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Du-ing Well by Du-ing Good

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Ben du Pont opens the door to the Zip Code Wilmington classroom and apologizes for the rather Spartan look of the place. 

“We should probably decorate this a bit more, but we’re growing so fast,” he says. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be here.”

The brainstorm of du Pont, Porter Schutt, Jim Stewart and Rod Ward, Zip Code Wilmington has du Pont excited, and that’s a good thing. Once the 52-year-old directs his considerable energy toward something, big things usually happen. And Zip Code Wilmington is well on the road to becoming a local phenomenon. Because Wilmington didn’t have anywhere capable of teaching people how to write Java code, and because no outside company wanted to come in and start a satellite, the four men started Zip Code Wilmington in late 2015 with 19 students, culled from 140 applicants. Seventeen graduated from the 90-day immersion program, and all of them had jobs. Average starting salary: $52,000. 

The second cohort began in early 2016, only this time, 240 people wanted in. The next group should attract even more aspirants. You can see why du Pont isn’t too worried about hanging some photos and buying furniture. He’s going to need a bigger boat.

“It’s specialty education,” he says. “Very focused, intense training programs like Zip Code Wilmington give people the skills they need. If you were to get a computer science degree at Delaware or Temple, you would get 400 hours of coding experience in four years. With this, you get 800 in 90 days.”

Thanks to Ben and his brother Thére, Wilmington gets another win. 

Two of the four children of former Delaware governor and one-time Republican presidential candidate Pierre (Pete) du Pont, Ben and Thére have the Diamond State in the center of every cell in their bodies. They may have spent time in other parts of the country, but their duty and allegiance to the state remain strong.

“Both left Delaware during their lives, but they made the decision to come back and make it here,” says Rod Ward, CEO of Corporation Service Company (CSC) a longtime friend of the brothers. “You and I could leave and slip back in, but with that [last] name comes a responsibility, and they have embraced that.”

As the du Pont brothers go about their daily business, whether it is venture capitalism (Ben) or running the Longwood Foundation and serving on the Board of DuPont USA (Thére), each maintains a strong sense of obligation to Delaware, especially to Wilmington. Some might say they don’t have much choice. Each has an office across the street from the Hotel du Pont. Ben lives close to DuPont Country Club. It’s not like either could pack it in and move, say, to Atlanta.

“There are many reasons to be proud of Delaware,” Thére says. “First off, it’s the First State. And there are only two degrees of separation for everybody here. If you don’t know the person, you know someone who does. 

“We need to make that accessible to people who are new to Delaware. I want to be part of that facilitation process. There are some very talented people at companies in this state, and we have a really capable workforce. And some of the people in their 20s who have been here only about a year have already met the governor. There’s a closeness here and an accessibility that you don’t find elsewhere.”

On his first day of work as a management trainee at Wawa, Thére parked his car and headed inside, eager to learn. His first lesson came about 15 seconds after he walked through the door.

“I had taken a spot close to the store, and the manager told me to move my car to the far end of the lot so that the customers would have the best places,” Thére says. “That showed me how important their culture was to the success of the enterprise.”

Thére is sitting in his surprisingly small, definitely busy office on the 11th floor of Wilmington’s Community Services Building. Energetic, with a quick smile, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in business administration from Stanford. In addition to his 13 years at Wawa, for which he eventually became president, he spent three years at W.L. Gore & Associates, helping to design equipment that made waterproof fasteners. “I traveled the world,” he says, and remembers giving his first impromptu speech to a group of 20 workers in a Korean shoe factory. It wasn’t exactly the best venue for a young man to launch his public speaking career, but Thére remembers it with a smile—and no shortage of pride. He made it through and continued to succeed. After Wawa, he spent time as director of operations and CEO at Drugstore.com. 

Those are some pretty impressive résumé entries, but they don’t quite define Thére today. His world has changed from the corporate to community, and through his work with the Longwood Foundation and, more recently, Reinventing Delaware, he has helped promote growth, potential and optimism. 

