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.

Berkeley Haas names 2023 Finance Fellows

The 2023 Finance Fellows: Back row (left to right): Erik Swisher, Renzo Viale Paiva, Gauri Deshpande , Marya Unwala, Martin Lima;  front row (left to right) Rogerio Rios, Venky Vuppalapati, Yvonne Mondragón, Isabella Fantini, Hector Alamillo, Daniel Espinoza Birman. Photo: Jim Block

When Yvonne Mondragón finished the Berkeley Haas undergraduate program in 2016, she worked for seven years in finance, planning a long-term career in investment banking.

“I knew I wanted to come back to school in order to pivot into investment banking and work in banking at the highest level,” she said.

Mondragón, MBA 25, is now well on her way, as one of 11 first-year full-time Haas MBA students named among Haas’ 2023 Finance Fellows.

As fellows, the students receive a scholarship award and are assigned mentors—Haas alumni working in finance, including recent graduates and senior executives.

The 2023 fellows include:  

  • Mondragón, for the C&J White Fellowship in Finance.
  • Isabella Fantini, Renzo Viale Paiva, Marya Unwala, and Martin Lima for entrepreneurial finance.  
  • Venky Vuppalapati, Gauri Deshpande, Hector Alamillo, and Erik Swisher for investment banking. 
  • Daniel Espinoza Birman and Rogério Rios for private equity and investment management.

About 45% of these new fellows are international, reflecting the percentage of the overall MBA class, said William Rindfuss, managing director for Strategic Programs with the Haas Finance Group. Several of the students bring work experience in different finance sectors from their home countries, and are looking to pivot to larger sectors in the U.S. 

Vuppalapati, who is from India, said he’s drawn to the excitement of technology investment banking, and closely tracks how world events, the day’s news, and government policy impact financial markets.

“When I think of investment banking, I also think about how much any one deal can impact different people and different industries,” he said. “Tech has the largest impact, so it feels like a great fit.”

Rios, originally from Brazil, said he’s fascinated by innovation in health care, which led him to pursue a MBA/MPH degree.

“Innovation and technology are going to shape the future, and I want to be in a place that would not only give me an opportunity to be close to financial markets but also provide a solid understanding of how business and tech intersect with health care.”

Inspired by the four Berkeley Haas Defining Leadership Principles—Question the Status Quo; Confidence Without Attitude; Students Always; and Beyond Yourself—Rios added that he is seeking to make an impact on the world and give back to his family.

“I’m a first-generation student, so a lot of my efforts are in the spirit of giving back to them and to my community,” he said.

Mondragón, who is also a first-generation college student, said she hopes to serve as a role model.

“Having someone who looks like me in the finance space is so important,” she said.  “I have the lived experience of someone who did not benefit from this space. I grew up not having much access to any of the knowledge that I have now.”

Fantini said she is coupling passions for both technology and venture capital at Haas—and adding a lifelong interest in the food supply chain.

 “Haas has such an amazing focus on sustainability and food,” Fantini said. “I knew I could stay connected to Silicon Valley, stay connected to venture, and get even more connected to food resources by coming here for an MBA.”

Berkeley Haas launches new Climate Solutions Fund 

Aerial view of a massive array of solar panels
An aerial view of Dominion Energy’s Scott Solar farm in Powhatan, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Haas School of Business is launching the first student-led Climate Solutions Fund, the latest addition to its comprehensive curriculum to equip the next generation of business leaders with the financial skills to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Beginning in fall 2024, MBA students can enroll in a new course where they serve as investment managers for the $2.37 million fund, learning how to structure financing in complex private markets by co-investing in real-world deals focused on solutions to climate change.

“As the world moves toward a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we need financial leaders with the skills to navigate the economic revolution we are facing,” says Professor Adair Morse, co-founder of the Sustainable and Impact Finance Center (SAIF), who conceived of the fund and will lead the course. “This economic revolution will be staggeringly disruptive yet will also be a source of more business opportunities across all parts of the country than we’ve seen in 250 years.”

