Changing Lives, Organizations, the World: Dean Jon Levin of Stanford GSB
Dean says today’s business leaders have great opportunities to use modern technology for good while mitigating its harms.
Meet Jon Levin, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business, economics professor, and eternal optimist. Hear his thoughts on the business world, innovation in emerging economies, the role of big tech, and how the GSB is preparing students to meet the challenges of the global economy — from climate change to inequality.
Jon Levin grew up in an academic family, but he never imagined he’d be leading one of the most prestigious business schools in the country. An economics professor by training with degrees from Stanford, Oxford, and MIT, he became dean of Stanford GSB in 2016. From this unique vantage point and with his researcher mindset, he believes that businesses have both a significant opportunity to develop and deploy technology to improve people’s lives as well as a responsibility to mitigate its potential harm.
“If you look at the history of the last 150 years, it’s the most extraordinary period in human history with standards of living doubling every 30 years, every generation,” Levin explains. “Today you look at the pace of change in innovation and it’s happening everywhere in the world. The opportunity for businesses, for business leaders, to help use that technology in ways that will continue to double and increase people’s standards of living is extraordinary.”
Levin also believes that emerging economies with digital infrastructures in place have opportunities to leapfrog the developed world by going straight to the consumers and their cell phones without having to overcome existing institutions and infrastructure. Levin says, “If you think about areas like finance or education, you don’t have all of the legacy businesses in emerging markets, and so there’s an opportunity to go in and provide services to people that just go straight to digital.”
It’s no surprise that Dean Levin is a huge proponent of getting an MBA based on his fundamental belief that business can be a force for good in the world. “An MBA program is just the most amazing thing to do because you get all these different skills that enable you to be successful in many things,” Levin says. “It’s like having 20 jobs in two years, you get to see what it would be like to be an operator, an entrepreneur, an investor, to work in a nonprofit, to go into a social venture, to work on energy, real estate, every industry you see all of that.”
Listen to Dean Levin’s perspectives on the future of business and business education, both on the Stanford campus and around the world with programs like Stanford Seed.
Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.
Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.
Jon Levin: When you have big problems like climate change, the need to transition to a sustainable economy, or the growth of inequality and questions about how do you create a more inclusive set of opportunities for people, or changes in globalization, or just changes in technology, how to deal with them — Where does the solution, or where does the progress, lie?
Darius Teter: Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what the head of the world’s top business school is thinking, his leadership philosophies, and where he thinks the future is headed? If only there was a way to find out.
Jon Levin: It lies in the marriage of great ideas, and then people who can translate those ideas into action. And that’s basically what we do here at Stanford. We come with ideas and we train a set of people who can take ideas out in the world and lead great organizations and make things happen.
Darius Teter: Welcome to the second season of Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed, the show where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs, with insights from Stanford faculty on how to tackle challenges and grow your business. Not to toot our own horn, but Stanford Graduate School of Business is routinely ranked the number one business school in the world. That’s due in no small part to exceptional leadership.
Jon Levin: I’m Jon Levin. I’m the dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Darius Teter: A former Stanford grad, Jon was appointed dean in 2016 and tasked with maintaining the GSB’s high standards of excellence. And he’s done so, and more. Six years in, he’s also charting new paths as education transforms and needs evolve across the globe. From the dean’s office, Jon has a uniquely broad perspective on the business world. He’s well-versed in a wide array of industries from tech to finance, but he’s also a renowned economist with degrees from Stanford, Oxford, and MIT.
So you better believe he knows what he’s talking about. Together, we discussed business trends and the rise of innovation in emerging markets, how the GSB is preparing students to meet the big global challenges, and the future of management education. Plus, we’re going to talk about the risks and responsibilities of big tech.
It’s not every day you get to talk to one of the most important figures in academia. So let’s dive into the conversation with Jon Levin, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Did you ever imagine at some early stage in your professional career that someday you’d be the dean of a business school?
