Dean’s Speaker Series: Richard Thaler, David Leonhardt discuss future of the American economy 

two men sitting on a stage one holding a microphone
NY Times writer David Leonhardt and Economist Richard Thaler. Photo: Katelyn Tucker

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Leonhardt believes that the American Dream has dimmed over time, but can rise again if the U.S. changes its policies.

With nearly 25 years of experience reporting on economics for The New York Times, including serving as Washington bureau chief and starting the publication’s “The Upshot” section, Leonhardt spent years writing about the American economy. That formed the topic of his new book, Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream.

Leonhardt sat down with Richard Thaler, former president of the American Economic Association and the 2017 recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences,to discuss the history of the American economy and the drive behind Ours Was the Shining Future at a recent Dean’s Speaker Series talk, co-sponsored by the O’Donnell Center for Behavioral Economics.

Much of what he tells in the book is not a happy story. “The problem is…. that living standards have been really rising so slowly for many, many people at the same time that living standards at the very top are rising,” Leonhardt said.  (Watch the video below)

The 1940s through the 1960s were times when society was geared politically and economically toward improving the living standards of most Americans, including those who didn’t have a college education—through labor unions and higher taxes for the rich to invest in public goods like roads and education, he said.

But “over the last 50 years, our society has really moved away from that,” he said, instead taking an individualistic approach that has not worked out for most Americans.  “Part of what I worry about is that many of the ideas that we would come up with for helping lower-income workers to make a good living are basically versions of redistribution,” he said. “I don’t think that tends to be what people want.”  

Describing unions as “grassroots foot soldiers” against a politically powered economy, Leonhardt contends that a strong labor movement is necessary to get us back to improving American society. He discussed the idea of developing new kinds of unions in the scope of current political and economic conditions.

While his book may not recount the happiest history, Leonhardt clarified that the future can still be bright. “I tried to emphasize ours was the shining future—and can be again,” he said. 

Read the full transcript: 

– Good afternoon. My name is Ulrike Malmendier, and I’m a professor here at the Haas School of Business, and I’m also the faculty director of the new O’Donnell Center of Behavioral Economics. And it’s my pleasure to welcome you here; it’s in the name of our dean, Ann Harrison. I’m truly delighted to introduce our two guests, David Leonhardt and Richard Thaler. Neither of them really needs an introduction. In fact, many of you New York Times readers have David’s flagship newsletter in the morning in your inbox every day. David has been at The New York Times for almost 25 years, since 1999, writing on business, economics for the magazine, opinion columnist in the spare time, founding “The Upshot” section, running the “Washington Bureau,” what did I forget? Oh, winning a Pulitzer Prize on the way. So, an amazing career as a journalist, and I’m fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him more than 20 years ago when he, with me just being fresh out of graduate school, took an interest in my own first behavioral economics research, which was on people signing up for gym memberships, paying steep monthly fees, and then rarely showing up at the gym. Discussing that research with David was not only really helpful for forming the research ideas; I also learned, from David, the power of storytelling, of using examples, personal experiences to convey a deeper concept. That’s something academic training tries to drill out of you, I have to admit. But now that I’m, for example, we just talked about it, involved in policy and convincing politicians to do the right thing, I am recognizing it as so powerful. So, all you future leaders here in the room, take note. David, also, while talking with him, actually gave us the title for our very first paper, I don’t know whether you remember. We’d called it something like “Time Inconsistency, Contract Design, and Health Club Attendance.” And then, David wrote a column, an economic column, which had the headline, “How much does it cost not to go to the gym?” And with his permission, we told the American Economic Review that we are renaming it into “Paying Not to Go to the Gym,” which was, of course, a much better title. We’re here today because David has just written his first book, “Ours Is the Shining Future.” It’s the story of the American Dream, which has been named one of the best books of the year by The Atlantic, The Financial Times, and The New Republic. The book starts from him telling the story of his own family, and then, examining the history of the American economy as it has evolved over the decades, examining the forces that have been driving the rising inequality and led to stagnation and lack of progress for many Americans. As we distill his argument, we see that David still thinks and argues that capitalism works better than any alternative we know of, but only a certain type of capitalism: one that’s softened by government intervention for the common good. And he urges us to recognize and foster the power of grassroots movements to instill humanity and opportunity for… Now, putting a more human face on economics is, of course, what our second guest, Richard Thaler is known for. And what won him the 2017 Nobel Prize in economic sciences. It is thanks to Richard that economics, which at times fell into the trap of pursuing analysis based on and enchanted by mathematical rigor more than driven by uncovering the truth about human behavior. It is thanks to him that we have learned again that we are a social science that deals with messy human behavior. And he has ushered these theories of behavioral economics into the mainstream with “Nudge,” his 2009 global bestseller he wrote with Cass Sunstein. I’ve known Richard even a few years longer than I’ve known David. Ever since here, at Berkeley Haas, I was fortunate enough to attend his behavioral economic summer camp in the big room down there, in the F building. Ever since then, he has been an invaluable source of inspiration and mentoring for me and for generations of behavioral economists. I view Richard as the true founder of our field, which includes, by the way, introducing us to Danny Kahneman, whom I also met for the first time at the very same famous behavioral economics summer camp, and who very sadly passed away last week. Kahneman was an academic giant, and introducing his and Amos Tversky’s work to economics was a game changer. In fact, in a time where a lot of psychology evidence in behavioral science is under fire for lack of robustness, as courageously exposed by our very own Haas colleague, Leif Nelson and his team. Richard had pointed us to rigorous psychology research, which we economists can build on, and which is here to last. So, I would like to add a really heartfelt thank you for those gifts to economic science, to a generation of behavioral economists, including myself. Like David, Richard is an amazing storyteller. Just Google “Beer on the Beach,” and you will see the type of narrative, which in my view is what he won the Nobel Prize for. So, we are in for quite a treat here, listening to their conversation right now. Just quickly, before we get going, you should all have note cards on your seat. If you have any questions that come to your mind, which would enrich our conversation afterward, write them down during the event and pass them on. My colleagues, Sarah and Carrie, will be collecting them. And then, the last 20 minutes, I will be able to ask a few of those questions to our two speakers. And with that, I now turn it over to David and Richard. Welcome.

– Thank you very much, Ulrike. And so, I’m going to steal a line from Malcolm Gladwell, who, when he and I did an event like this for I think my book “Misbehaving,” he began by saying how we had met in a hotel bar. And I’m going to say that David reminded me Sunday night, when we had dinner that he and I met in a hotel bedroom. And you know that, in Berkeley, that doesn’t raise as many eyebrows as it might otherwise. But the story is, and we just worked out that David and Ulrike met at the same American Economics Association meeting 20 years ago, 2004. David and I were supposed to talk about economics and have a coffee. And I said, “David, are you a sports fan?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Why are we sitting here when we could be watching a football game?” And David, Sunday night remembered what the football game was, Titans-Ravens. So, since then, David and I have bonded over sports and many other things and have become great friends. So, here’s David’s book, and the title is “Ours Was the Shining Future,” note the tense there. So, why the past tense—and are we doomed?

– We are not doomed. Ulrike, thank you for that wonderful introduction. Thank you Richard, and thank you all for coming. Actually, first, this is from another era. I first learned about Haas when my first job in journalism was stuffing envelopes and opening envelopes for “Businessweek’s” business school survey.

– Oh!

– And so I would-

– Don’t get me started, I had that ruined business education.

– I was very low level—I was very low level. But I remember Haas students liking Haas when I opened those mini surveys. So the line, “Mine is the shining future,” is a line of an immigrant named Mary Anton who moved to the United States from Russia. And she has that line in her memoir. She’s looking up at the Boston Public Library and thinking about the antisemitism that she’s escaped in Russia and made it to the United States. And she describes, she says, “Mine is the shining future.” And, in the book that coins the phrase the “American Dream” in 1931, it ends by telling her story. And so, I knew when I was writing this book that I wouldn’t name it, I’m not good at naming things. My wife came up with the names for our children. I think Ulrike mentioned this.

– We about “The Upshot.”

Yeah, so exactly, so, when we were starting “The Upshot” at The New York Times, I said to people, “There is no way I will come up with the name for this.” So I offered a bottle of champagne to whoever on the staff did, and someone did. And so, I let Random House and my agent come up with the name of it, and they did. Random House first suggested, “Ours Is the Shining Future.” And my agent thought that was a touch too optimistic. And so, she suggested “Ours Was the Shining Future.” And Random House loved the switch. I will confess that, though I love the title, it is, there is, I do think, “Ours Is the Shining Future” is too positive. But when I’ve gone around and talked about it, I tried to emphasize ours was the shining future and can be again. So we are not doomed.

– Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I don’t see that.

– No, it is, that is much of the argument of the conclusion. But yes. But look, much of the story I tell about the last 50 years is not a happy story. I mean, the first chart in the book is that, in 1980, the United States had a normal life expectancy for a rich country. Pretty similar to Western Europe and Canada. Little bit below average if you look, but right in the, kind of the heart of it. And starting in the early ’80s, we departed from the life expectancy line of every other rich country in the world. And for the last 15 years, the United States has had the lowest life expectancy of any country in the world. And it’s not particularly close anymore. And it’s driven overwhelmingly by trends among working-class people. And that’s not a happy story.

– No, and you have another chart showing a type of inequality that doesn’t get as much attention, which is, there’s a difference between rich and poor in terms of life expectancy. That’s quite sharp.

– Yeah, when you look at life expectancy for college graduates, the line actually looks pretty similar to lines for other countries. Whereas, and when you look at life expectancy for working-class Americans, even before COVID, for much of the decade before COVID, had almost completely stagnated. And people often say, “Well, is it X?” And the answer is yes and no. Is it guns? Yes. Is it opioids? Yes. Is it COVID? Yes. Is it car accidents? Yes. But it’s not any one of those things. It’s the combination of working-class life in the United States, that is Anne Case and Angus Deaton, that they’re known for “Deaths of Despair,” but their research is actually broader than that, and kind of looks at just how much, by many measures, life for Americans without a four-year college degree has really stagnated.

– So, the inequality has been a popular topic in economic circles, especially in recent years. Sort of two themes, one that I’ll call the French theme of Piketty and Berkeley’s own Saez and Zucman stresses the rise of the 1% or the 10th of 1%. So, all the billionaires, and then we’ll call it the “Chetty theme,” Raj Chetty and his army of researchers that are stressing the difficulty of, say, going from the bottom quintile to the second quintile. Your book is more about the latter, right?

– Yes.

– And so, what’s your take on, what you’ve learned about that and why is it that it’s harder than it was when I was a kid, or when you were a kid, for the people at the bottom to move up?

– I think I do focus more on what you’re calling the “Chetty” part of the story. But I also think the French part of the story is important. And a lot of the data that I use in the book comes from Saez and Zucman and Piketty. I think that the, what’s going on with mobility and opportunity for the bottom half is more important in part just ’cause the bottom half has many more people in it than the top 0.01%.

– Right.

– Right? And so, it just affects many more people’s lives. And I think if we had a society where, and we briefly had this in the late ’90s, if we had a society where the rich were getting a lot richer and inequality was rising, but living standards for most people were also rising, I think Americans would be mostly OK with that. I think the problem is the combination: that living standards have been really rising so slowly for many, many people at the same time that living standards at the very top are rising. And I do think there’s a relationship between that. I mean, I think the very, very rich have more control over our political process as a result of that. But I don’t think that’s the dominant explanation. I mean, what I try to argue is that as a society, we had a society in the ’40s and the ’50s and the ’60s for all of the terrible problems. We had a society that was very much geared politically and economically toward improving the living standards of most Americans, including Americans who didn’t have a college education. And that took the form of labor unions, which I know we’re going to talk about. It took the form of a political system that taxed rich people quite highly, that invested lots of money in things like roads and colleges. The University of California system came out of those years, and there really was an enormous emphasis to use the resources of our society to improve most people’s lives. There was also, and this is relevant for a business school, there was a culture in corporate America that seemed more invested in this country and in communities and that was a little bit less self-seeking. And I talk about some of the executives like that in the book. And I think, over the last 50 years, our society has really moved away from that, and imagined that a kind of laissez-faire individualistic approach could work well for everybody. Which I don’t think was a crazy theory, I just don’t think it’s worked out.

– So, there are, you sent me an email recently saying, “I know there are three things you’re going to disagree with me about, unions, immigration, and trade with China.” And so, we’ll talk about those because they’ll be interesting conversations. But so, you think Trump basically had it right?

– I do not think Trump had it right.

– OK, so-

– I would hope I have a long record of journalism that justifies that statement.

– Oh, OK. So, alright. So that was a joke, of course.

– Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

– So let’s start with unions. You tell several stories, including the workers in the Pullman train cars of how unions helped pull the bottom end up, so elaborate a little on that and what you think the, what the benefits are, and why is it that they have decreased in power and influence?

– Let me just start by saying, I’m aware that unions are flawed institutions. I’ve been in a union.

– So, noted.

– I’ve been in a union at The New York Times, if you asked me to list, I don’t have much of a temper. If you asked me to list the five times I’ve been silently angriest in my life, one of them would be when I went to my union representative at The New York Times to explain that my infant child needed neurosurgery, and there were no neurosurgeons in the union-covered plan. And I kid you not, my union representative said to me, “Have you considered calling a neurologist and asking if they also do surgery?” And you know, this most vulnerable moment of my life, I don’t know whether it was a bad attempt at a joke or a serious bad suggestion, but this was someone who at that point had power over me. Right? And was in many ways a monopoly. ‘Cause this was my health insurance plan. So I understand the way that people can be frustrated with unions, and I’m now a manager at The New York Times, and sometimes, the union stands in the way of change that I think is important. So I get that unions are flawed. I think the issue is that corporations are flawed as well. And when you have flawed corporations that are not checked by flawed unions, you have a really high inequality economy. And so, what I try to tell in the book is, if you look at the economy of the United States in the late-19th century and 19 aughts and teens and twenties, we had a tremendously high inequality economy without labor unions. And then, we had the enormous growth of labor unions, and we had this incredible rise in pay for working class people. And then labor unions started shrinking. And the time series works out almost perfectly that it is also the case that inequality starts rising. And it’s not, this isn’t simply time series evidence. There’s research by Henry Farber and Ilyana Kuziemko and Suresh Naidu and others that really look at similar workers and see that a unionized worker tends to make about 10% to 20% more than an otherwise similar worker. It doesn’t tend to come out of economic growth in most cases. It comes out of corporate profits and executive pay. It is redistribution, which I understand why many executives and investors may not like that, but I think it’s better for most people. I think without unions, corporations just tend to have too much of a power advantage in the negotiation. If I’m the boss and you’re the worker and I underpay you, it’s really hard for you to quit, right? ‘Cause you have a family. And so, I just think, I understand unions have flaws. I understand why they can drive people totally nuts, but I think we now have more than a century of evidence that when you have an economy without unions, many, many people end up earning relatively low salaries. And it’s very problematic

– So I mean, one question to ask is, “Is there another way?” So I have my own, I’m organizing a conference, a couple months back in Chicago. And because of some union rule, you know what a poster session is? Have you ever-

– Yes.

– Yeah, so, the poster sessions are at academic conferences. Typically grad students and junior faculty who can’t get on the program are given an opportunity to stand in front of a board where they’ve posted up some slides and talk about their research. It turns out, because of some union rule, it costs like $1,000 per board to put up. And so, we can’t have a poster session, which is damaging to the young scholars who, as Ulrike knows, I am always on their side. So, that’s a trivial version that we could tell thousands of these stories. Is there a way of giving power to the people without having the work rules that make organizations less efficient?

– I’ll half answer and then I’ll ask you a question. Most of the time that Richard and I have spent together, it’s me asking the questions.

– Yeah.

– So I can’t help myself. There’s another recent paper by actually some of the same researchers whose names I just mentioned, in which they look at workers relative preference between what they call redistribution and predistribution or market wages and post-government benefit wages. And basically, what they find, and I’m slightly overgeneralizing, but not by much here, is that everyone wants higher market wages for themselves. I think because of ideas involving dignity and respect.  So, what rich people want, rich, particularly rich progressives, is they want a system where they make a lot of money; and then, they get to redistribute it through taxes and benefits. And what poor people and working class people want is a system where not, where they’re getting money through government benefits, but where they actually, their market wages are higher. And so, part of what I worry about is that many of the ideas that we would come up with for helping lower-income workers make good livings are basically versions of redistribution. Where New York Times journalists and MBAs and tenured professors get to make more money. And then we get to-

– Yay.

– Yay, we get to give it to people through taxes. And so, I don’t think that tends to be what people want. I don’t think it’s as healthy in a whole bunch of ways. So I guess my question to someone who is more skeptical of unions would be, “Do you think I’m wrong to be so negative about the economic trends for less advantaged people over this era when unions have been shrinking? And do you see some other way that we can have mass prosperity without a meaningful labor movement?”

– Well, I’ll respond by asking my next question as a way of answering that, which is many people admire the economies in Scandinavia, like, Denmark and Sweden, maybe even Germany. But we’ll let Ulrike opine on that if she wants. So people in Copenhagen seem to have good lives and are happy, but the distribution of income is much less skewed. So is there a way of achieving that? If I could plunk you and your family and social network into Copenhagen or Stockholm, do you think you’d be happier? And would that be a better model?

– Well, I think it’s, I mean, much of Western Europe does have stronger unions than the United States does, right? With both the advantages and disadvantages. So, it’s not simply a case of them having a larger, or a government system in which they redistribute income that way.

– Well, they have higher taxes and social network.

– Yeah.

– A social safety net as well. So unions are a part, I agree.

– Unions are a part of it. And I think, and look, I think unions are important both because of, I don’t think unions are the full answer to be clear, but I think it’s really hard to imagine us having an economy that delivers prosperity to more people without stronger unions, both because of what they get directly for workers in negotiations. Look, I was just, I’ve said a couple critical things about the union at The New York Times. The union at The New York Times just won pretty significant wage increases for its members. I am confident, as much as I like the people who run The New York Times, that they wouldn’t have given them that size of wage increase without the union having the threat of a strike. And I would say the same thing about GM and Ford. And so, not only do I think unions bring direct benefits to workers, but I also think they end up often serving as kind of grassroots foot soldiers in a society and an economy where more people have political power. So you mentioned Pullman, one of the heroes of my book is A. Philip Randolph. I think many people think of A. Philip Randolph, if they think of him today as a civil rights leader. And he was a civil rights leader. He’s the original organizer of the March on Washington. It’s a story I tell in the book. It was originally planned for 1941. He faced down FDR over integrating wartime factories. So he canceled the March on Washington in 1941. That’s what it was called, the March on Washington. And they rescheduled it 22 years later. And A. Philip Randolph was the first speaker at it. He was the elder statesman at that point. And it’s not a coincidence that the labor union that A. Philip Randolph built with these low-wage women and men who worked on Pullman trains basically became the seeds of the civil rights movement. That is often the way that these movements happen. And so, I think that labor unions are really important in multiple ways. I don’t think we should try to recreate the unions of the past. I think we need new kinds of unions. And I also think that for all their excesses, there are often ways for corporations to push back against those excesses. So the union at The New York Times not only has asked for higher wages, but it’s asked for a bunch of other things that the management said “no” to, right? And so, sometimes, what unions ask for don’t have to become policy.

– Yeah, I’m sure, the fact that The New York Times is mostly digital now is bad for the union.

– Yeah.

– Since there were lots of jobs making a paper.

– Yeah. And just to say, I don’t mean this to say it means that I’m right about this. I say it more as a piece of self-criticism. The process of working on this book made me think that, during my 20 plus years as an economics reporter, I hadn’t written enough about the importance of labor unions. So maybe that version of that old version of me was right. And you’re right. I think it’s a really hard and important question.

– Yeah, look, I’m asking the questions, so I’m not answering them. So, for once in 20 years, we get to switch roles. So, OK. Along with unions, the other second evil menace in your book are immigrants. Of course, we are the children of immigrants, and probably 90% of the people in this room are as well or are actual immigrants like Ulrike. So, of course, you’re pro-immigration, but you have some thoughts about immigration. You know, there are low- and high-skill immigrants, and I think California represents the value both provide. I mean, Silicon Valley would not exist if it were not for thousands of immigrant engineers and tech startup founders and so forth. And the rest of the state couldn’t exist. If you go anywhere where there are people working, they’re speaking Spanish. So it’s a state that doesn’t exist without immigrants.

– Yeah.

– And it’s the most prosperous state in the country. And it would be a prosperous country if it were a separate country. So, since you’re not anti-immigrant, what are the tweaks you would prefer?

– No, and I do have more criticisms of the way our immigration system works than many people with whom I agree on many other things. So, I think California’s an interesting case. I’m mostly not going to talk about California, but it’s, right, it is a very prosperous economy. It’s also a very unequal economy, right? Where all kinds of things like, homelessness and poverty, right? So it’s not a perfect economy by any means. Not that you were suggesting it was. So, I think, I have two basic criticisms in my book of the dominant political tribes in the United States. So far we’ve been talking about my criticisms of conservatives. And it’s not just conservatives, it’s many economists, right?

– Yeah.

– Yeah.

– Chicago school.

– Chicago school economists.

– They’re the other villain in this.

