Spending the summer sampling

Category: MBA

First published on FT.com (Financial Times) on July 17th 2013

Suspicion surrounds the summer between the two academic years of business school. Responsibly employed friends often ask me how my classmates and I are spending our summer, wondering whether we MBA students simply prance around at Burning Man or go “find ourselves” on the beaches of Thailand.

It is a fair question, particularly given the logistical ease with which some MBA students, like those fortunate to be living on Insead’s Singapore campus, can get to the KohPha-ngan full moon parties.

At Stanford GSB, our professors, career advisors and classmates are all obsessed with encouraging us to engage in sufficient, protracted introspection to work out what we really want to do with our lives. It’s an ongoing process that for me has been greatly aided by meetings with Uta Kremer, career advisor extraordinaire, and Luis, a second year student assigned as my “coach”.

Uta seems able to remember the precise career path of every alumnus who has graduated since 1980 and Luis is an incredibly good listener, who received special coaching training through a series of intense courses at Stanford. Both were able to push me to help me work out what I actually really care about. The summer then serves as a perfect opportunity to test a hypothesis.

I have long thought that I would eventually want to steer my own ship, trying to build a company from scratch. Yet at each junction so far, I have opted to join the ranks of well-oiled platoons rather than parachute behind enemy lines alone, telling myself that I still have to learn much-needed combat skills from experienced sergeants. In the vaults of an investment bank, I started to learn how to model out battle scenarios for almost any eventuality. In the towers of a management consulting firm, I began to learn how to craft strategies to ambush the competition. In the corridors of a venture capital fund I learned how to recognise talented young warriors. Yet I have probably just been engaging in a process of self-justification, always watching the battlefield through binoculars, without ever entering the field. In short, I have stayed within the panelled halls of West Point.

As I pondered what to do for the summer, I was overwhelmed with the options Stanford provides. Job opportunities poured into our inboxes and most of them at institutions that I’ve always admired: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Warburg Pincus, Apple, Google. It took me a while to realise that while a summer spent at any of these great organisations would be incredibly interesting, it would not help me, personally, answer whether I actually want to be an entrepreneur.

So I reached out to numerous entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, career advisors and professors to ask them who they believed were the great chief executives of start-ups, for I wanted to learn how to manage operations. A few names came up several times and one more than any other. So I asked Danny Rimer, one of the partners at the venture capital firm Index Ventures (I worked at Index Ventures just before business school and again for the first part of this summer), to put me in touch with David Rosenblatt.

David is a veteran of start-ups: he ran DoubleClick for more than 10 years before selling it for $3.2bn to Google and now runs 1stDibs. 1stDibs is an online marketplace which provides an online platform to antique furniture dealers, jewellery stores, vintage fashion retailers and art galleries, to enable them to sell their work online. David and his team kindly agreed to have me on board and so I am working to develop a strategy for fine art. I’ll write another post about my great experience at 1stDibs (as well as at Index Ventures!), but suffice to say for now that it is incredibly invigorating being at a rapidly evolving company, where every day it feels as if you can be a part of new inventions or ways of operating.

My housemates are also trying to test out hypotheses. Next year I’ll be living with Jake, Ben and Hiroshi. Jake is the best-travelled man I know, with 85 countries under his belt, in part due to his singing tours. He spent the last few years co-managing a solar energy start-up in India. Used to relying on funding from others, he wanted to learn the process from the investors’ side. So he is spending the summer at Kleiner Perkins Caufield& Byers’s Green Growth Fund, travelling around North America looking at renewable energy businesses.

Ben is a true free spirit, who spent a year before business school doing freelance consulting while sailing around various parts of the world, after working at Bain Capital. He’s interested in running a search fund, which involves raising capital from investors to seek and acquire a small company and then manage it. Typically, these acquisitions are in less technologically advanced industries such as trucking or mail sorting, where there are opportunities for extensive operational and technological improvements.

Ben felt he had to test whether he enjoyed operations. So he has gone to spend the summer in Bhutan, working for Mountain Hazelnuts Venture Limited, the first 100 per cent foreign direct investment company in the kingdom, which is helping subsistence farmers plant 10m hazelnut trees on degraded mountain slopes. His aim is to get his hands dirty and he literally has done just that, improving the processes for the plantation of seedlings and fertiliser mixing. He has also been using the optimisation techniques we learned in class to create an efficient routing system for the distribution of trees, while incorporating into his model the probabilities of landslides and truck breakdowns.

