Riskgaming

The utopian visions of Stanford’s generations of entrepreneurs

Description

Stanford University is at the beating heart of Silicon Valley and has become almost a rite of passage for generations of entrepreneurs. But how does each generation form, and what skills and mindsets should they be equipped with given our changing world?

No one has thought more about how to shape that entrepreneurial spirit than Dr. Tina Seelig. Seelig is the Executive Director of the prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholars program at Stanford among many other leadership roles, and she is also the author of Creativity Rules: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and into the World as well as What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. Joining Seelig is host Danny Crichton and Lux Capital partner Grace Isford.

We talk about Seelig’s class “Inventing the Future” and how she guides students in considering the utopian and dystopian aspects of the future technologies that are shaping our everyday lives. We also talk about generational differences between students over the past two decades, from the 9/11 generation to the global financial crisis and Covid-19 generations and how global events influence the approach of budding entrepreneurs. Then we walk through how to teach leadership, how to increase luck, and why there is such an important correlation between optimism and agency.

Transcript

This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Danny Crichton:
I'm a huge fan of utopias and particularly dystopias. I never read about utopian places. I feel like I exclusively read dystopias, like We and 1984 and Brave New World and Day of the Oprichnik. Okay, great. I'm going to count myself in. Hello and welcome to Securities, a podcast and newsletter devoted to science, technology, finance and the human condition. I'm your host, Danny Crichton, and today we're talking with Tina Seelig on Inventing the Future. Tina is executive director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program at Stanford University, teaches classes at Stanford's d.school and is the author of Creativity Rules: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World, as well as What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. Tina, welcome to the show.

Tina Seelig:
Thank you so much. Delighted to be here.

Danny Crichton:
And also joining me today is my Lux partner, Grace Isford. Grace, welcome as well.

Grace Isford:
Thanks Danny. So excited to have Tina here.

Danny Crichton:
I think when people hear, air quotes, Stanford and startups, there's this belief that the university has this perfectly integrated, well-oiled machine for propelling one founder after another into Silicon Valley. But in reality, it's far more decentralized, an agglomeration of different schools, institutes, student groups, incubators, and a lot of them don't talk to each other. Tina, to me, you're one of the core integrators trying to connect the dots across this archipelago of entrepreneurial energy. I'd love to just start with sort of the lay of the land of Stanford and startups in this sort of 2022 post-pandemic period, as sort of students and faculty are now back on campus.

Tina Seelig:
Well, that's an easy question to start with. Stanford is a really interesting place. I was reflecting yesterday with a friend of mine about coming to the Bay Area and coming to Stanford for the first time and just being intoxicated by the entrepreneurial spirit. I think that's what really makes the magic happen, is that people not only come to the valley expecting this, there is a lot of cultural support for innovation and entrepreneurship. So you're right, it's completely decentralized. There is very much a culture of let a thousand million flowers bloom and see what happens. There are entrepreneurship programs in all of the different schools at Stanford and we are very loosely connected, sharing resources, talking to each other, very, very collaborative. That's what makes it really exciting, is that it's not a tops down program. It's very much bottoms up, motivated and driven by the individuals who are inspired to make things happen.

Grace Isford:
I totally agree. I mean, I was excited to come to Stanford because of that. There was this kind of air of intellectual curiosity and almost collaboration on campus, irrespective of your discipline. Tina and I originally met via the Mayfield Fellowship program, which is an incredible work study, a tech program at Stanford, and really encouraged that kind of proliferation of ideas and cross-pollination, whether or not you're an English major or engineering major that had an interest solving big problems.

Danny Crichton:
So let me ask, Tina, you've been teaching this class, Inventing the Future, and you're looking at the frontier sciences and technology areas. So I'd love to hear a little bit of how that class is designed because when I was reading about it, first of all, I feel like I was at Stanford. I started in '07, which was I think prior to the d.school. I think the d.school got kind of propped up either very late in my career at Stanford. But there are no courses in which were sort of experimental, experiential, get out into the world, invent the future, look over the [inaudible 00:03:18] in your case, I think it's over the next 50 years at what's potential, going forward. So let's talk a little bit about the structure of the course and why you designed it the way you did.