“I want to help people paint a bigger picture of what they can do,” he says. “I would love to leave a trail of great ideas so that Delaware is a better place for everybody and a trail of new connections in the state. Seeing that happen around me is exciting.”

Thére du Pont (front, left) and his Reinventing Delaware team.

Reinventing Delaware may only be a year old, but it has already achieved its first aim of bringing together young and “wise”—as Thére refers to them, euphemistically—to come up with ideas in a variety of sectors. The concept is to create enough critical brainstorming energy to find some projects worth pursuing with enthusiasm and resources. Zip Code Wilmington is one of its first offspring. 

Each year there is a meeting of some of the state’s big minds, with the goal for all to agree on three ideas to develop. The format is almost like the World Series of Poker: In a two- to three-hour session, people at tables of 10, each divided into sectors like education, finance, jobs, nonprofit, bat around their initiatives until one emerges as best. That is then brought to the room, where it competes with others to be one of the three the whole group will work for.

The goal is to foster a spirit of risk-taking and entrepreneurial fulfillment. To that end, the organization has partnered with University of Delaware’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship. But accelerating those who have the ambition isn’t enough. There must be follow through with the financial and technical talent and expertise in town to make sure this isn’t just a bunch of good ideas that never reach fruition. The 2016 event was held in January at the Wilmington Club. 

Ben du Pont (right, behind chair) and his Zip
Code Wilmington is well on the way to becoming a
local phenomenon.

“As long as we harness the resources and actually do something, we will be successful,” Thére says. “That’s the challenge.”

When Pete du Pont was governor, he considered part of his mission to encourage those who were willing to take advantage of opportunities and thrive because of their conviction and hard work. He worked to foster an environment in which those individuals could succeed. To honor that, Thére and Ben were among those who created the Pete du Pont Individual Freedom Award, which carries on their father’s legacy of fighting for the rights of people to choose their own paths, with limited government intervention. “It’s an opportunity to recognize my dad and what he did for Delaware,” Thére says. “I’m sure he’s pleased.”

Six people have won the award since 2003, with the most recent recipient Ellen Kullman, former chair and CEO of DuPont, who was honored last year. Thére’s goal is to have the prize presented every year, and plans are in the works for the 2016 recipient. The award is an opportunity for Ben and There to take what their father taught them and carry it on. 

“He lived it, so he modeled it,” Thére says. “Did he sit us down and say, ‘This is your mission’? No. It just fell out of him.”

Thére tries to have a similar influence on his daughters, who are 13 and 9, and who force him to keep moving at a pretty good clip. When he has some time to relax, he likes to sail Lasers. He was on the team at Stanford, and while he mostly takes to the sea for fun, he does still race, often against Ben. “He’s still better than me,” Thére says with a smile that belies the modest rivalry between brothers. It’s a friendly competition, based not on animosity but on two people interested in fostering the same sense of service to the state their father displayed. “To see my father’s name and legacy continued in that way is wonderful,” Thére says.

If Ben du Pont is right, it won’t be long until you will be able to learn from your smart phone that a friend you haven’t seen since college is at a nearby restaurant, enjoying dinner with his wife, and would like to see you, though you two haven’t connected for more than 20 years. “Our devices are going to be more proactive and will be making suggestions to us,” Ben says.

We have already experienced some of that, but as technology advances, that so-called phone is going to know more about you than you know about you. Ben believes the U.S. economy is on the cusp of its sixth step of technological development. After the growth of processing power and memory, the development of keyboard searchability of data, the increased convenience of devices used to harness such power and the allocation of resources to the people for easy use, we will soon have individual profiles contained in our equipment, and suggestions for things to do and goods to purchase will flow our way. 