– And as I said, I think some of the arguments that people made in the 1970s about how to fix the American economy, ’cause it had real problems, were legitimate arguments. But I also think they made a set of predictions about what would happen if we had a lower tax, less regulation, less unionized economy where corporations were allowed to grow really large. They made specific predictions about how this won’t just be good for affluent people, it’ll be good for everybody. And I think those predictions have not come to pass. And so, part of what I’m saying is, “Let’s look at that economic system and be honest about what it is delivered for most Americans.” My second set of criticism is that I think, in the United States, as in parts of Europe and other countries, the center left party in our country, the Democratic Party has really moved away from the views and values of working-class people and often actually become disdainful of those views.

– You call ’em the Brahmin Left.

– The Brahmin Left, which is a Piketty line that I give him credit for. And I think it’s a great line. And look, this is where I, and I’m guessing many of you, spend my life, right? Like, highly educated coastal suburbs. And part of the reason I focus so much on immigration is that I think it’s actually a signature example of how relatively privileged progressive Americans have moved away from the views and the values and even the interests of less privileged Americans. And so, the main story I tell in the book is the story of the 1965 immigration law. And it’s really important to go back and look at that law and the people who are advocating for it: LBJ, Ted Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, a lot of moderate Republicans back when they existed. And what they said was, they said, “We’re getting rid of our old racist system of immigration.” They didn’t use the word racist, but that’s what they meant. Where basically all slots were reserved for Western Europe, and we’re replacing it with a system in which it will be first come, first serve. They specifically promised, specifically, repeatedly, that it would not lead to a large increase in the volume of immigration. This is one of the things that I actually found most enjoyable from a kind of academic process of reading this old work at the Library of Congress. Again and again, Ted Kennedy and LBJ’s cabinet secretary said, “Don’t you worry, we’re not increasing the amount of immigration, we promise we’re not increasing the amount of blue collar immigration.” The example RFK used is, he said, “We are not bringing more ditch diggers to this country.” Because they understood that most Americans were not in favor of a massive increase in immigration. They were completely wrong about what their own law would do. I don’t think they lied, I just don’t think they thought about it very carefully. And the fact is, we have had an enormous increase in immigration. And so, now what happens is that many people on the left and the pro-business right as well, they say, “Well, that’s OK because immigration has no costs for anyone. It is a free lunch, it is great for the immigrants, and it doesn’t have any wage costs for anyone else.” And I think most Americans look at that, and they don’t believe it. And I think we can dig into the data about whether immigration has costs or not. I think it has some costs for lower-wage workers, and I think many people fundamentally understand this. Why did doctors make it so hard for immigrant doctors to come into this country and compete with them? Well, if immigration didn’t actually have any wage costs.

– You mean the MD cartel you’re referring to? Yes, yeah.

– Yes, the MD cartel says, “You can’t be a doctor in this country unless you’ve done your residency here.” That’s a ludicrous rule, right? If you… Because we’re saying that you can’t get good medical training in India or Australia or Britain. Sure, seems like you should be able to. And, but doctors understand, right? That having a lot of people come in and compete probably creates wage pressure for them. And so, I tell the story of immigration because I don’t think Americans, including many recent immigrants who were uncomfortable with really high levels of immigration, with an immigration system that doesn’t work, with high levels of illegal immigration. I don’t think they’re bad people. I don’t think they’re racists. Some of them are, but I don’t think it’s inherently racist to be skeptical of immigration. And we’ve ended up with a situation in which our left of center party, particularly elites in it, look at those people and say, “No, no, no, no, no. You are wrong to have those views. You’re ignorant. You are hateful. You need to understand that more immigration is better for everyone including you.” And I think that’s really debatable. And I also think that a lot of Americans look at that party and say, “No thanks, you’re disdainful of me.”

– OK, I think, I’m going to give you a pass on China and free trade in order to get you into trouble on something else. You had a piece recently on the SAT.

– I did.

– And there are basically three policies that are around. One is the old policy that you had to submit test scores if you wanted to get accepted to an elite college or university. Dartmouth, among others, has recently instituted that. Then there are the second policy that University of Chicago and many others have, which is it’s test optional. And then, University of California, where you’re forbidden from disclosing your SAT score. I don’t know whether you can whisper it in an interview, you guys might know, put it, tattoo it but so give us your brief take on why you think the old system there is the right one.

– So if we were trying to fill an orchestra and we discovered some kind of test that helped us predict how good a violin player you would be, would we dismiss that test? If we were trying to fill a basketball team, I am a huge basketball fan. It’s possible, I was at a dinner last night where I was sneaking looks at Caitlin Clark versus Angel Reese on the side of the dinner. If we had a basketball team and there was a test we could give the players that would tell us how good they would be at shooting, would we want to look at that test in order to decide who should play on our basketball team? Of course we would. And we wouldn’t spend any time agonizing over it. For years, the research showed that the best way to understand how good a student someone would be was to combine their high school grades and their SAT, that both were better than one alone. Over time, that is still the case, but over time, it has become clear: the SAT is better than grades in part because of high school grade inflation. Berkeley cannot fill its college ranks with everybody who gets A’s, you don’t have room for everybody who still gets A’s. And so, even though that is the case, many colleges have decided that they are not willing to either. You don’t have to submit scores, or, as the University of California does, they will not accept scores. It is also the case that when you poll Americans, more than 75% of Americans, including more than 75% of every major racial group, Black, Latino, Asian, and white, say that college test score, that standardized test scores, should play a role in college admissions. And so, this to me, it’s not quite as important as immigration, but this to me is another example in which the Brahmin Left has gotten on the other side of what I think the empirical evidence shows; and that, if we want a world where we are admitting the students who are likely to do best in college, the SAT and ACT help us discover that. And yes, they have class gaps. Yes, they have racial gaps because we live in a deeply unequal society in which everything has class and racial gaps. But, and this is a point that Raj Chetty makes, the class and racial gaps on the SAT are nearly identical to the class and the racial gaps on the NAEP. Now, I’m guessing many of you don’t even know what the NAEP is. The NAEP isn’t just a low-stakes test; it is a no-stakes test. It is a test that third and eighth graders take that has no bearing on the student’s future. It doesn’t even determine whether you get into honors algebra. It does determine how schools are graded, right? So, when you hear the nation’s report card, and you hear which states are doing better, that’s all the NAEP. But it doesn’t matter for students. So, no one ever takes NAEP test prep. People don’t go to Stanley Kaplan for the NAEP because it has no impact on their lives. The racial and class gaps on NAEP scores are nearly identical to the racial and class gaps on SAT scores. And so, yes, the SAT is picking up inequality, but if colleges use it right, they can actually use it to identify lower-income kids and underrepresented minorities who are going to thrive there. And I kind of don’t understand the idea that there is this useful, important information that we’re scared of looking at.

– Well, I agree with you. And let’s turn it over to Ulrike and the audience.

– Excellent, well, thanks so much for a really fascinating discussion. Particularly your discussion about unions striking a court, so lots of questions about that. To comment briefly on the German unions, they make my life very hard right now when I have to fly to Berlin and I land in Frankfurt and my Lufthansa flight doesn’t go because they are on strike. I tried to take a train. Well, it turns out the train is also on strike, and I’m stuck in some airport hotel. So the unions, for that reason; and because my Italian husband is smiling about the trains in Italy going smoothly and everything working, and in Germany, everything breaking down. So that is a problem. But more seriously, the kind of two issues. One is, in some sense, “What are the union negotiations driven by?” You had this heartbreaking example of your personal case where the person clearly wasn’t trying to maximize your welfare, quite to the opposite, at least in Germany, the discussion is right now about career concerns of people who want to be elected to be a union leader and might exaggerate in their demands for populism reasons, basically. So in terms of the design, I think there’s a lot to be done. There’s also the question, and that’s the traditional old question about unions. That they are an instrument to help the people who are in the “in-group” to get higher wages. What about the people who don’t have a job, right? Might they be harming them if the outlandish demands of The New York Times union had to be agreed upon, which you said that they weren’t in the end, would that mean, we might not have a New York Times anymore; or we have The New York Times because it would be so much? So this in-group, out-group question and the question, so, you in your book and in your discussion right now, we’re a lot focusing about unions and wages and how they’ve correlationally seem to have helped the lower deciles and quintiles. I would love for you, and one question goes in that direction to bring it together with the loss of manufacturing jobs or generally industry restructuring and certain jobs and companies from the traditional mining to much broader jobs disappearing. So if that’s our concern, that people don’t have a job at all anymore, hence no income, if it’s not about how low it is and rising it, but just allowing people to make a livable income and have prosperity across all regions of the U.S., how do you see the way forward here? And actually, maybe we can bridge it a little bit to behavioral economics in a second; and well, I’m happy to step in, but hear your thoughts about that. Do you see, is it contrast there, as maybe the unions being a positive force on the wage increases, conditional on being, having a job, but possibly to the detriment of those who are outside?

– So, I’ve been now going around to many campuses talking about my book, and one of the things, a question I occasionally get is, “You talk about all these problems of capitalism, but you treat them as manageable. Maybe capitalism itself is the problem, and we should instead just reject capitalism.” And I say, “The problem with that idea is that there has never been a noncapitalist society that has delivered really good living standards for large numbers of people.” Like none, right? And this is a somewhat indirect way in answering this, I’m sorry, Ulrike, but I actually feel this comes from the other political side, but I actually feel somewhat similar about unions, which is for all the problems with unions, I really struggle to find an economy that has delivered mass prosperity to huge numbers of people without a really important labor union presence. And so, while I agree with many of the problems with unions and think they need to be checked and think that public sector unions can be particularly problematic because they’re not always ways to check them, I would actually be quite happy if we could find some example of a society and an economy that delivered mass prosperity and had really healthy wages for people who are less fortunate than I am that didn’t have unions. ‘Cause I see all their problems, but I really struggle to find such an example and the examples where capitalism, where living standards tend to be best to me are almost always capitalist economies where you have a pretty meaningful government and labor presence. And to the second part of your question about jobs, I do think that unions can sometimes sacrifice jobs for the sake of wages. I think, in the United States today, we don’t really have a jobs problem. We have a good jobs problem. And so, if some of the tradeoff is that we’re going to end up eliminating some lower-paying work and creating some more good-paying work, that’s a trade off I’d be willing to take.

– Yeah, so let’s actually, let’s continue on that, and let’s leave the poor unions just for a second out of here, even though there’s so many questions about them. But will that happen? Why is it not yet happening? So I’m asking myself that question if I look at U.S. data, I am asking myself that question tenfold when I look at German data or any other population, which is much more dramatically shrinking, partly because they’re even less of an immigrant country than the U.S. We have this huge lack of hours worked to increase productivity, and yet, I don’t see wages for lower-level jobs and training of people who land in lower-level jobs and efforts put into making sure that they get an education, so that they don’t land in these lower-level jobs, increasing as much as it would be good for aggregate productivity. That could be a way out of this problem you guys were discussing about, “How do we get people not just to get money redistributed, but to earn a higher wage. Why is that not happening?”

– I think it has a, I was just talking about the United States, not Germany. I think it has a huge amount to do with bargaining power, that it is still the case that it is very hard for workers to be able to negotiate for really good wages when they are each on their own, right? As opposed to being collectively together.

– Yeah. But I mean, even before they land on that job. So I am born into an area with not the best schools, and I’m going to get a training that won’t allow me to apply for some upward trajectory in terms of career. Politicians, as much as anybody who’s working in the economy and running a business, should say, “Well we should go in there, we should get here in the U.S., you have the no child left behind policy. You should really have no possible member of the workforce left behind a policy, to get them to a level of training and make the best out of their talents. I don’t see a dramatic change happening, which I would’ve predicted given the population changes.

– I do think the Biden administration deserves some real credit for their efforts in some of these areas.

– Bidenomics.

– But yes, I mean, the Biden administration really has tried very hard to invest in regions that have had less economic growth even though many of those regions are not blue areas. And even though Biden seems to be getting no credit for it politically, which is a real mystery, I mean, you look at a state like Ohio, where they’ve opened a whole bunch of semiconductor factories, it’s not going to turn around the economy immediately, but it really should, in the long term, make a meaningful difference. And I do actually think this is part of, to come back to our first question about why, despite the story I tell, it’s not that I am optimistic, it’s that maybe I’m hopeful. I do think we have the tools to do it. I do think policymakers have increasingly looked at the evidence, the economic evidence, and tried to change things. And I think the Biden administration has really tried to put in place some policies that are responsive to the fact that a whole bunch of market-based systems haven’t delivered what they promised, including some of these ideas. Now, it’s going to take a long time, and I told you, I don’t have an answer for why he’s getting no political credit for it.

– Yeah, so a little more is the shining future, a little more optimism.

– Could be.

– OK.

– Yeah.

– Now, one related question, which popped up in a lot of cards I got, is about the role of AI. So, how do you think AI will affect the income, living standards, distribution? How does it play into the theme of your book?

– Can I admit our conversation on the way over here?

– Yeah.

– We were driving over here, and I said to Richard, “I have to admit something that’s a little embarrassing, which is I don’t totally get why AI is going to be such a big deal.” It’s not that I doubt that it will be a big deal, but when I ask people for examples of how it’ll be a big deal, they’re all kind of like, fairytale, either we’re all going to die, or, and then when I go and use it, it’s kind of, eh, and you didn’t disagree with me.

– Yeah, I mean, look, neither of us are experts on AI, but my take on it is that, I don’t know enough to know whether I should be afraid, but I do know there’s enormous room for improvement on things like call centers.

– Yep.

– And you know, one example, my home wifi went out and OK, I call the cable company, God forbid, and they say, “Alright, reboot your router.” I did that. OK, oh, then we do thing two and she has to do that and that doesn’t work. And you know, this is taking half an hour. And then she says, “Oh, OK, now we have to do thing three,” and that works. A month later, the same problem happens: I get to some other person and of course, we have to go through thing one and thing two why doesn’t the system know this is the guy who called a month ago and what you do is press thing three and right? I mean, we all live through those horror stories all the time. It’s not, yes, it’s a virtual problem, but you know, it’s like, all, you know what I call sludge, there’s sludge everywhere and it seems like AI could improve that a lot and whether the world ends, I don’t think that the world will end in my lifetime or yours, maybe your kids.

– The two things that so-

– So, why do I worry?

– The two thing… The, the-

– Social preferences?

– I do actually think there’s an interesting relationship here to political power. We didn’t talk about antitrust, but I talk about antitrust a fair amount in the book. Robert Bork is another character figure in the book. He’s famous not for his antitrust work, but it’s the most important work he did. And even if you were right, and I’m sure you are, that AI could solve all those problems if the cable company basically has you captured, they have no interest in solving it, right? And so, we need to not only get the technology, right? But we also have to get some of the power dynamics right. And we have to make sure that we actually have-

– Yeah but Elon will supply my-

– He will get ’em.

– And then I’ll have no worries.

– I do think it’s the, David Autor of the MIT economist has gotten some attention, including a recent piece in The New York Times about how he actually thinks AI could reduce inequality by basically giving less skilled, lower-earning workers the power to be more productive. Right? And that’s a version of what you’re talking about with the call centers. So, if there was someone at the call center who actually had the ability to fix when my NFL RedZone package goes out-

– Oh God.

– At Sunday at 1:45 and my Texan wife is not happy about it, and I’m going totally nuts about it, and we’re all running around in our house, “How can we watch football?” And if we could call someone and basically have them fix it, that person could make more money, right? And so, I do see, theoretically, how AI could actually be inequality reducing, but in the short term, this wasn’t exactly your question, I would just really like it if some people could do a better job just giving us examples of here’s how AI can improve your life a little bit right now.

– Yeah, so, I mean, I think there are good example of how, in particular, natural language processing can help us to substitute certain jobs, including the ones that Richard mentioned. I do think it needs to come in combo with a renewed effort to invest in the human capital of the people who would’ve otherwise ended up in those jobs. And you are more optimistic on that than me, I have to admit. But you brought up another point, which is politics, political power. We also had a question about that, about the U.S. Congress being the lowest productivity Congress in history in terms of legislation passed, and how you can be standing here and saying, “Well, if you just get our act together and focus less on ego and narcissism and on the common good, things will get better because how will the framework be created to provide the guardrails for that in the current situation.”

– So the statistic on the lowest productive Congress was, I think it’s the current House, right? I do think, look, I have criticisms of the Biden administration. I think they’ve completely mishandled immigration along some of the lines that you would guess based on what I’ve said, right? I mean, if you go back and read the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform on immigration, it’s all about allowing more people in. It’s almost nothing about figuring out a way to prevent the kind of problems we’ve had. That is a radical change in the Democratic Party. Go back and look at the way Barack Obama talked about immigration; it’s very different. So, I think Joe Biden has mishandled immigration. I think he can fairly be blamed for a meaningful part of the problems at the border. So I have criticisms of the Biden administration; however, I think they’ve gotten a lot right. I mentioned the semiconductor policy. When Joe Biden took office and was talking about bipartisan legislation, a lot of people, including me, had a little bit of reaction of, “There he goes again,” like imagining a Senate that doesn’t exist anymore. And Joe Biden passed a really impressive group of bipartisan legislation. The semiconductor bill was bipartisan; the infrastructure bill was bipartisan. Some of the military stuff was bipartisan, and he didn’t let that keep him from passing the stuff that Republicans were never going to agree to at the same time that he was passing the bipartisan stuff, and I say this not critically, he jammed through a bunch of bills, like incredible fundings for clean energy research and making health care cheaper that Republicans were never, ever going to agree to. And so, I am not naive about the political challenges that face us. I am specifically worried about the threat of what a second Trump term would mean, given what he has said about his, how he views democracy and how he would use the political system and the justice system to go after his enemies. How he would round up huge numbers of immigrants. I mean, it’s really authoritarian, frightening stuff. And so, I’m aware of the risks and the challenges we face. I do nonetheless think there is evidence both over the last few years and in the 21st century, if you include marriage equality, if you include Obamacare, that our political system, when people organize, can actually be responsive to real problems in society.

– Isn’t that an optimistic word to end on? Thank you so much.

– Thank you.

– That was a fantastic conversation. Great questions. Thank you very much.


Berkeley Haas names 2024 commencement speakers

Berkeley Haas has named alumni leaders in C-suite talent recruiting, investment platform innovation, and novel gene therapy commercialization as the 2024 commencement speakers this spring. 

Monica Stevens, MBA 96, an executive search consultant in Spencer Stuart’s San Francisco office, will serve as commencement speaker for the graduating full-time and evening & weekend MBA classes. Jasvinder Khaira, BS 04, a senior managing director at Blackstone, the world’s largest alternative asset manager, will be the undergraduate commencement speaker. Richard Wilson, EMBA 15, senior vice president and primary focus lead of genetic regulation at global pharmaceutical company Astellas, will serve as the commencement speaker for the executive MBA class.

Commencement ceremonies will be held at the Greek Theatre for undergraduates on Wednesday, May 15, at 9 a.m., and the FTMBA and Evening & Weekend MBA combined classes on Friday, May 17, at 2 p.m.. The MBA for Executives Program graduates will celebrate a few weeks later on Saturday, June 1, at 3 p.m. at Hertz Hall. 

Monica Stevens

portrait of a woman wearing a suit
Monica Stevens, MBA 96

As a member of Spencer Stuart’s Financial Services and Boards practices, Stevens focuses on executive search, leadership advisory, and succession planning work for C-suites and boards across corporate and commercial banking, payments, real estate, and risk. A seasoned banker and nonprofit board member with more than 25 years of experience in general management, customer relationship development, talent acquisition, and learning and professional development, Stevens is a champion of diversity and inclusion in business and in her community.

Before joining Spencer Stuart, Stevens spent more than two decades at Wells Fargo, where she held multiple sales, credit, and leadership roles in commercial real estate, capital markets, and global banking. Most recently, she was senior vice president and chief credit and risk officer in the company’s Merchant Services division.

At Wells Fargo, she co-founded the company’s first Black/African American employee resource group, and more recently, she served as co-chair of the Wells Fargo Merchant Services group’s Diversity Council. A champion of talent development, she ran, repositioned, and doubled the size of a program that recruited talent at various levels of the firm.

A veteran, Stevens is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. She started her career as an officer in the U.S. Navy,  before eventually coming to Haas, where she received an MBA with a concentration in real estate finance. 

Stevens is a member of the Haas School Board, and she was awarded the school’s Raymond A. Miles Service Award in 2017 for her contributions in supporting and enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. She was also previously a trustee for the Redwood Day School in Oakland, where she led the Diversity Committee.

Jasvinder Khaira

Jasvinder Khaira, BS 04

Khaira is a senior managing director and founding partner of the Tactical Opportunities Group, or Tac Opps, at Blackstone.  Tac Opps was founded in 2012 to invest across private investment opportunities outside of traditional private equity and private credit. Today, Tac Opps has $34 billion of assets under management.

Khaira was born in Singapore and raised in the Bay Area. He joined Blackstone in 2004 in the Private Equity Group after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from UC Berkeley with degrees in Business Administration and History. In 2007, he joined a small team within Blackstone that eventually led the firm’s initial public offering. Before the IPO, he accompanied the firm’s founders on a roadshow that raised more than $7 billion.