Tina Seelig:
Yeah, so let me start with why I designed this class and who I collaborate with and why we're doing this. It started about five years ago when I was looking out at how quickly the world was changing and seeing that our students were going out in the world and they were the ones who were changing it. They were inventing new technologies, new tools, new trends. They were so optimistic and so excited about what they were doing, but not necessarily looking at the consequences, the long-term consequences of what they were doing, both the utopian consequences but also the dystopian consequences of what they were doing. I thought it's irresponsible for us not to be inoculating them with the tools and the mindset to think about what the consequences are of what they're doing. So I pitched this idea to my colleagues at the d.school and they connected me with Lisa Solomon, who is a futurist, who's on their team.

So we got together and it was clear that this was a match that was really well made. So we started crafting the class and then I was talking to the class with a colleague in the bioengineering department and he said, "I want to be on the teaching team." And we said, "Come join us." So one is Lisa Solomon, who's the d.schooler, who's the futurist, and then Drew Endy, who's a very, very well-established bioengineering professor who is very much thinking about the future and the future of the future, the future of the future of the future. So the three of us together have crafted this course over the last number of years.

The class is structured in a really fun way. The first half of the course... So the class is 10 weeks long, the first five weeks we teach tools, techniques, approaches, mindset, how do you invent the future, how do you come up with big ideas and think about what the consequences of those are. Then the last five weeks are debates. Each week we take a different frontier technology and the students are put on teams. They knew their teams in advance, so they were doing advanced research, but they didn't know if they were going to be debating the utopian or dystopian consequences. So a week before, we let them know and they have to basically say, "Okay, let's imagine this comes to life, this technology, what's it going to look like in 50 years? What's the really rosy picture and what's the really deep, dark future? And how might we think about integrating those to come up with something that we really want to experience?"

Danny Crichton:
What has been most surprising? So you're doing this utopian-dystopia dichotomy and I'm going back to Thomas More's original Utopia, which was actually a dystopia. They're really two sides of the same coin because it allows you to see both how the same phenomenon can be received in two different directions. I'm curious though, as you look at these different technologies, what surprised you? Because I think of AI and there's sort of obvious answers of how that could be a utopic, Star Trekkian, everything is done for you, everything's super easy, or a dystopian digital surveillance, we can't do anything. But I'm curious, when you see some of the projects some of the students have come up with, what are some of the technologies you thought either were more utopic than you might've expected or more dystopic than might've otherwise been?

Tina Seelig:
Well, as you point out, they all are both, right? It's the different sides of the same coin. One of the most interesting things that you see though is for each of the sessions where we're doing debates, we have an expert in that field, someone who is literally working on the front lines, come to our class and listen to the debates and give feedback. The most surprising, interesting thing that happens is they often are surprised by the dystopian states because they never have taken the time to think about that.

Danny Crichton:
I'm curious, have you seen differences across all these different students over time? Do they have different needs?

Tina Seelig:
Absolutely. Oh my gosh.

Danny Crichton:
Do they have different frameworks? Are they coming in with different kind of things in their knapsack, so to speak? What have you seen that's changed over the years?

Tina Seelig:
That's such an interesting question. I can point to discontinuities in what happens with the students because they are a reflection of what's going on in the world. I think about the Mayfield Fellows class of 2000 and the World Trade Center, 2001. I think about that year. And the students are in the class, the spring, the summer and the fall. So we had these students spring and summer, they went off and they came back right after September 11th, 2001.

Danny Crichton:
Wow.

Tina Seelig:
They were different students. It was literally within the same class, they came back, that experience so shaped who they were. They were busy thinking about how they were going to make money and how they were going to make their place in the world. And they came back and everybody was like, "What do I do? I need to do something to make the world a better place." It was amazing.

