Chuck Eesley (Stanford University)
We chatted with Chuck Eesley (professor in engineering at Stanford) and Ann Miura-Ko (GP at Floodgate but also a teacher at her alma mater, Stanford, in Chuck’s department) about the role of education for DEI in tech. We touch on issues such as how to achieve fair representation both for faculty and students, the right teaching materials, and diversifying the educational experience as such. The bottom line: schools like Stanford absolutely have a responsibility to drive this effort—and they are standing up for it; the difference they are pushing for now will take a while to pay out in tech, but then will hopefully help us achieve a sea-change that does away with the often cited “pipeline problem.”
Interviewed January 2021
Education’s Formative Role in DEI
Johannes Lenhard (JL): We are talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we are thinking about what the role of educational institutions can be when it comes to driving change on this front in tech and venture capital. What do you think the responsibility and the opportunities are for places like Stanford when it comes to producing a more diverse tech and VC ecosystem?
Ann Miura-Ko (AM-K): I believe the years of schooling, of university, are such formative years. How you think about yourself and how you relate to other people are formed in high school and college. I reflect back on my own days as a student; one of the magical pieces of being an engineer, and being at PhD programs in quantitative sciences, was that I had this opportunity to meet very diverse groups of people that I normally would not be friends with. This is really important as an experience. In college, I remember complaining to my mom that I was the only woman in most of my classes. My mom said to me, “Why does that even matter? Are you looking for friendship in your classes?” That was a turning point for me about the way I thought about this; I can form different kinds of relationships in different kinds of contexts. It turns out, I made great friends in undergrad with people who were very different for me. That became a skill set that I learned in college to forge those relationships.
The second thing is something that my husband taught me. He was in law school and, I remember, he realized he could not read all these things that he needed to read, so he had to create a study group really quickly. When he looked for his study group, he did not look for just people who he could be friends with, he looked for the smartest people in the room. When I looked at his group, it was an incredibly diverse group of individuals. It was the nicest guy in the room who was from Canada. It was another kid from Indiana who grew up on a farm. It was an Indian woman from Chicago. It was another woman whose lifelong desire was to become an activist for Latinx people. It was really interesting to see the diversity, but he was just picking off who he thought were the smartest people in the room. It taught me to learn how to work with other people, to recognize really incredible talent. That is a skill set. You should start to learn and exercise it when you are in college and are being encouraged to get out of your comfort zone.
The last piece that I would say is the reason why it is important as an educator to give students those experiences and to coach them into those experiences: it teaches students to think about the network effects of the actions that they take. I have always said, in hiring, you want to have these network effects. That is why you want to access these diverse talent pools, because if you only stay within your own talent pool, you are limiting the network effects that you have. Those are the exposures that you want to give to students, and I am excited by having those conversations with our students early on in their careers.
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Chuck Eesley (CE): There are so many opportunities, but there are also so many challenges for universities indeed. I often think both about the teaching side and the research side slightly separate. On the research side, we have increasingly strong evidence, larger data sets, and more context that there are real benefits to diversity, but also more research about how homogenous both venture capital firms and startup teams tend to be. Due to both systemic racism and unconscious bias, we are really innovating with one hand tied behind our backs. If you look at engineering schools, the faculty and the students are not particularly diverse. There are real challenges to changing that. Business schools have this problem, as well as the university as a whole. There is a disconnect there, between what we see in the teams, faculty, and students, and what we know is more beneficial for innovation.
On the teaching side, there are three aspects. As the head of the committee that is working on this for our department, we think in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity, meaning, how representative are the people that we are putting up in front of the classroom as role models, and how representative of the country or the world are the students that are sitting there in the classroom. We have a bunch of initiatives [one example is SERGE] that are trying to make a dent on that side of it. Inclusion means that everyone feels equally part of the community, that is, they feel included. Even if we make great progress on diversity and bring a more representative set of students and faculty to the university, if they are not happy and not having a good experience while they are here, then that is not going to last for very long. That is the inclusion and belonging piece of it. Then, the equity piece, making sure that those students all have equal access to the same opportunities, regardless of their background or their financial situation.