I got to know Hiroshi when we travelled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic together – we bonded over shared experiences of brainstorming furnaces (ie McKinsey team rooms), a love of random nights out (we managed to get ourselves invited to a huge Dominican wedding) and a curiosity for countries going through periods of economic transformation. During hot, bumpy, dusty, cramped bus rides, we spoke excitedly about business ideas in Burma, Libya and Greece. Hiroshi is Japanese and developed his fascination with countries experiencing rapid change through his work for the UN, where he helped create economic development programmes in Indonesia. So he jumped on the opportunity to spend his summer investing in high-volatility Greek assets, on behalf of a London-based hedge fund.

I can mention a couple of other friends, who almost qualify as housemates because I spend so much time with them. Amanda, as well as being one of the most efficient people I have ever met, has an eye for elegance and is hugely attentive to others’ needs. So it came as no surprise to me when she spoke of her desire to move into management in high-end retail. During her summer at beauty retailer Sephora, she is working to ensure that the rollout of the company’s proprietary Skincare iQ technology (launched last week) goes as smoothly as possible. It aims to match the best skincare products to each customer’s specific needs.

Federica is deeply passionate about food, regularly whipping up dinners for groups of up to 20 people, which fuse the spices of Oaxaca (she is Mexican from Monterrey) with the natural flavours of organic vegetables sourced from Californian farmers’ markets. She wanted to find a way to channel her passion this summer, so joined Starbucks to create a ‘foodie culture’ there. Following Starbucks’s acquisition of La Boulange, the bakery chain, Howard Schultz wants to put food on a par with coffee in the stores and so Federica came on board to help them execute the plan.

All this is to say that we are all experimenting, treating our summers as laboratories. We each chose our summer jobs not because anyone else deemed them worthy, but because they fundamentally excited us.

Entrepreneurs are a peculiar breed

Category: MBA

Copyright: First published on FT.com (Financial Times) on  May 6th 2013

Entrepreneurs are a peculiar breed of the human species. John Doerr, venture capitalist and an early investor in Google, Amazon and Twitter, referred to them as the ‘provocateurs of our era’ in a talk he gave at Stanford.

I’ll try to analyse the traits which distinguish these mesmerising creatures in a taxonomical fashion.

There is of course no single set of spots or stripes that enable us to pinpoint a formidable entrepreneur. They come in all shapes and sizes because different companies or industries are better suited to different leadership styles. Yet there are certain attributes shared by many of the great founders.

Firstly, entrepreneurs tend to have premature, almost unfounded confidence. Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems and a leading venture capitalist, described them as “People who are foolish enough to make dreams come true” when he spoke recently on campus. There is a certain value to the naivety that comes with attacking a problem from a fresh perspective; if entrepreneurs knew everything about an industry they would know all the reasons why it would not make sense to disrupt it. As Seneca noted, humans are more limited by what they think they can do, than by what they can actually do.

It’s all very well being confident, but start-ups are founded on original and well-executed ideas. After all, the obvious things have already been done. Thus, entrepreneurs are irreverent: they need to be contrarian thinkers to make differentiated products.

“Being an entrepreneur is about working on things that nobody knows are important” (Khosla). This requires creativity but notably also audacity, because contrarian ideas that fail to get traction make their creators look like fools. In fact, many entrepreneurs’ projects initially appear foolish. Take the young Stanford founders of Skybox Imaging, whose goal was to create a constellation of tiny, low-cost satellites to change the way high-resolution imagery is distributed. Most venture capitalists in Silicon Valley told them it was an interesting but crazy idea. They struggled to sell the idea, but eventually Khosla invested in them, and last year they went on to raise $70m in Series C financing and are changing the satellite industry.

This highlights that having a contrarian vision is necessary but not sufficient for success. Great entrepreneurs are also highly persuasive salesmen, selling this vision to investors, employees, customers, suppliers and even the press. They convey overwhelming conviction in their products, while remaining highly receptive to feedback. They know how to hustle. The best entrepreneurs can sell anything, literally. They could sell 90s neon rave gear to grandmothers.