Jon Levin: No. I grew up in a very academic family. My father was an economist, in fact. So in a certain sense, I went into the family business of academic economics and then university leadership. He was also the president of Yale University and people always ask: Was that formative growing up? Did you talk about economics research in universities at the dinner table when you were growing up? And the answer is: not really.
Darius Teter: Thank God.
Jon Levin: It was not of general interest, for the most part, at the dinner table when I was growing up. When I was a freshman at Stanford, I took an honors math class, which was a transformational class for me. I’ll tell you the story of this class, because you couldn’t make this up. So this was an honors freshman math class and it was taught by a professor, Peter Sarnak, who’s a famous mathematician, a great mathematician. The first day, there were about 90 students in this class, probably all of whom had more math background in preparation than I did. And the professor walks in and he’s wearing a leather jacket. I remember it so clearly. And he comes in, he doesn’t even acknowledge the class, he just goes to the blackboard and starts writing math on the board. I have no idea what he’s writing, I’m just taking dictation. Class ends, he walks out.
Day two, come back to the class, this time there’s about 60 students in the class. Same thing happens. He just walks in, still wearing the leather jacket, writes on the board for an hour, walks out of the classroom. I’m wondering, like, what is going on in this class? But I go back for the third day. There’s about 30 students left on the third day. He walks into the classroom again. And this time he turns, he faces the class, takes off his jacket, hangs it on a chair, looks out at the classroom and says, “This looks like about the right size. We can start the class now.”
Darius Teter: Oh, wow.
Jon Levin: And that class was the first time that I had been in a setting where I would go every day … First of all, everyone around me was just smarter and better at the subject than me, and I never had an idea what was going on in the class, because it was just hard and it pushed me and I didn’t understand. And I was totally energized. I would go home and I would work so hard to try to figure stuff out. The whole idea of research is you try to identify something that, at first you don’t understand, but you find interesting, and then you go try to figure it out. And having the confidence that, just because you don’t understand something at the beginning, knowing if I go and work hard enough, I will eventually be able to figure this out — that’s the most important skill in some sense.
Darius Teter: So what are your research areas of interest?
Jon Levin: So I got interested in economics and when I was in graduate, my PhD program in economics, I had a wonderful adviser, Bengt Holmström, who’s actually a Stanford business school alum, great economist, Nobel laureate. And he gave me some advice when I was in graduate school writing my dissertation. And he said, “The best way to pursue a career in economics and to get your PhD and to go on to a successful career is pick one topic and become absolutely the world expert in that one topic.” I did not follow that advice at all.
This big change happened in economics when I was a relatively young faculty member, which was [when] data arrived. And we went from a world where you’d get a data set, you’d open up an Excel and look at it, to a world where there are terabytes and petabytes of data. And I got interested in how you could use that to study different problems. And I worked on health care, on credit markets, on internet marketplaces. Areas where there were changes in technology, there were interesting industry dynamics, and there was an opportunity to answer questions in new ways was always sort of a sweet spot for me.
Darius Teter: If you could name one or two big breakthroughs that have been made possible by this change in the access to data.
Jon Levin: I would actually come at it in two different ways. One is that the changes that have happened in social science research and different parts of academics where we’re using more data to answer questions, medical research, just happening everywhere, is exactly the same change that’s happening in every industry, which is all of a sudden we can measure things that previously we couldn’t measure. That could be in business, that could be transactions, that could be operations, that could be characteristics of consumers…
Darius Teter: Consumer behaviors.
Jon Levin: And you can use that data in all kinds of ways that people are just dreaming up to build better products, to build better services, to price differently, sometimes in ways that aren’t great, to invade people’s privacy, for example. And so part of what is important in management education is preparing students for that world where data computing is everywhere, both to be able to understand the capabilities — what’s possible, what’s not possible, how do you use technology effectively — and also to be thoughtful about how to shape and guide the applications of technology, because it can be used in all different ways.
Darius Teter: You wrote — actually, I was reading some of your notes in various magazines — and you wrote that business has a greater opportunity to develop and deploy technology to improve people’s lives and a greater responsibility to mitigate its potential harm.