Tackling the Fear of Entrepreneurship in Underrepresented Communities
AM-K: When it comes to diversity, I am a co-director of a program called the Mayfield Fellows Program, which is for 12 undergraduate students to get exposed to entrepreneurship and leadership. We are making a really big push this year to get many more students just to apply to the program from a diverse set of backgrounds. We have specifically targeted Black, Latinx, and low-income students. What has been interesting for me is that there is not only a lack of awareness about the program, but also fear of entrepreneurship in many of those communities. Many believe that the lack of stability in entrepreneurship may be a risk that they cannot take. A lot of [the push] has been real targeted outreach to talk about the fact that, if you work at a startup, your salary is just as good as many of the other large companies. You just get the upside of equity, and if the company does not do well, that is actually okay. From a venture capitalist perspective, or a hiring manager’s perspective, that is not seen as a blight on your resume.
That outreach, the inclusion, but also the knowledge sharing, are important, because as students go from being a student within Stanford, or any of these other universities, out into the real world, understanding what opportunities sit in front of them is hard to untangle. I take that really seriously as an educator; not just for the students who enter into the program, but that educational outreach into these communities to say, you actually belong here, we want your thoughts and your opinions. Your experiences are very relevant to entrepreneurship, to leadership. But more importantly, even if you are not part of this program, when you go out into the real world, you should know that these opportunities are not out of reach, they are not high risk, and that you should take them.
Stanford’s Responsibilities toward Diversity
EB: Chuck, you are faculty in one of the programs that produces quite a few of the Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs, the STVP program. What kinds of responsibility do you, your department, and the university have to actively increase DEI? What specific measures are you taking at the moment to make sure that happens?
CE: First of all, it is good to also take a step back and take a look at the big picture of the university system, and to put into perspective Stanford’s specific responsibility. We have an important leadership role to play, as the major university in Silicon Valley. A lot of people look to us for best practices, for how to do entrepreneurship education. We set an important example in that role. That said, I am actually a lot more optimistic about the HBCUs, and Latinx serving institutions, and the community colleges that MacKenzie Scott, formerly Bezos is funding right now. I have a friend, Hadiyah Mujhid from HBCUvc, who is basically saying, “All this stuff is perpetuated via networks. Those networks right now tend to be white male. We are just going to do a parallel thing to what Stanford has done for those rich white male students with HBCU universities, where we are not starting from such a low percentage of diversity in the first place.”
When I look at the numbers, especially Black, Latinx, and low-income students that we are admitting into Stanford, we have got a long way to go to have appreciable numbers where we can really make a dent in Silicon Valley. Even if we can get them admitted into the university, funded, and into the classes that we teach, then getting them access to funding from VCs (who are over 90% white male) or from angel investors is a further challenge.
Stanford is also in a unique position in having such a big endowment and being one of the universities that allocates a fairly high percentage of that endowment to invest in venture capital firms. This is in fact another starting point: one of the things that I started working on earlier this year was, why does the endowment management company at Stanford have so many white males making the investment decisions, and why can they not invest in more diverse VC funds? I had a number of conversations with former members of the Board of Trustees, others that advocate for more diversity, and asset allocators. They say, “These funds are too new; they are too small for us to allocate significant capital to.” These are all excuses. There are multiple levels to this, and that is why it is systemic. At one level, it’s getting those endowments invested in a more diverse set of VCs, getting a more diverse population of angel investors that have experience to become those VCs, getting more diverse students admitted to the programs in the first place, raising more funding to provide financial scholarships to low-income communities.
The other big responsibility is teaching the content in such a way that it connects with diverse communities. That is along the lines of what Ann was referring to there, that it is not, you raise $50K from friends and family, and then you do not take a paycheck for a year and it’s no problem. Then you reach out to all your wealthy angel investors in your network, and then you raise venture capital. Presenting the content with diverse perspectives, diverse role models, diverse mentors and judges up in front of the class, that is the other key responsibility. That is why we are excited to have folks like Ann as adjuncts and lecturers, as part of the program, and we need to further double down on those efforts to diversify the staff and the faculty.
The Individual Instructor’s Role in Diversifying Learning
JL: Looking back at what you have done so far, and forward to what you want to do, can each of you share a best practice when it comes to teaching and increasing D&I in the classroom and bringing people in? What should every instructor and teacher do differently?