Then after 2008, I had a big surprise. So I imagined that after the financial crisis in 2008 that people would go rushing to security. But it was actually the opposite. People said before there was a big difference in the risk profile of going into consulting or finance and going into do a startup. People who had a pretty low-risk profile were much more likely to go into these traditional fields. But after that financial meltdown, especially in the financial world, guess what? All of a sudden, that difference became much less measurable and people started running to start [inaudible 00:08:53] so that there was a huge increase in entrepreneurship. I bet if you looked at it, you would see this, in 2008, '09, when people said, "You know what? I need to have more agency in my life. I'm going to go start my own business."

Danny Crichton:
I think I've seen the exact same pattern because I was at Stanford '07 through '11, and what I would say is the people who really were successful was that class who went into the great financial crisis. All the jobs, the traditionally Goldman Sachs, McKinsey pulled offers, no one got them. They didn't hire anyone and it wasn't a route you could choose. It was like that door was closed, which meant you had to do something new. At the time that was mobile. The iPhone was released in '07, the app store comes out in '08, '09. So there's a whole cohort of folks who otherwise probably would've been a banker on Wall Street who were like, "Well, app stores and these new apps that are getting built in the mobile ad networks, that's the only thing available. I'm going to go do that."

That just happened to be where a lot of the innovation and the locus [inaudible 00:09:46] This is where Facebook comes out of, all the way up to Instagram in 2012 comes out of that cohort. Then back to my class in 2011, it came back to a lot more traditional because the jobs had reopened up and folks were sort of back on track again. So I just think it's fascinating to see that macro environment, particularly in this year 2022, with the recessionary headwinds, with people getting worried. We've seen several folks lose their jobs on LinkedIn. It's very traumatic. But my guess is if they can sort of persevere the next couple years, these will be some of the most successful people doing some of the most interesting stuff just simply because those conventional doors are closed.

Grace Isford:
I'd add just one other discontinuity was with COVID. You saw everyone losing that sort of social, familial, communal aspect, whether it was on campus or in their workplace in person. I think we're still working to get back to normal and folks are still trying to figure out the mix of in-person versus virtual and then reevaluating a lot of what jobs actually excite them, versus maybe what jobs they had to do is because they were in X, Y, or Z location, for example.

Tina Seelig:
Oh my goodness. I mean, that is just a huge discontinuity. Of course, it wasn't just one day or one month with the stock market or one year. We've now had over two years. It'll be fascinating to see what happens, especially to younger people, who this was a very pivotal time of their life, how that's going to shape the way they craft their lives going forward.

Grace Isford:
Talk to me a little bit about defining traits of inventive and creative people that often people overlook.

Tina Seelig:
It's funny because people often ask questions like, "Can you teach creativity? Can you teach entrepreneurship? Can you teach leadership?" I just smile because we don't ask those questions about other topics like math and history and even sports or art. There's something about these fields that we feel are innate. Of course, there are some people who are going to be naturally more creative than others and there are going to be people who are naturally more entrepreneurial. But all of these involve skills and traits, mindset, and these can be taught, these can be changed, just like we know that people can change their mindset to be a growth mindset.

I think so much of being an innovator is about learning to be optimistic, learning to take risks, learning how to be resilient, learning how to gather lots of bits of lots of data from lots of different places because so many ideas come from connecting and combining other information, right? So in order to be creative, the more diverse your inputs, the more diverse your output is going to be as well. There are very specific tools you can teach and I am a huge believer that everybody can get better at learning to be more creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and to build their leadership skills.

Danny Crichton:
Carol Dweck, which you refer to with the growth mindset, I believe also at Stanford, if I recall over maybe at the School of Education.

Tina Seelig:
Yes.

Danny Crichton:
I think as part of this kind of vanguard of new folks who are just saying that there's a lot more neural plasticity, that we actually have the ability to change who we are. We have the ability to adapt, we have the ability to gain these sort of softer skills, because I agree with you, Tina. I think there's this huge cultural bias that says that you're a born leader, you're born to be president or born... There are sort of a sense of, yes, there are some five-year-olds who are taking charge of the group or whatever the case may be, but ultimately, well, how do you go do that? That's learnable. You can see it, you can watch it, you can observe it.