Jon Levin: If you look at the history of the last 150 years, it’s the most extraordinary period in human history. The idea that in this country, for a hundred years, standards of living doubled every 30 years, every generation — basically, that is extraordinary. How did that happen? That was a combination of having stable institutions and rule of law, having a tremendously dynamic, vibrant business ecosystem, and innovation. Innovation’s fundamentally the source of economic growth and prosperity. That’s all been true since the beginning of business schools and management education. But today you look at the pace of change and innovation and it’s extraordinary and it’s happening everywhere in the world. And so the opportunity for businesses, for business leaders, to help to use that technology in ways that will continue to double and increase people’s standards of living is extraordinary.
You know, in the developing world, the digital infrastructure has almost caught up, and in some cases is basically at the level of the developed world. That’s remarkable, especially considering if you looked at the physical infrastructure, it’s often not there at all. If you’re in India, it’s hard to get around by car. The road system, the physical infrastructure, is nothing like Europe, for example. But you can use your cell phone anywhere and you have access to broadband and…
Darius Teter: $7 a month, high-speed, endless data.
Jon Levin: In fact, it’s cheaper than in the US or in Europe. And that means that you have access to the same information and many of the same services that people in the developed world have. And the amount of innovation, the potential that that’s creating, is really one of the great opportunities in the world. In fact, not only to catch up, but in some cases to leapfrog ahead, because if you think about areas like finance, for example, or in some cases education, you don’t have all of the existing legacy businesses. And so the opportunity to go in and provide services to people that just go straight to digital is there in a way that, in some ways, would be harder. There’s more regulatory friction [and] competition in the developed world.
Darius Teter: But what are the potential harms that you were describing here when you think of business having a greater responsibility to mitigate the potential harms of this very rapidly evolving technology space?
Jon Levin: There are a lot of examples of that, but I think a really good one is to think about the way modern technology companies, especially the internet companies, they’re in the business of providing goods and services to people. But they’re also just in the business of controlling the flow of information to people. That’s hugely powerful, and it’s a largely unregulated area.
Another one that I think about a lot is the automation of jobs. If you look at what has happened in the US labor market over 40 or 50 years, you’ve had such a divergence in economic outcomes between the upper income population and median wages, for example, or the lower end of the distribution as well. And a huge fraction of that is driven by technological change.
And is that inevitable? I don’t know. I don’t think it is inevitable, but a lot depends on the choices that get made about how to use technology, and about the types of jobs that get created, and about whether technology is developed in ways that complement human work or in ways that substitute for it. And we’ve been in a world where we’ve done a lot of substitution technologies as opposed to a lot of complementing technologies, and that’s had some benefits, but it’s also had some really big costs.
Darius Teter: Another one, and this is a hypothesis, but another one might be the increasing concentration of ownership within specific industries. So if you look at… One of the things that fascinates me is that in Europe, 88 percent of all employment is still with firms of a size of 250 employees or less — that’s remarkable — and in something like 80 percent of GDP. In the US, those numbers looked similar in the 1960s and 1950s, but now only about 45 percent of GDP comes from companies with less than 500 employees. And employment is also increasingly concentrated in a much smaller number of employers. I mean, is that also driving a wedge in terms of compensation for labor, the gap between the CEO pay and the most junior staff’s pay? Is that part and parcel of the substitution of capital for labor?
Jon Levin: So Nick Bloom, who’s a professor here at Stanford and has studied this question about the role of firms and firm sizes in driving inequality, has argued that the growth of very big, successful firms has helped to exacerbate inequality. Not because those firms have depressed salaries, used their market power to depress wages, but rather, because they’ve been so extraordinarily economically successful. The workers in those firms, particularly people who are more senior in those firms, have been able to do incredibly well and are zooming ahead, in some sense, of the median worker.