Entrepreneurs also show perseverance, despite the draining unpredictability of new ventures. Mark Pincus (founder of Zynga) came to a class and took us through the emotional rollercoaster he lived through his various ventures. For example, he had to endure the pain of letting his social network Tribe die, but the satisfaction of seeing Zynga go public. Entrepreneurs cannot be paralysed by the fear of failure; they need to accept to “Try and fail, but not fail to try” (Stephen Kaggwa). As Maya Angelou prescribed, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated”.

Finally, entrepreneurs need the humility to realise they cannot do it alone. The best ones hire people who are even brighter than themselves. Their companies are rocket-ships travelling incredibly fast and they need to fill the ship with the best astronauts they can find. Those first 100 seats on any rocket-ship are worth gold and are critical to their culture, so it is worth investing time to hire visionaries. It is not surprising that Dropbox’s co-chief executive Arash Ferdowsi has personally interviewed most of Dropbox’s several hundred employees, because great employees allow companies to continue to innovate. As Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter and Square) emphasised this evening at Stanford Business School, the best companies have multiple founding moments and these are often defined by employees other than the founders.

Most people are not entrepreneurs (these are not easy traits to develop) and there is no shame in not belonging to the breed. However, everyone should support entrepreneurs to help them survive the challenges. Being an entrepreneur is like climbing Everest: most fail and those who do succeed must cross seemingly endless crevasses along the way. For early stage entrepreneurs, it is harder still, akin to clambering up Everest alone (no team established), in darkness (no precedent to follow), without oxygen (limited financial resources) and without ice axes or the ability to read a compass (limited tools and skills).

We should propel our provocateurs forward. We should honour their confidence, irreverence, persuasiveness, perseverance and humility. We should help them climb Everest. We should join their revolutions.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic: exploring two worlds in one study trip

Category: MBA

Copyright: First published on FT.com (Financial Times) on February 14th 2013

The view from the bridge at Dajabon between Haiti and the Dominican Republic will remain tattooed in my mind. On the Haitian side, you can see for miles past the muddy banks of the river, small rickety wooden huts dotting the naked, deforested plane. On the Dominican side, thick forest forms an imposing wall along the river bank, and a big concrete building rises above the tree line like a periscope. The scene gives the story away: these are not just two different countries, they are two different worlds.

I should explain what I was doing in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and how it relates to my MBA. I was on a study trip with 24 other Stanford students to explore the theme of job creation within Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Every Stanford Graduate School of Business student goes on at least one study trip abroad. There are myriad destinations, with 30 trips going this year. Destinations range from Rwanda to Indonesia. Many of the trips have a theme; for example, the trip to Antarctica centred around climate change, and hence had several environmentalists accompanying the group.

Each trip is organised by second year MBA students. They are able to ensure the itineraries are relevant to our studies and interests. For example, the second year MBA students who led a trip to Brazil organised meetings with some of country’s leading tech and energy entrepreneurs, because these are sectors of particular interest for many in my class.

The trips are typically organised by students from the countries being visited, so the level of access is very high. Those in India were hosted by Ratan Tata, those in Mexico by Carlos Slim, while those in Rwanda met with President Kagame to discuss the drivers of the country’s rapid growth.

Comparing Haiti and the Dominican Republic makes for an intriguing case study. The countries, which share the island of La Hispanola, have very similar topographic, climatic and demographic characteristics. In the 1960s, their respective GDPs per capita were almost level, and yet now the Dominican Republic’s GDP per capita ($9,400) is 8 times that of Haiti ($1,200) according the CIA World Factbook. Many factors have contributed to the diverging fortunes of these two countries, but most find their root cause in politics.

The lack of government investment in Haiti is immediately visible as you drive along the pot-holed roads. Rubbish lies on the streets, border posts feel chaotic and routes to ports are laden with traffic. I was not that surprised to learn the Haiti ranks 165th out of the 174 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Index. Haiti’s poor infrastructure deters many companies from outsourcing manufacturing there. The manager from one of the few companies to be outsourcing operations to Haiti, a garment manufacturer, explained the challenges posed by poorly-maintained roads and an undersized port. The entire country also lacks a reliable supply of electricity, which hinders many companies from operating during power cuts.

