Survivor Story

With creativity and resilience, Earl Cole has triumphed over life’s challenges again and again

Even endowed, as he is, with wisdom from a lifetime of entrepreneurial hits and near misses, resilience from outlasting a debilitating childhood disorder, and the afterglow of a stretch of genuine celebrity, Earl Cole (BA 1996) is not so presumptuous as to think he can reinvent the wheel.

But he is reimagining it. The SMART Tire Company, his latest creation in a long line of ventures, is adapting NASA technology to liberate the rolling masses from the inevitable fallibility of rubber tires filled with air.

“Nobody can reinvent the wheel,” says Cole. “But you can think about it differently. For over 150 years, we’ve traveled on rubber tires around a pneumatic innertube on a metal rim. What we’re doing now is going to blow people’s minds.”

Childhood challenge

As a kid in Kansas City, Cole didn’t seem destined to blow anyone’s mind. He was diagnosed at age 7 with Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease, a rare degenerative disorder of the hip joint that confined him to physiotherapy, braces and wheelchairs—and the sidelines of childhood.

But he responded with a kind of creative resilience. Instead of running courts and playfields, he developed a deep love of music, and studied piano, violin and saxophone at a performing arts high school. Instead of riding bikes, he ventured into business. “I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur,” Cole says. “I just did a lot of creative things on the side.”

For instance, he turned his access to an early Apple computer into a business selling customized prints of cartoon characters as décor for his tween customers’ notebook covers.

In time, Cole came to realize the value of the unique challenges he faced. “When I was young, I felt my disorder was taking something away from me,” he says. “But it was actually giving me something to prepare for later.”

Namely superpowers of listening and observing.

Entertainment tonight

Cole moved to Seattle to pursue a music career and attend the University of Washington. He studied marketing and played in the UW Jazz Ensemble and a rock and soul band. He also produced local musicians. But when his recordings were destroyed in a studio fire, he decided to take his UW degree and seek a more stable career path in the entertainment industry.

That brought Cole to Los Angeles to work for the Walt Disney Company’s feature animation business (with a memorable first day: the launch party for Toy Story on DVD). After Disney came stints at Sony and Fox. Then he ventured into advertising with Muse Communications, leading its blockbuster Honda account.

The sonic side hustles continued, of course. Cole produced music for a few TV shows and ventured into online music publishing. And he launched a short-lived company that connected fans directly to artists—a too-soon precursor of today’s Cameo app.

Outwit, outplay, outlast

In 2006, Cole and his girlfriend (now wife) were eating at a Santa Monica restaurant when a casting director offered them a spot on the reality competition show The Amazing Race.

His date shot down the proposal on the spot. But the director took Cole’s number, just in case. A week later, she called to ask if he’d like to fill a suddenly vacant spot in the cast of Survivor: Fiji.

That was a Thursday. On Friday, Cole got a call from the show’s host, Jeff Probst. On Saturday, he met with CBS executives and underwent a battery of mental, psychological and physical tests. On Sunday, with the blessings of his girlfriend and his boss at Muse, he was on a plane to Fiji.

Cole (second row, third from right), was a late addition to the cast of Survivor: Fiji.

What followed, Cole says, was more real than it even appeared on the screen. There was no shelter, no food, no bathrooms. No toilet paper, toothpaste, insect repellent or sunscreen. It was blazing hot. Starvation and dehydration were never far away. “They throw you on a deserted island with a bunch of strangers,” he says, “and you have to figure it out.”

Getting real on Fiji.

Cole figured it out, alright. Despite the many challenges—and having never watched a single minute of 13 prior seasons—Cole won Survivor: Fiji. In fact, he was the first “Sole Survivor” to be unanimously chosen by his competitors.

This was certainly a testament to his natural charisma, strategic mind, emotional intelligence and deep supply of grit. All were honed during those interminable hours as a kid in a wheelchair.

For the kids

Cole’s ensuing fame lasted considerably longer than 15 minutes. He was featured in entertainment magazines and toasted on the talk show circuit. People named him one of its “Sexiest Bachelors.” Style Network televised his beach wedding in Hawaii.

He also leveraged his moment to organize tours of fellow reality TV stars and musical acts to perform for US military troops stationed around the globe.

Cole created the Perthes Kids Foundation so that no one would have to face a rare disease alone.

And, by now liberated by hip replacement from the chronic pain of Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease, Cole invested his clout and Survivor winnings into the Perthes Kids Foundation, the nonprofit organization he established “so no kid has to go through what I had to alone,” he says.

What started as a small summer camp has grown into a global community, with outreach, education, events and camps on four continents.

One smart tire

In addition to leading the foundation, Cole eventually got back to business. He co-founded Particle 5 Interactive, Smush Mobile Technologies and Fanstreme Sports.

In 2020, he launched SMART Tire with longtime collaborator Brian Yennie. Having won rights to commercialize the shape-memory alloy technology that NASA has been developing for its Mars Rover program, Cole and Yennie created the METL tire.

This revolutionary tire features the elasticity of rubber but the strength of titanium—wrapped in the company’s proprietary polycoating tread for grip and smooth road feel. Its flexible mesh of interwoven springs will never rust or corrode. It requires no air pressure, which means no punctures, either. It’s more environmentally friendly than conventional tires and built to outlast any vehicle in our solar system.

“This technology is tough enough to work on Mars,” Cole says. “It’s certainly tough enough for Earth.”

SMART Tire plans to debut in the bicycle market in late 2022, with sights on eventually disrupting the entire $300 billion global tire market—which conveys everything from electric scooters to SUVs to big-rig trucks to aerospace vessels.

Cole is tapping all of his tech and marketing experience to disrupt an industry and enliven a commodity. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “Tires aren’t sexy. Most people barely notice them. So, we’ve said, let’s think differently. Let’s make tires cool.”

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Living, learning, legacy

Cole, who has brought many cool ideas to life, is embracing another new venture: education. He’s mentoring students in the Foster School’s Master of Science in Entrepreneurship Program and judging Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship competitions. He certainly has a good story to impart.

“When you’re in your 20s, you want the cool clothes, the cool car,” he says. “In time, you realize none of that matters. I’ve always been a person with purpose. What can I do to turn ideas into impact? The older I get, the more I think about legacy.”

Not that he’s done observing, learning, creating. He’s even pursuing a PhD in organizational change and leadership at USC.

“People say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” Cole says. “Yes, you can. I have an old dog. And, just the other day, I taught him to roll on his back.”

My advice to young entrepreneurs is to try everything. Try working with different people. It’s almost like dating. Some people find the love of their lives and get married at 18. But most of us date for a long time before we find that. And don’t be afraid to fail… If you fail, fail fast and don’t get stuck.”

-Earl Cole
Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.