There are some arguments right now about whether concentration of ownership in a slightly different sense has been affecting wages negatively. In particular, one of the dynamics that’s happened in US capital markets is that a small number of very large institutional owners, the BlackRocks, the Vanguards, Fidelitys, and so forth, they’re the biggest shareholders in every company.
And there’s some arguments right now that I don’t know that I agree with, but some have argued that this is sort of what’s going on — that the companies can all function sort of as one. They can exercise more market power, they can raise prices, they can depress wages, they can make decisions that no individual company would make. That’s a very controversial hypothesis, but a fascinating one. And that idea is out there and I think we’re going to be debating it for the next decade or two, because it is a big change in the structure of corporate governance in the United States. And that hypothesis out there that that has been hurting workers, that that’s going on now, I think the jury’s out on whether that’s true or not, but it speaks to the power of capital versus labor.
Darius Teter: If I think about the great challenges that face us here in the United States and, to some degree, I think, the world faces — well, certainly in the case of sustainability and climate change, the world faces. But here in the US, rising inequality, the advent of technology to use for good or for bad — what do these big global challenges mean for the future of management education? What does Stanford Graduate School of Business, what can it do, or does it have a role or a responsibility in helping to take on some of these great challenges?
Jon Levin: When you have big problems, like climate change, the need to transition to a sustainable economy, or the growth of inequality and questions about how do you create a more inclusive set of opportunities for people, or changes in globalization, or just changes in technology, how to deal with them, where does the solution, or where does the progress, lie? It lies in the marriage of great ideas, and then people who can translate those ideas into action. And that’s basically what we do here at Stanford. We come with ideas and we train a set of people who can take ideas out in the world and lead great organizations and make things happen.
So, yes. Do we have a role to play in tackling the big problems of the world? Absolutely. That is central to what we can accomplish as an institution. And the way we have to do it is through our core strengths. Come up with some good ideas, educate a set of students who will go out in the world, take those ideas, come up with their own ideas, and come up with a path forward.
Darius Teter: Does it have implications for curriculum?
Jon Levin: Well, one thing I would say at Stanford is, and I think it’s a sort of remarkable feature of the Graduate School of Business, is there’s part of the culture of the MBA program that goes back decades that’s basically all about instilling students with a sense of a broader responsibility to society, beyond just doing well in their careers. And that’s really deeply ingrained in the culture. And so when you look at the types of things that students get excited about right now, it’s climate change: How am I going to contribute to addressing climate change? It’s using technology for education, for health care, financial inclusion. There’s always been this strong drive toward social impact and the Leadership for Society Scholars Program, which Brian Lowery has been building over the last two years, really was just building on that aspect of the student culture and giving students an opportunity, first of all, some of them, to enroll in that program and then engage on problems, social problems, that they care about, apply some of their business training and leadership skills.
Darius Teter: So in some sense meeting them where they already are, their demand for this type of programming research curriculum. I love that. My sense is that some of the driving motivation of a typical MBA class, if you were to somehow put it on a histogram or some kind of a distribution around their goals, that that has evolved over the past 10 or 15 years. My sense is that Stanford as a whole and GSB as part of Stanford is very attuned to that.
Jon Levin: You’re bringing us back to actually the earlier point where we were before, which is: How do you do something for the world that’s positive? So your mind immediately at a place like this jumps to the programs, the students who are doing social impact, who are doing impact investing, who are starting nonprofits or social ventures. Because they’re amazing and they’re so focused on the social contribution that their professional careers will make.
Business makes a tremendous contribution to people’s lives. We’ve served before by saying, what led to 150 years of increasing prosperity in the US and around the world? It was private sector innovation and the creation of good jobs and rising incomes and innovation and productivity. Of course there is a lot that can be contributed to the world just by coming up with the solutions to people’s problems and having a business model around it. But I do think there have been changes over time. And one of the changes that I think has happened over time is that traditionally you may have thought of this as sort of sequential, things you would do in your life. You would work really hard, be successful, and then there would be an opportunity to give back as your career went on. When you talk to students today, part of what you hear is, this is not a sequential set of activities. This is something I’m going to do all at once.
