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How Tom Erickson Took On The World, Then Came Home To Wisconsin

"Sit a while." Mirror Lake, Mondovi, Wis. around sunrise.
Photo by Tom Erickson
"Sit a while." Mirror Lake, Mondovi, Wis. around sunrise.

Tom Erickson left the small town of Mondovi, Wisconsin to study electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an experience that opened the door to interesting jobs and world travel. From the moment when Erickson did a co-op program for college students at Chevron’s San Francisco office, he was on a path that had him working outside of Wisconsin for four decades.

Erickson was influenced by his father, a third generation small business owner in Mondovi who had traveled around the world with the U.S. Navy, and by his mother, who urged him to move beyond Mondovi. So Erickson passed on running the Mondovi hardware store that has been in the family for 117 years and his sister, who still runs it, took over.

Erickson has worked at technology companies large and small, and held leadership roles in a handful of tech start-ups. In Australia, he was in charge of administering a project management system for the world’s most remote offshore platform, which his team put a computer on in a first-ever move. In London, he ran European operations for a software company that was acquired by IBM. He was a founding director of San Francisco-based Task Rabbit.

But it was in Boston that Erickson was involved in the operations of majority of his start-ups. The most successful, Boston-based Acquia, commercializes open source technology for building websites. In 2020, Acquia sold a majority stake to a private equity firm in 2019 in a deal that valued the company at about $1 billion.

Courtesy of Thomas Erickson
Tom Erickson has returned to Wisconsin to become the founding director of UW-Madison’s new School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences.

Erickson returned to Wisconsin in 2019 to be founding director of UW-Madison’s new School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences (CDIS). Despite other opportunities in Boston and beyond, he says he did it because he’s grateful that UW-Madison opened so many doors for a kid from a rural Wisconsin community. “I owe a lot to being given that opportunity and I want other kids to have the same opportunity,” Erickson says.

Businesses today can’t get by without knowledge about computing and data science, and UW-Madison is the only place in the state and one of the few in the region, that can manage it at scale. As CDIS was being formed, computer science had become the biggest major on the UW-Madison campus. Nothing had grown that fast in the 170 years of the university.

Now Erickson is applying his ability to grow businesses to growing an important academic effort — some would say the most critical one of our time.

Tom’s Tip for Entrepreneurs

  • You don’t need salespeople in the early days, but everyone has to be a salesperson.
  • Persistence is the most important trait to have. Everybody will tell you it’s not going to work; when you have this idea and explain it to people they’re not going to understand. You just need to have persistence.
  • You have to know when you’re wrong. The way that happens in a start-up company is you have a great team around you that you trust to provide input, so that you can identify when you’re not right and pivot.
  • To avoid turning in circles, you need great judgement. That comes not only from you and your team, but also from great mentors. The coasts have great mentors in abundance; the Midwest doesn’t.
Kathleen Gallagher is the host of Midwest Moxie and previously the host of How Did You Do That?.
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