For Ben, it’s the next step on a technological continuum that will lead us toward more convenience and have a drastic effect on our economy. “Software is how the world is going to work,” he says. “Software and imagination.” If that’s the case, he’s in pretty darn good shape. The 52-year-old was trained (like his brother) as a mechanical engineer. He now blends that technical knowledge with a business acumen that has helped him build yet2.com, a 17-year-old venture capital business that invests mostly in companies in the second stages of development. 

But not entirely. Yet2.com was one of the earliest investors in Mobeam, which is based in Palo Alto (where Yet2.com has a headquarters) and is responsible for the bar-code scanning technology that allows users of Samsung devices (352 million of them) to pay for items all over the world with their phones. 

Sitting in Ben’s modest office, which is crowded with photographs and features a collection of neckties hanging on a hook behind his door, one finds it hard to imagine that the global marketplace can be harnessed in one’s hand. Then, Ben turns to his computer and brings up the Mobeam site to reveal that 751 new phones across the planet had just adopted the company’s technology in the past 20 seconds. As that expertise expands, Ben can see a time when we walk into the grocery store, select our items, sort the contents of our carts into our environmentally friendly shopping bags then just walk out the door, with not even a thought of the checkout aisle. 

Civil disobedience? Thievery? Nope. Scanners placed at stores’ exits will read the prices of what we have chosen, calculate the prices and deduct the money from our bank accounts before we can load the food into our cars. Pretty cool, right?

“It’s not entirely a rosy picture,” Ben says. That ease of shopping will also cost the jobs of people who used to slide your items across the scanner and help you bag them. Ben also talks about the autonomous vehicle travel that has already started out west and could have a huge impact on the estimated 3.5 million long-haul drivers on the road right now. “They won’t all be displaced, but [driverless] trucks can run for 48 hours straight,” Ben says. And how long will it be before “Siri starts giving you good legal advice?” Ben asks. There may be some who are delighted with a thinning of the attorney herd, but an economy changing at eye-blurring speeds will definitely exclude millions of workers. 

Thus projects like Zip Code Wilmington, which seek to provide training for those seeking work in the New Economy. Ben’s role in it fits perfectly with his business vision and his desire to help Delaware maximize its resources.

“He’s a very passionate and smart guy who is very connected,” says Stewart, the CEO of Wilmington-based Epic Research. “He is filled with hope and is an optimist, but also a pragmatist who doesn’t let stuff get in his way.

“He loves Delaware. His roots are here. His family is here. His dad left a huge legacy here, and Ben is doing his part to make this a great place.”

His office may not have the trappings of a “great place,” but it sure is interesting. Those who enter the suite encounter a clock on which each of the numbers is a mathematical equation. (3! = 6; cube root of 1,728 = 12.) While waiting for an appointment, visitors can peruse the 1964 Sears Catalog. There is a short-wave radio, a passion since, as a young boy, he bargained with his parents to put an antenna on the roof of the house if he got his ham radio license. It helps him reach out to people all over the world, something that fits his outgoing personality.

“He’s got an infectious zeal,” says Schutt, a wealth manager at Brown Advisory in Wilmington. “That’s how I think about him. We exchange a lot of late-night emails. Ben’s a connector and a great people person who is a fun guy who likes to work hard and play hard.”

Like Thére, Ben sails. He’s a photographer who has taken most of the shots that adorn his office walls. He recently began fly fishing and also delights in spending time with his 13-year-old son, Ben, and his 9-year-old daughter, Janie. 

“He is entrepreneurial, passionate, energetic and knows more people than anybody I know,” Ward says.

To some, the name says it all. They hear “du Pont” and a knowing smile appears. The scions of famous Delaware family have it so easy. Except they don’t act like it. Thére and Ben live as if they have to prove it every day. The result is two lives committed to achievement and to Delaware.

“They are both very hard working, with good work ethics,” Ward says. “They are conscientious and dedicated. A lot of that was formed by their parents. Their father and mother instilled it in them when they were young and gave them a front-row seat to how the state was run.

“They learned about hard work and the responsibility of service. That has carried on.”

And on.