We were just hosting a group of maybe, what, 30 or 40 young people just a few days ago here in New York City and Josh Wolf, one of our partners here, was talking about his career and he was like, "Look, I used to be really awkward. I didn't know how to talk to people. I had a huge accent. No one took me seriously. And then over 10 years, I watched videos, I saw how people spoke, I saw how they slowed down and started speaking with a more careful cadence." And he adapted and he gained a lot of power and built up Lux capital simply by just changing who he was. Now he's still the same person, he still has the same core, but it was not something that was just like, "Well, I was born to be a venture capitalist on day two." He worked very hard to adapt his mindset and lifestyle to go and approach it.

I want to talk specifically about leadership though, because one of the things you teach is just focused on the leadership aspect. I think entrepreneurship is about risk taking. Creativity is about design thinking and bringing up new ideas and redefining the question as you put it in earlier. But then we get to leadership, which is how do you manage people? How do you recruit? How do you build esprit de corps among a group of folks who oftentimes have to take the same risks that you are taking, oftentimes for less reward, particularly in these early stage startups where it's sort of a wing and a prayer. So I'm curious how you sort of teach the leadership aspects in your courses.

Tina Seelig:
Yeah, so I am fortunate enough to be the executive director of Knight-Hennessy Scholars at Stanford, where our goal is bringing together students from across the university to create this multicultural, multidisciplinary community focused on being global leaders. So this is what I eat for breakfast is thinking about this. We've put together a leadership model over the last couple years looking at the traits of leaders, but also the behaviors of leaders. So sort of think of traits as thinking who are you and how do people perceive who you are? But then what is it that you actually do? So many of our programs that we offer here and that we deliver to these students is about looking at the actual behaviors, how to be inspiring, how to be creative, how to be collaborative or analytical, how to make hard decisions, and how to be action-oriented.

So those six things, right? Inspiring, creative, collaborative, analytical, decisive, and action-oriented. All of our programming is designed to reinforce the skills that are required. For example, inspiring. The first year students come in and they learn storytelling skills. And then decision making, for example, we do a lot of case studies, living cases. We have people come in from across disciplines and present the scholars with really hard problems that they are working on right now or things that they've dealt with in the past. The scholars get to try to crack the case. How might you address this? And then they get feedback on it. So they're getting real-life experience honing these skills.

Grace Isford:
I think two things I'd add to that, which again, are characteristic of a lot of the really awesome to me entrepreneurship classes and leadership classes I've ever been a part of is they're both experiential. So learning by doing in many cases and putting yourself out there and forcing yourself to ask the why or why not questions. Also holistic nature, so they're interdisciplinary, often bringing together many different folks with different interests or perspectives or backgrounds or insights, and then often realizing that there's hundreds, if not thousands, of ways of approaching a different problem or opportunity.

Tina Seelig:
I couldn't agree more that learning has to be experiential. In fact, I think as an educator, I am really an experience designer and I never give homework at the beginning to read in advance. I only give readings after the experience. I want people to come in really a blank slate and then we'll do some reading about it, about the power of this tool. But now you have a hook, now you have the experience to hang that learning on and it becomes much more sticky. You're much more likely to remember it and to be able apply [inaudible 00:17:07]

Grace Isford:
I'd love to talk a little bit more about Tina's theory on luck, if you can increase your luck or if it's innate. Being in New York, I actually think my luck has increased quite a bit because of the pure nature of how many people I bump into, millions of people in this city, highly dense and concentrated, and then continue to run into different people from different parts of life to collaborate on a new business endeavor or friendship in a way that maybe I wouldn't have previously. But Tina, would love to turn it over to you.