Since helping found Tac Opps, Khaira has led more than 40 transactions for Blackstone totaling over $10 billion of equity invested. He was named the 2023 TMT Investment Leader of the Year and is a founding sponsor of the Berkeley Changemaker program, and a board member of the Berkeley M.E.T Program and the New York Philharmonic. Khaira is married and the father of three boys and lives in New York City.

Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson, EMBA 15

As senior vice president and primary focus lead of genetic regulation at Astellas, Wilson is responsible for a portfolio of novel gene therapies designed to treat life-threatening genetic diseases.

Wilson has more than 30 years of experience in research, development, and commercialization of small molecules, biologics, and gene therapies. 

Prior to Astellas, he held leadership positions at a range of organizations, including BioMarin Pharmaceutical, Glaxo Wellcome (now GSK), BioChem Pharma, Theravance, and Innoviva. He has also delivered new medicines to market for diseases such as asthma, COPD, and PKU (a rare disorder that causes an amino acid called phenylalanine to build up in the body), in addition to leading R&D programs in anti-infective, cardiovascular, rheumatology, and urology disease areas. 

Wilson has served on a variety of advisory committees and boards, which include Berkeley Executive Education and the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, and currently teaches at San Francisco State University on lifecycle management in the pharmaceutical industry.

Wilson earned a BSc in chemistry from the University of Manchester before making his way to Haas, where he received his MBA in 2015. 

Dean’s Speaker Series: Education startup founder Ramona Pierson on goal-setting, lifelong learning

woman speaking with microphone with two students sitting next to her
Dean’s Speaker Series guest Ramona Pierson. Photo: Katelyn Tucker

From holding management roles at Amazon and Meta to launching three educational startups, Ramona Pierson, founder and Chief Technology & Science Officer at L3RN.AI, has always been goal-oriented.

As a child, said she had dreams of becoming a gymnast and running in the Olympics. After being recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps. for her skills in mathematics at the age of 18, she started running every day—and even qualified for the Olympics under the Marine Corps’ sponsorship. But while on a run at age 22, life took a turn. Pierson was hit by a drunk driver, an incident that left her in a coma for 18 months, and blind for 11 years. She had to relearn to walk and talk. 

Nearly 100 surgeries later, Pierson was living in a group home for seniors; and with the help of the other residents, she said she was both encouraged and inspired to remain resilient and reach toward new achievements. 

“Every day they had goals for me, and every day I started accomplishing those things. And it was that journey of goal-setting that really helped me come back,” she said at a Dean’s Speaker Series talk held on March 11. (watch the video below)

When Pierson finally had the chance to attend university, she not only thrived but ended up graduating as class valedictorian. 

“It took a community,” Pierson said. “[Students would] read my textbooks into cassette tapes so that I could listen to them at night. They’d read the notes, and professors wouldn’t change their teaching style at that time, so they just put the notes up on the chalkboard (when there were chalkboards), and all the students would read those in and then help me organize my life.”

With the goal of becoming a neuroscientist after college, Pierson began conducting research at Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Eventually, her advocacy led her to transition to the education sector, focused on research, evaluation, and assessment at Seattle Public Schools.  In that work, she discovered the need for students to have a supportive and nurturing environment in the classroom and beyond—especially when school may be the place in their lives where they feel the safest. 

“The moment that we forget that and take kids or adults away from being lifelong learners, then we start capping our potential,” she said. “Whether that lifelong learning is gaining a new skill or something else, you have to stay involved in your own learning adventure.”

Her own experiences relearning and implementing learning solutions led her to found SynapticMash, which offered software tools to primary schools in Seattle, and Declara, a social learning and collaboration tech company. But startup life was not smooth-sailing. From fears about “the cloud” to being denied funding as a woman in business, Pierson faced her fair share of setbacks navigating a new avenue of education.  

But Pierson knew there was a gap in the market when it came to helping kids catch up on core subjects as they go through the system. She added that, if you can find a way to fill a market gap that has not yet been invested in, you have a higher chance of having a successful business. 

Throughout her career, Pierson went back and forth between her own startups and the corporate world. Most recently, she left her position as director of product management for AI Integrity at Meta to work on L3AN.AI, a startup that she feels aligns with her values of encouraging lifelong learning, now with the use of evolving technology like AI. 

“Every time I start a company, we first develop core values with a startup team, and then I try to just have those leadership principles, and those core values drive everything,” Pierson said. “I’m not going to break my core values to make money. It’s easy to make money, but it’s hard to undermine the good of society.”

“Every time I start a company, we first develop core values with a startup team, and then I try to just have those leadership principles, and those core values drive everything,” Pierson said. “I’m not going to break my core values to make money. It’s easy to make money, but it’s hard to undermine the good of society.”

Read the full transcript below:

– Good afternoon. I’m Wendy Guild, assistant dean of MBA programs. I’m not Ann Harrison, but you are here at the Dean’s Speaker Series. Unfortunately, Ann Harrison can’t be here today, so I’m standing in to convene the event. Welcome. I’m thrilled to introduce our guest, Ramona Pierson. Ramona has a remarkable story of resilience. She was hit by a drunk driver when she was out running at the age of 22 while serving in the Marine Corps. After spending 18 months in a coma and enduring nearly 100 surgeries, she was finally able to rebuild her life. Because of her experiences relearning skills like speech and navigation, after the accident, Ramona decided to dedicate her career to educational solutions that help people find their paths and realize their visions. She ultimately founded three educational startups: SynapticMash, Declara, and L3RN.AI. Ramona has been an innovator in AI through developing AI solutions for social media, E-commerce, and business intelligence in leadership roles at Amazon, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Meta. I’m so grateful to learn today from someone who truly embodies all of our defining leadership principles—question the status quo, confidence without attitude, students always and beyond yourself—through all of her entrepreneurial efforts. Ramona, thank you for coming today to tell us more about your story and teach our students how to steer their own futures amid the exciting and sometimes overwhelming advances in AI. I’ll now turn it over to MBA students Haritha Nair and Anupama Tej, who will moderate today’s discussion. Let you take it away. Thank you.

– Thank you so much, Ramona, for being here. It’s truly an honor to speak with you. Your story is truly inspiring. So why don’t we start there? A terrible accident changed your life, and can you tell us about that accident and your journey to recovery? And how has that shaped you and who you are as a leader today?

– You know, as a kid, I was always very goal-oriented. I don’t know why, but as a little kid, I wanted to be a gymnast, and so I trained all the time, and I wanted to be a marathon runner in the Olympics, so I ran all the time. And I probably had ADHD, so my teachers really hated me in the classroom all the time. So, they normally would have me go out and run instead of go into the classroom. But that benefited me. When I joined the Marine Corps, I ended up being the most physically fit Marine. I got to be in a pilot program, so I was the first woman in a fighter attack squadron. And what benefited me in that was, because I was so physically fit, just after Title IX came in, so I was running all the time. And when I went out for a run one day, so I had qualified for the Olympics, and the Marine Corps was sponsoring me, so I’d run about 13 miles a day and do my regular job. And one day, I went back, grabbed my dog, and went out in the street and started to run. And as soon as I stepped off a curb, a drunk driver ran the red light, and my left foot got caught up in the wheel well of the car. The bumper went through my throat, and it felt like a grenade went off in my head. So I woke up 18 months later, and I was 64 pounds and could not walk. I could not talk. I didn’t know who I was or even what species I was. And probably, had I not had my dog with me, she kept me from going underneath the car. Unfortunately, she ended up dying, but her body blocked me from being completely run over. So when I came to, nobody knew what to do with me. So essentially, the doctors just threw a dart into the dartboard, and they picked out a nursing home to put me in. And so, imagine having 100 grandparents that had nothing to do except focus on you all day. So, I couldn’t do anything without somebody nitpicking or actually identifying or assessing me. And there was one woman there that had been an educator before, and she had Alzheimer’s, so she’d repeat the same thing to me all the time, which, when you’re relearning something, it’s quite helpful to do the same thing over and over and over again. But the whole time I was there, they really helped me recover my goal orientation because I was so confused after my accident that I tried to get my thoughts back together, but they’d every day set up goals for me. Like, “You will accomplish this, this, and this. You will learn how to eat on your own.” And you have to remember, I had to get teeth again, so all my teeth are titanium and porcelain. They had to straighten my feet out and give me a new nose. And I lost my right eye, was completely blind at that time because I had a hematoma behind my left eye, and my cornea was destroyed. So eventually, the senior citizens felt like I needed to learn how to cross streets and use a cane and learn braille and get back into my life. So, every day they had goals for me, and every day I started accomplishing those things. And it was that journey of goal-setting that really helped me come back. And sometimes, I’d go see a doctor, and they’d go, “Well, you aren’t going to live six more months” because they found out I had all these brain injuries and heart injuries. So the biggest thing was my pituitary gland. When you have a head injury, your brain rips and shears. And so, my pituitary gland was split in half, which is one of the reasons I wasn’t able to gain weight beyond 68 pounds because everything I’d eat would just flow right on out of me. That’s pretty gross. But anyway. And so, then they had more new medications for me, and that helped, new surgeries for me to help slow things up, and then I ended up with a new heart valve, and that helped me. And so, when I wanted to go back to college, first thing I had to do was get a seeing eye dog because I was terrible with a cane. When you have a cane, you have to make sure that you don’t have PTSD. And since I had been run over, every time I’d get close to a street, I’d freeze up. So eventually, the senior citizens raised the money to send me to go get a seeing eye dog. And my seeing eye dog, she wouldn’t even stall. She’d go, “You’re crossing the street,” and she’d bully me across the streets and get me everywhere. And she also helped me succeed in college because she could help me find my classes, help me find the buses, help me find food, and she was a remarkable dog. And some of the obstacles that came up against the ADA laws for the American Disabilities Act was brand new and hadn’t been tested. So every time I’d apply for college, colleges would turn me down. And they’d say, “Only 1% of the blind people ever graduate, so we’re not going to accept you in here.” And so, it was actually in Colorado, the students went on strike and wouldn’t go back to the classroom until the college accepted me into school. And then, I had to prove that I could be a great student, and I ended up being valedictorian of the school. But it took a community. It was like being in the senior housing, where in the senior housing, all the senior citizens helped me. But when I was in college, students would read, this is before ChatGPT, but they’d read my textbooks into cassette tapes so that I could listen to them at night. They’d read the notes, and professors wouldn’t change their teaching style at that time, so they just put the notes up on the chalkboard when there were chalkboards, and all the students would read those in and then help me organize my life. And then I started working with the creators of Deck Talk and Vocalize—this is before there was text to speech. And we were able to get my laptop to be able to speak to me in a very rudimentary way, so I could take tests and be able to function independently in classrooms again. But every time I’d solve one problem, there’d be another problem. But being goal-oriented, I just kept saying, “I just need another four years of school. I just need this degree.” And then, as I moved on and through my education, and then fighting to get a job as a blind person wasn’t easy. And I had to go through residency because I set my bar low. I wanted to be a neuroscientist, so I had to work at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, and I was doing research on the perimeter cells of the brain as one of the causes of schizophrenia. Anyway, it was complex, but my goal-setting, and the folks, the other residents there, accepted me in and helped me dive through the hurdle. So one of the things I always learned was: Radical collaboration can help you overcome anything, and it takes a community to really raise all of us. So hopefully I didn’t go too long.

– No, I’m at awe of your strength and resilience and finding optimism even in the toughest times. So I think my next question is there. You mentioned this a bit, the community gave you strength to keep going. Still today, where do you find that strength and optimism from? We were just chatting earlier in the green room, and all the work that you do, where does that optimism come from for you?

– Probably from everybody I work with because so many people have made it possible for me to be sitting here, and I have new cornea in my left eye. And if it wasn’t for a person who was run over by a car and died, who donated their organs, I wouldn’t be here. And the communities of people who help bring me, I have this drive inside that my life should be that of service. And so, I’m a capitalist, too. So I try to combine that. How can I do good for others and really be focused on betterment of communities and people and try to have those core values that I lean on? So, every time I hire someone, I think about our core values. Every time I start a company, we first develop core values with a startup team, and then I try to just have those leadership principles, and those core values drive everything. And one of those core values has been really lifting communities. And by having that, it’s not right or wrong to not have that in your life. But I have been very dedicated to that, and setting goals around that in all of my companies, or even whether I take a job or leave a job. I left my job at Meta because the goals that the company set out, I have been running AI integrity, and then you can make a lot of money, a lot of revenue in the company if you demote integrity and focus on revenue, and there has to be a balance. And when we decided that we weren’t going to focus on that balance, it was time for me to go because I’m not going to break my core values to make money. It’s easy to make money, but it’s hard to undermine the good of society.

– Thank you so much, Ramona. You are definitely an inspiration, but I’m sure that’s not an easy thing to be. You must have faced a lot of challenges and failures along the way, and that’s something we usually don’t really talk about always. You know, a good story, like you’ve overcome some issues, and then everything was rosy. But I’m sure that’s not how it went. So, how do you really deal with failures, and what mindset do you maintain? And any advice you can give on how we can redefine our relationship with failure?

– Yeah, the innovator’s dilemma is if you can get over your skis too far, that you’re ahead of the innovation curve. And I’ve done that a few times, and I keep trying to temper myself. When I had started SynapticMash, nobody had heard of cloud computing then. It was right before AWS had launched itself, and I was going to school districts saying, “Give me your data, I’ll put it in the cloud” because I created an education cloud, and school districts were like, “I don’t even,” they’d look up and go, “What are you talking about?” So, trying to educate them around that, and the power of being able to have data in the cloud, and then being able to truly personalize learning. And that whole concept was ahead of the curve, so I had to back up, even though I knew that that was right around the corner. And it’s hard to talk to your investors about seeing a future they have no ability to see. It’s almost like a lizard only sees two-dimensionally, so it can’t see that you’re putting your fingers around it until you’ve actually touched it. So, how do you see that fourth dimension? And innovators are seeing that next turn in the road, and it’s hard to be able to describe it. Like, even FaceBook had called themselves Read Write Technology before they had the concept of social networking because they were trying to describe something that people hadn’t experienced before. So I had, with SynapticMash, I had to, I failed in my communication with school districts. So I had to figure out, “How do I get the language to be able to talk to people about something they hadn’t experienced before?” So I went to McGraw Hill and humbled myself severely, going to a publisher, and in my mind, I wanted to say, “Digitization is going to put you guys out of business, so you better partner with me.” Instead of saying that, I said, “We would make a beautiful partnership.” And I told them that, “If you let me digitize your content for free, I’ll put it into a technical space so that kids can get it anywhere, anytime, and just drop the whole cloud thing.” Even though I was putting everything in the cloud, I just said, “Anywhere, access to technology and content.” And that saved the company because I was at risk of losing the company because of not being able to sell it. And investors won’t invest in your company if you can’t get customers. So that was one failure, and trying to think about how to recover from that. And then with Declara, I have been told “no” 1,000 times because Silicon Valley at that time didn’t want, well, I went to Peter Thiel, and he said, “I don’t invest in women, and I don’t invest in people over 30.” And so I was like, “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble here.” So then it was, OK, I’m getting all these no’s. And then, he ended up investing us in us three times. So we were able to show the quality of our technology and figure out how to communicate. So, it was my failure for why it was difficult for investors to understand. Again, because I was talking about a future, at that time, I had come up with chatbots, and that was 10 years ago, so nobody was doing that. And so, imagine a bot doing all of the research for you. It was freaking people out. And so, people were having a hard time with, especially investors understanding it at that time. And now it’s all the rave. So there’s this risk of getting over your skis and then failing because you were too far ahead of where the market could bear it, you know what I mean? Other times I failed because, sometimes, I wanted to invent new computing. And again, the company I was working for was like, “If we invest in that computing power, it’ll put our platform out of business.” So sometimes, in order to take a leap change, you have to kill your one business to grow a new business. And not all companies want to be able to do that. But being a leader, you have to speak your truth and be willing to take that leap and bring your company forward, even if it’s through baby steps.

– Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing about your failures. We don’t talk about it enough as entrepreneurs. I think we need to. So you started talking about career already. So you went to college after this accident, and then you tried to build your career. I’m sure that was not easy. How did you get into your entrepreneurship journey? Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

– Yeah, it’s interesting because I was back in education again, and I had moved from New York to Silicon Valley, and at the time, like in 1996, where the dot-com was exploding. And if you invented anything, you could make some money. And so I—don’t do this—but I took my student loan and put it into the stock market and won’t tell you what I put it in, but I made a lot of money, so then paid off my loans, and bought a house with my wife, and then started investing in my innovations. And then, I saw a gap in the market. The market for education was changing, and the publishers were blocking innovation from coming in there, but the politics were starting to change. And so, school districts were starting to feel pressure from above to make changes, and there were changes in technology coming from below, and students were adapting technologies. And so, I realized there was this perfect storm coming in, and that investing my time and money and innovations in education, and thinking about, “Where do we need to go to really create a sea change?” Not just a one-step change, but, “How do we really personalize around a student and understand their foundational needs?” So, when I looked at data across the country around where student assessments were and where the curriculum was and why curriculum was not working for some students, it was obvious that—when I worked with the Gates Foundation to look at data—that some kids started having a dip in their education and math, right when fractions and decimal points came in. So pre-algebra, around third and fourth grade, kids would take a dip, and then they’d never recover from that. And so, I thought if I could focus on that one gap and understand why that’s there and the reason it’s happening there, is in elementary school. So, think about it. What teachers teach elementary school? Teachers that are avoiding algebra, calculus. So, how do they teach pre-algebra if they don’t have the math? So, what if we could stop that dip from happening? So, I thought, that is something that’s great for kids, great for the community, great for schools, and is a new market. So that was the gap that I focused on. So when you start a company, if you can find that one gap nobody is investing in, but that you can, in a very unique way, stop that gap: You’re going to have a great company. And that company, I ended up selling it to another company, and that company brought us in, and we ended up being in two-thirds of the school districts in the country and went public, made a little money, and anyway, it turned out really great for us.

– Thanks, Ramona. I think that’s a perfect segue because you mentioned the dot-com bubble when everyone was building a lot of companies. You also mentioned education, so this conversation with you would be incomplete without talking about generative AI. And you did mention in an earlier interview that the purpose of education is not to think on behalf of students. So do you think generative AI is detrimental to learning by thinking on behalf of students?

– Yeah, it opens up a whole different world, I think, because if you let generative AI do all of your thinking, my team, they’ll ask me questions, and then I’ll give them an answer of how I’d solve a problem. Then, they go to generative AI, and they ask it, and then they compare how I answer to how the AI answers. And ironically, we almost are always the same. Periodically, it has a hallucination. Not me, fortunately, but I think that it opens up a new world of, and kind of an exciting one for educators, “How do we actually teach people to discern information, to really understand, and to bring in a lot of different perspectives to what they’re trying to accomplish?” Because if your students are just asking this bot to do all the answers, then there’s a failure all around. The student’s not learning anything. But if you can help your student understand how they would answer something, maybe then see how the gen AI would answer it, how to set up. How do you discern? It’s kind of fun. I do it with my team, too, is, “Can you tell the difference between somebody actually doing the writing and Chat GPT doing it?” There’s a lot of Socratic learning and teaching that could happen if we just use our tools as educators to bring in different types of learning mechanisms and methodologies, to be able to help students be able to succeed in a world that’s going to be flushed with AI and flushed with content that may or may not be true.

– That’s really interesting. It almost reminded me of sort of a reverse Turing test. You’re trying to find out if it was written by a human or not. But you also mentioned about Declara, and we wanted to touch upon that a little bit, executing Declara, and you can talk about a little bit for everyone to really understand what it’s about. But it really needed a disruption to an existing education system, and we all, as part of the education system, know how rigid it can be. What are your thoughts on building products and solutions that disrupt existing systems and that can bring long-term change, especially when the system is not really helping you enter that space?

– Yeah, that’s a great question. When I created Declara, it was interesting because I was creating these bots, and Fermat’s biopharma companies really liked it because they could find molecular content from their content stores, and then the bot would go find the researchers that created it, and then create a community around that content so that they could figure out, how do we create new drugs faster? But the intention of the company was to focus on adult learning because, after I sold SynapticMash, and then I became the chief science officer for the company that bought it, Promethean. And what I saw over and over again were educators using the whiteboard. And I’d capture the data, and they would have fundamental problems because the curriculum kept changing or the standards kept changing. And so, you had new math, and then back to old math, and then new math, and then quadruple new math. I mean, it was so confusing that I think the educators were having a hard time Translating from one math curriculum to the next and the new standards. And I watched the data coming from the students. Some kids auto-corrected their educator in their tablet, and other kids were just completely confused. So I thought, “What if we gave a tool this time around for the educators so that they could stay on top of, create collaborative social learning among each other, and I could connect teachers all over the place?” So the country of Australia bought the platform, country of Singapore, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and then eventually Mark Zuckerberg, through Chan Zuckerberg, brought it to the state of California for teachers to use. I had one use case for it, but then it was being used in so many different ways. And then, when I went to Amazon, the ironic thing, there was all the senior vice presidents were like, “Can we buy Declara and bring it into Amazon? Because we need it for all of our developers.” And I was like, “No, because it’s been bought by, the EU ended up buying it for open ed.” So I was like, “I can build something new, but it’s one of those things, that you build it.” And every time I turn around, people are like, “Can you build it again? We need it now.” I was so far ahead of the curve that, how do you reinvent it? But the problem for me is, I’d reinvent it 10 years to be 10 years into the future again. I have a problem with staying in the current decade I live in. Declara was successful, but I realized if I could have it today, it would be right time, right market, and right solution. And since it was a social, collaborative platform, we’d have to put in those constraints around the AI so that it wasn’t used for ill.