Other problems include an unreliable legal system: the Director of an NGO described to us how they had negotiated an agreement with the government enabling them to import goods without customs taxes, but that border guards nevertheless continued to charge import fees.

Well-founded concerns about civil security have also hampered tourism and foreign investment: the CEO of Meds for Kids, which manufactures peanut bars to fight malnutrition, told us that it was difficult for their factory to operate a night shift because of the risks employees faced when walking to and from the factory at night.

The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, has managed to confront many of these challenges. The Dominican government has invested heavily in infrastructure, building seven international airports, eight major seaports and a network of modern, well-maintained roads. A heightened police presence in touristic zones has improved the safety for travelers, facilitating a boom in tourism. The Dominican Republic now has 70,000 hotel beds, which is more per capita than any other country in the world.

Recent government investment has also upgraded their information technology and telecommunication systems, enabling the Dominican Republic to become the third biggest provider of call centres, behind only India and Egypt. The Dominican Republic’s low wages continue to attract manufacturers looking for cheap outsourcing opportunities, particularly within the clothing sector. Improving education standards are also paving the way for a fully-fledged services industry. I spoke with the CEO of one company, for example, that develops software for large US entertainment companies.

Despite these positives, the Dominican Republic does still face challenges. It too has poor electricity distribution, with 35-40 per cent of electricity lost from the grid due predominantly to theft. The government’s renegotiation of several large trade contracts has also created doubts among foreign investors about government reliability.

So far, my argument has provided anecdotal support for Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s theory, proposed in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, that a country’s prosperity depends primarily on its political institutions. Yet political institutions are not the only drivers of growth or causes of failure. So I shall spend the rest of this blog assessing how Haiti can emerge from the murky waters through both non-political and political means.

Haiti is definitely not a lost case. I came across many inspiring examples of creativity and entrepreneurship, which could help it bridge the divide with its neighbour, the Dominican Republic. Street painters would remember your name three days later, selling more effectively than any European or American street artist. Locals, several of whom spoke five languages fluently, would act as unofficial guides at old citadels. Traders would rush to refill their stock from another shop so as not to miss out on a single sale. Certain sectors of people have the right mindset, taking responsibility for their livelihoods, as well as for their broader societies.

So the Haitians themselves have the drive to grow, but the country’s economic topsoil needs to be more fertile. Firstly, the government’s current incentives for foreign companies to invest do not suffice to attract large capital investments, because of the lack of both long-term economic stability and a regulatory framework. Putting up billboards all over the country claiming that “Haiti is open for business” is good for morale, but it does little to solve power shortages or roadblocks. Secondly, foreign-backed NGOs should better coordinate their valiant efforts, for many of them are inefficiently attempting to solve the same problems: two recycling NGOs we encountered, for example, were both competing to collect rubbish in the same town, which led to inefficient usage of their trucks and sorting facilities.

Solutions exist, but they are not quick wins.

Firstly, Haiti really needs to retain local talent. Currently, for every 800 Haitian children, only twelve go to university. Of these twelve, eleven end up working abroad. Yet the educated few who stay have a tremendous impact, coordinating the efforts of large foreign organisations like USAID or managing factories. Haiti needs to retain more of their talent, incentivising them with scholarships and attractive jobs to stay on home turf.

For a long time, the inner circle of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had a grip on the country’s industrial sectors, limiting the opportunities available to the younger generation by stalling promotions and hindering entrepreneurs. Michel Martelly, the pop star turned President, promised economic reform. He seems to be trying, but currently the political cost of fixing corruption is too great for him.

Secondly, Haiti needs to capitalise on its assets. It has some of the finest landscapes and beaches within a couple of hours of the US, giving it the potential to be a real tourist hotspot, if only safety levels were improved. It has well-irrigated, fertile land that merits better protection against deforestation, which then leads to erosion. It also has a cheap labour force, capable of providing extensive manufacturing and service outsourcing for the US and France, with linguistic capabilities in English and French.

