Beth Berger, MBA ’18: Dreaming Big, Then Dreaming Bigger

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Beth Berger, MBA ’18: Dreaming Big, Then Dreaming Bigger

She came to business school to learn about leadership, expecting to return to product management at a large tech company. She’s leaving as a CEO.
June 8, 2018
Beth Berger, MBA ’18| Kiefer Hickman
Beth Berger, MBA ’18, believed that to succeed in tech, she would need to understand differing consumer needs, and figure out “how to prepare for a job that doesn’t exist yet.”| Kiefer Hickman

For much of her life, Beth Berger, MBA ’18, never imagined working in technology, let alone at Google.

Berger earned her undergraduate degree in international relations from Brown University while spending 40 hours a week immersed in theater projects. She got her first experience with cutting-edge technology while working as a writing and public speaking coach in Brown’s computer science graduate department, assisting students with their papers and presentations. Then a friend who worked at Google offered to pass along Berger’s resume.

“Google was looking for people who could explain tech in ‘human English,’ ” she says. “It was a challenge and an opportunity.”

Berger landed a job with Google, and she loved it. The company. The culture. California. Everything. But during her six years there, mostly in sales and product strategy, an eye-opening experience led her to raise her sights. While on an overseas assignment, looking out the window of a cab in Jakarta, she asked her driver about the crowds of people clustered around convenience stores holding their cellphones. He explained that because these stores offered free Wi-Fi, they were important gathering spots for community members looking to access the internet.

“I was going all over Asia talking about mobile phone technology and thinking of ways to scale, but had never thought that convenience stores would play an important role,” Berger says. “I was seeing interesting user behavior, but didn’t know what to do with it. ‘Gosh, I think that’s what business school does,’ I thought. I came back and got my GMAT books.”

Stanford GSB doesn’t look at leadership as a list of traits. It’s about learning about yourself and supercharging that.

Berger realized that in order to forge a career in tech — where her most impactful work would likely be with a product that hadn’t even been dreamed up — she would have to understand different consumer needs in different places, and to always think about the future. She wondered, “How do I prepare for a job that doesn’t exist yet?”

She felt that Stanford Graduate School of Business, with its ties to technology innovators, was her path forward. “Stanford is known for helping people become really authentic leaders, and I knew that I would continue to be exposed to ideas that weren’t businesses yet.”

A Microcosm of Ideas

At Stanford GSB, Berger has loved hearing guest speakers who come to talk about exciting projects. “Anything that interests you, someone is talking about it here,” she says, be it venture capital or artificial intelligence or self-driving cars. “That access is incredible.”

Two speakers struck her as particularly memorable: former PayPal CEO John Donahoe, MBA ’86, who talked about how to organize one’s life with focus and dedication, as if one were a world-class athlete; and actor and producer Reese Witherspoon. “I love seeing women who have been really successful at what they do,” Berger says. “Her talk was a reminder of how important it is to make the people around you feel seen and heard.”

Believing that there’s no single mold for a leader, she also valued the diversity of culture and experience. Classmates from Lebanon and Kenya invited her to their home countries. She trained for a relay race to raise money for a high school at which a classmate used to teach. She worked on the annual GSB Show. The social side of Stanford enriches the academic side, Berger found.

“I think you become innovative over the course of a career by being exposed to a very broad set of ideas and experiences,” she says. “And I appreciate that Stanford GSB doesn’t look at leadership as a list of traits. They look at the whole person. It’s about learning about yourself and supercharging that.”

Beth Berger and comrades backstage in 2017 at the GSB Show — an annual celebration that’s a “team sport” and one of the community’s favorite nights of the year, she says. | Courtesy of Beth Berger

In particular, Berger has found inspiration in female peers who are leaders in tech — still relatively rare, she notes. Through the student-led Women in Management organization, small groups of women meet regularly to think through personal and professional issues. “What does it look like to be a woman leading things? I found that in my classmates,” she says.

She believes in providing others with access to experiences and relationships in turn. One especially meaningful moment for Berger: her LOWkeynote presentation for the Stanford GSB community, in which she promoted this concept of sponsorship. “You don’t have to wait until you’re a CEO to advocate for the people who are coming up behind you,” she points out.

Lessons From Stanford Peers

Meanwhile, the Stanford GSB community has led Berger to her next opportunity. She had arrived at school thinking that she should aspire to come out the other side as a product manager at a large tech company: That was what she knew. Helping a great idea reach its potential and getting the best out of people “isn’t about the title,” she believes, and she had figured that actually heading a business was a long time out. But her classmates gave her new perspective.

“My peers helped me raise my own bar on what I can do,” Berger says. “I’m surrounded by people who have started their own companies, launched nonprofits. The situation was reframed for me: Maybe I don’t need to wait.”

In fact, Alpine Investors, which recruits at the school, has invited Berger to join one of its small portfolio companies after she graduates, as a participant in its CEO-in-Training program.

“I’m on the verge of accomplishing something that I thought would only happen ‘someday,’ ” she says.

Naturally, Berger has goals both for herself and for the people behind her as she prepares to leave Stanford GSB.

“I want to create workplaces where people can be the best versions of themselves, where people want to come to work and do great things,” she says.

And she hopes that others will follow suit. “Other women might say, ‘I could go to Stanford; I could be ready to make the kind of place I would want to work at.’ ”

— Jeremy Markovich

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