“As the world moves toward a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we need financial leaders with the skills to navigate the economic revolution we are facing.” —Professor Adair Morse

The new fund was made possible by a lead gift from Allan Holt, MBA 76, along with generous founding donations from Larry Johnson, BS 72, Charlie Michaels, BS 78, and his wife Doris, Scott Pinkus, and Professor Laura D. Tyson, former Haas dean and co-founder of SAIF.

“I am thrilled to help Haas take the lead in training leaders in the emerging area of climate finance,” says Holt, a Senior Partner and Managing Director of The Carlyle Group. “Decarbonizing our economy is the critical issue of our time, and I am committed to supporting future leaders who can spur this transition.”

“Decarbonizing our economy is the critical issue of our time, and I am committed to supporting future leaders who can spur this transition.” —Allan Holt, MBA 76

The multi-asset class private Climate Solutions Fund augments Haas’ unique curriculum under SAIF, which teaches investment management with hands-on experiential learning. It rounds out the public markets-focused Sustainable Investment Fund—the first and the largest student-led sustainable investing fund within a leading business school—and the Haas Impact Fund, a seed/startup capital offering.

A new area of finance

The Climate Solutions Fund curriculum will teach students new designs and uses of finance not traditionally taught in mainstream finance courses, where there are dire needs for leadership, according to  Morse, who saw the need for this financial expertise while serving as deputy assistant secretary of Capital Access in the U.S. Department of the Treasury from 2021-23.

Financing the climate transition requires a diverse and technical tool kit: An estimated $4 trillion to $5 trillion per year will be needed to reshape global energy, transportation, food, and waste infrastructure, and to help companies reinvent supply chains and integrate new technologies, Morse says. 

This level of reinvestment will require every finance tool available, including designing financial structures to mobilize government programs and work with community and industry partners,” she says. “Our goal is to expand how we teach students to provide the leadership and expertise that corporations, financial entities, startups, governments, and philanthropies will need to navigate this transition.”

This level of reinvestment will require every finance tool available, including designing financial structures to mobilize government programs and work with community and industry partners.” —Professor Adair Morse

The fund, and the associated MBA course, are the first at a major business school to focus on complex financing strategies within private markets, including growth equity and debt equity; public-private partnerships with federal and state programs; risk mitigation; identifying the underlying technologies to fuel the low-carbon transition; and envisioning new financial products.   

Students enrolled in the Climate Solutions Fund course will assess investment opportunities in U.S.–based for-profit companies, working with outside investment partners to structure deals. Following a pitch competition, student managers will select one finalist to co-invest $100,000 to $300,000 annually. The fund is intended to generate positive returns over time so that future generations of students can build off the capital.

Stock photo of a biogas plant and farm (Adobe Stock)

Comprehensive curriculum

In addition to the “fund-as-curriculum” courses, SAIF also offers other applied innovation courses such as the Impact and Climate Investing Practicum, where faculty guide small teams of MBA students who are paired with impact investing firms to to gain hands-on experience with impact investing strategy, mapping, and measurement projects.

The courses count toward the Michael’s Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business. Open to both full-time and evening and weekend MBA students, the certificate requires 9 units of required coursework. Students can create a pathway that’s focused on either bringing a sustainability lens to a mainstream business function or building expertise into a specific industry such as renewable energy or green infrastructure.

In addition to Morse, SAIF is led by Professor Panos Patatoukas, The L.H. Penney Chair in Accounting, and Tyson.

Five major areas of sustainability

The new Climate Solutions Fund is part of Haas’ larger effort to ensure that all students are educated in the fundamentals of sustainability. Haas launched the first student-managed SRI fund in the early 2000s and is now the only top business school to work across five major sustainable business areas: energy, sustainable agriculture and food, real estate and urban economics, corporate accountability, and sustainable finance and accounting.

The school has combined research on energy conservation and storage, building efficiency, renewable energy sources, and sustainable food with efforts to include climate and equity into the core business curriculum across all programs. All told, Haas offers more than 25 courses with a focus on sustainability.

For students planning careers in managing sustainability challenges in organizations, Haas is also planning to launch a new joint master’s program in 2024 with the Rausser College of Natural Resources to offer an MBA/MS in Climate Solutions.