Inspiring Others Through Academia and Philanthropy: A Conversation with Anthony Nobles

Inspiring Others Through Academia and Philanthropy

Anthony Nobles is one of the medical-device pioneers of our time, with more medical-device patents to his name than virtually any other individual. Picking up from our interview on August 16, 2015, when we were introduced to his accomplishments in medical technology, this week we get more personal.

Prof. Nobles teaching Biomedical Engineering
Prof. Nobles teaching Biomedical Engineering

A Conversation with Anthony Nobles

Mike Ragogna: Tony, let’s catch up on some of the things going on in your world since the last time we spoke. One of the more surprising I heard about was that you’ve been recently hired some of your students in the HeartStitch lab, putting them to work on new medical devices. Are they inspiring you, or the other way around?

Anthony Nobles: Good question. Like any mentor, I feel that if I’m doing a good job and truly inspiring my students, it will be a two-way street. I have to say they have brought some really sound ideas to our lab, and the process of teaching is something that really invigorates my imagination. It’s a great group of very motivated students—I hand picked them—and when you go into the engineering ‘think tank’ we have set up, you can feel their excitement. It’s a huge space with whiteboards walls, and state of the art design tools everywhere. They have continuous access to a dozen, state-of-the-art 3D printers, and they’re going almost constantly. 

MR: These are students from your Kazakhstan?

AN: We had the eight biomedical engineers from my class in Germany, plus two young engineers from our facility in Kazakhstan one of which just graduated. I picked a project for each one that was specific to what I thought they could achieve, and learn the most from. I'd been teaching most of them for two or three years by that point. Every single project that they've worked on we are now implementing into our medical device companies. They developed tremendous skill sets that will prepare them for their careers and now five of them work at our various companies around the world. We also hired 3 graduates of the executive MBA program, one of which runs our Kazakh operations and the other 2 are students I mentored last semester who did their Graduate Practicum working on HeartStitch projects. 

German interns with Fellowship Awards from Congressperson
German interns with Fellowship Awards from Congressperson

MR: I can tell by your expression that your students really mean a lot to you.  The opportunities you are creating for them are clearly a way of “giving back.”  A more “self-oriented” entrepreneur might not go to that trouble. What drives you to teach? Clearly your very busy and this must add a significant burden to your day to day life, how and why do you find the time?

AN: Teaching excites me, watching a young mind looking for answers to complex problems and knowing that I can guide them to the path. As for the time, you make time for things that are important. Its not easy, but its manageable. All of the students as well as the people I mentor from the non-academic world, I can make a significant difference in their lives and I feel that I have the obligation too.

Prof. Nobles teaching Master Class to Physicians
Prof. Nobles teaching Master Class to Physicians

MR: Not to be too contentious, but there are some out there who publicly cast doubt—and I’m being polite here—about the reality of your business, academic, and private life. Many of those assertions are not kind. You’re known as a fairly private guy away from the rather flamboyant neighborhood Halloween parties, and your historic F1-car racing activities. Would you be willing to speak about how these voices have affected you, your perspective, and your actions?

AN: Well, they hurt. That’s clear. And they were intended to hurt. To some extent, everyone who does well has a target on their back, you can’t avoid it.  And my tendency toward privacy, trying to maintain a “normal” life for my six kids and my wife Rhonda, has taken precedent. I haven’t spent a great deal of my career publicizing my accomplishments, they speak for themselves, so basically I ignore them until they affect my business. My life is not a conventional one, but its who I am, my achievements are well documented for all to see. As for those who question them I just say review the facts.

Prof. Nobles lecturing Business School
Prof. Nobles lecturing Business School

MR: It hasn’t seemed to slow you down on a business front or in helping all the people you have been reaching out to, is that true?

AN: It slowed down some of my business ventures, but we have moved on from that, as far as helping others, not a bit. I have and will continue to help any person I believe I can.

MR: What was it, do you think, about your early years that most shaped you?