– Thanks, Ramona. Since we were discussing this in the back stage, I just wanted to bring that back. Once again, you talked about education, and we have been discussing, at least in business school, about the increasing income disparity, especially between people with higher education and people with, a high school diploma, perhaps, and compared to the people with high school diploma, are now earning much less than they used to before. As somebody disrupting or has been in the space for so long, do you think upskilling people, even if it means taking them out of the education system, helps better, or investing more into traditional educational systems, can help them overcome this gap?

– Yeah, we had a great conversation in the back area. I always have to bring up a time when I worked for Seattle Public Schools, and I ran research, evaluation, and assessment, and then there was a problem with a principal in one of the schools. So they said, “Why don’t you take that on, too?” So I was like, in a school district, it’s very hard to find people to fill all the roles, so you just take on whatever you can. And what I saw there in that particular school, the kids were in the hallways. Teachers were afraid of the kids. The kids were afraid of teachers. Teachers were checked out. There was a lot of alcoholism. It was very crazy. And when I think about answering that, we have to invest in our kids, and we have to invest in helping them feel safe. At that particular school, kids would, I’d open up the school at 6:30 in the morning, and kids would come in and go to sleep in the halls, and I’d ask them why they’re doing that, and they’d say, “Well, this is the safest place in my life.” And then, they’d get breakfast there. And so, school becomes a safe zone. Now, once you get them into school, how do you raise the bar and make sure that you are bringing the highest quality educator curriculum and institution? Kids don’t need just classes, but they need concerned adults in their lives. They need athletics. They need art. There’s a lot that makes up a whole human and the caregiving that happens. So I would say, “Can we bring in skill development, education, and nurturing to all of our students and figure out how to reinvent school?” When kids were, during the pandemic, not going to school, there were a lot of kids that just disappeared because they don’t have this caring, nurturing environment for whatever reason. Maybe parents are working three, four jobs, we don’t know. But the kids need caring, loving adults that are going to nurture them, educate them, care for them, and provide them skills and capabilities and competencies. And so, what’s good for the brain is to be a lifelong learner. The moment that we forget that and take kids or adults away from being a lifelong learner, then we start capping our potential. So whether that lifelong learning is gaining a new skill or something else, you have to stay involved in your own learning adventure, constantly learn something new and take risks and hang out on the cliff and fail. And kids in school have to learn to fail and to do it with humility and get back up and do it again.

– I think we’re almost at time. My last question to you is, you’ve been a successful entrepreneur. What advice do you have for a room full of aspiring founders and entrepreneurs? What should they be doing? What should they use their time at Berkeley for?

– You know, you guys are going to find so many different paths to your future. First of all, drive forward with passion and be a lifelong learner, because there hasn’t been one job that I knew how to do when I took it. So, you kind of have the skills to pull it together. But then, when you’re in the job, you learn how to do it. When I went to Amazon, I had to learn how to write PR/FAQs. Now, I write them all the time; but in the beginning, I was like, my first one I had to redo 40 times. The senior vice president kept saying, “Oh, this is crap, this is crap, this is crap.” And I was like, “But I’m a good writer.” But I wasn’t. Not in their methodology. So, anytime you take a new job or do something, you’re going to not do it right. You have to learn how to do that and then be able to learn how to look into the future. Help your employer move forward ethically and to take the risk to speak up, speak the voice for the people who don’t have voices. I do all the time. Or I did, I try to have an inclusive design mentality as I bring teams together because I was one of those people that was neurodivergent and blind. And so, you will have, as you become leaders, different kinds of people. And you’re going to have to invent different ways to hold team meetings, to include people, to really have empathy and care for the people who are working for you. And whether you become an entrepreneur or you go to a company, you’re going to grow into these leadership roles every single day because you’re going to have to lead—either as a technical leader, as a business leader, as a human leader, as an entrepreneur, and take risks. Take risks as a leader, take business. Right now, we need business disruption because business is stale. We’ve got all these technical innovations, but the business side isn’t keeping up. We need a new way to measure impact. And so, as we start thinking about community impact, Earth impact, like you guys are inheriting an Earth, a world, communities, politics. that my generation has failed on. So how are you going to take it forward and create the new business innovations that will allow humanity to go forward passionately and healthily?

– OK, this was amazing. First, I want to give a thanks for our students and Ramona Pierson. This is the moment where you have an opportunity to ask questions. So we’re going to go ahead and use the microphone in the center of the room. And if you have any questions for our speaker, please come forward. Now’s your opportunity.

– Hello, my name is Harsev Singh. I’m an EWMBA student here. In my regular life, I’m a civil engineer. So I had a question. Education is a very tough problem in itself to solve. And I felt like, even when I was going through school, most of the stuff I learned was probably not useful. And is there a way to, say, shorten the amount of education time span so that an individual can then, say, graduate in the 20s or earlier and go into experiential learning?

– Oh, I’m so passionate about that. I actually have a TED Talk on it. But SynapticMash. I partnered with McGraw Hill and Promethean, the whiteboard company, mainly because we could capture the data off the whiteboard and from whatever technologies used in classrooms. And McGraw Hill had all of this content, and so we digitized content, and the state of Indiana was going to bring the three of us together using my algorithms and data system and assessment system to personalize learning, and McGraw Hill, so we digitized their content. And the state said that they had a big problem with “gap kids,” they called them, so kids who hadn’t advanced in math for three years and had fallen way behind their age peers. So what started to happen are teachers hated seeing those kids in the class, not because the teachers were bad. It’s like, if anybody is failing or whatever, you feel like I’m failing. So you start pushing back away. And the kids would feel it, and they’d feel their parents sort of giving up on them or getting angry with them and their peers making fun of them. So these kids would spiral, lose confidence. So we decided, we want to take that on. Can we catch these kids up with their age peers? So we took all this content, took our algorithms, and what we did is we matched kids with different teachers. We matched kids to teachers who taught in ways that kids like to be taught. So small classroom environments, project-based learning. Some people like large classrooms, but we broke that all up and changed their classroom order. So some kids seem to do better with math right before lunch because after lunch, they’re going to sleep. And these kids, in particular, usually didn’t get breakfast. So we would make sure these kids got snacks in their classroom. So right before lunch, if they took math, they tended to do better because they had snacks. They were still awake, and they were engaged with educators that seemed to be comfortable teaching in a style in which the kids were. And then, we fundamentally changed the curriculum and the order. So there was a $60 million Gates program, where they worked with everybody to deconstruct learning progressions. So we looked at all the learning progressions of precursors, post-cursors of learning. So we compiled this really complex algorithm, and within six weeks, we got kids halfway caught up to their age peers by assessing, continuously, understanding where their fundamental gaps were. And instead of trying to keep them moving on with their age peers, we gave up on that. We just focused on, find out where they missed something, like ones and zeros. They don’t know how to multiply zero to any number. Well, they’re not going to understand 10s later. So it was, let’s go back, solve those problems. Once we did, it was easier to catch them up to their age peers. So we left that program in there. Two years later, I had sold my company, and this program was running for free in the school, and everybody kind of forgot about it. And these kids ended up becoming two years ahead of their age peers because they were getting personalized learning. The school district had fundamentally changed how they brought education in. And all of a sudden, a teacher came to me when I was doing a TED Talk, and she asked me a question because she was part of the experiment. She said, “How do we teach kids that finish high school curriculum in middle school?” Because these kids were continuously learning, and the publishers are building a curriculum around a spiral way of learning. That’s why it feels so redundant. Whereas in Europe it’s different. They teach everything forward. Anyway, if we could actually personalize learning and make it deep and make sure we don’t move forward until the foundations of learning are accomplished, we could get these kids through school faster. But it isn’t the speed; it’s the depth. So then, I would challenge that the curriculum, instead of being superficial and spiral, actually goes deeper. So that if kids finish algebra in elementary school, teach them calculus. Why do we make them wait until high school when their brains are open to learning when they’re younger? So they wouldn’t get as bored if they’re continuously challenged all through their younger years? That’s my bias.

– Any other questions? Thank you.

– Hello, Ramona. My name is Beatrice. I’m a first-year MBA. I wanted to ask you more when you shared with us that Peter Thiel said he wouldn’t fund you because you’re a woman and over 30. So how did you rebound from that? How did you have to change your strategy?

– What I did was I decided that I like challenges, and so it’s sort of like, “You can’t do that,” so I, of course, am going to do it. What I realized is that we were building the foundations of our company on building blocks. And then, I finally went, “What are some complex themes I could pull forward in my roadmap sooner rather than later, so I could get the wow effect sooner instead of waiting until the logical time?” So, it meant that I had to tweak my roadmap, and then get it in front of customers and get their buy-in because customers will go on a journey with you, but they’re not going to give you a dollar till you wow them.

– So would you say it’s a revenue and customer stream that you had to bring in earlier?

– Yeah.

– Thank you.

– Yeah. Investors are different than they were in the ’90s. So in the ’90s, you have an idea, you’d get money. Now, they want to make sure you have customers before you get money.

– My name is Dave Franks. I am in Executive MBA. Real life, I work in motion picture color and imaging. I wanted to know if you could give some examples of, you mentioned that business is lagging behind the technology in certain areas. Can you give some examples of where business isn’t catching up and needs to potentially?

– Yeah, where are the incentives for more of our moving into environmental, creating more interventions and innovation in the environmental space, and especially in the education space with all of our kids, and they’re our greatest resource for the future. And yet, schools are getting less dollars every year, and people are cutting, wanting to cut taxes. I remember when I went to school, was before Proposition 13 hit, for the older folks in the room. But Proposition 13 basically stripped the schools of funding. And when I was in school, man, we had swimming pool and this and that. We had 100 people that would try out for football or soccer or whatever. We had giant teams, had a surf team. I grew up in Huntington Beach, so I was surfing, but we had music. I could take violin and do really terrible there and then go do piano and do worse. But we had lots of things. When I go to schools now, there’s barely any music or art. We’re de-investing; how can we create a new mechanism or business innovation in that space, in the theater space? How do we bring people back to the theater? When I was growing up, I always was at the theater or trying out for something and not doing so great. But there was opportunity and more tax dollars that were going into young people’s lives. And we’re talking about whole populations of people who are being de-invested in and losing their jobs, potentially to AI. Yet, we’re not taking the money that the billionaires, and lots of businesses are making and putting it back into our greatest resource, which are your children, you guys.

– Hi, Colby, she/her pronouns, second year in the full-time MBA program. Thanks for being here. You’ve mentioned, now, a few of the big hairy problems we’re dealing with. Obviously, climate crisis, education crisis, income inequality, leading to a lot of these things. I think a lot of us feel a bit overwhelmed by it. Like, what is our role, especially post-graduation? I’ve worked in the social impact space. That felt hypocritical at times, because under that model, you’re still beholden to the philanthropists funding who have the power. Or I went to Amazon, and I couldn’t fully dissociate from the fact that I was a part of Amazon. And so, I think it’s a lot easier, once you’ve had your successes, to be like, “Oh, you should go do this thing.” And so, I think a lot of us are just grappling with, “How do we do what we can, use our skills, not perpetuate these systems that are clearly not working for us, but also, we can’t just jump to a new system tomorrow, right?”

– Yeah. And I think there’s so many paths to answering that. So I’ll tackle a couple of them. One is, when I went to Amazon, it’s like being in the military again. It’s kind of fun, but it’s kind of weird. But anyway, it’s very revenue, and I have to run four WBRs a week. I ran fraud and abuse there; and so, I had a giant AI and engineering team and product team, and WBRs are weekly business reviews. So everybody, the whole company was very focused on different things. And I would get feedback. Ramona, you’re missing 10 cents. And I’m like, but we just had 2 billion transactions, 10 cents is missing from those 2 billion transactions. And we’d go scurrying around trying to find those 10 cents. But we were extremely data driven and goal driven, which I liked. But my large team, I realized that because I was building AI models for fraud and abuse, I could turn those models inward and lay off a bunch of people because I didn’t need them doing manual labor anymore. I wasn’t going to need developers anymore. So then, what I decided to do was to take on the education problem within the company, which wasn’t popular, but it got momentum, where even Jeff Bezos decided to invest $600 million in education of employees. And bunch of projects started to build up within the company to try to figure out, how do we upskill our own employees to that next level? So what I’m trying to say is, you may go to a company for one job using one skill, but you’re going to see inequities. When you’re at every company, even startups, you’ll find an inequity, and you will have a choice. Do I try to innovate something there and help the company with those inequities and help the community of employees? Or do I leave or ignore it? So, you’ll have choices, but you’ll always be able to do and participate in the good, the social good, and changing. Because if you can change the hearts and mind within a company and affect change, you’ve changed thousands of people’s lives, or tens of thousands. And then, number two is, as students and graduates and future leaders of the world constantly ask yourself, “Is there a new way for me to look at this problem?” Like Uber, they flipped the business model upside down and became successful. Can we flip some of these problems upside down and solve these business problems in different ways? It’s not just technology that can create new innovations—it’s how we look at business that could actually create broad change in how people deal with recycling, or deal with water, or deal with community, or deal with war or conflict. There’s something we can do differently. I always focus on education because I’m always like, if we can get people learning together, they won’t kill each other. Or if we can figure out how to raise the voice of, in the areas of inequity, we can change the world. But it’s definitely, a lot hasn’t changed too much since for my 60 years on Earth. But I think you guys are smarter; you’re more aware. My generation was sort of trying different things and got lost on the way and then came back. But you guys see all of our mistakes and have new innovations and have a new voice and have a better sense of the good that could be done than probably we did.

– Thank you.

– Thank you. I’m afraid we don’t have any more time for questions, but I just want to thank you all so much for coming and wonderful questions. I’d like to thank our students Anu Tej and Haritha Nair. And of course, I want to thank Ramona. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and the far-ranging, very interesting conversation. It was really fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us.

– Thank you.

28th annual Women in Leadership conference to celebrate resilience 

At a time when the world—and especially the job market—is full of uncertainties, it can often seem impossible to rise above the challenges many women face, from the workplace to their personal lives. 

The 28th annual Women in Leadership conference aims to shed light on these challenges—and more specifically, the resilience that women exhibit. This year’s theme, “Leading with Resilience,” features speakers who will discuss their experiences in maintaining strength and overcoming adversity as women, from the personal to the professional to the physical. The conference will be held Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Haas School of Business, with an additional optional event the preceding evening at Ivy Room in Albany. 

“Thinking about the theme for this year, we wanted to focus on what was happening in the broader world and physical environment,” said conference co-organizer Jillian Geary, MBA 24. “And this topic of resilience kept coming up for a lot of us in the room.” 

Organized by the Women in Leadership club, the conference is one of the longest-running and highly attended events at Haas. 

The conference will feature speakers such as Yasi Baiani, co-founder and chief product officer at Raya; Shripriya Mahesh, founding partner at Spero Ventures; and more.

closeup of a female student
Jillian Geary

Geary, who worked for a diagnostics startup amid the pandemic, discussed how her background in health care helped inspire the conference themes of leadership and resilience. She noted that, especially during such a time of uncertainty, she discovered the importance of collaboration.“I think of this conference in a similar manner—that we are smarter when we come together and create an atmosphere for people to share the challenges they’ve been through, rather than solely share their biggest successes.” 

Co-organizer Alyssa D’Cunha, MBA 24, likewise noted that she hopes that the conference will help normalize difficult conversations surrounding hardship through a mixture of keynotes, a fireside chat, and panels on topics ranging from navigating male-dominated fields to living a balanced life.

She added that their ultimate goal is for attendees to leave the conference with a toolkit, having discovered their own resilience. 

close up of female student wearing blue shirt
Alyssa D’Cunha

D’Cunha, who has a background in mechanical and materials engineering, highlighted the significance of addressing how women can navigate and succeed in male-dominated industries. Kellie McElhaney, Haas lecturer and founding director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, will lead a conference workshop on the topic.

“I remember having a less than ideal conversation about having reached parity already, and how there is no longer this equality or equity problem that we need to address going forward,” she said. “We want to talk about how you navigate conversations like that with your superiors and what it means to be equity fluent.” 

On Friday, Feb. 23, there will be a pre-conference “Story Slam,” inspired by Haas tradition of Story Salon, where students share their lived experiences with storytelling.

Conference tickets are available now.

Dean’s Speaker Series: Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet and Google, breaks barriers as ‘powerhouse woman in finance’ 

Ruth Porat, president, CFO, and chief investment officer at Alphabet and Google, ranks among the most influential women in finance, having earned spots on both Forbes’ and Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women” lists.

Porat joined the Nov. 1 Berkeley Haas Dean’s Speaker Series, discussing her rich journey from Wall Street to tech.

As a child, Porat said her parents, both scientists, told her to “learn, study, embrace the new, and work really hard.” “And when I graduated from college, I thought I would end up going into labor law,” she said. Later, while earning an MBA degree at Wharton, her path took a turn while taking an amazing mergers and acquisitions accounting class. “That was the game changer for me,” she said. “I ended up applying to Morgan Stanley, starting my career there, and thinking that was the only thing I would ever do: mergers and acquisitions. But as the world changed, I kept moving around.”

After decades on Wall Street, including serving as CFO of Morgan Stanley from 2010-2015, Porat pivoted to the world of technology, joining Google in 2015 as chief financial officer. At Google, Porat was one of the key team members who worked to shift the company’s business model and its name to Alphabet. (Alphabet is the parent company of Google and several former Google subsidiaries.)

(Watch the DSS interview with Ruth Porat)

Even with her years of finance experience, she said she found herself constantly adapting to the new environment at Alphabet—whether by learning new technical tasks or working with new teams.

“The most important thing, from my perspective, is drawing on what you know, but being authentic about what you don’t,” she said. “So just go with it, learn, know that you’ll figure it out.” 

As Google’s longest-serving CFO, Porat continues to utilize her strong finance background to lead. Throughout her career, Porat said she has also discovered the importance of what she calls a “work-life mix.” Unlike the traditional “work-life balance,” which can lead to guilt, she said she prefers to look at life as a kaleidoscope—in which both personal and professional lives co-exist. 

“What I always tell people on my teams is, ‘Look, I trust you. That’s why you’re on my team,'” she said. “If there’s something you need to do at home with kids, with family, do it. Don’t feel guilty, don’t check in with me. And when you need to be here, you know, really torquing it for work, you’ll be doing that. It works out over time.”

Read the full transcript:

Good afternoon, fellow Bears. How are you? I’m Jenny Chatman. I’m the acting dean at Haas. It’s a delight to see you all here for this exciting event. Welcome to today’s Dean’s Speaker Series.

I’m thrilled to welcome Ruth Porat, a powerhouse woman in finance. Ruth has broken barriers her entire career from her start at Morgan Stanley in the mergers and acquisitions department to her current role as president, chief investment officer, and CFO at Alphabet and Google. Ruth has seen finance through many different lenses, private, public, and tech. It is said that she has a magic power of charting paths through uncertainty, especially when she led through the financial crisis of 2008. Ruth has also been decisive in initiating change coming into Google in May of 2015 and being a key member of the team that shifted the business model to Alphabet.

A few months later, Ruth even finds the time to mentor others and serve on several boards, including Blackstone, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. In our ever-changing world, I’m grateful that we can learn from someone who has led with resilience and strength throughout her career.

Ruth, thank you so much for taking the time to come to Haas and speak to us today. So, just a note on our process today: You have note cards on your seats. If you have a question anytime throughout the conversation, please jot down that question, and be sure to put your name and which program you’re from and give it to our monitors, and they will get the question to our question asker. So, we’ll be collecting those cards throughout the event, and we’ll save time at the end to answer those questions. So, I’m now going to turn it over to Madhu Gupta and Paula Gutierrez, who are going to moderate today’s discussion. Thank you.

– Good afternoon everyone, and thank you so much Ruth for being here. We’re super excited to have you.

– Just a huge thanks, just wonderful to be with all of you, and thank you for those very, very kind comments. It’s wonderful to be with the group.

– My name is Paola Gutierrez.

– And I’m Madhu Gupta.

– And we’re both second-year, full-time MBA students. As a school with a strong interest and love for technology, our community is really excited to hear from you today. In our time together, we want to take you and our audience through a journey, first learning about your career, then your leadership development, your strong passion and advocacy for women in technology, and then, finally, your outlook on the future. Does that sound good?

– Sounds good. Let’s go.

– So you come from a family of scientists—your father was a physicist, and your mother was a psychologist. And you yourself have three degrees from economics, international relations, industrial relations, and an MBA from Wharton. So tell us a little bit: What got you into the business world, and why finance as a place to begin your career?

