Alex Tonelli, MBA ’11: What Matters to Me Now and Why

“People wrote me off as a kid from a broken home. I owe it to the people who invested in me to impact the lives of others.”

March 23, 2022

| by Alex Tonelli
An illustration of a male figure writing while papers fly up around him. | Credit: Illustration by Kim Salt.

Alex Tonelli set out to “multiply the opportunities” he’d been given. | Illustration by Kim Salt

I love the faces candidates make when I ask them the question in a job interview. I wish I could’ve seen my own face the first time I saw it. No one had asked me something like that before.

Editor’s Note

In this ongoing series, we ask our alumni to revisit their admission essay, What matters most to you, and why?, and reflect on how their worldview has changed in the years since they wrote it. Alex Tonelli, MBA ’11, is the managing partner of Endurance Companies. He lives with his wife and three children in San Francisco. 

When I applied to Stanford GSB in 2008, I didn’t know what mattered to me, let alone why. I was just trying to make it out from a tough background. My parents had disappeared when I was a baby and I became an orphan when my grandparents passed when I was young. By the time I was 17, I was couch surfing in a way that some would describe as homelessness.

At 24, I was doing my best Gordon Gekko impression as a private equity associate, proud of my tie collection, and thinking about how to land a hedge fund job. I begrudgingly embarked, probably for the first time, on some self-reflection. It occurred to me that I was exceptionally grateful for three things: my grandparents, the boarding school that gave me a scholarship, and the people who had stood up for me and given me a chance.

As I wrote, I resolved that I would, first, for my grandparents “build a family from the ashes and become a good citizen, husband, parent, and human being.” Second, I planned “to search for deserving students and provide an on-going scholarship for the Hotchkiss School.”

Lastly, “People wrote me off as a kid from a broken home, but a few adults believed in me. I owe it to the people who invested in me to impact the lives of others.” I concluded that “repaying my debts to those who invested in me is my most important priority and responsibility.”

I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many classmates as we pursue our mission to “chase meaningful problems with people we care about.”

On The Farm I realized how I could achieve these goals. Before or after class, I went out of my way to walk past the cornerstone dedicated “to things that haven’t happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up.”

Our company, Endurance, is inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s voyage, which we studied in former dean Robert Joss’ class, Issues in Leadership. Our first major success was hatched in Professor Chuck Holloway’s class Formation of New Ventures. Perhaps most importantly, I realized I needed to be a better leader while working with Carole Robin in her leadership development program.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many classmates as we pursue our mission to “chase meaningful problems with people we care about.” We’ve built companies that have provided loans to people who can’t get them otherwise, healthtech that enables better care, job opportunities, medical debt relief, software democratizing capital, and fair mortgage pricing.

I’m still not sure why I made those three resolutions in 2008, but I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote. Each day my main goal is to try to live up to the first resolution with my wonderful wife and three children. The second was perhaps the easiest: As soon as we were able, my wife and I set up a scholarship for Hotchkiss students and am working to expand its reach. Finally, I beat the alarm clock most days — I wake up energized to build companies that give people a chance.

I’ve learned that being disadvantaged isn’t an excuse to be a “taker,” but a privilege to be able to multiply the opportunities I was given. It’s funny to chalk so much up to just one question, but I’m eternally grateful that it was asked, and grateful to my classmates and collaborators who helped me pursue its answers.

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