Darius Teter: I don’t want to spend 70 hours a week in the coal mine for 20 years and then stick my head out and see what’s going on.
Jon Levin: Yeah, I’m going to do it all at once, and I can do it all at once. And I think it’s a great change, by the way. It’s a fantastic change.
Darius Teter: I want to sort of shift gears a little bit, if we could. When I was thinking about coming to work at Stanford, I did my research. And one of the things that really struck me was the very high percentage of international students in the GSB student body. Is that by design? I mean, I want to hear more about the trajectory of that diversity of the student body and what it means to you and where you see that going in the future.
Jon Levin: Our current population in the MBA program has 400-plus students and they’re from 60-plus countries. It’s amazing. It’s just such a tremendous environment to be in when you’re surrounded by people who come from so many different backgrounds. Part of that is that it just changes every discussion. There’s a different set of perspectives on almost any topic because things look different if you’re coming from Beijing or Riyadh or Nairobi or Jakarta or Detroit, and it just enriches the classrooms and the discussions. So that’s the benefit we get from having an international cohort and a big part of the driver. It enriches the discussion for everyone. It makes everyone better. It makes the learning better.
The other part is that many of them come to the US and stay, and I wish we’d make it easy for all of them to stay. I think one of the lowest hanging fruits in US economic policy would be to make it easy for really talented, smart people who are going to contribute to our country and our economy to stay in the US. And some of them are going to go back and that’s great, too, because the ones who go back carry with them both a knowledge of the US and what it’s like to be in the US, a country of open expression and debate and discussion and ideas where ideas are tested and challenged. It’s a great set of values and knowledge to send out in the world, a big part of America, and they carry with them some of the Stanford–Silicon Valley innovation spirit. That’s a huge contribution for us to make to the world, to diffuse both the knowledge of how to do it, but also the culture, the mindset.
Darius Teter: What I’ve been pleasantly excited to see is the innovation that’s happening in Nigeria, in Kenya, in Ghana, in South Africa, in a lot of emerging markets. I mean, it feels like things are really ramping up. Innovation, venture capital, is beginning to move into these markets in a big way. Does Stanford have a role in supporting that, or is it even a fair observation that the locus of innovation might actually be shifting?
Jon Levin: What happened here at Stanford, starting back in the 1950s, really was sort of the beginning, this symbiotic growth of the university and the entrepreneurial innovative ecosystem around Silicon Valley. It was a little bit of magic, actually. There was the sort of talent and ideas, innovations, that were happening at the university. And then the ecosystem that grew up around it with the venture financing, the ecosystem of entrepreneurs and business people and know-how that enabled ideas to come out of the university, or maybe to come from elsewhere, and then to be scaled into great companies. For decades, everyone has been trying to figure out: How do you create that elsewhere? What is the recipe? And, honestly, it’s been incredibly hard to find. You can point to some examples, but it’s been incredibly hard to find, partly because there’s so many positive feedback loops and complementarities. You need the people, you need the ideas, you need the financing, you need the know-how. They all generate each other. How do you get them all at once?
Darius Teter: And by the way, I’ve had more than one senior political leader of multiple countries where we work say that their ambition is to build some kind of ecosystem like that by investing in their business school or their university, whatever it is they’re trying to do. And they all come here looking to try to understand the secret sauce.
Jon Levin: And part of it is just that the sort of ideas and entrepreneurial skills have diffused out, and you know this well from the places where Seed operates in Africa and in India, where there are nascent innovation hubs, entrepreneurial hubs. And when I look at some of the places where I see our alumni who have gone out and created entrepreneurial ecosystems — I think of Latin America, for example, where we had a group of students 20 years ago found Mercado Libre. Then they founded venture capital firms, then they helped to invest in some younger folks who’ve now founded great companies, and it builds on itself. And Southeast Asia… I just find it incredibly exciting. How amazing that you have folks who come here, they study for a couple of years, they kind of get all the ideas, how do you do things, the know-how, they build the connections to people who can help them do it. And then they go out to countries that really, really need the innovation and deliver it.