Thirdly, NGOs should teach skills rather than providing goods. A non-trivial proportion of Haitians enjoy 365 days of Christmas gifts from NGOs. NGOs could have more impact through training and healthcare services than through handouts. Such training programmes have far more widespread effects. I sat beside a Haitian businessman at a dinner who was teaching farmers to improve the productivity of their peanut crops. They had managed to share their learning with dozens of other farmers. This kind of learning is sustainable because it builds people’s capabilities.

I really hope Haiti can cope with its challenges and retain talent, leverage its assets and better harness help from NGOs. Haiti has great reason to be proud of its history: it was the first independent country in Latin America and the Caribbean, thanks to a successful slave revolution. Now Haiti’s people need to rebel once more against the status quo, but peacefully. It is time for Haiti to be proud of its present, not just of its past.

Embracing experiential learning

Category: MBA

First published on FT.com (Financial Times) on November 17th 2012

Stanford is known for teaching the ‘softer skills’ of business management. In the 1970s, courses like “Interpersonal dynamics” were already being taught, focused on improving students’ ability to manage relations with others.

These softer skills are now taught in diverse ways. For example, Irving Grousbeck (inventor of the search fund – the enrepreneurship/investment vehicle model ) and Joel Peterson (chairman of JetBlue) teach students how to replace themselves as chief executives when their start-ups grow too large, while Dan Klein and Scott Doorley teach improvisation techniques to manage meetings better.

What these classes all have in common is that they are experiential in nature: students do not simply learn theory, but practise taking action. Let me describe three of my experiential classes.

In one of my global strategy classes, Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, ran a simulation of negotiations about economic sanctions for Iran. Before the class, each student was assigned a role within the administrations of eight countries: the G5, Germany, Brazil and Turkey. Our aim was to come to a multi-lateral agreement to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, while protecting our national interests.

After an opening speech by each country’s head of state, 66 of us began negotiations. Polite mayhem ensued. The eight foreign secretaries haggled but reached gridlock. Any progress was undermined by side agreements made by defence secretaries and heads of treasuries. The class failed to reach an agreement that would stall Iran’s nuclear programme. Ms Rice noted that no class of hers had ever reached a satisfactory agreement in this exercise.

As a group we considered the negotiating pitfalls into which we had tumbled. We realised that while each country had stated their opening stance, none had revealed their motivations for it. This lack of transparency made it incredibly difficult to establish a mutually beneficial solution, because no party knew what mattered most to their counterparts. Moreover, we had debated each aspect of the sanctions one by one, picking over Iranian fuel sanctions before talking about restricting capital flows in banks. It became apparent that we would have been far more likely to reach a solution if we had debated packages of options, which allows each party to compromise on some fronts but benefit on others.

Another day, I turned up to my “managing groups and teams” class and was told I was going to be a ‘base-level worker’ in a class exercise. With three others I had to recreate and enlarge a tiny sketch we had been given. The sketch seemed a jumble of meaningless doodles. Other small groups were working on similar assignments.

Some of our classmates, meanwhile had been assigned as ‘managers’ and rushed around giving instructions. My group quickly grew frustrated – it seemed like there was not enough work for each of us, that the task was meaningless and that our managers were running around like headless chickens.

Halfway through the exercise we paused to all convene outside. Everyone had the chance to voice their concerns. We ‘base-level workers’ described how demotivating it had been to toil on a seemingly pointless, poorly managed task. Our ‘managers’ explained how overwhelmed they were by their own tasks, many of which I hadn’t even realised existed; for example, they had to manage a complex project budget. The managers also explained the purpose of the small sketches: amalgamated, they would form a large, coherent painting.

We agreed on a process for the second half of the project which made a significant difference – everything worked almost flawlessly. We had a sense of purpose and knew what was required of us. I learned how helpful it can be to have a mid-point crisis in any project. Some of the most effective managers I have met manufacture moments of ‘crisis’ to ensure that their employees focus on a common goal and pursue it with urgency.

At 8am every Wednesday, I show up in room M103 with five of my classmates for a leadership laboratory. It is a weekly class that is self-regulated – there is no professor. Beforehand, we read a business case which assigns us characters for a role-play. One person is designated as leader for the day. Last week it was my turn to lead. That case described a company’s restructuring process and assigned all six of us the roles of vice-presidents within the organisation. Our task was select which three of our junior managers, from a pool of eight potential candidates, should lead the restructuring process, and which five we would have to fire; we were instructed to try to defend the employees we had previously managed.

