow up. It could fail for a number of reasons. We just don't know what they are yet. I don't quit easily, but if I've proven that the ideas don't work, I'll at least rest. But right now, you know, nobody can convince me that this won't work or can't work.

LERNER: Generally people are looking at their own little world and they're thinking, I've got to pay my mortgage, I've got to figure out how to solve this problem. I've got a roof leak, or whatever. Jim is thinking about those things and 25 others and trying to solve the world's problems and it just comes very naturally. That's what makes Jim a special kind of a person.

MCKELVEY: I believe that a bunch of stuff that we've been taught are barriers are not really barriers. We tend to believe that things are impossible that are very possible. And I've had enough success doing stuff that people have told me won't work. That now I'm pretty good at ignore in ignoring they're telling me, that won't work.

And sometimes they're right it doesn't work, but a lot of times if you just keep working at it. There will be a solution and by the way, everything is changing every day. Nobody can prove that something can't be done. It's impossible to prove that something can't be done.

They can prove that somebody else failed. They can give you an example of failure. But they can't show me right now with my new set of resources that just changed yesterday, that something can't be changed. Every day you get a new tool set and the tool set changes faster every day that we're alive. So tell me it can't be done.


GUPTA: Jim Mckelvey believes that every problem, no matter how big, can be solved with persistance, resolve and the right people. He has the vision to think big, the focus to think in detail and the determination to effect change. That's why we put him on THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks for watching. Hope to see you back here next week.