Darius Teter: Yeah. And they do it in a really big way. I mean, I know you and I have talked about this before, multiple examples of GSB alums who’ve gone back to emerging markets and just done incredible things.
Jon Levin: And the way they’re doing it connects to what we were talking about before, which is that the conditions for people to build and scale companies rapidly in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, India, are there now in a way they weren’t before because of the digital infrastructure. So you can build financial services companies, you can build health companies, you can build education companies, commerce companies, and you can make them really big, really fast. And that’s what you need to have a venture ecosystem and the type of innovation ecosystem we have here in Silicon Valley.
Darius Teter: So, in some sense, that connectivity, penetration of networks, access to information at low cost, were really preconditions that needed to be in place in these markets before all of that entrepreneurial spirit and innovation energy could actually plant roots and really flourish.
Jon Levin: I believe it’s been a big enabler.
Darius Teter: What I’m struck by is, when I’m traveling in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a lot of companies that are doing things that, in a sense, are leapfrogging the old way of doing something. And sometimes it feels like they’re derivative, like, “Oh, this is the Uber of Côte d’Ivoire, or this is the PayPal of Ghana.” And I wonder, if those markets become big enough, if those big players will just come in and buy them up. I don’t know. I don’t know to what extent cultural attributes make local providers more interesting than when the big ones come in. The example of this is ecommerce in Africa. So there’s Jumia, which is a big one, and a few others, and everyone’s wondering: Is Amazon going to just walk in here and eat it all up? And will that be to the benefit or the harm of consumers? I mean, to my view, the consumer should be almost indifferent except on price. But I don’t know what it means for all those startups.
Jon Levin: You’re hitting on such an interesting question, which is that in a world that gets increasingly globalized, does competition resolve in favor of the biggest global players, the Googles, the Amazons, the Facebooks, or does localization win out and you end up with more localized companies? And, at least at the moment, that’s still being decided. And, in some places, the biggest companies are establishing a huge global footprint. In other cases, localization is doing pretty well and the localized companies are competing strongly. And we’re going to sort of see how that evolves over the next 10 or 20 years. And I think that’s one of the really interesting questions for the way that technology helps.
Darius Teter: And what would determine those outcomes? I mean, I guess what I wonder is, for people who are listening to this podcast in our markets, what determines the success of the big global player versus localization?
Jon Levin: I would say there are several. I mean, one is the importance of very large scale economies and the advantage you get by being a very large company that can take advantage of those scale economies. So if you’re developing general artificial intelligence methods that could then be applied in many places, it’s hard to do subscale. You’ve got to do it at very large scale. On the other hand, if you’re developing a set of products or services where, for cultural reasons, or just the nature of the country, things are different, or for regulatory reasons, like historically in banking or education or health, localization is important, then it actually can be hard for a very big company to develop lots and lots of differentiated localized products.
Darius Teter: Products, yeah. I mean, to me, maybe that helps explain why ed tech and health tech are just exploding, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where there is regulatory issue, there’s language issue, there’s local culture and content. Ed tech, you’re training for a completely different set of exams or a job market from what Coursera might be usefully doing here. Whereas the sort of ecommerce, fintech… I wonder if this huge plethora of new fintech operators, whether they’re payments, banking, whatever, in Nigeria, I feel like there has to be a shakeout and consolidation there, because what they’re doing is not that different.
Jon Levin: I agree with that. Education is one I think about a lot, because many people often will ask the question: At a place like Stanford that provides great education, why don’t you provide it for millions of people instead of for hundreds of people or thousands of people? And the answer to that is complicated in a way, because some of the ways in which we provide education, provide MBA education, or the way the Seed program, the transformation program, works, the model is basically to take a small group of very talented, high potential participants in the program with an even smaller number of highly trained faculty, and then put them together in this intense, immersive interaction where they’re just bouncing ideas off each other and learning and talking. And that’s just…
Darius Teter: Peer engagement and networking.