Before we started the discussion, we turned on the video camera; every session is filmed because video footage helps us analyse our behaviour. As soon as the role-play began, a power struggle emerged. One individual gained ground through assertiveness, while another won an ally by adopting a casual approach.

As the timer ticked down, passions flared – we were all so engrossed in our roles that the prospect of terminating a loyal employee seemed horrific. We ended up resorting to a vote and three managers were selected. We then spent time giving each other incredibly candid feedback about how the actions of others in the group had made us feel. For example, I felt that one person’s tone was condescending, while Rachel pointed out that I had not been concise. These frank perspectives are invaluable, for people hardly confess what they really think. It is only in this leadership laboratory where nothing is veiled and nothing is off the cards.

I can finish by endorsing the success of the experiential learning model. It is so powerful because it ingrains behaviours in us and gives us the confidence to play with different interpersonal styles. Before starting my MBA, I worried that I might be returning to a realm of purely theoretical academics. I also thought ‘experiential’ learning was simply an over-used buzzword that was thrown about as haphazardly as ‘leverage’. Yet the reality is that Stanford’s experiential approach prepares us for the most challenging conversations in real life. The feedback from these sessions can be hard to hear, but it never fails to change one’s gear.

Embarking on a monsoon in the rain

Category: MBA

First published on Financial Times on12th September 2012:

I listen as the drumming of the rain on the roof grows louder. I decide to wait it out with Rawad, who is sharing a hotel bungalow with me on our first night on Stanford’s pre-MBA trip to Colombia. Twenty minutes later we decide to venture out into the deluge of water and leap between the puddles towards Santa Marta’s beach.

A lone guard on the sand, cowering beneath an umbrella in the darkness, informs us that tonight’s ‘fiesta’ has been moved to the Ark, a nearby patio shielded by a thatched roof.

As Rawad and I arrive others appear from their bungalows and go in two by two to meet our troop of new MBA students for the first time – there are almost 200 of us on the trip. Immediately the ritual of strangers begins. Handshakes are fractionally firmer than necessary; furtive glances are noticed; subtle nods are exchanged to trigger conversations.

One student with Slavic cheekbones and a furrowed brow walks past me – he seems self-assured. Two women start to dance, their swirling dresses catching the light like spinning tops – they seem insouciant. I meander through the throng and am fascinated by how so many here have mastered this social dance. Their smiles are platonic yet engaging; their sentences sound polished yet casual; their stances open yet unimposing. In each conversation, I hear people seeking common ground, which they quickly find through shared national pride, an allegiance to a former employer, a similar love of cycling or mutual adulation for Tarantino.

Leaning on the bar, I order a gin and tonic and start talking to Collin. It turns out he founded a mobile payments business and ran it for six years. He had no co-founder, so I ask whether he ever felt like a lone wolf. He explains that he had not been too isolated, because his employees had developed a shared sense of ownership due primarily to the autonomy he gave them. His greatest challenge involved deciding when to sell his company, for “other founders suggested exiting whenever the business was challenged by competitors or overvalued by potential acquirers”. These are interesting insights to receive by a bar, which make me impatient to start the business school classes in which we will tackle these dilemmas.

My gin and tonic finally arrives, so I swivel around to join a lively debate about Mexican politics (about which I know next to nothing). Federica, who worked at the Wall Street Journal and Boston Consulting Group, points out that Pena-Nieto, the president-elect, needs to capitalise better on Mexico’s unique position as gatekeeper to the US. It is unclear whether Pena-Nieto is the best man for the task. I am given my first MBA assignment – a foreign affairs article I should read tomorrow.

Maria, formerly a curator for Mexico’s National Arts Museum, turns to me and asks whether I am happy to be moving to Stanford. For me, the prospect of living at the heart of Silicon Valley is phenomenal, for it is where the world is being reinvented. As Derrick Bolton, Stanford’s director of MBA admissions observed, the San Francisco Bay area is the 21stcentury equivalent of Florence under the House of Medici.

