Richard Lonsdorf often felt out of place in his corporate finance class. Lonsdorf’s work experience lies in the nonprofit performing arts, not in traditional business sectors like most of his classmates.
“A lot of the lessons in the for-profit sector are new to me,” says Lonsdorf, a curator and producer of concerts for symphony orchestras. Lonsdorf admits that during class he asks a lot of questions and is learning “a new vocabulary.” But it wasn’t until finance professor Ilya Strebulaev began a lecture on corporate valuation that Lonsdorf realized just how much his classmates appreciated his questions, too.
On a fall day in a Stanford GSB classroom, about 70 MSx students listened to Strebulaev explain corporate valuation with leverage and taxes and the corresponding formulas. He turned to the class to ask if there were any questions.
“I raised my hand and thought, ‘Well here goes nothing,’ ” Lonsdorf recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, and I wonder if you can back up a bit and clarify what problem we’re trying to solve and how what we’re discussing will help us solve it.’ ”
Strebulaev responded in the way Lonsdorf had hoped: He stopped, smiled, summarized the lesson’s goals, and reintroduced the concepts so that Lonsdorf could confidently proceed with the lecture. But Lonsdorf hadn’t expected the flood of emails, WhatsApp messages, and comments from classmates thanking him for speaking up. Many students had had the same question, but had been too timid to ask.
“While I was initially afraid of looking like a fish out of water as a nonprofit professional thrust into one of the temples of capitalism, I’ve realized I have no reputation to lose by asking a question about what I want to learn,” Lonsdorf says. “It has been liberating. And I’m glad to know that in the process I can help my classmates be a little more brave.”
Designing Outside the Box
Lonsdorf came to Stanford GSB as a Sloan Fellow in July 2017, after working in artistic planning and concert production for the New York Philharmonic for two years and the San Francisco Symphony for five. While designing compelling live shows for audiences and season-ticket holders, Lonsdorf and his artistic planning team also started to think about future generations. The average age of a San Francisco Symphony patron is 64 – how could they appeal to a younger crowd?
“The question we wanted to explore was how upcoming generations will want to experience live performance,” Lonsdorf says. As an experiment, he launched the SoundBox series, the Symphony’s alternative performance space that’s part music lab, part cocktail bar, part stage. Guest curators and show designers use sight, sound, and immersion to test new forms of live entertainment. With a goal of making old music appeal to young audiences, Lonsdorf and his team seemed to come up with a winning formula: tickets for shows at SoundBox sold out quickly, with a younger-than-usual crowd buying up a large portion of them. After three successful years, Lonsdorf wants to continue experimenting.
“I came to Stanford GSB knowing I wanted to advocate for entertainment that’s immersive and experiential, something that connects audiences to a visceral and psychological moment of art,” Lonsdorf says. When he shares his ideas for what the future of musical performance could look and feel like, other Sloan Fellows appreciate his creative, non-traditional vision. He also looks forward to blending his nonprofit experience with lessons from strategic management within a for-profit business.
Singing the Same Tune
Although Lonsdorf’s artistic career is different from the paths of most of his Stanford GSB peers, he’s easily found common ground with his cohort, many of whom came to Stanford for the same reason he did. “A lot of us got to a certain point in our respective careers and felt frustrated we weren’t getting the momentum we needed,” Lonsdorf says. “Many of the pain points were similar.”
Although some Sloan Fellows come to Stanford GSB looking to pivot, Lonsdorf is committed to extending his career in the arts. Now, with a deep knowledge of business and a refined set of strategic management skills, Lonsdorf hopes to work for a company that wants to rewrite the rules of performance, entertainment, and audience experience. “I’m learning how to speak business so I can realize my artistic goals and have the freedom to pursue my next adventure.”
Photos by Kiefer Hickman