Maker: Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery

“There are times when I look around and everything I see,” says William Eaton, MBA ’75, “I can imagine adding strings to it.”

April 09, 2021

| by Steve Goldbloom

Music has been a soundtrack to my life. I grew up playing folk music, and I played in a rock ’n’ roll band all through high school. But I never considered it as a career. I come from a family of bankers — my dad, grandfather, uncles, cousins — so I always thought I would follow them. After I got my undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, I started researching business schools and was fortunate to be accepted to Stanford GSB.

Editor’s Note

As part of Stanford Business magazine, “Maker” is an ongoing series that uses one annotated photo to tell the story of a manufacturing business overseen by a Stanford GSB alumnus.

William Eaton, MBA ’75, is the cofounder and current director of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona.

Stanford was an invaluable experience. My classmates and the faculty were an unending inspiration to me. It seemed that we were all in a wonderful stage of dreaming. What could our lives become?

The Stanford GSB curriculum was intense and demanding. In the evenings, I would relax by playing my guitar, just to hear the sound of the strings. The guitar was a handmade instrument I had built as an apprentice to luthier John Roberts while at ASU.

I remember having a dream about building a 12-string guitar. A few days later, in the New Enterprise Management course I was taking, we were given an assignment to write a business plan. A three-week holiday break was approaching, and I decided to go to Arizona to build the 12-string and to gather information from John and Bob Venn, who had become John’s partner, about the possibility of turning their apprenticeship program into a formal guitar-making school.

That trip back to the desert started me on a life’s journey. I handed in the completed business plan to our instructor, Steven Brandt, who gave me valuable, critical feedback. Most important, he and other professors encouraged me. They said, “When will you have the opportunity again to do this?” That really hit home. I felt deep in myself that this was something I wanted to do.

John and Bob were excited about the plan, so after graduation I returned to Arizona to start the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. That was in 1975, and I’ve been here making stringed instruments, and teaching people how to make guitars, ever since.

It’s funny: Before he became a guitar maker, John had dreams of building a yacht from tropical hardwoods he’d collected while working for a lumber company in Nicaragua. I always think of his dream as a metaphor for our school. It’s been a vessel, and that vessel has carried more than 2,500 graduates who’ve learned how to craft guitars and build careers and fulfill their dreams.


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