Ruth Porat: So I feel blessed to have had the parents I’ve had. They were humble immigrants who were very focused on education. They always said, “Education is your passport for life.” And my dad, as he said, he was a physicist. We ended up in California when I was pretty young. He was at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. And as a young child, when I was in elementary school, he used to take me up to Slack, and we would build gadgets. He taught me how to use a soldering iron when I was in elementary school. And for those of you who don’t know what that is, it gets to a pretty high temperature, and you can melt things, so you can combine component parts. We built a radio—it didn’t really play good music, but I was proud as an elementary school kid to build that. And my mom was a psychologist. And as a young child, she said it was really important as a woman to have a career outside of the home. And she showed me that it was possible. And so their message early on was always, “Just learn, study, embrace the new, work really hard.” And when I graduated from college, I thought I would end up going into labor law. One thing led to another, graduate school, open doors. I ended up taking an amazing class—a mergers and acquisitions accounting class was the game changer for me. Go figure. But it really was. And I ended up applying to Morgan Stanley, starting my career there, and thinking that was the only thing I would ever do. Mergers and acquisitions. But as the world changed, I kept moving around.

– Wow, you’ve had an incredible career journey. You spent 27 years in Wall Street, and then 2015, you joined Google as CFO. So walk us a little bit through that journey and how you navigated two of the most challenging industries for women—I mean both banking and technology—and how that transition was for you.

I think there were, over the years, I came up with a couple of rules that I kept going back to. And one of the most important ones, and I tell my teams this all the time, “Anchor everything in data, and the rest will follow.” And I think as a young woman growing up in the financial services industry, when you have data and you lay it out in a compelling way and it tells a story, and in particular, when you build sensitivity analysis that forces engagement on, “So, what are the key variables? Is it revenue growth, or is it operating expense expectation? Why? Where do you think the world will go?” It sort of just starts to transcend “Who are you,” and, “Why are you there?” And you go right to data, and there was an expression at Morgan Stanley: “The answer is a number.” I think that’s really true. And I always tell my team, “Sensitivity analysis, grab people in a different sort of way.” So anchor in data. I think the other thing that’s really important is: Find a great boss. So, my first project at Morgan Stanley, I was working around the clock, and I never got to go to even internal meetings, let alone client meetings. And finally, after about a month, I was brought into a meeting, and the managing director looked at this guy and said, “So are you the one that I keep hearing about?”, which sort of made it pretty clear he was taking credit for my work, and it taught me, “Go find somebody you really want to work for who will take a risk on you and has your back.” And I did that repeatedly. And probably one of the most important stories for me was, I worked for somebody who eventually became the head of equity sales and trading. And when I was asked to run technology equity capital markets, which is a joint venture between banking and sales and trading, he called me into his office and he said, “I think you’re going to soar, but if you slip, I’m here to backstop you. I will be your senior air cover.” And I just thought that that was such an important phrase. We all need senior air cover, and we all need to be senior air cover for someone. So that’s the second lesson. And then the third, which is sort of a corollary, is when you have that great person, you can also have open-ended conversations about your career. So, my go-to phrase that I think has served me well—and I always advise everyone to use—is: Don’t pinpoint where you want to be and at what time, but say, “What’s my highest and best use,” whenever that opening comes. Because every door that opened for me, virtually every door that opened for me, what came out of that kind of conversation, what’s my highest and best use? And then it would, that person I trusted who took a risk on me, who was backstopping me, would point to something, and we’d have an open dialogue about whether it made sense, whether I wanted to do it. So those would probably be the three most important rules.

– Just a quick follow-up. So many of us, at least MBA students, are looking at pivots in our career. So in that pivot that you made from banking to tech, were there any points of time where you felt a little nervous or kind of unsure of what was what you were going to be facing, and this also very new and growing industry?

– Well, I think pivots are great. I think pivots actually, the most important thing from my perspective is drawing on what you know but being authentic about what you don’t. And so, the pivot from Morgan Stanley to Google wasn’t as dramatic as it seems. I had run tech banking at Morgan Stanley, I’d taken Google public, I knew a lot of the people, but a lot was definitely very new, but probably one of the most important pivots I made. Going back to this conversation, highest and best use, I was asked at one point at Morgan Stanley to take over and run the investment banking business focused on financial services. So banks, insurance companies, asset management. And I had done tech mergers, private equity. So I had a very clear answer, which is, “That sounds horrendously boring.” Like, there’s no way I want to do that. But somebody I trusted who ended up becoming president of Morgan Stanley said, “You got to trust me on this one. Running financial institutions is actually a lot like running tech—25% of the global economy, multi-sector, tech, you’ve got hardware, software, semis, in financial institutions, banking, insurance, et cetera. You got to try this.” And he was trying to be helpful. The first meeting he set up for me was with Larry Fink, who’s the founder and CEO chairman of BlackRock, largest asset manager. And I’m thinking, “OK, this is terrifying.” I know nothing about asset management at this point. So to your question, where there are moments where it’s like, “Why am I here?” Yes, but I concluded, and he was trying to do me a favor, introduced me to one of the most important people in that sector. And I said, “They have a section of BlackRock that is all about technology. I’ll lean into that. I won’t pretend I know asset management, and that’s the most important thing.” Be authentic with what you know—you’ll learn the rest later. And just one last bit, the transition to Google, there was a lot I didn’t know, and I was constantly Googling terms, and I literally, at one point, I’m in a meeting with Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and Larry turns around and sees me doing this, and he said to the group, “She’s Googling everything.” I’m like, “That’s OK. I’m learning.” So just go with it, learn, know that you’re not, you’ll figure it out.

– You’re doing, I guess now, a slightly less dramatic pivot, but you’ve been CFO for 14 years, and now in July, you became president and chief investment officer of Google. So why now? And why the need for this role?

– Well, I felt like the position I’ve had as CFO and still have, it’s a privilege to be in this role, and it’s been extraordinary. And as CFO for eight years and the longest-serving CFO—and I’m still the CFO—and I will, I’m still massively focused on landing our plan and where we go from here. But it just seemed like the right time. Fourteen years as CFO, longest one at Alphabet and at Sundar, and I talked about it, there’s a real opportunity to say, “Where do we sharpen our focus on investments? How can he and I work together on that? And what’s the interplay between investments and global policy?” And I think it’s an exciting time on this planet, and so, it just seemed like the right time. So I’m grateful for it.

– Thank you, Ruth, for sharing your early interest in finance, your career, and how you’ve grown along the way. Shifting gears now a little bit to learn about who Ruth is and the personal experiences that have shaped her. I recently read that, when you interview candidates at Google and Alphabet, you often ask about their battle scars, which, correct me if I’m wrong, but for the audience here, asks, “What has happened to you, and how have you learned from it?” Today, we would love to pose that same question to you and learn a little bit about your personal battle scars and how they have shaped who you are today.

– I do ask that question in every interview. I think it’s a really valuable one to see, “How have people learned, and what pattern recognition do they have as a result of some of the toughest things that you’ve been through in life?” And so, there are probably two worth noting on the personal, ’cause you call, you said personal battle scars on the personal, I’ve had cancer twice. First, in 2002, 2000, I’m sorry, 2001. I’m blocking the whole thing out. 2001, and then again in 2004. And at the time, my kids were very little, first time around 5, 7, and 9, and it was clearly terrifying. I’m completely fine. I’m grateful for the amazing care that I got, but if it taught me anything, it’s to make sure everyone knows: Don’t assume that you can plot out a life on a timeline and defer to later what you want to do now. When I was in the hospital for surgery, I had these three amazing kids. I’ve been married to this amazing man forever. I am really happy with my career there. There were, I was the oldest in the cancer surgical center, and I looked at younger women, and my fear for them was “Had they done what they had wanted to do?” So, all I can say is, whatever it is, “Grab life by the moment.” Every day really is precious. And don’t defer because you don’t actually control the timeline as much as we all would like to think, professional, but I’m fine. So that’s the good news. Medical care is amazing, in terms of professionally, probably the biggest battle scar was going through the financial crisis. And because I didn’t actually go with my instinct on that, no way am I going to do financial services. I did end up running it in 2006, and then crisis, when you were in a bank started in 2007, 2008, secretary Hank Paulson asked if I would, a team of us from Morgan Stanley would, we got seconded to the Treasury Department. I worked with him very closely on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, when we went through the various Lehman, et cetera, weekends, and then AIG. And it was extraordinary to go through that and just really see the imperative of making crisp decisions at the right time, in the right way, with the right team.

– Thank you for sharing. I know many of us in this room can draw inspiration from the immense strength and courage with which you’ve navigated these very difficult experiences. Now forging a path in a successful path, I should say, in these industries, does not come without personal sacrifices and evaluating trade-offs. Now, of course, you are no stranger to that, having navigated many challenging periods in your professional life as you just mentioned. So navigating the 2008 financial crisis, a long battle with cancer, and most recently the pandemic and tense economic conditions, what have been the most important lessons that you have learned along the way—and how have they changed the way that you show up and lead every day?


– That is a great question. I think one of the most important things I come back to all the time, I say it frequently, is “the absence of information is filled with dirt.” And when you’re going through any crisis, personal or professional, the absence of information is filled with dirt. Those around you fear the worst. And one of my kids, ’cause I also use this expression at home, said, “Actually, mom, when you’re a teenager, sometimes it’s filled with fun,” and he’s totally right. But fundamentally, the absence of information is filled with dirt. And I think that, to me, the fear that our teams had going through COVID, you don’t know everything when you’re going through a crisis, obviously it’s so rapidly evolving, you don’t want to overstate and then under-deliver, but sharing what you know, how you know it, making it clear you care and you want to bring people along, is absolutely imperative. And when I look at all of you thinking, you’re about to enter the workforce, I tell my teams this all the time because also, it’s really important actually, as when you’re on a team, if you don’t tell your boss what you’re doing, sometimes they assume, “Well maybe they’re not actually doing very much or doing what I want them doing.” Communication is really important. I had a boss who said, you can never over-communicate enough. I think that’s right. That’s probably one of the most important. And then the second really important one is something I learned actually from Hank Paulson, secretary Paulson as we were going through the financial crisis. And as I’m sure many of you remember, at one point, the biggest concern was about Greece, and was Greece at a tipping point? And he said the problem when you’re going through a crisis is, “You have to have the will and the means, the political will and the financial means, too often by the time you have the will, you no longer have the means.” Problems get bigger over time. And I think it’s very instructive for all of us. When you see an issue, it’s easier. First of all, it’s easier to prevent than to fix. And it’s easier to fix early than to let it grow. So act, be decisive, you’re always dealing with least-worst options. There’s no good option. Those would be some of the main lessons.

– Thank you. You touched upon how you have led through these very trying times for the world. And, of course, your incredible leadership has earned you the title of the most powerful woman on Wall Street. And one of the most powerful women in the world by Fortune and Forbes. I want to ask you, what do these labels mean to you, and how do you shoulder this responsibility for the women and minorities around you?

– You know, in the early days, it was uncomfortable to hear something like that. But then I realize what’s really important. I am here because of the many women before me who made this possible, my mom, who said, “Have a career,” and I saw you could be a great mom and have a great career. And oftentimes, I’d come home and wonder, “Why did everybody else get to come home?” And their mom was there, mine wasn’t. But I saw what an important role model to us. And she’s really, that generation cleared away so much our, my generation is trying to clear away more for all of you and other underrepresented groups. So I think it’s really important that we, A., understand and see the various roles that women and other underrepresented groups have in these industries and are there for one another. And really, again, that senior air cover backstop be there for one another. Some of the things that we may each think, we’re idiosyncratically going through it. No, probably a number of us have dealt with it before. And so having that open network is really, really valuable.

– Yeah, just to follow up to that, What do you believe is the biggest priority to get more women into tech and leadership roles?

– Well, I think for every organization, it has to start with tone from the top. ‘Cause tone from the top sets that expectation for all. But that’s not enough. You then, I firmly believe, need to ensure that the organization has invested in process systems, and I’m going to come back to it and data, at the end of the day, set your goals, hold yourself accountable, and see how you’re doing with data. Data will tell you, will make it really clear, elucidate where you’re missing. You’re falling short of expectations. But I think of it like any supply chain issue. If it’s not working, you need to basically go back through, “What is it, do a postmortem, what’s not working, what in our supply chain is not working?” And it starts with clarity about what your objectives are, the data, and then putting process around recruiting, retention, training, visibility, every element of it to make it possible.

– You’ve been a strong champion for women in tech basically for all of your career. Even in 2018, you joined your team in the walkout protesting sexual harassment at Google and at the Wall Street Journal Tech Live conference, you asked, “If the tech industry can make cars that drive themselves, why can’t it do better when it comes to sexual harassment?” Many of our MBA students, myself included—and we spoke a little bit about this before coming out to the stage—are focused on centering diversity, equity, justice, and belonging in their careers and future ventures. When you’re thinking of your role as CFO—and now as the chief investment officer—how do you make decisions to advance DE&I, not only in the makeup of employees and the organizational culture but also in the way that products and services are designed and taken into market?

– That’s a great question and so important. Look, I think it starts with a deeply held view. I have, Sundar (Pichai) has, our senior leadership has, that diversity is not, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in an org, is not just the right thing to do, but it builds a much better, stronger, more capable organization. The diversity of views lets you understand and see things that you don’t otherwise see. And so, everything I said about put process and systems so that you’re making sure that you have at the broadest representation that you’re supporting people throughout their careers, giving them the access, the opportunity is key. And then, as we talked about briefly, the impact on product is absolutely imperative. It goes to the same point, one of my favorite stats, 1.3 billion people on the planet have accessibility challenges. So when we think about Google and our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible, one of the important thing, universally accessible, 1.3 billion people on this planet are in need of some elements of what we can do with technology that will open the ability, access to information, access to different elements. And so it makes our products better. Everybody should be focused on this. I also, as a CFO, one of the things I’m really proud that we do, is we have a digital skills training program. And it started when our colleagues in New York wanted to find people from underrepresented communities in New York, train them to do IT support. Fast-forward many years, it was such a success, their conclusion was, “If we want to really have an impact, what we should do is create certificates that are portable,” which we now have nine, “Build a consortium.” We now have more than 250 companies in the U.S. More than half of the people who go through this program are from underrepresented groups. And what we’re doing is giving them access to high-growth careers. Well-paying careers. And what is extraordinary to me is, if you want to have sustainable economic growth in society, you need to have everybody participating. You need to address the opportunity gap. And so, we’re addressing it through our products, but also through other efforts where we can say, “How do people participate in this growing, thriving, changing economy?” And so, I am proud of it, it’s very core to the way we think about it.

– That’s amazing. Sometimes there are things that we can’t control based on the society and the systems that we work under. So, I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about the things that we can do personally to set ourselves up for success when we’re facing some challenges in our career. So, you’ve been very vocal about not liking and banishing the term “work-life balance” because you believe it sets us up for failure, both men and women. And you are a big advocate for a work-life mix. So can you kind of speak a little bit to what that means and how you’ve created that for yourself?

– Yes, it’s one of my favorite topics. I love your chapters back and forth here. So look, I think where you said it in the question, work-life balance, like balance, the physics of balance is really hard. And I think that when you’re trying to have balance, all you do is feel guilty that you’re not doing enough at work, you’re not doing enough at home. You haven’t, you’ve let somebody down. So the metaphor, you know, I keep coming back to is, “Life is like a kaleidoscope.” If you have one side that’s equal in size to the other, and one’s yellow and the other’s green, that’s pretty boring compared to what life really is. Lots of different shapes, lots of different colors, they move over time. And so, what I always tell people on my teams is, “Look, I trust you. That’s why you’re on my team. If there’s something you need to do at home with kids, with family, do it. Don’t feel guilty, don’t check in with me. And when you need to be here, you know, really torquing it for work, you’ll be doing that. It works out over time.” And to me, it’s that work-life, mixed kaleidoscope that’s really important. And you’re absolutely right. It is for all of us. All of us need to figure out in our lives, how do we actually combine a mix? And for me, a large part of it was kids, but it may be something else. It may be sports or community service or whatever it is, you need a mix. Because the other point is, if you don’t have a mix, I think you burn out on your job. There’s no way that any job, I love my job, I’m so grateful to have this opportunity, but if this was it, I can’t imagine that it would be completely all nourishing. So, figure out a mix, recognize that you’re, do it whenever you want to do it. No timeline thing. Going back to the first question and then that mix is going to nourish you over time.

– A quick follow-up on, you talked about kids was part of your mix and figuring that out. How did you figure out what was right for you and what felt right for you? If you know that being a mom was going to be a big part of that mix, or was that something that you tested, maybe a few things you didn’t like? Try some other things until you found the right recipe?

– Yeah, I probably, if my kids were here, I don’t know what they would say, but hopefully, it would be good. It does start with the fact that my parents were amazing, and as I said, with a mom who worked, I think that really helped because I had a pattern that I saw actually could work. And I think part of the mix element is I didn’t try and have two separate lives. My kids were very aware of what I was doing. And they met the people with whom I worked, so we played games. If I was working on a deal, I would explain how the globe worked and the markets where they open, and we would follow it. Which may sound like a weird set of games. Some of you’re probably like, “Wow, great mom.” But, you know, I, one thing I have right on my dresser ’cause it means so much to me working during the financial crisis, we were literally working around the clock and that AIG awful weekend, or Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, rather, I was around the clock, and I came home and my kids had each written a little note to me, yellow sticky note, and it totally reflected their personality. The oldest must have been 14 or something at the time, was like, “Mom chillax, this’ll be fine.” Which is his personality. And then the middle guy was like, “This is so important for the country.” And the little guy was like, Mommy, hurry up and fix this because I want you back.” And it was, but they got it. They got, it was, I was doing something that mattered. And to me, that was because we always talked about it. And also because I was present when in everything important in their lives. So that is a way of saying, I really, this whole thing. Can you have it all? Well, I think you can, you just have to define what that is. Maybe there are plenty of things I haven’t been able to do and plenty of things where I wish I could have done more. But it’s a beautiful mix when you think about it. It’s the kaleidoscope.

– Thank you for sharing.

– Sure.

– Yeah. Thank you for taking us along your thoughts on balancing professional and personal lives. And I personally loved the kaleidoscope analogy, so I’m going to be using that. We are now at your, let’s see, eighth year at Alphabet and Google, and congratulations, what an incredible journey that has been for you. Google, as we know, is known for its transformative world, changing ideas, often being the pioneer of groundbreaking innovation. But investing into such projects requires a high degree of risk and uncertainty. How do you evaluate and measure the impact and potential of these projects against the risk and the potential consequences they may carry?

– Yes, it’s a great question. I think, for all of us, coming out of business goals and focusing on finance and capital allocation is one of the most important things that we do. And I think there are really two parts to your question or two parts to the answer—one I learned really early in my career. I was on a deal at Morgan Stanley, the Gillette hostile takeover defense. It was written up in the book from Good to Great. And the reason it was written up is, the CEO said, “Do whatever you need to do to keep me independent, but you cannot touch my R&D budget, and I will not tell you what it is, but I’m better off dead than existing without that budget.” And it ended up, I learned years later it was the Sensor razor. And I think the message I got as that young associate was, “If you don’t invest for long-term growth, you are starting to sow the seeds of your decline.” And so, you are totally right, there are risks associated with it, but there’s a bigger risk not doing it. And so, really important to invest for long-term growth. Now, that needs to be calibrated, you got to have the engine, but by the time you need that growth to kick in, I have seen too many companies across too many industries where they think about it too late, and then they’ve sort of run out of runway. So then, how do you analyze it, to your question? It’s hard to do. I mean, it starts with, again, data. What are the assumptions that you need to look at? And oftentimes, and I learned this really working at Morgan Stanley and thinking through, “How do you determine what to take public in many instances, the articulation of what is the model, how can it evolve, how does it defy what is already out there in the conventional world,” gives you a sense of what’s the art of the possible but also what’s the aspiration and ambition of the CO. Do you have the right team that’s going to drive to get to the top of the mountain? And so the analytics are hard. It has to be a problem that’s worthy of taking on. We often start with, it’s got to be, have the opportunity to really benefit people around the globe in a meaningful way. It has to be big enough to matter. And then you look at, “How is it transforming? Is it truly a different approach, a different experience?” And so, it’s, yeah, and you have to, and then finally, I’m sorry, set metrics along the way so that you can kind of mark yourself, metrics and milestones along the way.

– Thank you for sharing. It’s really fascinating to sort of hear about that data-driven approach that you just described. All of us MBA students in the room today. We are super excited about the future. We’re very hopeful, but at the same time, we are living in very uncertain and anxious times with the emergence of gen AI and the impact it can have on the workforce. Very tense economic conditions and worsening climate change. And the list just goes on, with that. When you think about the future, Ruth, what keeps you up at night? What helps you keep going and what are you most excited about?