Stanford University is a unique intellectual utopia, where wild ideas are helped to blossom. So I feel very fortunate. Despite my excitement though, Maria and I share similar important concerns, regarding not where we are heading, but who we are leaving. Our supportive families, beloved partners and engaging friends will be separated from us by seas and there is nothing more important to me than these relationships. It is hard to leave them for two years; it is harder still to embrace the fact that I have no idea where I shall live after Stanford. It could be back in London or in New York, but it could just as easily be in the Bay area, Mumbai, Beijing, Beirut… all places of which I am fond and which provide real opportunities.

Suddenly the thunder rumbles loudly above us and the lights and music immediately cut out. It is late and time to abandon ship, so I leave the Ark. As I stroll back towards my room through the haze of rain, a colossal bolt of lightning illuminates the jungle-covered mountains cascading into the Caribbean Sea. This striking image will eventually fade from my memory, but the collage of conversations I had tonight should stick. I am so impressed, if rather daunted, by the people embarking at Stanford.

Aspiring politicians, learn from Obama’s campaign

In 2012, Obama turned a national campaign into a local campaign. This is how he did it.


Creating empowered volunteers with a sense of ‘Us’

Obama’s campaign radically changed the nature of election volunteering. Traditionally, volunteers have only been entrusted with relatively menial tasks, because it is hard to trust volunteers with complexity when they only do it part time.


Building on the work of behavioral scientists like Daniel Khaneman, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, integrated the notion of ‘escalation of commitment’ into the volunteering philosophy. Volunteers would be given small tasks at first, both so as not to overwhelm them and to test their capability. These small tasks help build engagement with the campaign, particularly as the sense of community is so strong. Quickly, volunteers were given increasingly complex tasks, that aligned with their capabilities. Data-minded people were given reports to analyse while people who loved talking manned phone banks.


The campaign built on the work of Marshall Ganz (one of my professors at the Kennedy School) who developed Obama’s community organizing philosophy for the 2008 election. He advocates that to feel engaged in the pursuit of a goal, we need to feel engaged in narrative focused on shared feelings or experiences. The way individuals engage in each other’s narratives is to go on training camps. Zack Exley notes that no campaign had ever sent volunteers on two days camps. The philosophy is perpetuated back in campaign centers, where volunteers have debrief sessions to discuss the initiatives that worked or failed.


Leveraging technology to nanotarget

What differentiated Obama’s campaign in 2008 and 2012 was the ability to target voters specifically based on their individual preferences. In his excellent article, Sasha Issenberg points out that the campaign had up to 1000 data points for some voters.


Volunteers were able to log into a site known as ‘neighbor to neighbor’ (Seth Colter Walls’ provides an overview), which enables volunteers to see which voters living on the streets beside them would be most . Think a voter by voter ‘cost-benefit analysis’ assessing the likelihood of conversion. Under the direction of mobile guru Chris Hughes, the Obama campaign then took this a step further, developing a mobile app for volunteers, enabling them to load a Google map displaying the homes of voters deemed potentially persuadable. Yes: they know where you live.


Technology also enables voters . I did some phone calling for Obama during the 2012 election. Sitting in Palo Alto, California, all I had to do was click a button on a website to be immediately connected with an undecided voter in Colorado or Ohio. The campaign was leveraging web-to-mobile technology developed by Twilio, which hides people’s real numbers to protect privacy and does away with the need to type numbers into your phone.


By the next campaign, I suspect volunteers will receive questioning briefs for each voter they visit or call, which will focus on topics that matter to that voter. A young parent with a disabled child will receive a call about improvements to local special needs schools. In a way, it feels like voter manipulation, but arguably, it makes government better, incentivizing and enabling campaigns to adjust to specific, localized voter needs.


Keeping momentum

Elections happen every four years. Preparing for elections happens every day. Obama is the first President to have kept his campaign offices open after the election. As Piskorski, Smith and Winig note, Obama’s campaign organization Obama for America sent out an email to supporters before he was even sworn into office in January 2009 to announce the launch of a post-election organization called Organizing for America. The aim was not only to support Obama’s agenda but to prepare for his reelection.


I’ve updated this blog to mention that Barack Obama sent me an email on the 18th November to say ‘chat tonight?’  Three days before that, I received another email, opening with ‘Andre, I want to cut through the noise and talk with you directly about where we’re headed in the fight for change.’ So I dialed in: the content was not surprising, but it felt personal. Being on the phone with the President (even if 100,000 other people are too) is a radically different experience to seeing a speech broadcast from the Brady press room in the White House. 

