My dad the inventor had the bootstraps he needed to lift himself up—but not the education
Human Work and Learning

My dad the inventor had the bootstraps he needed to lift himself up—but not the education

In a country that prides itself as the land of opportunity, we forget how close many have come to success—only to fall short for the lack of some critical ingredient.

My father was a great example, an inventor unable to capitalize on his best ideas even as they caught fire nationally. For him and so many others the missing ingredient for success, I’m convinced, is higher education.

He had a good start, to be sure. After selling insurance for several years, he created a company called Idle Assets. The idea was to let life insurance owners borrow against the principle in their policies—something unheard of at the time. The idea and my father’s company were profiled in newspapers such as The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The Chicago Tribune, which reported that 75 banks and savings and loans were participating in 1982.

The author’s father, Robert Timothy Mullin
Jan. 24, 1941 – March 7, 2013

Robert Mullin’s creativity extended beyond finance:  He and a partner, Joe Harris, developed a foam-based nail polish remover called Spray Nail. A master promoter, my father found a creative way to demonstrate the product during a dinner with executives from a major cosmetics company: He surprised his guests by showing up for the meal with brightly painted fingernails—and then promptly used the foam to remove the polish right at the table.

In another venture, he developed property next to the Boca Raton Airport to create an entertainment zone for his children so they wouldn’t just cause mischief hanging out at the mall. This grew into Boomers Parks, a national amusement park chain for families.

And, tired of pizza arriving at his doorstep soggy from condensation, he patented a “Food Transportation Container”–think of a pizza box designed to absorb moisture. I actually got to help with that one, by applying what I learned in a college papermaking class to make prototypes. The patent, expired due to a lack of funds to refile, lives on—Apple now uses it in the dining halls of their headquarters. There’s pride in our family about that, but also a constant reminder of what could have been.

But Robert Mullin’s journey toward success stopped earlier than it should have. Possessing only a high school diploma, he wanted very much to earn a college degree at Butler University in Indianapolis. Like so many college students now, however, a lack of financial support meant he had to balance work and school, and this was one puzzle he couldn’t solve.

In reality, any one of his popular ideas should have been enough to sustain a family. But my father never learned how to manage and maintain a business. If he had been a student—exposed to case studies, teaming up with peers on projects, in a safe space to explore and fail—would things have been different? I’m pretty sure the answer is yes, but we’ll never know.

What I do know is that he was a brilliant, loving man, determined that his own children would graduate from college and have the opportunities he missed.

He never escaped those limitations. And so every time he conjured a brilliant new idea—a startling new high—it seemed to come with a corresponding low. It was as if the bootstraps Dad used to pick himself up with had just snapped.

My siblings and I saw this, and in his memory, we fight on to address the structures and barriers that thwart so many people like him. Robert Mullin had six children, and we’ve become teachers, educators, an assistant vice-chancellor, and an executive vice-chancellor. He taught us so much about decency, determination–and the value of education.

And we care because we know this: Every grocery aisle and park bench is filled with people who, just like our dad, the brilliant inventor, need more than their own bootstraps to pick themselves up. They need a college education to reach the heights of success they can find, if only given the chance.


[Christopher Mullin, Ph.D., is strategy director of data and measurement for Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation committed to racial equity and helping all Americans learn beyond high school. Previously, he served as director of Strong Start to Finish at the Education Commission of the States and as executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System. He is a frequent speaker at conferences.]

Back to News