– There’s a lot to be excited about, and I think you’re absolutely right. There’s so much to be concerned about. I do think technology throughout history has been a catalyst to solve problems. It’s been a catalyst for economic growth. When we talk about AI, we want to make sure that we’re bold and responsible. We’ve talked about the fact that, when you have a technology, that “is this extraordinary and transformative?”, and then Sundar, our CEO years ago in Davos said, “It’s like fire. It can sterilize water, it can heat your home, it can burn it down. It needs to be properly governed.” So, I think, when I’m very excited, when I look at what AI can do, if I go back to cancer as an example, when I got to Google, shortly thereafter, our amazing team had a breakthrough in early-stage detection of metastatic breast cancer. I had breast cancer. And so, I call my oncologist at Sloan Kettering and said, “Is this as important as it seems, or is this just kind of Silicon Valley believing itself?” And he said, “You cannot, we cannot transform health care, we cannot democratize health care.” That was his language. “We cannot democratize health care without AI.” And to me, that’s extraordinary, because I had amazing care because I was at an extraordinary institution. But not everybody lives near Berkeley or near Sloan Kettering or you name it. Not everyone lives in these areas. And so the upside, whether it’s in health care, and many cancer docs will believe that we will solve many aspects of cancer in our lifetime. That’s amazing, right? Whether it’s with education, whether it’s applying it to climate change, there’s a lot to be excited about. But we do need all of us focused on, “How do we use this productively in the right way?” Climate change is so self-evident that the pace at which the evidence is in front of us that we need to make sure that we’re individually, collectively applying ourselves. And at Google, what we look at is, “What can we do through products and services that will help more than a billion people on the planet make decisions in their daily life?” And, “What can we do at, across Alphabet to transform tech with technology that can transform solutions?” And, “How can we run our data centers 24/7 on carbon-free energy? What do we need to do?” So, we each, I’m concerned and excited, and I think that’s the right way to think about it because what the solutions are here if we apply ourselves with gusto, and we need to collectively own these issues.

– Thank you, I think we definitely needed that inspiration.

– Last question for today. You were in our shoes once at Wharton a few years ago. What is your-

– A few years ago, that’s so generous. A few decades ago.

– Just a few years ago, we have a room full of MBA students here who are very excited to embark back into their professional lives. What would your advice be, and if there’s one thing that you could do differently when you were in business school, what would that be?

– So I feel like you keep asking a question. I give a two-part answer, apologies. But I graduated from Wharton, I’ll date myself because it’s relevant to the story. I graduated in 1987, I started at Morgan Stanley in August of 1987. And for the historians in the room, October of 1987 was the single worst percentage decline in the history of the stock market. And that record has not been broken. So I started my career six weeks before I thought the world—the finance world—was falling apart. It didn’t, if you now go and actually Google it and look at do a chart, right? August 1987, to the present, it’s a tiny blip. It is irrelevant. In the moment, it felt like everything I’d worked so hard for maybe was gone. And what I ended up doing was I thought I would only be in M&A, and I was never going to do anything other than mergers. But new things came out of banking after that. And so, first of all, no matter what the world throws you, I do think these things open up new doors and keep it in context. It feels much worse in the moment. Number two, be open to new ideas. If you love what you’re doing, stay with it. You don’t need to move around. But if you get to a point where I did a number of times in my career where I felt like I was plateauing, I went back to the, “What’s my highest and best use?” And I was open to change. And just make sure you’re working with great people, ’cause they will coach and train you. They will get you up the curve much faster. I ended up hiring somebody when I got to Google who was close to retiring as controller of Intel. He had a bit more time left. But I said, “Come over to Google because we have amazing young rising superstars, but I want someone with your pattern recognition.” And that’s what he did. He got all of the team up the curve really quickly ’cause he brought so much wisdom from his many years of experience. So, lean on those people. If you’re working with great people, they’re going to love to coach and see you rise up, and you’re going to have fun.

– Well thank you, Ruth. It’s been an absolute honor chatting with you today, and I speak, obviously, on behalf of all of us when I say we’re so grateful for the opportunity to learn from you. With that, I think we’re ready to move on to audience Q&A.

– Cool, thank you. Thank you both for the questions.

– I’m Don Moore. I am the associate dean for Academic Affairs here at Haas. Thank you, Ruth.

– Thank you.

– For this wonderful, insightful discussion.

– Is your mic on?

– Your mic’s not on

– It’s not on? Oh, nope. OK, thanks. So let’s see, I have a few questions from the audience. Given the fact that Google’s on the forefront of the AI revolution, can you take us into the future and share with us what your or Google’s vision is for that future and help the aspiring young professionals in the audience place themselves in that future? How should their careers take account of where things are headed?

– So AI, what’s interesting about it is it’s so, so much a part of every conversation that we’re having, but the reality is, of course, we’ve all been using AI for quite some time. Anytime you take, you do a photo search, or anytime you’re traveling and you want to translate to another language, across the board, contact centers are currently using AI to provide operating leverage to the teams they have there directing questions queries most efficiently. So, it is here. That being said, your question is a great question because the inflection is extraordinary, and I think you’re going to see it in every industry and it’s going to, so wherever you are going, whatever you’re going to do, make sure that you’re fluent and fast and, “How can I use AI to either get closer to customers or think about operating efficiencies in my business? Where should I get operating leverage? How can I use it as a risk tool?” Those are sort of the business answers. When I think about the implications for the world, I’ve hit on a lot of it. And to me, that is what’s exciting, the implication for health. So as an example, our leading AI group, Google DeepMind. So at DeepMind, they open source to the world, something called AlphaFold, where it’s basically giving to the world protein structure as a base for researchers, scientists globally to work on drug discovery, climate change solutions. And what I’ve heard doctors say, researchers say is, “This is the most important foundation for drug discovery.” And to me, these types of things are what get me really excited. So, it’ll be in every part of your life. And I think those of you say, “I want to go into governance around it,” that’s a great part as well. Making sure that it is safe, that bias is addressed. Oftentimes, I’m asked, “Well what’s the role if you’re not a computer scientist?” Plenty. Because much of what we do in the real world today has bias embedded in it. You don’t want to just replicate that. So we like to bring in social scientists, humanists to make sure that what you’re looking at, we’re thinking about how to improve upon this. And then the last point I’d make is, I personally really like the concept that it’s not artificial intelligence—it’s augmented. And for each one of us, it should augment what we do. It’s a tool for us to use, but judgment and bringing teams together, creativity, it is going to be a foundation, just like I’m old enough to remember my first calculator, my first PC. These are all operating leverage, and we should use it that way.

– A follow-up question. Google is at the forefront of organizations racing toward the transformative introduction of general AI, and there are some intelligent observers who worry about the risks that unleashing AGI on the world could pose competitors racing toward that frontier may all want to get ahead of their rivals and may all wish that the government imposes some safety regulations on all the competitors. What sorts of regulations would Google like to see imposed?

– It’s a really important question. The White House actually has done a very good job here bringing industry in. And I think the group of us who’ve come together, and they just issued their executive order on AI, but the principles around governance for AI have been very important to do red teaming, to test what you’re doing, to provide transparency, to look at watermarking, all of these issues where you look at it as a collaborative body trying to ensure that we prevent misuse, abuse, and the downside risk. And I think one of the other things that’s been very important that the White House has also done is, what we don’t need is a U.S. solution and a Europe solution, and fill in the blank. So trying, for example, the G7 came out with some added principles, and everyone’s trying to constructively come together to delineate, “What are the rules of the road that will make a difference?” And we’re pleased to see that that is the way people have approached it

– A couple of times already. Today the issue of climate change has come up. How are you thinking about the current climate crisis from the will means perspective? What’s Google’s role, especially from an investment perspective in helping create a better, more sustainable future?

– Well, I’m very proud that from the earliest days the founder, our founders Larry and Sergey had been focused on climate change. And so, we were the first to be carbon neutral than we’d said in 2012. We wanted to match 100% of our energy consumption with renewables, figuring that if you put basically a bid out in the market, you would catalyze more supply. That, at the time, the team thought it would take about a decade to get there but hit that goal by 2017. And so, a number of years ago, we said, “What we now want to do is work on actually not just matching but never emitting. So let’s run all of our data centers, all of our office campuses on carbon-free energy 24/7.” It is not easy to do, but we’re making a lot of progress on it because, again, collectively, we need to set clear aspirational goals. The data are self-evident, they’re going in the wrong direction. And so, that part of that’s about “how do you use AI.” For example, one of the things that we found is we can make our data centers more efficient. We think we’ve had the most efficient data centers on the planet, and yet, with cooling, you can make them more efficient with an application of AI to measurement and looking at where you cite them so that you can actually use alternate source of energy. If anyone wants to come down to Sunnyvale and see our campus there, we’re really proud of the way we’re building, we’re using in our Sunnyvale facility, geothermal energy, you can see our solar panels on the buildings. And so, building it into everything you do is one, the second I’ve already mentioned, “How do we make sure that our products address what people around the globe are asking for, which is how can we each have an impact?” So eco-friendly routing is the one example, and if you search on flights, “What’s the carbon footprint from flights?”, that should motivate every CEO of a company that is the bottom of the list to move higher up on the list. And so again, it’s another form of saying transparency, and then we have some exciting breakthroughs in our… across what we’re doing in research that are still early,

– Such important contributions. So, the issue of the global climate crisis and wise shared guardrails on the development of AGI both necessitate international cooperation. Shefali is a full-time student in our MBA program and a former U.S. diplomat. She asks, “Could you please share more about your engagement with international relations and how this connects with your career in finance and tech?”

– Great question. So, I look, I firmly am of the view that there’s an interplay between public policy and the types of investments that one makes, would want to make. For example, if you’re citing a data center somewhere, you want to make sure that we can actually protect users’ data. That we don’t actually lose it because there’s an expectation. And so, there is unequivocally a linkage between getting the right policy in place and then people do want to invest, invest responsibly. And I think bringing that lens to all of the discussions is key. I saw that unequivocally during the financial crisis, you, and each one of you working, where you work will have technical insight, and the question is, “What actually is in the art of the possible that can land that doesn’t have unintended consequences?” And what’s very important is, you come at it trying to solve the problem for the country, trying to actually step outside and into the role of the person you’re working with. It is extremely transparent when you’re not doing that, and as somebody who sat on the other side of the table, you want to make sure you’re engaging with people who are constructively trying to solve the issues at hand for the broader society and bringing their technical expertise. So I think that interplay between finance, investment, public policy, is a wonderful nexus that enables us to have stronger public policy.

– Have you been able to apply your studies in international relations to your work?

– Well, it’s funny, because my thesis a million years ago was about nuclear energy and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. And, at the time, I was very clearly saying this is a concern. Fast-forward many decades, not many years, but many decades. And I actually think to the climate change question, there’s a real opportunity, in particular, given we have smaller scale of nuclear energy opportunities to look at what’s the interplay there. And are there ways that we should be rethinking some of the things that I learned many, many years ago. But absolutely, the lessons of history are lessons we keep learning over and over again. And whether it’s how do you solve, how do you bring together the public-private sector to convene in a way that develops and delivers very responsible governance around AI. There are plenty of history lessons there, or whether we think about where else we can execute. I think every discipline that any one of you has gone through, you will find a nugget in there that’s relevant.

– Nebo Iwenofu is a student in our evening weekend MBA program and asks, “You have to have broad knowledge and deep understanding to be successful at your level. How would you coach a leader in your organization to be both broad and deep in their area of responsibility?”

– I think you develop that over time. Don’t expect too much upfront from yourself. Do what you’re doing—do it really, really well. I think there was one point in my career at Morgan Stanley where I actually stepped back as we were getting to the year-end process, and I realized I was working for too many people, I was supporting too many people. I was in equity capital markets, I think, at the time. And so, I had a whole host of business partners, and I think focus yields results, and so, go deep, have a great boss or series of bosses who will coach and groom you. Then, you get expertise that you can then continue to build upon, and you have plenty of time ahead so you don’t need to rush it. I think it’s very easy to be super impatient and not have that context, and you’ll be surprised how over the years it just sort of is like a patchwork quilt that builds on itself.

– If you could go back in time to deliver a message to your 27-year-old self, what would you tell yourself?

– Probably, “It’s going to be OK.” I don’t actually look on things where I’ve messed up. It’s like mistakes. I view them as learning experience, and so, I don’t actually record them that way because they are learning experiences, and I think just keeping things in perspective and appreciating the kaleidoscope that life does evolve over time. There were plenty of times, actually, I finally have a good answer as I was rambling on and on too. Inarticulately, the most valuable is that you’ll be able to get there and learn and grow and just grab the moments when you see them and enjoy it as you go. Don’t feel guilty, maybe, I don’t know what it was in my life, but I have felt guilt all the time. So I’m very articulate about saying, “Don’t feel guilty.” Work-life mix, not work-life balance. It came from feeling guilty, right? That I wasn’t doing enough, and only when I deconstructed why and got to the kaleidoscope and got to the fact that I have amazing kids and incredible partner in life, did I realize be there in the moment and be wherever else you need to be in that moment. And it’s OK. Guilt doesn’t actually do anything productive in life.

– Thank you. We should wrap it up there. Let me thank our question-askers, Madhu and Paola, and thank Ruth for the wisdom that you shared with us today. Thanks to all of you for coming.

– Rather than ending on the word guilt, I’m just going to say, “Have fun.” You’ve got so much ahead of you. So it’s a pleasure being with all of you, and thank you.

Dean’s Speaker Series: Sal Khan on how ‘delusional optimism’ led to free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere

man on a large video screen speaks to students at Haas
Khan Academy CEO and Founder Sal Khan traced his journey to provide free and accessible online education to kick off the fall  Dean’s Speaker Series Sept. 19.

With more than 150 million users in more than 190 countries since its founding in 2008, nonprofit Khan Academy has become an educational staple for students and instructors alike. 

Khan Academy CEO and Founder Sal Khan traced his journey to provide free and accessible online education during the first fall Dean’s Speaker Series talk Sept. 19. 

After graduating from Harvard Business School in 2003, Khan worked as a hedge fund analyst, having told his friends “I’m going to do this long enough so that I could become independently wealthy.” Around the same time—having always been passionate about education—he began tutoring his cousin over the phone using an interactive notepad. From there, Khan expanded his lessons to include family and friends, even writing software to create deep item banks—databases of questions—to help them practice. 

With advice from a friend, he began incorporating video, uploading his lessons to YouTube—and by 2008, Khan Academy reached almost 100,000 users. Even with the nonprofit’s initial traction, however, Khan noted the risks that come with starting any new business. 

“I think anytime you do anything entrepreneurial—for-profit or nonprofit—you have to start with that delusional optimism. You assume that surely the market, the investors, the philanthropists, whatever, whoever the stakeholders are, they’re going to recognize the value of what you’re creating. And oftentimes, it doesn’t happen as fast as you think,” Khan said. 

I think anytime you do anything entrepreneurial—for-profit or nonprofit—you have to start with that delusional optimism.

Despite receiving offers from venture capitalists, Khan turned them down to maintain control and ensure his organization remained free and accessible. Nine months later, current Khan Academy Board Chair Ann Doerr made an initial donation, which led to a lunch meeting and eventual working relationship.

After Bill Gates talked about his own kids using the platform at the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival, Khan had another meeting to discuss ways to support Khan Academy’s future. This, coupled with more funding from Google, allowed Khan Academy “to become a real organization,” Khan said.

Since then, Khan Academy has expanded to include more than 70,000 practice problems with translations into more than 50 languages. The nonprofit is also partnered with upward of 500 school districts, even having its own accredited schools: Khan Lab School in Silicon Valley and Khan World School, a partnership with Arizona State University. Now, Khan Academy is launching Khanmigo, an AI educational chatbot, to help instructors and students understand how to use AI to support learning. 

In terms of running and scaling a nonprofit with an impact like Khan Academy, Khan cited the importance of teams maintaining a clear mission. 

If you can grow and maintain your talent and your alignment, a 300-person team can outperform a 30,000-person team.

“The hardest thing is, as you grow, to maintain alignment. If you can grow and maintain your talent and your alignment, a 300-person team can outperform a 30,000-person team,” Khan explained. “Alignment is not just communication. And this is a muscle that I don’t think people in Silicon Valley exercise enough—being very clear with team members: ‘Look, this is what we’re doing. If you’re excited about that, awesome. If you’re not, this might not be the place for you.’ That is kind of strong language, but I have found it to be very powerful language because otherwise people are just trying to pull (the organization) in all sorts of different directions.” 

Watch the full DSS talk below.

Read the full transcript:

– Good afternoon, welcome. I’m Don Moore, acting dean here at the Haas School of Business. I’m thrilled to welcome all of you to the first Dean Speaker Series of the year. Today’s guest, as you know, is Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy. Sal holds two bachelor’s degrees of science and a master’s in electrical engineering from MIT and an MBA from a school called Harvard Business School, which you may have heard of. Sal became passionate about education while he was an undergraduate at MIT. He developed math software for children with ADHD and tutored fourth- and seventh-grade public school students. While working as a hedge fund analyst in 2004, Sal began tutoring his young cousin in math over the telephone with an interactive notepad. Within a couple years, he added more than a dozen relatives and family friends to his online classes. In 2008, he founded Khan Academy with a mission to provide free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Khan Academy now partners with more than 500 school districts and schools across the United States to help teachers tailor instruction to each student. Khan Academy is now used in more than 190 countries. There are more than 150 million registered users around the world and translations into more than 50 languages. Today, Khan Academy’s platforms include more than 70,000 interactive practice problems, as well as videos and articles that cover a range of subjects from pre-K to 12th grade. Khan Academy is piloting a new tool called Khanmigo, which gives students an entirely new way to use AI to learn. He also wrote a book, The One World Schoolhouse where he presents his radical vision for the future of education with a goal of leveling the playing field for access for all to world-class education. Thanks, Sal, for taking the time to join us today and to talk with us about your work. Now I’ll turn it over to today’s moderators, MBA students Anu Tej and Mrudula Vemuri.

– Thank you for that introduction. I’d like to just introduce myself one more time. My name is Mrudula Vemuri. I’m an EWMBA class of 2024. And I’d also love to share my first story using Khan Academy. I was desperately in need of help with my calc homework, and I had a calc final looming in college, and I turned to Khan Academy, and it hasn’t failed me ever since. Even through my macro and finance courses here at Haas School of Business, I’ve used Khan Academy, and it’s helped me all along the way, so I can’t wait to see what they have in the future.

– OK, I am Anu and I’m a full-time MBA class of 2024. I first learned about Khan Academy just after my undergrad. I had joined this early stage startup, and I was given a task to do data analysis, and I had no idea how to do it, and one of my teammates came to me and said, “Oh, you might want to check out Khan Academy for some of the concepts.” And I started with high school statistics that night, and I was like, “Oh my God, I needed this in college. I needed this in high school.” All this while I thought I suck at statistics, I did not. I was able to do that analysis that I did; and like Mrudula, I was able to pass my macro economics last year because of Khan Academy. Thank you so much for helping us. So I want to start,

– [Sal] Always good to hear the stories.

– I want to start with the origin story, Sal. I know you were tutoring students during your high school, and I also know that you will tell your friends when you are working in a hedge fund that ‘I want to work in hedge fund long enough to start my own school someday.’ So tell us more.

– Yeah, first of all, thanks for having me here, and as I said, always great to hear y’all’s stories. Yeah, I’ve always had this interest in education. I think going back to maybe even elementary school where we all had good moments in our education experience; and then we all had some not-so-good moments. And usually, some of those not-so-good moments are feeling a little bit bored or feeling disengaged or seeing some of your friends bored or disengaged. And so I’ve always been fascinated that there’s got to be a better way to do this. Anyway, you fast-forward to, I graduated from undergrad. My first career was in tech. Then after that, I go to business school. After business school, I find myself, I’m at a small hedge fund in Boston at the time, and I graduated from business school in 2003, and it’s now 2004. I had just gotten married. My family was visiting me up from New Orleans, which is where I was born and raised up in Boston. And even before that, actually, to answer your question directly, when I was working at the hedge fund—and this is what I did tell myself—but I would tell my friends who were like, “Well, what’s your lifelong goal?” I was like, “Well, I’m going to do this long enough so that I could become independently wealthy,” which I have not achieved, but I did the other, well, the thing I wanted to do after I wanted to be independently wealthy, so I can start a school on my own terms. I thought that would be the most fun thing to do, to be one day, be like a Dumbledore-type figure, but once again, in some ways have to convince anyone that, and we could talk more about, there’s some benefits of having to convince people things. But when it became clear that my cousin Nadia needed help, she didn’t even know that she needed help, but I knew that she needed help. She was in seventh grade, and she was put into a slower math track, which had all sorts of potential negative implications for her future. I offered to tutor her remotely when she went back to New Orleans. She agreed. And so, yeah, we got on the phone. We used to use instant messenger at the time to just communicate. We could see each other’s writing, et cetera. Slowly but surely, she got caught up with her class, even ahead of her class. At that point, I become what I call a tiger cousin. I called up her school, I said, “I really think Nadia Raman should be able to retake that placement exam from last year.” They said, “Who are you?” “I’m her cousin.” And they let her take it. And the same Nadia who was being tracked into a remedial track was now put into the advanced track. 

So I was hooked. I started tutoring her younger brothers, Armand and Ali, and it was working with them, and word spreads in my family, free tutoring is going on. So before I know it, there’s 10, 15 cousins, family friends that I’m tutoring on a regular basis. My day job, I was at the hedge fund, but markets close. I’d get on conference calls with, for the most part, my cousins, a few family friends.

