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Failure Is an Option (When You’re Innovating)

Dan Nolan '78

DAN NOLAN ’78 NEVER INTENDED TO USE HIS LAW DEGREE IN A COURTROOM. He took his Albany Law School J.D. to a financial planning company and spent his career funding innovation. His bets paid off, and last summer he and his wife Sally gave Albany Law School $1 million to establish an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fund. Now he’s asking others to contribute to that fund as well. “If we’re not innovating at Albany Law School, if we’re not looking at the trends, we’re going to fall by the wayside,” he said. “We’re independent. There’s no one to feed us if things get bad. We’re on our own.”

He’s pleased with the law school’s recent successful innovations, including new graduate degrees and an accelerated J.D. program for those willing to go to school all summer. “We’ve created a culture of innovation, and look what has happened,” said Nolan, who serves as chair of the We Rise Together campaign. “This place has to continually innovate. It can’t be one and done.” His goal is to get the fund to $10 million by persuading others to add to it. Then he would like the school to spend perhaps 5% a year on new ideas. “If they’re funded out of operating revenue, there’s a fear of failure,” he said.

Nolan doesn’t see failure as a bad thing. In fact, he judges failure as proof that the school is truly seeking innovation. He wants the school to have enough money in the fund to feel free to try many ideas, even though not all will succeed. “If we succeed at everything we try, we are not taking enough risks—the risks that I think we need to take to remain in the forefront of law schools,” he said.

It’s a philosophy that has helped guide his life. “My life has been helping companies innovate,” he said. “I’m a builder. It’s a fascinating way to spend a career.” For 28 years, he worked at The Ayco Company. He founded and led the firm’s Special Investment Group, for which he pursued inventive ideas that created investment opportunities for the firm’s clientele. “We founded lots of businesses,” Nolan said. “It was a very creative company—we didn’t know any different.” Nolan is now the president and CEO of Hugh Johnson Advisors, a financial management company, and a principal in NPV Capital, LLC, a private equity and real estate investment firm that he formed in 2007. He served as chair of the Albany Law School Board of Trustees from 2013 to 2017.

Nolan also gives lectures on innovation, using McDonald’s as an example. McDonald’s started as a hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes shop. Then it added other sandwiches. During a healthy-food phase, it added salads. Later, it offered breakfast, and now it is experimenting with high-end coffee. “They don’t all work,” he said. But enough have worked. McDonald’s has remained successful, despite innumerable changes in the restaurant field. “In business, there is no such thing as running in place,” he said. “The number of successful businesses that failed because they refused to innovate would just stun you. Look at the Dow Jones from the 1950s. Most of those companies are no longer around.” Nolan, reflecting on the ideas and the startups he has been involved with through the years, said his wife Sally has been an invaluable partner. “She’s been side by side with me,” he said. “She’s got great judgment. We’re a true team.”

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