Corporate Governance Expert Nicholas Donatiello, MBA ’86, dies at 57

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Corporate Governance Expert Nicholas Donatiello, MBA ’86, dies at 57

Nicholas Donatiello, Jr., MBA ’86, who taught corporate governance at Stanford Graduate School of Business, died at his San Francisco home two days shy of his June 28 birthday.
July 18, 2018
Nicholas Donatiello, MBA ’86, joined the faculty as lecturer in management in 2012, co-teaching a compressed seminar course and spring quarter elective on boards and governance. | Elena Zhukova

Nicholas Donatiello Jr., MBA ’86, who taught corporate governance at Stanford Graduate School of Business, died at his San Francisco home two days shy of his June 28 birthday.

“Our hearts are broken at the untimely passing of a gifted teacher and member of our alumni community,” said Jonathan Levin, Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Nick embodied the very best of the GSB’s mission to train principled business leaders to change lives, change organizations, and change the world. His loss will be deeply felt across the school for many years.”

Donatiello joined the Stanford GSB faculty in 2012 as Lecturer in Management, co-teaching with David Larcker a compressed seminar course for second-year MBA students and a spring quarter elective on boards and governance. Together, they were the quintessential academic-practitioner teaching pair for which Stanford GSB is well known, with Larcker providing the research-based framework and overview, and Donatiello contributing the day-to-day, hands-on perspective. Their pairing blossomed into a close friendship that enlivened the classroom and made their classes memorable.

“I loved teaching with Nick. He energized me, and for me it was a beautiful thing,” said Larcker, James Irvin Miller Professor of Accounting. He credits Donatiello with the creation of their board governance course. Their teamwork eventually branched into seven coauthored research articles and surveys for the GSB’s Corporate Governance Research Initiative, and teaching in the executive education Directors Consortium program. “He was a really smart guy who really wanted to give back and create value for the organizations he was involved with, and he wanted to have fun along the way,” said Larcker.

Donatiello found his calling as a teacher two years prior to joining the faculty when he guest lectured in the financial statement analysis class taught by Maureen McNichols, Marriner Eccles Professor of Public and Private Management and Professor of Accounting. Soon after, he guest lectured in her PhD class as well. The collaboration started with a case study they coauthored on Gemstar-TV Guide, one of the companies on whose board he had served. That case study elucidated not only knotty business management problems but also ethical conundrums.

“The board was determined to do what was right, and this meant going beyond what the rules required,” said McNichols. “Nick was passionate about corporate governance and the importance of this subject for MBA students.” He presented the Gemstar case to every section of the GSB's core financial accounting class so every first year student over the past eight years heard this lesson. “He was a favorite speaker in the class,” she said.

Nick embodied the very best of Stanford GSB’s mission to train principled business leaders to change lives, change organizations, and change the world. His loss will be deeply felt across the school for many years.
Jonathan Levin

Donatiello began his post-MBA career at McKinsey & Company, then went to Washington D.C. to serve as press secretary and then campaign manager for former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. He went on to found and run Odyssey LP, a research firm that provided strategic guidance to Fortune 100 companies and emerging startups as they navigated the changing landscape of technology’s impacts on their businesses. Twenty years ago, he began a long and distinguished career of board service, serving on the boards of Dolby, Big 5 Sporting Goods, Gemstar-TV Guide, Schwab Charitable Fund, and a number of funds in the American Funds family. He chaired the board of KQED, the San Francisco Bay Area’s public broadcasting station. Just before he passed away, he returned from a trip to Japan, where he had joined the board of directors of Sony Corporation.

In addition to his teaching, Donatiello was the “wind beneath the wings” of the faculty, staff, student, and alumni LGBTQ community. He hosted an annual event each January, and supported the student Pride organization.

“As a member of the Pride group, I looked up to Nick not only as a teacher but also a role model," said Ross Darwin, MBA ’19. “His accomplishments were incredible, but so was his generosity and his desire to create a community for all of us. He would open his home to GSB alumni and the student pride group at an annual dinner party, getting to know the current students, and introducing them to members of prior classes and faculty. The way he took a real interest in what we were doing made him a true mentor, always taking the time to catch up with us around campus or when we’d run into him around San Francisco’s Castro District. It’s hard knowing that we won’t have him there to go to for advice and support as we progress in our careers and lives.”

Leveraging his political campaign experience, Donatiello also worked fiercely against the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal but was ultimately struck down as unconstitutional. “Nick’s generous efforts helped make a powerful case for marriage equality all across California, breaking all-time fundraising records for an LGBT campaign and closing the final gap to within a respectable four points,” said Patrick Guerriero, whom Donatiello recruited to manage the campaign in the final weeks of the November 2008 election to prevent a landslide loss. “Nick was an unsung hero, a consummate professional, and a man committed to equality and dignity for everyone—while never looking for public credit.”

Donatiello’s close friend and classmate Elizabeth Atcheson, MBA ’86, who worked with him at Odyssey for seven years, said he felt strongly that gatherings of more than two people must be at a round table. He was so adamant about this that he commissioned an enormous round walnut table around which he could hold board meetings and entertain. The table was so big it had to be lifted by crane into the fifth floor of his home near San Francisco’s Twin Peaks.

Why was this so important? “Because no one sits at the head of a round table,” said Larcker. “He was a collaborative guy.”

He was also a gourmet culinarian, according to Atcheson. “Nick’s gift in the kitchen was a metaphor for his gift in life. He never made just the average meal. He never had just the average conversation. Everything he touched he touched with complete presence and thoughtfulness.”

Even as an MBA student, he stood out. “When I first met Nick in the fall quarter of 1984, I was struck by his kindness, concern for his classmates, and commitment to learning,” said McNichols. “When I think of Nick, I remember the joy he brought to our classes, and the important lesson our students received about their potential to do the right thing, from a smart, dedicated, humble, humorous, and caring man.”

“He was unfailingly honest and deeply strategic,” said Atcheson. “And he never lost sight of the broader human context. To say he will be missed is an understatement of gargantuan proportions.”

Donatiello was honored by the Stanford Business Alumni Association with the 2016 John W. Gardner Volunteer Leadership Award, and by the Stanford Board of Governors of Stanford Associates with the 2013 Award of Merit for his contributions to Stanford University.

He is survived by his father, Nicholas Donatiello Sr. of Bayville, N.J.; sister Lisa Donatiello-Kispert of Flemington, N.J.; brothers Guy Donatiello of Rosemont, Pa., and Chris Donatiello of Petaluma, Calif.; as well as seven nieces and nephews and numerous godchildren.

A memorial service will be held at Stanford Memorial Church on October 4, 2018, at 2 pm with a reception to follow in the Vidalakis Courtyard at Schwab Residential Center at Stanford Graduate School of Business. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Nick Donatiello Fund at Stanford Graduate School of Business to honor and extend his impact on higher education.

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