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Archive for March 2011

Learning from the Past

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I wish I had studied more history.  Not necessarily as a degree at Stanford, but had devoured all solid books I could find on the history of development, economics, business, and finance.  The World Is Flat times 100. After a meeting yesterday, I’m going to make this a point going forward.

I met with my undergraduate advisor, Michael Boskin, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Bush Sr.  I was mesmerized by his ability to connect what was happening today with the past five recessions and across countries, including their differences and similarities.  Then, within a matter of minutes, he was able to talk about the shifting of the Democratic and Republican parties over the last 50 years, after which he told the story of the development and creation of the phonograph, and why it was such a revolutionary technology compared to its counterparts.  Super comprehensive and all in 15 minutes.

I am always blown away by his intelligence and wisdom.  His intelligence is undeniably derived from a combination of his academic work, his experiences, and his interactions.  But I would argue that his wisdom is brought about through a meticulous study of history.  Not just from a theoretical perspective, but from a careful analysis of the choices, actions, and then subsequent ramifications policymakers, CEOs, and economists made/did/had in various situations.

He has made it a point to understand not just what decisions were made, but why certain decisions were made and the tradeoffs between them.  In his ability to understand the past, he has the results of a warchest of experiments already tabulated when a similar situation arises in the present.  His analysis of history is remarkably practical.  It’s probably why he sits on the board of three of the most powerful companies in the world: ExxonMobil, Vodafone, and Oracle.

I wish history education in America’s schools could take a page out of the way Dr. Boskin has learned it.


Written by sheeltyle

March 29, 2011 at 10:58 am

Posted in Stanford

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New York City Innovation

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When we think of where innovation happens in the USA, there is no question that Silicon Valley comes to mind first. But it looks like Mayor Bloomberg – with the help of Stanford, entrepreneurs, and various VC firms – may make it so New York City comes to mind second, in front of the Kendall Square/Cambridge area and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

Mayor Bloomberg came and spoke at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research yesterday. His talk/argument on why NYC is and could be a great hub for innovation included:

  • NYC is America’s largest college town, with over 600,000 students.  Many universities are under renovation and expansion, including Columbia’s new biomedical research campus.
  • New York has significant unused waterfront, warehouses, and old tracks on the west side of Manhattan.  With subway construction planned there, it could help attract a wave of innovative companies.
  • The NYC Entrepreneurial Fund will pair private VC dollars with public government dollars to help jumpstart innovation – the first public/private pseudo-VC of its kind in any major city.
  • Incubator programs, which will help researchers and innovators commercialize their technology, have been created in a range of industries.

The big downside of NYC is the lack of technical talent.  A good engineer can live in Silicon Valley and never have to move for the rest of his life irrespective of acquisitions, failings, and buyouts, but only a great engineer can do the same in a place like New York.  While there are some great early startups in New York (Hunch, Etsy, Foursquare, etc.), the number isn’t nearly as high as Silicon Valley.

I’m hoping that this changes with the increased focus on entrepreneurship, the possibility of a Startup Visa, and the influx of investment dollars from existing VC firms opening NYC offices (like Accel) and from traditional investment banks trying their hand in later stage venture capital (like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase).  Oh, and Stanford potentially opening a graduate R&D and innovation “lab” for information technology in NYC wouldn’t hurt either.

Written by sheeltyle

March 12, 2011 at 9:00 am

TEDxTeen, Age-Old Problems, Innovator’s Myopia

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This April 2 in New York City, I will be giving a talk at TEDxTeen, with the especially timely theme, “The Age of How.” As the program notes, with every passing day, we become more connected with the rest of the world, access to technology becomes greater, and knowledge transfer becomes easier and easier.  Every generation is able to take the learnings and best practices of the previous generation more quickly than ever before, and build upon them.

Yet still, age-old problems – cancer, Alzheimer’s, pollution, unsafe water, poverty, war, religious and ethnic tensions – have remained problems for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It requires “new age thinking” to effectively tackle them.

I will be talking about escaping the “innovator’s myopia,” highlighting how we should think about problems if we truly want to create disruptive change rather than merely bandage up their symptoms.  I am hoping that this will inspire “new age innovation,” led by a generation that, for the first time in history, has the world’s knowledge perennially at its fingertips.

Written by sheeltyle

March 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Kavita Ramdas Takeaways: Empowerment, The Circle, Lady Gaga

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Kavita Ramdas, the brilliant, sari-laden, well-spoken, and remarkable former CEO of the Global Fund For Women held a fireside chat yesterday in my residence’s lounge.  I have been impressed with her ever since her answers at the 2008 Stanford Roundtable on Leadership for the 21st Century.  A few notes from her chat yesterday that I found particularly compelling:

  • Our relative position, as a country, should not be important.  We should not view ourselves as standing at the head of line trying to stave off competition, with poorer countries at the back. We are a circle of countries, and in a circle, it is much harder to let your counterpart starve, suffer unemployment, endure conflict, etc.
  • “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” – Gandhi.  While capitalism has many benefits, there need to be other criteria of what defines a ‘good company’.
  • “Power can be given, not taken” – therefore, ’empowering’ someone is a misnomer.  We can never really empower someone, but can only set up the environment or can only give them the tools for them to empower themselves.
  • As the world is becoming more and more connected through technology, we are becoming more tribal. We need to truly listen to those who are “different” than us (despite the fact that they all listen to Lady Gaga, eat McDonalds, and like the same sports) to understand who they are, what moves them, and what issues they face.  We should come in with the mindset of “I don’t know anything about you”, not “here is what we think”.
  • The USA probably wouldn’t like it if 10 women from Afghanistan told us how to dress, so it’s tough to justify why they should listen when we do the same.

Written by sheeltyle

March 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm

The Most Lucrative Start-Up Incubator

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TechStars, Y Combinator, and even the Lightspeed Grant may not be the best incubator programs for startups.  TechStars gives you 18K and 3 months of mentorship for 6% of the company.  Lightspeed gives each team 10K + 5K per team member and takes zero equity.  Even Y Combinator, which gives about 17K and mentorship for around 6% and now 150K in “free money” from Ron Conway and Yuri Milner, may not be the best.

Maybe it’s just staying in school.

I had lunch with a friend who at first glance would seem to be the opposite of today’s drop-out entrepreneur. After graduating from undergrad in three years, he’s now pursuing a PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MBA. His logic? The PhD program is effectively paying him to work with a professor to together commercialize a technology.  The MBA cost is much reduced since he has zero salary to show applying straight out of undergrad.  If he plays the legal stuff right, he won’t have to give up equity for what he is developing either.

So, while incubators may provide cash and mentorship, the right professor in the right department could do the same.  The upside is the same in both.  The downside is a failed founder versus a newly minted PhD.  I think more people should consider the latter option, especially for more technical, non consumer-Internet entrepreneurs.  And if these can function simultaneously as a research project, why not?

Written by sheeltyle

March 1, 2011 at 8:15 am