AM-K: This is a really critical question. One point that I wanted to make that Chuck was talking about: the change that you were mentioning that is needed is coming. You start to see it already, even with the Yale endowment, which sent out a letter to all of their managers asking for diversity numbers, driven by David Swensen, their CIO. He wanted those numbers. He has had those conversations with managers, and he is pushing them to make these hires. When a Yale endowment does that, because they are one of the leaders, you will see that actually reflected in the numbers. You will start to see more diversity.
The second other point was that in tech, it is not just at the pipeline issue, because I see this as an Asian woman. When you look at the senior levels of executives and board members, you do not see that many Asians at that level. That is not a pipeline issue, and I have talked about this to multiple people to just try to understand what is happening. If we say we are just going to solve it at one level and ignore the rest, we are not going to be able to get there. This comes back to your question of, what are tactics that we can do at the educational level in colleges?
First of all, in the classes that I teach, I am actually constantly revisiting the topics that I am uncovering. I am looking at the case studies that we use. I am looking at the guest speakers that we have. I am looking at the students that are represented in the class. I am looking at how we recruit the students. It is comprehensive in terms of looking at the class from various angles, and it is not just my own eyes, I am sending this out to other students that represent different pockets to say, “How does this look to you? Who else would you want to hear from?” I may not be able to incorporate it this year, but I am going to incorporate it in the future, and I am just trying to keep a living list of what I should be doing better. Not thinking about my course as a static thing that is optimal already, but that it needs to always be changing.
The second thing that I do think about from a venture capitalist perspective, and taking off my educator hat, is we actually run programs for different types of students. Most recently, one of my partners ran a building breakthroughs class that ran for ten weeks. It was what we taught at Stanford, but we opened it up to Black entrepreneurs and Black students. We had fifty underrepresented minorities within this program. We could tell it was just the start. The quality of the applications that we were getting were mind boggling. Some of it is, what do we do within the confines of our university? There is a second order question: what can you do outside it? How can you use your megaphone to then bring others into the fold in ways that are now possible, because we have things like Zoom, and we are all sitting at home being able to educate others?
Diversity Initiatives Start with University Leadership
CE: Bottom-up initiatives are always helpful, but the most important thing is people in leadership positions in the university have to talk about this, as a critical challenge and mission for the university to diversify in general, and diversified entrepreneurship programs in particular. If those university leaders, deans, and department chairs do not speak up about it and do not change the way that resources are allocated for new faculty hires or for adjunct lecturers or for funding students, then it is very difficult for those of us that are trying to do stuff from the bottom up to make a lot of progress. That is the most critical thing.
Getting Help from Students (and Compensating Them)
CE: Tactically, we have hired a couple of RA [research assistant] students. Not asking for free labor, especially on the part of the affected communities, is really important. We hired a couple of master’s students and they have helped us to make a ton of progress. They’ve helped with recruiting, such as running the MS&E [management science and engineering] department version of our SERGE graduate recruiting program. They’ve also been meeting with faculty to help diversify the syllabus readings and guest speakers. Recently, they’ve helped us to coordinate an undergraduate diversity in research program. Finally, they are helping with some literature reviews in this area of what works and what doesn’t.
Relatively inexpensive RA positions have really infused us with a lot of energy in the department. They have been going around and setting up guides for faculty about how to diversify your syllabus, setting up networks of contacts for more diverse speakers, pestering faculty to meet with them to sit down for a half an hour and go through the syllabus, class session by class session. We have hit some resistance on that along the way. Faculty are very hesitant to have other people meddling with their course syllabi, but done in a sensitive, thoughtful way, we have gotten people to realize, “This is fairly painless, and nobody is going to yell at me, and I can make a few small tweaks and make some improvement in the experience for students.”
JL: Chuck, a last question for you: what do you think is a concrete next step you want to take to make your bit of entrepreneurship education more diverse and inclusive? What are your plans for the coming two years?
CE: One concrete step is in hiring more diverse students as teaching assistants in our classes. In terms of plans for the coming two years, it’s really focused on recruiting more diverse students and faculty to apply to the department.