Dany Rifkin has always been drawn to the written and spoken word.
As a toddler, she sat her parents down in their family’s Seattle living room to deliver impassioned speeches in her own made-up language. She grew up poring through the pages of the Seattle Times and other publications, eager to learn about the people, music, food, and culture around her.
“There’s nothing I love more than hearing, reading, or telling a really good story,” Rifkin says. “I believe passionately in the power of stories to create empathy among very different people. For me, engaging with such stories is what makes life worth living.”
In high school, Rifkin wanted to be an inventor. She studied engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in systems engineering. But by the time she graduated, she’d grown tired of focusing on the numbers.
Instead, she became energized by the idea of solving problems that are centered around people and bold, cross-functional strategies. She went to work as a management consultant at Deloitte in New York City, where she specialized first in post-merger integration and later in the future of work and workforce analytics, largely within the media and high-tech industries. She also explored improv, taking classes at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade and performing around the city.
Now at Stanford GSB, Rifkin is drawn to entertainment-focused courses and groups and the ways in which technology — and storytelling — will continue to shape how people connect with each other and their communities.
“My favorite thing to do is to think about the future of the world 10 to 15 years from now,” she says. “I can ultimately see myself in any job that does that in the field of entertainment, if anyone will hire me to do that.”
You’ve worked with a lot of media outlets and worry the industry is currently broken. What are some of the problems?
I believe media is a social good, but there’s been this whole movement of not believing in truth, of fake news, which is scary. If we can’t agree on a set of truths, we start to operate in totally different worlds, and we lose the ability to understand each other. I’m also wary of the intense personalization of media, where you only read what you want to read or watch what you want to watch. That limits exploration and empathy in a dangerous way. The big question is: How can the industry make money while still fulfilling its moral duty to society?
You have a bunch of hypotheses about the future. What’s your latest?
I think in the next decade people are going to end up focusing a lot more on individual branding, on creating a brand or identity that’s consistent across both the virtual world and the real world. I’m not thrilled about it, but I think it’s already happening.
What would that look like?
I think we’re moving toward a much more hybrid universe, where your identity in the real world and online are the same, and there’s little difference between real life and virtual life. Money you make in an online game, for example, you can turn around and invest in real life. People you meet virtually you can use for professional advantage. I think that’s a very real future. Or to use a super simple example, imagine you’ve always wanted to visit the Amazon, but you don’t have the money, or maybe it’s not environmentally safe. If you exist in a virtual reality, you can. You put on your VR glasses or whatever better technology we develop, and you do it. It will look like the Amazon and feel like the Amazon and sound like the Amazon. In this hybrid universe, you may be able to have experiences and meet people you may never have been able to. It will create opportunities, both professionally and personally, that we haven’t even imagined yet. I hope we expand our universe without materially moving away from what makes in-person experiences special, though.
At Deloitte, you were on track for a promotion with your M&A work. Why switch gears and join a group focused on the future of work?
I needed a new challenge. It was a huge pivot. I’d built a name for myself and was working with people I really liked and getting access to lots of media companies. But I decided that I could keep getting good at what I was already good at, or I could do something else and expand my horizons. It changed the entire trajectory of my work, and I ended up getting the promotion anyway.
You worked on what you call your dream project at Deloitte. What was that like?
It was with a global digital news organization that wanted to build a “digital culture.” The CEO knew the company couldn’t operate like a traditional newsroom anymore but didn’t know what that meant. We helped them figure it out. My team helped develop a mission statement and a set of values and associated behaviors to aspire to. I learned that tying specific behaviors to values is extremely powerful in talking about and transforming culture.
Improv has been an interest since high school. What’s the draw?
It’s an activity that requires you to be 100% present at all times and completely tuned in to the people around you. You have to be really silly and let your guard down. You have to be a profoundly good listener, always reading between the lines. It’s a totally different way of thinking and living and it has impacted me profoundly. The lessons I’ve learned through improv will live with me forever.
You joined Stanford GSB’s Future of Cities Club and now you’re a co-president. What’s it all about?
This is the club’s first year, so we get to think about what we want it to grow into. We’ve been thinking about the value proposition of cities and why people choose to live in them. In my mind, it’s because cities are true melting pots filled with people who have different stories and backgrounds, who love different kinds of music, food, and art. I always talk about the New York subway as a great equalizer. You can walk down into this tiny box and everybody’s there. The poorest people in the city, the richest people, the bankers, the nurses, the street dancers. You have no choice but to all be in the same space. And of course, we’re also seeing some scary trends, like a level of wealth inequality and housing crises that are so dramatic there’s no question they stem from systemic issues. The club’s plan is to focus on the governance of cities, public-private relationships, and what cities will and should look like. We also hope to foster conversations on issues like housing and homelessness, sustainability, workforce development, racial equity, and urban planning.
On your resumé, you say that one of your interests is “eating pho in the rain.” What’s that about?
I’m a huge fan of pho. I grew up eating it all the time, and I love the rain. I’m basically a walking Seattle cliché – my resumé also used to say that I’m interested in flannel shopping.
Photos by Elena Zhukova