Jon Levin: And it doesn’t really scale because being in it and the depth is so important. So that doesn’t scale well. On the other hand, there’s other parts of education, in some cases that we provide, which are just teaching people basic skills. And those translate really well to a digital environment. And so they can be provided at much greater scale. For those types of skills there is an opportunity for places like Stanford to disseminate information broadly around the world. And in certain cases, why not have the faculty member who’s the greatest faculty member at creating ideas teach everyone, instead of having hundreds of thousands of people teach the same ideas that could be taught by just a small number of people?
Darius Teter: I want to build on something you just said, which is that, for some elements of education, scaling digitally is the way to go. I have read that, in general, the demand for a classic MBA education is actually falling in the US. What’s going on there? Are students becoming less motivated to do an MBA in the US? Is there something shifting in the market here?
Jon Levin: I think a lot of that has to do with the way careers have changed, that an MBA in certain types of careers was a sort of essential certificate prerequisite to advance. And now it’s not because the professions have changed. And, in certain cases, the opportunity cost is higher to do two years as a full-time student, particularly when you have substitutes, like doing a part-time degree or a more flexible online type of degree. So that’s one thing that has been happening.
The other thing that’s been happening is that the demand for business education generally has continued to grow, and it’s continued to grow because it’s a global market, and we already talked about the students coming to a place like Stanford from around the world. So there’s a global demand. There’s just a broader population coming to business school. Our class is now more or less half women, [which] doubles the population that you’re drawing students from. And people want to get educated all through their life, as opposed to just in their 20s. And there’s been huge growth in that. Lifelong learning, at least for business, is just an enormous, open playing field. The Seed program is a great example because…
Darius Teter: Yeah, these are 35-, 40-, 45-year-old CEOs.
Jon Levin: They’re already running companies. They’re already successful as leaders. They’re already successful at building businesses. And yet they, like everyone else in the world, has a tremendous amount to learn. Well, also, how do you know the problems you’re going to face when you’re 40, when you’re 25? You don’t. So the future, in some sense, of business education… One thing I’ll say is, having now been at Stanford at the business school for six years, I’ve become an incredible believer in the MBA degree.
Darius Teter: I’m with you. Both my kids, I’m like, “Guys, go to this.”
Jon Levin: I mean, there is just nothing… If you’re in your mid-20s and you don’t know exactly what you want to do with your life, but you know you want to do something, an MBA program is just the most amazing thing to do with two years, because you get all these different skills that are so general they’ll enable you to be successful in many things. And you get exposed to … It’s like having 20 jobs in two years, you get to see what would it be like to be an operator, to be an entrepreneur, to be an investor, to work in a nonprofit, to go into a social venture, to work on energy, real estate, every industry, you just see all of that.
Darius Teter: And just the tools and discipline to analyze in whichever field you pick, to analyze opportunities, markets, consumer demand, every element of it.
Jon Levin: To me, the future of business education for places like Stanford is to continue to have an extraordinary flagship MBA program that educates a small number of tremendously high-potential future leaders, and then to offer an array of programs so that, as people go through their lives, they have access and some ability to get a Stanford education. And to do that in a way that’s really high impact, that helps people at different stages of their career do things that will transform them, that make them more effective in their lives, make them more effective leaders. Exactly what we’re doing in the Seed program, find a population that could really benefit from interaction, exposure, to our faculty, to the types of things we teach here from the cultural aspects that we try to imbue in people, and give them that opportunity. And put them with each other and then watch what they do.
Darius Teter: You come from an economic research, academic background, and then all of a sudden you’re the dean of a school that teaches management, but presumably you yourself never got any management training before you got put in this job. So you’re responsible for an enormous organization. How did that feel?