But that’s how I started, and I was enjoying it. I was connecting with family, but I was also, I believed that there’s a way of approaching a lot of this subject matter that could be very intuitive and even enjoyable for my family. I also saw that there was a common pattern, and I saw this pattern throughout my education. The reason why folks struggle isn’t because they aren’t bright. It isn’t because they don’t have good teachers or they’re not hardworking. It’s usually because they have gaps in their knowledge. And by the time you get to an algebra class, it’s really hard to address those gaps of, say, dividing decimals or negative numbers. And those gaps happen in a traditional system because kids just keep getting moved ahead, even if they get a 60 or 70 or 80%, or they forget stuff. So that’s when I started writing some software for my cousins, too, ’cause I honestly couldn’t find any good practice on the internet at the time. This was back in 2004, 2005. Because I wanted them to get as much practice as they need. So I was creating these very deep item banks that were partially computer generated, et cetera. And that was the first Khan Academy. It had nothing to do with videos at the time. 

Then in 2006, by this point, we had moved out to the Bay Area. I was at a dinner party showing off the software. I’m a super cool dinner party guest, and the host of the dinner party, his name’s Zuli, I have to give him full credit. He said, “Well, this is cool, Sal, but how are you scaling your lessons?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s hard to do with 15 cousins what I was originally doing with just a handful.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you make some videos, upload them onto YouTube for your family?” I told him, “That’s a horrible idea. YouTube is for cats playing piano. It’s not for serious math.” But I got over the idea that it was not mine. And I gave that a shot. And that took on a life of its own, obviously. My cousins famously told me they liked me better on YouTube than in person. I think what they were saying was that they enjoyed having an on demand, not feeling shy, not feeling embarrassed. If it’s 11 p.m. and they had a question, they could access it. I believe they still enjoyed being able to get on the phone with me to go a little bit deeper. But then a lot of other people started discovering it. And then by 2008, there were about 50 to 100,000 folks using it on a monthly basis. And that’s where I incorporated it as a not-for-profit, a mission-free, world-class education for anyone anywhere. 2009, I frankly had trouble focusing on my day job. We had some savings at this point. My wife was a medical fellow, so she was still in training. Our first child had just been born, so our expenses were going up, but we were saving some money for a down payment out here in the Bay Area, which we all know is not a joke, even back in 2009. But we felt, well, maybe if we give it a year, hopefully someone will fund this philanthropically. So that’s when I took the plunge, and that first year wasn’t easy, but eventually, it worked out.

– Well, thank you. I know that I have personally shamelessly rewinded many, many videos. In my personal experience interacting with Khan Academy, I noticed that there’s a huge breadth of topics. Were you familiar with all of these topics before the beginning of Khan Academy? And if not, how did you teach yourself so many different things?

– Great question. The simple answer is no. I think that there, with that said, well, I can surprise folks with my breadth. Let me just say that I’m definitely above average. But there’s certain topics that I did know very, very well, math being one of them. I would say math and physics and some other parts of science I knew very, very well where I could kind of get into it. I didn’t need necessarily a reference or a textbook. 

With that said, once Khan Academy became a more professionalized organization and we wanted to make sure we covered all of the standards, we now have a team who’s curating the questions and figuring out the scope and sequence and instead telling me, “Hey, they’re using a different term nowadays for,” I mean, the most famous example is when I was in school, it was called atomic weight. Now it’s average atomic mass. Or let’s redo a video. So there’s definitely support now, but in those early days, but even now, I take joy; and maybe there’s folks in this room who feel the same way that if you learn to learn something well, that that is actually a very transferable skill to almost anything. And it goes against what I think most people are indoctrinated into in school. My biggest pet peeve is when I hear someone say, “I’m a math person,” or “I’m a humanities person.” And unfortunately, you’ll sometimes hear it from educators. In fact, you’ll almost always hear it from, you want to give a math teacher anxiety, ask them to engage in the humanities, or you want to give humanities teacher anxiety, ask them to engage in math. And even at a high school level, like, you graduated from high school, right? Like, this shouldn’t be something… So unfortunately, I think sometimes that not optimal signaling happens to students. 

But I think generally speaking, if you learn to understand something really well in any domain and you build that muscle of, like, asking the right questions: Wait, how does A lead to B? I’m not just going to take it as a leap of faith. I need to understand it, prove it to me. How does this make intuitive sense? You can take that to almost any domain. And I’ve always been, some of the subjects in Khan Academy are things like history, and I’ve always really been fascinated by history. I don’t have any formal training in it, but I’ve been fascinated both on just, like, these are real human stories that happened. How can it not be interesting? But then also I’ve always been sometimes frustrated on not being able to place things in time and space and seeing timelines and things like that. So I’ve tried to take that tack and when we try to cover some of that on Khan Academy, and we’ve gotten positive feedback. And then there’s certain even science topics that, when I took it in college, I took organic chemistry in college. It was not a class where I was like, “Oh, this makes intuitive sense.” I got through the class, I got a fine grade, I did what I needed to do, but I didn’t get out of that class thinking like, “Oh, I see the beauty in organic chemistry.” So when it was almost, as a challenge, some of those organic chemistry videos are still up there on Khan Academy. When I did this almost 10 years ago, I said, “Before I even press record on that first video, I’m going to just sit and immerse myself in organic chemistry for several weeks until I learn to love it, until I learned there must be an intuition behind it.” And there is and actually, it all boils down to electronegativity, actually. You don’t have to memorize as many mechanisms as you think. And I would call up friends and stuff like, “Explain this to me. Why is this happening?” And someone would say, “No, we don’t know. That’s an area of research.” I was like, “Well, someone should tell the students that too, so they don’t bang their head on a table and they’re like, I’m actually trying to figure out an area of open research.” So yeah, I don’t know it all, for sure. And I do use Khan Academy when I’ve already made 80 videos in a certain course and they want an 81st. I sometimes have to watch some of the videos that I already made in order to get up to speed.

– Oh my God, thank you so much for that. Can you tell us, I mean, you briefly took us through from your undergrad, to, like, starting of Khan Academy for your cousins and, like, the whole journey ’till today? But can you tell us what would you consider your first big break in your life? This can be before Khan Academy or after.

– Oh, big break. Oh, so many breaks. I’ll give you more than one. Probably the first is when I was in second grade, my older sister was three years older than me, and she was, like, the star student. She was in the gifted program. I thought I was in the gifted program because they take you out; they took me out of class every day into some kind of enrichment thing. It turned out it was speech therapy. So I was being in a different, I was put in a different category than my sister, but because I was Farah’s younger brother, I think the school said there must be something there. And so they kept testing me. And so the first break was I went from speech therapy into this kind of gifted enrichment program that they had. It was Louisiana Public Schools, not famous, but it was a really good program. I still remember that first day, 7 years old, I walked into a classroom, unlike any other classroom I had ever seen, there were just, like, five or six kids in the room. Some kids were playing chess, some kids were drawing, some kids were playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” And there were two teachers. I mean, it was well-resourced if you really think about it in hindsight. And they’re like, “Oh, Sal, come on in.” And I walked up to both the teacher’s desks and they said, “Oh yeah, so what are you into?” And I said, “Well, I really like drawing. I really like puzzles.” And so they’re like, “OK, so we’ll draw and do puzzles.” And I didn’t even want to tell anyone about this thing ’cause I thought it was some type of, like, secret racket going on inside of my school that would be taken away from me if people knew what it was. But that I consider a break because one, that opened my eyes to what school could look like if everyone was really engaged and interested. And I think most of my memories from elementary school are that, so it had a real impact on me. 

I mean, there’s a bunch of other breaks. I would say another, I’ll give my sister credit. When I was in, we didn’t have a lot of money, raised by a single mother. My mom was essentially making minimum wage eventually. And I remember when my sister was applying to college and I asked her, “What’s your first choice?” She said, “Brown University.” And I said, “You’re nuts. Brown University’s tuition is twice what our mom makes per year. Like, there’s no way that you’re going to Brown University.” And then my sister explained to me about financial aid and this and that. And my sister got in and was able to go. I mean, she still had some significant debt, and I think it’s gotten more generous since then, but it was very generous. It’s much better than what we thought it would be. So, that I considered a break of sorts ’cause that opened up my aperture to what’s possible. 

You fast-forward, I mean, I’ll give a couple, well, I’ll fast-forward to the Khan Academy ’cause I think there was a big break there, which is, I talk about quitting my job. Me and my family are now living off of savings. I think anytime you do anything entrepreneurial for-profit or nonprofit, you have to start with that delusional optimism. You assume that surely the market, the investors, the philanthropists, whatever, whoever the stakeholders are, they’re going to recognize the value of what you’re creating. And oftentimes, it doesn’t happen as fast as you think. When I quit my day job, I was talking to some philanthropists, but very quickly, those pitted out. They really didn’t know what to make, how to make sense of what we’re trying to do at Khan Academy. And about nine months into that, it was stressful. I was waking up in the middle of the night. We were digging into our savings, about $5,000 a month. It was quickly not a down payment on a house anymore. And I was really questioning every, I’d given up a good career that I, for the most part, enjoyed. And then it was, yeah, about nine months in, all of a sudden, a $10,000 donation came in. I immediately emailed the person, her name is Ann Doerr. She’s now our chairperson. But at the time, I said, “Dear Ann, thank you so much for this incredibly generous donation. This is the largest donation Khan Academy has ever received. If we were a physical school, you would now have a building named after you.” And Ann responded back and said, “Well, that’s surprising to me. It’s actually surprising to me you’re a one person operation. I thought this was, like, a real thing. I see you’re in Mountain View. I’m in Palo Alto. I’d love to have lunch and learn more about what you’re doing.” So we have lunch, and Ann kind of asked me, “What’s your goal?” I said, “Look, I filled out free, world-class education for anyone anywhere.” And says, “Well, that’s ambitious. How do you see yourself doing that?” And I said, “Well, I’m building out all these exercises, videos, I’m going to go into all subjects, all grades, all and all this practice software to allow kids to learn at their own time and pace. I had already started building some teacher tools so the teachers could keep track of it. I had a notebook of testimonials from around the planet.” I said, “Eventually I want to localize this into languages of the world.” And Ann said, “Well, that’s ambitious, but how are you supporting yourself?” And I told her in as proud of a way as possible, I said, “I’m not.” And she kind of processes that. She pays the bill, and then we part ways. And about 10 minutes later, I’m driving into my driveway in Mountain View and I get a text message from Ann and it says, “You really need to be supporting yourself. I’ve just wired you a hundred thousand dollars.” So that was a good day a little bit. So that was great…

I’ll list one more ’cause the story only gets crazier. About two months after that, this is now about May of 2010, I want to say, or maybe June. I’m running a summer camp ’cause I never thought online is a replacement for physical. I always thought online could be a liberation of the physical, so you could do more games and simulations and things like that. So I was literally running a trading floor of seventh graders, and I start getting text messages from Ann, which you can imagine I now take very seriously. And there were five or six text messages that were coming. It was a little bit disjointed, but Ann was essentially writing, this is Ann writing, “I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I’m in the main pavilion. Bill Gates on stage last five minutes talking about Khan Academy.” So I didn’t know what to make of this. And y’all can look, if you do a web search for like Bill Gates, Aspen Institute, Khan Academy 2010, you should find this video. But I found this video when I boot, I booted a seventh grader computer, and I found a delayed broadcast or a recording of it where Walter Isaacson asked Bill Gates, “What are you excited about?” Open question. And Bill Gates just, “There’s this guy Sal Khan. He’s got this website, Khan Academy. I use it with my kids. I use it myself.” And I was like, “Is this really happening?” And I remember that night I showed my wife that. I’m like, “What do I do now? Do I call him up? Like, what’s the protocol here?” And they left me in that state for about two weeks. Two weeks, I’m in actually this walk-in closet where I still am about to, worldwide headquarters of Khan Academy, about to record a video. And my cell phone rings, it’s a Seattle number, and I answer it. “Hello?” “Hi, this is Larry Cohen. I’m Bill Gates’ chief of staff. You might’ve heard that Bill’s a fan.” “Yeah, I heard that.” “And if you’re free in the next few weeks, we’d love to fly you up to Seattle and figure out ways that we might be able to collaborate.” And I was looking at my calendar for the month, completely blank. So I said, “Yeah, sure. I got to cut my nails next Wednesday, but I’m happy to meet with Bill.” But anyway, we had that meeting, and it was very similar to the meeting with Ann. And so by fall of 2010, and actually I was having similar meetings at around the exact same time with executives from Google, and I can talk more about that, who were trying to fund a, they were going to fund five projects that could change the world was their charter. And then fall of 2010, it all converged. So that was a major break. The Gates Foundation and Google, on top of the money the donors gave, allowed us to become a real organization.

– Wow, thank you for sharing all of those big breaks. And I hope that a lot of us in this room are hoping for our next one. Just to go back a little bit further down memory lane, who was a favorite teacher in your past and how would their role be transformed by Khan Academy and generative AI and ChatGPT that’s coming into the world now?

– Oh, good question. I’ve answered the favorite teacher, but not the combo one. I’ll give credit to, I talked about that first day in second grade, Ms. Kraus and Mr. Cell in that enrichment class. I think what would’ve happened if Khan Academy existed then, some of that “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” play would’ve been Khan Academy play. And you would’ve had some kids in Metairie, Louisiana, accelerating dramatically in math and science and other subjects. 

Ms. Ellis was my fifth-grade social studies teacher. And I remember her because in hindsight I realized how brilliant she was. She ran her fifth-grade class like a humanity, a college graduate seminar. I remember she used to just peel an orange at the front of the classroom and just ask us questions all day about like, “So why do you think they did this? And why do you think this happens? And what would’ve had been different if they didn’t decide to declare war and et cetera, et cetera.” And I always found it really interesting, and later, I realized how special it is to have a teacher like that. If Khan Academy, Khanmigo and all of this existed, yeah, I think it would’ve provided even more space for that type of Socratic dialogue because students could get a lot of the core skills at their own time and pace. And if you have the AI to also be able to supplement and you can ask some questions that you might otherwise be embarrassed to ask in class, all the better. 

Let’s see, I remember Ms. North was a really cool teacher in middle school who once again liked a very Socratic, very philosophical type of question. She was our English teacher.

And then in high school, Mr. Hernandez, who was a math teacher, but he was also the advisor. It might not surprise you, I was the president of the math club, and he was our advisor, and he kind of treated me as a colleague, which was really great. Like, we would plan things together. And I really appreciated that. 

And then Ms. Kennedy, who ran journalism. She also ran it, like, we would just run, she ran it like a company, like, we ran the newspaper and she was like the chairman and she would advise us and help us. 

And I should also, when I was in high school, I did dual enrollment at the University of New Orleans, and there was a professor there, Dr. Santania, who when he realized that I was taking some very advanced math courses with him. And when he realized that I didn’t have a computer at home, nor could I afford one, he got me a job at the university doing research with him. And that’s essentially how I first got access to a computer and I started learning how to program, et cetera. So yeah, I don’t think—I might not be here if any of those folks maybe weren’t there.

– Wow, thank you for sharing those inspirational stories and how those people have impacted your life. I know that you’ve told us that learning the ability to learn is of utmost importance, but what’s a skill that took a lot of time or attempts to master for you?

– Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, if I go refer back to what I’ve already told you, learning to speak properly. I still have to pause before I say hospital ’cause until I was about 8 years old, I would say hostable. And I still sometimes will if I’m not really, really careful. So I always say hospital, I pause. So I’ll say that. 

Other things, well, I’ll say at the other end of my life, and this is one that unfortunately a lot of folks I think haven’t invested enough in is, in 2015, so eight years ago, like, weird things were happening. Like, I started getting claustrophobic on planes. Like, I would get on a plane, and I’d, like, want to get out as soon as possible. Like, it was not a pleasant experience. And I’m, like, something’s off, and I wasn’t sleeping well. And in hindsight it was really; I was probably too stressed, and t’s like a frog in boiling water. It just creeps up slowly, and it manifests itself in these really weird ways. But I started taking meditation very seriously at that point, really just so that, ’cause I had to travel, and I, just to see if it would make the planes more pleasant. But that practice of meditation I now take very, very, very seriously. And a lot of times, especially people who are ambitious, who want to do big things in the world, they try to kind of account for their own time as much as possible. And they try to be as on and as productive. And I still do that. I try to be as productive as I can when I’m on, but the off time is just as important, arguably more important. And I think it’s easy to overlook. So it’s taken me—it took me, when was that? I was 39 years old when that happened. It took me 39 years to realize that. And I think every year, I realized that more and more and every year, I take more permission with myself to, “I’m going to go to the sauna today,” or “I’m going to take this meeting walking around the park,” or “you know what, I’m just going to cancel these three meetings ’cause I don’t think I really need to be in that. And instead I’m just going to go meditate outside.” And I actually think that makes me more productive and it makes me a better entrepreneur, leader, whatever you want to call it.

– Wow, I think especially MBAs needed to hear that. We definitely need some off time and definitely some meditation to help us feel grounded. I did that just again before getting on stage. And maybe you answered this, but I’m going to ask this again. What is a topic or a skill that you think everyone should learn that is traditionally left out of K-12 education?

– Oh, so much. I mean, look, I’m talking to a bunch of MBAs. A lot of what I learned in the first year of business school, like accounting and the core of finance and how do you price something and present value? The mathematics of it are, like, middle school mathematics. It’s not super difficult. I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be taught in middle school or worst case, in high school. Anyone who just needs to think about one day starting a business or trying to decide whether they’re going to rent versus buy a house, they should learn that. 

So I would say those types of skills and at minimum, personal finance skills, and this is something that schools are increasingly, at least states are passing legislation for schools to teach it. I think the schools without help are going to have difficulty ’cause like who’s going to teach it? Well, we’ve been working on this for many years, but we’ve recently launched a full financial literacy course. It’s targeted at the high school level, but honestly it’s useful for anybody where it’s like, people, well, I remember, I had an MBA and the first time I went to buy a house, I was just like, “Why do I need title insurance? What is title insurance?” You’re like, “What is this thing? And exactly how does escrow work, right?” So I think that type of thing is super, super useful. 

There I had a brief period in undergrad where I wanted to be a, well, I’ll say there’s a class I took actually in, I was going to talk about, I briefly thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but then there was a class I took in business school called business law. But it was essentially, it was a crash course in law. And I remember thinking, “This could have been taught to me when I was in seventh or eighth grade.” Like, it should have been taught to me in seventh. Most people get through the whole education, including a college degree or including graduate school, and they don’t understand the legal system, which seems pretty darn important. So yeah, I would throw in financial literacy, legal system, basic finance, and accounting. Those are the big ones.

– Thank you. So our next question is: You’ve started Khan Academy and registered it as a nonprofit organization, and you’ve continued to run it as a nonprofit. How did you decide on this business model, and why not a private company?

– Hmm, yes. And there’s actually I think now three business school cases on this decision. How it’s evolved, it’s interesting. My day job at the time, I was a hedge fund analyst, which was arguably the most for-profit activity. It was only for-profit. Like, there’s no other benefit, or well, liquid capital markets and pricing efficiency, every hedge fund on the margin is helpful. But anyway, it’s primarily for-profit. But while in that job, I was able to be a really, it was interesting to be an observer of how organizations’ behavior was driven by capital structure. That honestly, you had annoying people like me, hedge fund analysts calling you and trying to figure out whether you’re going to meet or miss your earnings this coming quarter. And usually, the way that executives are compensated at these firms are based on stock performance and things like that. And I also saw when the debt holders are senior versus to when you have a strong founder versus when you’re in the second generation and the founder’s left, very few of these organizations are able to stay. There are for-profit organizations that start with a strong, mission-driven founder and are able to stay true to that until something happens to the founder or until the founder doesn’t have control of the organization anymore, right? Private equity just bought it or well, now the founder owns 20%, but 80%, it’s a public company now, or the founder dies, goes away, gets fired, and now someone else is taking over. There’s very few examples you can give. 

And there is an irony that the only class in business school—I don’t know about Haas—but where I went to business school, they didn’t fail anybody, but they would give you these like internal grades and the only grade that I would’ve been, like, the equivalent of a fail if they actually failed anyone, was a class called social entrepreneurship. Because I was so skeptical of some of these nonprofits, I was just like, “Yeah, they tell a good story, they pull on your heartstrings, but is that really going to cure cancer? Is that really going to blah, blah, blah, blah.” And that’s what I wrote in the essay until I realized that that was the not-for-profit that the professor started, but not a good idea. But it didn’t fail anyone, so not a big deal either. It allowed me to speak my truth. 

So I was cynical, but being in the hedge fund world, I said, “I want this Khan Academy project to just always be there.” I read a lot of science fiction. I was like, “what if this could be like a new type of institution, like the next Oxford or Smithsonian, but it could be on a completely different scale. It could be for billions one day and maybe it could last for hundreds of years.” And if you look at that, the only organizations that can be true to that type of a mission are not-for-profit organizations. And so, it’s sometimes delusional to say that you want to be the next Google or the next Facebook or the next Amazon. That’s hard enough. It’s arguably even a little bit more delusional to say that you want to be the next Oxford or you want to be the next thousand-year institution, but you live once, why not try?

– And what are some of the biggest challenges you faced while running and scaling a nonprofit organization? I know it’s very unique and different from running a for-profit company. A lot of our classmates who are in this room today are either building their own organizations like this or want to join one and lead one of these organizations.