Tina Seelig:
Gosh, I love talking about luck. When I grew up, my father used to always say, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." I realized that was great. But that is just the tip of the iceberg is hard work. I am fascinated by luck. In fact, I gave a TED talk on luck, on how you can take a little risk to increase your luck. What I realize is that there are three ways to increase your luck. First of all, luck is really different from fortune and chance. People tend to conflate them all, right? Fortune is something that happens to you. I'm fortunate to have been born at this place and time. I'm fortunate to have these parents, et cetera. Chance is something that's much more random, like throwing the dice, but luck is in the middle. It's something where there's this wonderful interplay between what you do and what happens.

I think that there are three major ways to increase your luck. One is to change your relationship with yourself. That's lots of mindset change where you're willing to take more risks and to get out of your comfort zone. Now, Grace, you just said meet more people. That's one, right? Take some social risks, introduce yourself to new people, follow up with people, sort of invite new people into their world. But there are lots of other ways to increase your personal risk profile, whether it's financial risks or social risks or emotional risks or physical risks. These are all different types of risks you can take that you can stretch to make you luckier because the more things you try, the more likely that something's going to work well.

The flip side of this is also making sure that you have a failure resume because you want to make sure that you collect all the things you learned from what didn't work out, right? So if I tried something and it didn't work, oops, I put it in my resume, I mine it for some insights and then I move on. The key is to not get stuck if you have something that didn't work and feel like you can't do it again. So one is changing your relationship with yourself.

The other is changing your relationship with other people. I think so many people do not follow through, and my personal favorite as Grace knows, is thank you notes. I think most people do not send thank you notes and they do not show appreciation. Showing appreciation is one of the most powerful things you can do in the world because it strengthens that relationship so much more. If you read my book or watched my TED talk and you sent me a note and said, "Tina, I watched your talk, it was really meaningful to me. Thank you so much for taking the time to do it," you're now in my inbox.

If a year later you write to me and follow up on that email thread and say, "Oh, by the way, I was thinking about this. Might you know someone?" I already have a positive relationship with you because you have thanked me for something. It's just the way the world works. I know that we all sort of keep a mental calculation of whether we do something for someone and if they don't say thank you, if you've put yourself out there, the next time they ask, they're going to be surprised that somehow you don't have time for it.

Grace Isford:
Love to go back to Inventing the Future class and talk a little bit more about some of those interesting or surprising patterns you found.

Tina Seelig:
At the beginning of the course, the first day we have all the students line up in a line based on how optimistic or pessimistic they are about the future. So some people are way optimist, some are saying pessimist, a lot are in the middle. Then we have them walk forward if they feel that they have a lot of agency in terms of shaping the future or walk backwards if they think that they do not have any agency or control over the future. We sort of take a snapshot of this. If we were on Zoom, we do it as a little two-by-two matrix, and they literally map it on the screen.

We revisit this at the end of the course and the most amazing thing happens. The students in the course feel so much more agency about the future. When asked to reflect upon their biggest takeaways from the course, many of them say, "I now feel that the future isn't happening to me, but I'm happening to the future." It's so interesting that they walk away after learning these tools, feeling as though they have much more control over shaping the future that they live in.

Danny Crichton:
I'd probably be on the extra room to the left on the pessimistic side, through the wall in the next conference room, probably in the back wall in the other conference room. So several rooms away.

Grace Isford:
But do you have agency?

Danny Crichton:
No agency.

Grace Isford:
Okay.

Danny Crichton:
The future just slams you into the ground. That would be where I am. But I will say, I think one of the activities though, which I feel like this is partly inspired by, is Stanford in the dorms always said this activity called Crossing the Line in which we would ask these questions. It was just like step forward if some scenario had happened to you. It was a trust building exercise. To me that was one of the most powerful experiences you ever had because people feel very unsafe to talk about these things individually. But oftentimes you feel much more comfortable in a group setting where they were with trusted peers, people in their dorms, people to say, "Did you experience trauma as a child? Did you have something terrible happen?" Then they see that there are others who have shared the exact same experiences as you, so I think it's really powerful both to identify where everyone else stands and also see how it changes and realize that the world is a dynamic place, particularly when you're a young person just going through college. Tina, thank you so much for joining us.

Tina Seelig:
It was my pleasure.

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