Let’s have a referendum on the NSA

Is the internet vital for whistleblowing?


The internet is often portrayed as the WMD (weapon of mass dissemination) for whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Journalists talk of a new era of transparency.


Yet whistleblowing is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the US has had far higher-ranking whistleblowers, whose actions have been seemingly more impactful, even, than those of Snowden or Manning. ‘Deep Throat’, the source for the Washington Post’s revelations of the Watergate Scandal that led President Nixon to resign, turned out to be the deputy director of the FBI Mark Felt. In another famous case, Jeffrey Wigand, VP of R&D at Brown & Williamson, revealed the company had deliberately altered its tobacco blend to increase nicotine content, and in doing was instrumental in bringing the US’s leading tobacco companies to a $206bn settlement.


Snowden and Manning, like Deep Throat and Wigand, could probably have had a similar impact without the internet, solely by accessing the mainstream press. It is not haphazard that Snowden’s means of dissemination for his leaked information was the Guardian newspaper, and not his own blog. So for some whistleblowers, the internet is additive, but not instrumental.


Where the internet does completely change the game is in situations when whistleblowers or activists require anonymity. The internet allows activists to share information without ever revealing their identities. It incentivizes citizens in countries where they would risk torture or death for revealing government information to disclose it. Now, they can post encrypted information without being identified by anyone as a source. The internet also lowers the barrier to entry: whistleblowers no longer need press contacts. Once information is uploaded, as Jaron Lanier notes in ‘The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks’, the internet enables rapid international dissemination, which is particularly effective given many news agencies are national.


Is whistleblowing laudable or abominable?


In an interview with Raffi Khatchadourian, Assange highlighted that his mission was to expose injustice. That is why he sees himself above all as a journalist, challenging the power of institutions. We need justice to be exposed. The question is whether whistleblowers should be assuming this role.


An argument often leveled against Snowden and Manning is that ultimately, what they did is wrong because it broke the law. If our judicial system were a perfect representation of a universal morality, this argument would hold. But it is flawed, because laws quickly become antiquated: the process for establishing them is so bureaucratic that they necessarily lag behind the emergence of new issues and technologies. If Washington has not even been able to pass a full federal budget since 1997 and a budget bill since 2009, how can we possibly expect its laws to be up to date? Moreover, great change requires a challenging of the status quo, which is often enshrined in laws. We hail law-breakers and advocates of civil disobedience like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King as heroes, so should we hail Snowden, Assange and Manning?


As Khatchadourian’s article makes clear, men like Assange are naturally marginal people who become even more removed from normal society through their physical exiles. Really, our institutions should have mainstream channels through which these sorts of challenges can be levied. In most walks of government, they do. However, when it comes to surveillance, they have failed us. In this murky world, government officials justify keeping the nature of programs secret by claiming it protects civilians.


They are right that there is a need for state secrets, but they are confounding the issue. Civilians should not have a right to know the data discovered through surveillance operations – what good can it do to reveal the whereabouts of terrorists if it compromised operations. However, we civilians should be able to decide the nature and limits of surveillance operations. We need to use democracy to draw the line, as civilians, between privacy and freedom. We need to decide if our emails and phone calls should be monitored.


Why? Democracy is about giving equality of voice to every individual. The basis for this equality is a respect for each individual’s personhood. As Lanier notes, privacy is fundamental to personhood. Privacy gives us the ability to think independently. By denying privacy, we push people down a slope to intellectual conformity, where fear of thinking wrongly hinders people from free expression.


Let’s have a referendum


A solution is to better leverage technology to engage citizens in referendums where we can express a voice on specific issues like NSA surveillance. Electronic voting makes it feasible to run referendums where previously they proved too much of an expensive logistical nightmare. Estonia, for example, has implemented electronic voting in municipal and national elections, so it should be possible for countries like the US and UK to start conducting referendums online. As long as the NSA does not hack the electronic voting systems, we should be able to democratically decide on surveillance. No need then to commit crimes, create martyrs and compromise state secrets in the process.