If there is one commodity that never seems to be in short supply in Silicon Valley, it’s ambition.
The call to “change the world” has become a common rallying cry for the region’s start-ups, and a mark of the techno-euphoria that pervades the San Francisco bay area at the height of one of its periodic booms.
So it should be no surprise that Stanford University, the private institution that sits at the heart of the Valley and has supplied a fair amount of its talent and research ideas, has been bitten by the ambition bug.
At $750m, it has just raised what it claims is the biggest amount to have been set aside for a fully endowed academic scholarship programme. This includes a $400m contribution from Nike founder Philip Knight, coming on top of a $105m donation he had already made to the university’s business school.
A further $100m has come from local financier Robert King and his wife Dorothy, and is in addition to the $150m the pair had already given to study ways of alleviating poverty in the developing world, itself one of the biggest single contributions in Stanford’s history.
The large numbers demonstrate the scale of the project Stanford has now taken on with its new Knight-Hennessy scholarships: to help train a network of future global leaders, with an international scholarship programme for 100 new graduate students a year from around the world that is modelled on — yet dwarfs — established schemes such as the Rhodes Scholarships.
Total amount raised for Knight-Hennessy scholarship programme
John Hennessy, the Stanford president who came up with this idea, is unabashed about the breadth of his vision: “You want to have a big impact, you need to do something at scale.”
On the board of Google since before its 2004 initial public offering, and a director of Cisco Systems, Mr Hennessy knows all about the Silicon Valley approach to thinking big. Asked if that has
something to do with why he has raised so much cash, he does not hesitate: “Absolutely. The Valley is fundamentally about innovation, and being willing to approach things in new ways, being able to come up with solutions at scale.”
Yet the plan to turn out an elite group of leaders to take on some of the world’s most difficult problems, from climate change to improving health and education for large populations, marks a departure from the usual Silicon Valley way of looking at the world. The typical tech entrepreneur is better known for single-minded pursuit of a narrowly focused idea, usually in a fast-moving start-up and with little thought for the wider social impact of their disruptive notions.
What Stanford hopes to instil in its Knight-Hennessy scholars is different: the collection of skills needed to solve big and complex problems, often by working in large institutions and drawing on the public as well as private sector. “I think this is harder to do at scale,” Mr Hennessy concedes. “It’s harder to do when you involve the public sector, there’s no doubt about it: it’s not trivial.”
100 x 3
One hundred graduate students a year will sign up for the three-year programme
When it comes to trying to attract the best candidates from around the world, though, Stanford is not shy about using the Silicon Valley mystique as a recruiting tool. The students it attracts will go into one of its existing graduate programmes, from law and business to medicine and engineering, but they will all be taught innovation and entrepreneurialism.
Students might also get to spend their vacations working at a Google or a Facebook, says Mr Hennessy. “Being in the Valley, being on the Pacific Rim, is really a very different experience.”
Yet proximity to Silicon Valley’s tech start-up culture is only part of the draw. “Not everything is going to be the next new app to solve the entire problem — it’s a larger scale, it’s a more collaborative venture,” says Mr Hennessy. “Technology has a role but it’s not the single silver bullet.”
To achieve its aim of a more rounded education, Stanford is counting on an interdisciplinary approach that has been one of the hallmarks of Mr Hennessy’s 16 years as president. The university’s graduate students have been encouraged to dip into courses beyond their narrow specialisms.
The scholarship programme will also include a new course in leadership. Conceding that leadership skills are learned by experience, rather than in the classroom, Mr Hennessy thinks Stanford can still devise a set of experiences that have some real-world value.
The university is also set to build a centre where the new graduate students can congregate, cementing an elite network that is an essential part of the programme.
The backers of the Knight-Hennessy programme hope this combination of experiences — and a three-year duration that is longer than other, similar schemes — will produce well-rounded, ethically minded people with an appetite for solving hard social problems. “I want people who are inspired to go into public service, who are inspired to go start the next great NGO,” says Mr Hennessy, who will retire from Stanford this summer and become the first director for the scholarship programme.
Despite their lofty aims, though, elite scholarship programmes are sometimes seen as feeder systems for high-paid professions, turning out fewer of the high-minded, public-spirited individuals they are intended to produce.
“We’re unlikely to get 300 for 300,” concedes Mr Knight, referring to the number of students who will be on the scholarship programme at any one time. But over a two-decade period, the scholarships should still produce an impressive and diverse set of leaders, he adds — while those that choose more conventional careers, such as banking or law, may still move into public service later.
Highly selective scholarship programmes also run into criticism for breeding personal networks that serve the interests of the members more than society at large.
After 16 years at the helm of one of the top-ranked US private universities, Mr Hennessy is unapologetic about the risk of being seen as exclusive. “The criticism is probably one that is not just of these scholarship programmes but all elite institutions,” he says, before adding: “Our challenge is to inspire people to think differently.”
So how will he feel if Knight-Hennessy scholars shun the aspirations of the programme’s founders and instead join the brain-drain to more highly paid and less altruistic careers, like finance?
He cannot resist a sly sideswipe. “I wouldn’t be unhappy if I sent a really great ethical leader to Wall Street,” he says. “I would feel OK about that.”