AN: I grew up very poor as a young child, with divorced parents, exposed to street violence, living in the ghetto in Detroit, living in really horrible conditions at times and being the subject of various forms of abuse from people along the way. At that time--for right or wrong--I created walls around myself to deal with these things, and those walls allowed me to focus on what I needed to do to escape. It may sound cliché, but with the will, the right tools, and a plan, it’s amazing what you can do. It’s the very problem that so many kids with similar struggles face. Although I wouldn’t wish my early life on anyone, many kids and adults have it much worse and feel that they have no way to get past the hand life has dealt them, this is what I want to change.

MR: You can’t save everyone, so how do you choose who can be helped and what impact can you alone have?

AN: Unfortunately, there is no universal solution to help everyone. For those who are open to it and can be reached, "inspiration" is the most powerful motivator I’ve ever known. If you can get people inspired, almost nothing can stand in their way, those are the ones I look for.

MR: Okay, but isn’t the question, “How?”

AN: Certainly there is no one way. In the past, I focused on using my accomplishments to inspire but recently a couple of dear friends and mentors, Rev. Robert Schuller, and Joe and Karen Moderow, who helped me on some personal struggles, helped me realize my past was something that inspires and I should embrace it and share it with others. They helped me realize that the adversities I had overcome both as a child and an adult, as well as my "unconventional methods" of achieving success in my life, were tools that I could use to help kids who suffer great adversity, or lack opportunity. It was Robert who really pushed me to pull out my past experiences and use them to inspire other young kids, and show them what is possible even when you are dealt a bad hand. But inspiration like this can’t just be wrapped up as a gift, paid for and delivered. It’s conveyed person to person, and through personal acts of kindness. 

Boys & Girls Club visit
Boys & Girls Club visit

MR: This is clearly a real passion point for you. Can you share some examples?

AN: I desperately want to help kids in need. It's ingrained in who I am. Recently, we had the privilege to host The Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year candidates, to be inspired by their achievements of overcoming significant adversity. It's an award given to exceptional youth who demonstrate their ability to be scholars and community leaders, and find the strength to give back to others. One exceptional young woman, Joy Basey, who was raised by her grandmother and at age 16 has helped raise her four siblings while excelling as a scholar in South Central LA. She is exactly the kind of youth I want to help. She aspires to go to college, and will graduate high school with her associates degree-–taking several AP classes--and be the first in her family to graduate with a college degree. This inspired Rhonda and I to give a scholarship toward her college education, and provide some financial support to continue on her path to success, but also to give her guidance. People often say that you can't save everybody, but I wish I could. It is a delicate balance, helping kids in these circumstances, and it takes even more effort than building a company or inventing the next life-saving medical device. Rarely is philanthropy just about writing a check.

MR: Is that the way most see it?

AN: Ironically, Rhonda always says, “Any problem that can be solved by writing a check is not a real problem. Regardless of whether you can write the check, real problems are the ones that money can’t fix.” Growing up without money, it took me a while to understand this concept, but it’s one of the most important things she has taught me. These kids need much more.

Prof. Nobles mentoring intern Christian F.
Prof. Nobles mentoring intern Christian F.

MR: So your idea of “philanthropy” is to help kids find their own path, rather than lay it out and make it easy for them—is that an accurate statement? Can you elaborate on what you see as the “much more” you are talking about and give some examples?

AN: I do believe the task is guiding them through their path and if its warranted opening new avenues for them along the way but you have to be careful, this is real life for them and you have to think out how you help. For example, I had the pleasure of meeting some exceptional young adults through the Horatio Alger Association, and was invited to an event that raised money for Virgin Unite where these young adults were invited to speak about their incredible lives and overcoming adversity. It was inspiring and an awakening experience for us and several successful Orange County entrepreneurs who attended, and in the end I am grateful that for the experience and relationships I have developed with some of these unique scholars. However, I witnessed some of the damage that this event eventually created for some of these special kids. They were dropped on a tropical island, “wined and dined” and treated to a week of "lifestyles of the rich and famous." They had a great time, but when it was over many of them were handed big checks of thousands of dollars, told what incredible things they will achieve and for the most part sent them on their way. Rhonda and I decided along with a few exceptional people who attended that we would reach out to these kids, and began to mentor the ones in which we saw “the spark.”  The lesson is that you don’t take a kid that has worked so very hard to rise above, shock their world by dropping them on a tropical island, treat them like millionaires, give them a check without restrictions, tell them they can’t fail, and not give them the guidance on how to do it. This is where the "much more" comes into play, you start with small random acts of kindness, but follow up with hard work and real commitment.

