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How ESRI’s founder scaled up from one-off projects to mapping the world

October 26, 2021, 8:45 PM UTC
Jack Dangermond, founder of ESRI, on “Leadership Next.”
Courtesy of ESRI

When Jack Dangermond founded ESRI in 1969, he offered his mapping services as one-offs—just doing little projects one at a time for customers, performing environmental assessments, and helping people pick the right location for things like power plants or new towns.

“We thought of it as, you know, software that made maps and analytics,” he says, not as a product in its own right.

His customers encouraged him to drop the project piecework and offer the software, which delivers mapping and data analytics, instead. It was a smart move. Today Dangermond, the company’s president, says ESRI supports about 350,000 organizations and 10 million people that use the software and apps “for all sorts of things.”

Those “things” include tracking everything from elephants to COVID, developing irrigation techniques, finding locations for new retail shops, and supporting NGOs, nonprofits, and governments.

“ESRI is organized to be able to support these different organizations with a tool set that abstracts geography, the science of our world, into layers of information,” Dangermond says. Companies and nonprofits “connect those digital maps to tabular information, and then overlay the maps so that [they] can look at [the] relationships and patterns that run the world.”

Dangermond joins Fortune’s Alan Murray and Ellen McGirt on a recent episode of Leadership Next, a podcast about the changing rules of business leadership, to discuss how ESRI’s customers use the company’s technology and analyze the data it serves up. He also discusses whether ESRI can control how the data are used, for good or evil.

“We can’t actually control them or tell them what to do,” Dangermond says. “But we can introduce to them this geographic way of thinking and acting that ultimately drives better action and behavior on their part.” 

Listen to the full episode below.

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