Jon Levin: Universities are very unusual places. And if you come from, particularly from a business background, you look at the way universities are organized, our model of shared governance with faculty, and having a board of trustees and so forth, and voting on things, and lots of decentralization, and basically faculty are autonomous individual entrepreneurs. That’s what makes it so great to be a faculty member. And if you come from business where you’re used to a very hierarchical system, where the person in charge just says, “Do this,” and then everyone does that or they leave… universities are not like that at all. Which sometimes can be a source of frustration, but is also the source of almost all of the good things that happen at universities, because it’s the source of all of the creativity and innovation and entrepreneurship and differences in viewpoints that foster great learning and great ideas.
There’s several important things in university leadership. I mean, one is the leadership skills that we teach in the Stanford MBA program., Those are important in leading any organization. Those are great general skills about how to think strategically, about how to figure out a plan, about how to form a vision, a strategy to get there, how to motivate people, relate to people, solve problems.
The other part about being at a university is really understanding the distinctive values that US universities in particular have. What is it that makes them so special, that have enabled them to be beacons of light in the world that people from everywhere want to come to? The freedom that we give to people, the way we empower students and faculty… one thing I always say about leading academic institutions is you have to always keep in mind that fundamentally your job is not to achieve your own aspirations. Of course, you do want to achieve your own aspirations, you have them and you want to achieve them and you work to achieve them. But fundamentally the way you contribute most is by allowing all the people around you to achieve their aspirations, that success. That’s a little bit of a different mindset than in many companies where you’re about, “How do you achieve the shareholder’s aspirations?”
Darius Teter: But it’s not far off, right? I mean, I think that the most successful leaders enable their teams to succeed. They don’t tell them how to succeed. They create the conditions for them to succeed.
Jon Levin: That is absolutely true.
Darius Teter: Jon, before we wrap up, I wanted to explore one last question with you. I’ve heard a lot from you about GSB’s role in solving global problems and its position in the world. And since I work for Seed, and this is a Seed-sponsored podcast, I’m dying to know: In your mind, how does Seed fit into that vision for Stanford’s impact in the world?
Jon Levin: When Seed was started, which predated both of us, it had this incredibly aspirational vision, which was that Stanford could contribute to global development in a way that would end the cycle of poverty, that would improve people’s standards of living all around the world, and with a particular initial focus in Africa. And it took a while after that high-level vision was set out to figure out: What exactly could we do to contribute? What are the levers that we have as a Silicon Valley-located, educational, great research university, great educator of MBA students? What could we do to actually contribute to that problem? And eventually we hit on a path which was: let’s do what we do best. Let’s try to get a set of talented people, in this case entrepreneurs, who are positioned to make really significant contributions, not just to their own organizations, to their own employees, to their own customers, but actually to the countries that they live in by helping to build a more vibrant economy, more vibrant, innovative ecosystem, stronger institutions, stronger communities, through their own leadership and through their businesses.
And let’s teach them the skills that we know how to teach: How do you build a better business? How do you build a better organization? How do you be innovative? How do you scale good ideas? How do you lead in ways that are admirable and contribute broadly beyond yourself and beyond organization? That was a good recipe. It’s worked here in the US. It worked in our core programs that are here, residentially, on the campus, and now we’re making it work in other parts of the world. And I find that extraordinarily inspiring and I think it inspires our faculty and our alumni and other people here at Stanford University. And if we keep doing this for another five or 10 or 15 or 20 years, we will have educated a set of entrepreneurs who will change the world in different ways than we could do sitting here in Palo Alto.
Darius Teter: In the five years since I’ve met Jon, I’ve come to realize that he is a deeply caring and thoughtful leader. And from that, we all draw our inspiration, because we know that he cares about what’s happening in the world as much as all of us. So, Jon, thanks again for sharing your insights on this podcast.
This has been Grit & Growth with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you liked this episode, leave us a review on your podcast app. It really helps us to share the stories of these incredible entrepreneurs with as many people as possible. To learn how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia, head over to the Stanford Seed website at seed.stanford.edu/podcast. Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller and Erika Amoako-Agyei researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator and our executive producer is Tiffany Steves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.
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