MR: Random acts of kindness?

AN: Although I have very few positive memories of my early childhood, there were several very distinct moments when someone provided me with a random act of kindness—like handing me food when I was hungry, lifting me off the ground after being beaten up, or simply showing an expression of compassion in passing. These are the memories I pull up when life was closing in on me. They are more valuable than if someone had handed me a pile of money. And they work for adults, too.

MR: You’ve obviously seen it work, is that what you do with your Shop With A Cop program?

AN: When I was approached years ago by friend on the Fountain Valley PD to give underprivileged kids a chance to shop for presents for Christmas. I jumped at the chance to be part of that program “Shop With A Cop.” This program is one of my passions, on the surface it’s a program to give these kids presents for Christmas, but it is so much more. It shows these kids that a single random act of kindness can change their lives, the feeling that someone you never met will show you compassion.

MR: Is compassion the key or is there more to it than that?

AN: It always needs to start with compassion, Shop With A Cop was conceived for the kids, but when I first saw these young kids given the opportunity to buy virtually whatever toy they wanted for themselves they instead were buying clothes for their parent or siblings, many forgetting to buy anything for themselves. Even at their young age and difficult circumstances these kids demonstrated pure compassion over self interest. This led Rhonda and I to look deeper into some of the families where we could help the whole family.

MR: Is that what happened with Sherray Ramirez at this years Shop With A Cop?

AN: Yes, after approaching the Huntington Beach PD to participate in the same program we had done in Fountain Valley I met several families including Sherray Ramirez a single mom, who had been homeless and living in her car, in and out of various shelters with her two young girls. I immediately saw that this was someone that we could help. Having been in similar circumstances I really identified with her, but from the kids’ perspective. I'll never forget how it felt to be the kid in these circumstances. I'll say this… although I didn’t necessarily approve of my mothers methods, at times she did try to find a way to keep her kids with a roof over their heads. I saw this desire in Sherray, and wanted to find a way to inspire her by giving her a chance to help herself—and in turn her family. So I offered her a job.

MR: So explain how giving her a job was not just like writing a check?

AN: When I spoke with her, she was working just short of full-time hours at Albertsons, which was not enough to keep a roof over her head or to live on without tremendous social program assistance.  Yet I saw she had the desire to get beyond her circumstances. I asked, "Would you work two jobs if you could?” She said she would do anything to get her girls into a house or an apartment where they could have some stability in a real home. I wanted to help, but to do something sustaining and constructive. I told her, "We're going to teach you, we're going to train you, we're going to give you tools.” Not to replace the job she has at Albertsons, but to develop other skills that she can use to go forward in the future.  We are training her on how to use phone systems, computers and evaluating every day how she's progressing, and what more we can teach her. Our goal is to provide her the tools to reach her potential. But this is not a fairytale, she will still have to find it within herself to take advantage of the opportunity. Not everyone has the follow through to take advantage of such an opportunity.

MR: Did those all work out like Sherray?

AN: They all started that way. Some succeeded, and some couldn’t reach deep enough inside to help themselves. But I never give up trying. If I can help even one, I have made the difference I set out to make. In the case of Sherray it is working so far, but it is truly up to her. I have given her the opportunity and the tools and I am providing guidance, its now her choice to see how far she can go.

Prof. Nobles with class after final exams
Prof. Nobles with class after final exams