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From Fixing TVs to Founding Geek Squad: Meet Wheeling Alum Robert Stephens

Robert Stephens: then and now. Left: Current photo. Right: Senior year at Wheeling High School, 1987.

Published June 24, 2024

As a teen, he created his own work-based learning by repairing neighbors’ TV sets.

The younger brother of mechanics, he knew how to build things. Like the rafts on which he’d float down the Des Plaines River before hopping a freight train back to his Wheeling home.

He recalls with amazement that his Wheeling High School teachers graciously allowed him to utilize the entire gymnasium to display an art project featuring large pieces of glass spray painted black, bearing etchings and supported by more than a dozen 7-foot poles – all spotlighted by numerous projectors.

He says his teen years basically mirrored every John Hughes movie of the ’80s, and he figures that the timing of his birth -- the year of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and two years before Intel’s first microprocessor – indelibly stamped his professional calling.

So it was. After stints in art school and selling mattresses, Robert Stephens – WHS Class of 1987 – founded Geek Squad at age 25 and hasn’t looked back since. To converse with Stephens is to try gamely to keep up with a free-form, free-flowing mind and personality fueled by curiosity, an absence of conventionality and deep interest in the next big thing, whatever that may be.

Stephens says he has “very affectionate feelings” for his old high school, and he recalls fondly teachers who were as entertaining and empathetic as they were instructive. In fact, decades removed from his own high school days, Stephens maintains a deep and abiding respect for teachers in general, who, he says, merit more respect and compensation than they receive.

As for young people, he consistently answers requests to talk with teens. As for parents, he focuses on awareness when it comes to identifying and nurturing their children’s strengths and interests. 

“If I had a magic wand,” Stephens said during a recent phone call, “I’d say how do we find every kid’s super power. Everybody has a super power.” And, because people have such varied super powers and individuals’ brains are wired in such a wide variety of ways, he would love, Stephens says, to invent a device enabling parents to learn how their children’s brains work. From there, he said, parents could approach their children’s learning experiences accordingly.

Stephens’ own journey to global business success stemmed largely from an ability to recognize the potential of evolving times and technologies. To see consumer needs, identify solutions and create an appropriate business model to meet those needs.

After leaving the Art Institute – “I wasn’t made to suffer for my art.” – he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. There, in the early ’90s, he saw the university’s early high-speed web browser, which, he immediately realized, would soon change the world in ways that only a prescient few recognized. After weighing his options - finish a degree while taking on additional student debt or try his hand at entrepreneurship, he chose the latter.

You could say it worked out. He founded Geek Squad in 1994 and nurtured its rapid growth. Noticing that Starbucks began sharing space with large retail stores, he realized that a fixed-site location for his business would enable customers to drop off and pick up their electronics for repair, saving the time and expense of shipping. He sought out a connection with Best Buy, which went all in with Geek Squad at one site and soon saw that store become the chain’s most profitable in the country.

“I’m pretty good at paperwork and organization. Every time I had a business problem, I was able to figure it out,” said Stephens, who places high value on company culture and creating positive experiences for employees. The fact that he had virtually no money when he started his business turned out, he says, to be beneficial. Because he could not afford independent contractors to create a logo or design uniforms or address any of a dozen other details, he was able to put his own authentic stamp on climate and culture and to develop a deep understanding of every detail.

Now living in California, Stephens plans to keep exploring tech opportunities and to keep founding and operating businesses, wherever opportunity and inspiration lead him. He projects an infectious you-don’t-know-what-you-can-do-until-you-try spirit that he’d like to infuse in young people.

His vision, as it turns out, closely parallels the District 214 model in which students identify a career pathway to match their interests and aspirations. Students then engage in work-based learning experiences that typically either confirm that interest or spark a realization that they belong on a different path.

“What I wish for high school students is that they get started sooner,” Stephens said. “Start today. Write the music. Start the screenplay. If you change later, it means you've learned something. I’m going to do like a Founders Hotline, where young people can call like 24/7, just to hear someone say, ‘Yes, just do it.’ ”