– Yeah, if you asked me in 2000, if you asked me in late 2009, I would’ve said the biggest challenge is raising money and convincing people that you’re legitimate. I, at the time, took the most naive strategies and look, the advantage that Khan Academy had or that I had was that I was making something that was discoverable by people. I think it’s a very different thing if you’re starting a not-for-profit where you’re taking donations from one group and then you’re going someplace in the world and then you’re putting that money, I’m probably not the best person to ask on how do you start a not-for-profit like that. But here, not only was I making something that people could find and discover, but it was happening, it was growing, in those early days it was growing 15, 20% per month. So it was on this kind of exponential growth curve that people would associate with a high-growth tech company. And look, VCs were coming up to me and they were saying, “Hey, I’ll write a hundred thousand dollars check right now. You can quit your day job.” And it was tempting and I would take the second meeting with them, but the second meeting, they started talking about premium offerings and putting this behind a paywall and that and this is how you’re going to, and I’m like, no, and I was getting letters from kids that I knew and families that I knew would not be able to use the tool if this VC had their way. And so that’s why I kept turning that down, and luckily, my naive strategy kind of worked with people like Ann discovering it. And eventually, I mean, you can’t plan for Bill Gates just showing. I have a theory that I sometimes play with that benevolent aliens are using Khan Academy to prepare humanity for first contact. And some of what I told you of like, these things that seem a little bit more than just chance. Those are my data points. I have more. I actually think the benevolent aliens help set me up with my wife as well, so that I can prepare humanity for first contact through Khan Academy. But I have some good stories there.

But the real difficulties, I think, beyond that first validation, which is a hard one, and it was really hard. I mean, I kind of laugh about that nine months where I really didn’t know what I felt like; I kind of ruined our financial future. But once we started to have resources, I think it is, and we were a little bit, we are still unusual. We’ve been able to attract very good talent. Like, the main arguable advantages that a for-profit has over a nonprofit is access to capital, access to talent and potentially some notion of the incentives make you act in a different way, which could be good or bad. Access to capital, at least in those, in hindsight, I’m happy that the access to capital we’ve had, our budget is a real budget where it’s like 60, $70 million a year now. And it’s primarily philanthropic. So we have been able to do that. 

Now, there have been other for-profit organizations, including in EdTech, that started a year or two after Khan Academy; and they get higher and higher valuations, and they’re able to do these really huge rounds and raise a hundred million, raise 500 million, raise a billion dollars. And as a 30-year-old, I would’ve been somewhat envious of that. Now, I don’t envy that at all because that creates all sorts of distortions and pressures. And the hardest thing is, as you grow, to maintain alignment. If you can grow and maintain your talent and your alignment, a 300-person team can outperform a 30,000-person team. I’m not saying this even as an exaggeration. I 100% believe this. Like, you see this playing out in the real world right now. I mean, OpenAI is a 300-person team. I think they’re outperforming many 80-, 90,000-person teams on what they’re doing ’cause they are aligned. And to some degree, probably the scarcity of capital in their early days helped drive that. And their group that I know very intimately now, and I know some of the 90,000-person organization, some of them were our original funders very well as well. But yeah, I think that alignment, when you get to like 20 people, you start realizing that people just don’t always assume the obvious, what you think is the obvious thing ’cause you’re not just having conversations on the way to the snack counter or whatever. And so you have these growing pains. There are like 20 people, 50 people, 100 people, 200 people. And so now I’m a big believer in like, you can’t overinvest in alignment and alignment is not just communication. And this is a muscle that I don’t think people in Silicon Valley exercise enough, is being very clear with team members of like: “Look, this is what we’re doing. If you’re excited about that, awesome. If you’re not, this might not be the place for you.” That is kind of strong language, but I have found it to be very powerful language because otherwise, people are just trying to pull it in all sorts of different directions.

– Thank you. And just to, like, double down on that last few statements: As your business grew, what were your main culture objectives, and how did you maintain or create that company culture? Did you have any hiring strategies or professional development plans that you leaned into? Tell us more about that.

– Yeah, no, it’s a good, I segued well into your next question. My early days, like, my first job out of college was at Oracle. I was a product manager there and I got very cynical, very fast. I was like this big company, I’m just sitting in meetings all day, well, anyway, I don’t want to name, well, there’s some fun stories there, but my manager at the time had some views about the efficiency and how it could be improved at the organization. 

But that made me, like, there was a time where I said, “Khan Academy is always going to have, is always going to be a startup. It’s going to be a perpetual startup. I don’t want it to ever be a large company because large companies become bureaucratic and people just sit in meetings all day.” And so I had a view of “Let me just hire the smartest people I can and get out of their way and have as few meetings as possible.” That can sometimes be good, but it leads to issues at some point. Smart people, if they’re not aligned, can easily try to pull in different directions. And if you’re not communicating enough, you’re not going to get enough alignment. So over time, I’ve started to realize that it’s very important to, that we are a place where people can bring their full selves to. And because look, you’re spending a large chunk of your life doing work. And so, I try to—Khan Academy is a place where you shouldn’t be embarrassed to say that you’re going to take an hour to go meditate. You should be proud of that. You should even say that as an example. And look, a lot of that comes from me setting an example. It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to say, “Hey, I can’t attend that meeting because I’m going to be meditating,” and that sends a signal to other people. “Or I can’t do that evening meeting because I said that I’m going to do this event with my family that night.” So I think it’s very important to put those guardrails and all of that. 

But I think culturally what I take a lot of, what I try to put a lot of energy into is making sure people are aligned. Like, disagreeing is great. Like, let’s disagree while we’re talking about the tactics of something, but we’ve got to make a decision and then we’ve got to commit to that decision, otherwise we’re just never going to go anywhere. And if you can’t truly commit to the decision and then that goes into the, like, this might not be the right place, right? Like, otherwise, you’re just going to be constantly trying to undermine it in passive-aggressive ways. So I think that’s another cultural thing. 

I’ll say another cultural thing that I’ll say, which is, I think, obviously words like DEIB or letters like DEIB are, like, a big deal these days and they always have, and I’ve always been a very big believer in that. But I do believe that sometimes it is viewed as a signal for you are a left-leaning organization, or you say DEIB, but you really mean that you subscribe to these ideas that other people might not subscribe to, which is almost the opposite of DEIB, right? The whole argument behind diversity is that when you have different viewpoints, people who are different than you, now reasonable, and people who aren’t trying to shut each other down, et cetera. But if you have different reasonable viewpoints, that’s going to get your eventual decision to be a better place and people with very different experiences. And I remember a wake-up call for me was we had a senior executive at Khan Academy, this was about five or six years ago, and it was at an offsite, and all of a sudden, and he was an older gentleman and he said, “I was afraid to say this, but now I feel comfortable with y’all enough to say this. I’m an evangelical Christian and I’m a Republican.” And I remember when he said that, like half the team was like, “Wow, you’re so brave for saying that.” And then the other half of the team was saying things like, “Who did this guy vote for? And what’s his view on this and this?” And that was an eye-opener for me. It’s like, we can say DEIB, but we aren’t DEIB if that guy, who was really good at his job, who everyone really liked to work with, was afraid to even say what religion he is. And so what I try to do now is push everyone on DEIB where I say, “That’s not to hire more people that agree with you. That is to hire people who are truly from diverse perspectives that can push us to get to a better place.” So I think I take those words more seriously than a lot of other corporations that do it in a very performative way. I think there’s, most executives, if I’m honest, say I’m not going to get involved. I’m going to hire someone else to do that. And I’m just going to keep nodding and hope for the best versus actually trying to get true DEIB.

– Thank you for that. After hearing the inspiring story of the origin of Khan Academy, our ambitious and idealistic students here have questions for you. If you’re interested in asking a question, please go ahead and step to the mic right there in the aisle and tell us who you are and then go ahead with your question.

– Sal, thank you. Is this on? Probably not. OK, it is. Sal, thank you. My name is Doris. I’m a second year, and I lead our Haas Education Club here, which everyone should join. Aside from that pitch, oh, first off, I grew up hearing your videos, watching your videos, so I’m very familiar with that voice and today, I’m able to put that voice to the face and it’s great. My question for you is what is the largest gap that you see in American education today?


– Oh yeah, it’s a big one. I’ll say at least two. I’ll say the big one is, we fundamentally have a seat time based system, especially in high school, but even in college as well, right? In high school, we know the Carnegie units, which is like, you get a Carnegie unit when you sit in a year in math, a Carnegie unit, a year in English, et cetera. And even college, high school graduation requirements and college entrance requirements have stuff like you need to take three years of math. You need to take two years of foreign language. That, in no way, talks about whether you learn the math or learn the foreign language. So I would love to go more to an outcome-based or competency-based system that’s like, you should get to this level of math before graduating from high school. You should get to this level of reading, this level of writing. And if you don’t, you have the opportunity incentive to keep working on it. It’s not like it’s an all-or-nothing type of thing, but if you go there fast, great, you can get there fast and you can work on other things. 

I think college should be the same, the fact that it’s all credit-hour based and that magically, regardless of what you major in, it’s all kind of like a four-year program. Yeah, there’s some arguments behind it from a stage of life point of view. So I would go to a competency-based, a corollary to that is being mastery-based, which is this idea that if students have a gap, a conceptual gap, that they have the opportunity, the incentive to continue to work on it. So if you’ve got a B in computer science, and two years later, you’ve mastered that material, you should be able to do something that allows you to show that you’re now at an A level, your transcript should be able to be upgraded, so to speak. And a correlator to that is, allow students to learn at their own time and pace.

– [Doris] Thank you.

– Hi, my name’s Patty Debenham. I run a center here for Haas students all about social impact. And I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I loved your book and at the end, you painted a terrific vision of a new kind of higher education that doesn’t cost $70,000 a year. I mean, even Berkeley, a public institution, is crazy expensive. I’d love to hear how you’re thinking about that now and how it can be possible that my 10-year-old doesn’t have to pay 70, well, I don’t have to pay $70,000?

– Yes. No, this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about and many of y’all know, I mean, I wrote that book, and then the year after I’m like, it’s one thing to write about a book. It’s a whole other thing to try to implement it. So I did start a school and now schools based on the principles in that book. We have Khan Lab school out down here in Mountain View and Palo Alto. And now there’s this Khan World school that we started with Arizona State University, which is a virtual high school. So the virtual middle and high school, and then Khan Lab school down here is K-12. 

But the big question is: What about higher ed? And there’s a couple of tactics that we’re taking. One is we are actively exploring ways that Khan Academy, mastery on Khan Academy can result in college credit. So one method is if you can make essentially some version of dual enrollment via Khan Academy available to anyone on the planet, and it’s essentially it’s free or near free, and they can get a lot of these first- or second-year classes out of the way; that automatically lowers the cost of college education and actually increases the capacity for more people to get through the physical doors, so to speak. But the really cool thing would be if—and I don’t care if I’m involved—but someone, and there’s some universities, I think, that are already touching on that. There’s, like, Waterloo in Canada, which many of y’all know is an excellent, one of the world’s best engineering schools. Kids graduate from there, not with debt, but with savings because they use the co-op program so effectively, internships. And there’s another advantage where, while the Stanford and the Berkeley and the MIT kids are in classes in the fall and the spring, the Waterloo kids are getting, they get a monopoly in all the internships at all of the places, and they’re getting paid. And so that’s why not only are they getting better experience, they’re more employable. So I think a model like that would be really interesting. I would love to see it in the U.S. I know there’s a lot of talk these days about downtown San Francisco having emptied out. I’ve whispered to a few folks, “Hey, someone should start a university there, but make it so it’s free and not free through philanthropy.” Maybe you need some philanthropy to get it going, but in the long run, it’s free because the students are able to do a lot of real-world work that can be used to both pay the university and pay the students. So yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see. Yeah, your 10-year-old, I have about eight years to work on that. We’ll see what happens.

– Thanks for taking the time, Sal. My name is Asif. And a subject that talks about that learning to learn and critical thinking that you mention a lot is philosophy and looking at some of your books, maybe you’re a fan as well, but academic philosophy is famously dull, whereas the practical impacts of a philosophy educated population society is invaluable. So I’d love to get your thoughts on philosophy in the education system and maybe if you’re incorporating it into Khan World School or Labs.

– Yeah, so we definitely incorporate, like, when I think about what a great education looks like, I think you definitely should have Socratic dialogue about things like philosophy. I mean, there’s other types of things that you can get into really good, thoughtful debates and discussions about, but philosophy’s definitely like half of all the discussions that you could easily have. And at Khan World School, Socratic seminar is actually the anchor point for the whole school. And we’ve partnered with Steve Levitt’s group at the University of Chicago to create a whole list of topics. And half of them are literally philosophical, but they’re real-world philosophical to make it not just abstract. So there’s, like, literally a debate for middle school and high school students on things like should we leverage CRISPR to modify the human genome? Go. And all sorts of philosophical debates start to emerge from that. Will AI be a net positive or negative for humanity? Is GDP the best way to measure progress? You have to learn economics and history and math, but there’s a lot of philosophy in that. So yes, I’m a big fan of it. We’re definitely trying to, implementing the schools we’re doing. 

The AI that we just, Khanmigo, which we built, we partnered with OpenAI over the last year. We launched with GPT-4 several months ago. One of the things that you can get into debates with the AI about frankly all of these topics and more, so that’s one way to hopefully scale it out a little bit more. And then we do have some content already on, and this is more academic philosophy. We’ve partnered with an organization, so that content is on Khan Academy. But yeah, I definitely think it is important. It is one of those things that I think you could have it in almost any subject. And I think that’s actually probably the way to make it, you tie it to real-world issues that is happening every day on the news. Like, reasonable people aren’t getting into debates about these things. Those are great fodder for philosophy.

– [Asif] Thank you.

– Hi, first off, a huge thank you. I was a public school teacher in New York City and Khan Academy liberated my classroom to be a standard space, like collaborative problem-solving space.

– [Sal] Oh, that’s good to hear. That’s the dream.

– My students in Brownsboro were, like, outperforming Westchester white, like, rich students because of work like yours.

– [Sal] If you have any information, I’m always looking of, anyway, but yeah, go.

– I’m looking for an internship this summer. But people looked at, and what made Khan different from me is that you trusted me as an educator to understand data and you gave it to me so I could use it. And you trusted my students to have the data too. That was better than ST, better than I learned, better than anything else. But people looked at me as an educator as unique because I knew how to use the data. My big fear going into AI and ChatGPT is how do we support and build a teacher force that is able to use that technology to liberate their classrooms?

– Yeah, that’s a great question. And what I’m hopeful about, obviously, it’s still very early days, we’re building this right now with all of our Khanmigo stuff. We realize it’s great; Khanmigo can act as a tutor, but it’s even more powerful that it can act as a teaching assistant. And some of that is to help with things like lesson plans and rubrics and give a first-pass grade and writing progress reports, which as you know, as a former teacher, take up a lot of your time.

– [Audience Member] A lot of time.

– So that’s good. But I also think that generative AI means the end of these, like, kind of spreadsheet looking dashboards that you’re familiar with because now it’s like you’re having an analyst. And we already have implemented some aspects of this where a teacher, instead of seeing the dashboard, right, and then having not every teacher can do what you did. And like looking at the dashboard and figuring out which kids could use what, they can just talk to the AI and say, “Hey, so what’s going on?” And the AI can say, “Well, for the most part, the students are doing all right. Here’s five kids who are, for the most part, struggling with these three concepts. Here’s an idea for a mini lesson that you could do with these three kids while the other, or these five kids while the other 20 or 25 students work at their own. Or if I were to group, or here’s an idea for a lesson, and by the way, I would group the kids this way for this reason. This third of the class is really struggling, this third is OK, this third is ready for some really enrichment. They’re getting bored. Let’s give them something else.” This isn’t science fiction anymore. And then if you want the data and the AI will say, “Oh, and by the way, if you don’t believe me, click here for the spreadsheet.” But I think that’s going to make it much more accessible to all teachers. You’re going to be able to text with the dashboard, so to speak, and say, “What should I do? What insights are here? What do you recommend I do next with the students?”

– [Audience Member] Thank you.

– Hey, Sal, my name’s Alex. Following up on that a little bit on the Khan World Academy, I was listening to the podcast with Steve Levitt, and initially I was skeptical, but then I heard the student talking about her experience and it started making a lot more sense. And so I was more curious if you can go in on, like, how you continue to design that curriculum and also what your vision is to scale that up so that more students can have an experience like that?

– Yeah, I mean the beauty of Khan World School and ASU, we did it ’cause ASU already runs ASU prep, which already has 40,000 students, so they know how to scale. And they already have a charter in the state of Arizona, which means ASU prep. And now Khan World School is free to any student in the state of Arizona. And hopefully, we can get charters in other states as well. So that free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere can be true beyond Arizona ’cause this is a full school. 

 A lot of the principles are what we’ve learned over 10 years running the physical Khan Lab School. And also what I wrote 10, 11 years ago in The One World Schoolhouse, students learning at their own pace, having more agency autonomy, the adults, the teachers, the guides, whatever you want to call them, their time focused more on unblocking students, motivating students, advising students, driving Socratic seminars versus lecture, et cetera, et cetera. And with a virtual environment, you’re not bound by time or space in the same way. And we also wanted to show that you could do virtual much better than people did it in the pandemic where it was soul-crushing. And so, we anchor it with a Socratic dialogue. Kids get an hour or two of synchronous community-building discussion advisory every day, but then they have a lot of autonomy to do other things. 

And to your point, Steve Levitt, who everyone knows here from Freakonomics, famous economist, he’s not a sucker for bad data. But as far as we can tell, these kids are not learning 20, 30% faster. They’re learning two x, three x faster, and they’re enjoying it. And there’s stuff we’re not even measuring like the seminar ’cause there aren’t any standardized tests for how good someone is at seminar. But we feel confident that these are well-rounded students that are going to really thrive later on.

– [Alex] Thank you.

– Thanks, Sal. My name is Vinit, and I’m in the MBA program. So recently, I started getting excited and passionate about using technology and AI to perhaps achieve, like, educational parity. And so I was at this San Francisco tech meetup, and I started going around and just started pitching this idea to some folks. Look, we don’t need to teach children or kids how to use computers or even learn how to code anymore. Like, AI can generate code. We need to just provide them more creative ways to play with code or sort of just give them, like, the fundamental building blocks like Legos using AI and they can just sort of create apps on their own and feel empowered about themselves. And what ended up happening throughout the course of the evening was when I talked to the investor community, like the VCs and folks, they would just look at me like, no, no, like EdTech’s a very, very difficult business model. You’re either going to have to sell to the parents or schools, which is no joke. And then there happened to be folks there that were parents and many of them were technologists famously creating apps for adults. But then when it comes to their own kids, they would say like, “No, I just want my kids to play outside, be in the nature. Like, I personally believe that technology hasn’t really given us anything meaningful in form of, yeah, education other than Khan Academy, of course.” But I mean, it is valid concern giving tha the rates of stress, anxiety and focus attention for teenagers or preteens especially has gone up quite a lot recently. So, yeah. I don’t really have a question. I guess I would wonder how I really want to remain optimistic, and you’re one of the few people that I see that are optimistic still in this space. So when you’re not speaking to a room of full of people that have already bought into this idea, I guess, how do you convince those folks, whether it’s parents or investors or whoever it is?

– Yeah, well, I think a bunch of stuff you said resonates with, I think the VCs you’re talking to are right. EDTech is a hard thing especially if you’re trying to get VC-like returns. It’s a very hard thing. And if you want to get VC-like returns, you probably will have to sacrifice some of, maybe some of your principles around like, OK, let’s make this a thing for rich kids, and maybe it helps them cheat a little bit or something like that. Honestly, there are multi-billion dollar publicly traded EDTech companies, that is their business model. I won’t name names. So it is hard ’cause it’s, and it’s even harder if you’re trying to introduce a new paradigm around, in your case, engineering/coding. 

My answer to the screen time is, it’s not about screen time is neutral. There’s some very good uses of screen time. Obviously, if a student is writing a paper, coding, doing some graphical art, I argue Khan Academy. But even that needs to be within reason. For my own children, I still want them to go outside, play with their friends. If someone visits Khan World School or especially Khan Lab School, if they visit, you’re going to see kids not on a computer all day. They do probably use a computer more than your average school, but they’re also getting more social interaction than your average school because they’re not sitting in lectures all day, either. So Khan Lab school kids are constantly working on projects and collaborating and walking around the space. They don’t have to sit in one chair all day. So I’m a big believer in that. So my advice would be, you might be trying to tackle too many degrees away from where people’s comfort zone is right now, but maybe there’s a way to take that same tool and show that you could use it to create, like, enterprise apps or things like that, and college students could use it to start companies. That could probably get, I could imagine, VCs wanting that even to start their own incubator. They create an app like that, and people could come in and just write apps really, really, really fast and get product market fit tests really, really fast. That could be an interesting model. 

But maybe there’s other things if you find the right partner with Lego or something, I don’t know, it’s not easy to pull off. Who knows? I don’t want to discourage you either ’cause what I was doing in 2008 or 2009, people found far, far more ridiculous than what you are doing. So people thought not-for-profit, YouTube videos, personalized learning, all of these stuff, was sounded ridiculous.

– [Vinit] Thank you.

– Well sadly, we are out of time. Thank you for the time that you’ve spent with us today, Sal.

– [Sal] Thanks for having me.

– Thanks to our moderators, Anu and Mrudula. Thanks to all of you for joining us. This has been a wonderful and inspiring hour. I hope you’ll join us again for future Dean Speaker Series. Have a wonderful day.