GM’S MARY BARRA: STRUCK BY HER HUMILITY
While speaking about trying to change large, entrenched institutions, I must mention classmate Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors. I was fortunate to be in a few study groups with her, and I can’t imagine anyone better equipped to lead GM through the next steps in its evolution. A lifelong car fanatic and GM employee who began in engineering, Mary clearly has the bona fides for the job. At the same time, she has the foresight, imagination, integrity, resolve, and ability to inspire others it takes to shift the organizational culture.
I’ve always been struck by her humility—something rare in CEO circles. She’s always giving credit to the team while taking none for herself, yet she’s quick to take responsibility when things go wrong. A major cultural shift she has initiated is making safety front and center at GM. This includes creating a new Global Product Integrity organization, revamping safety decision making to include senior management, and empowering employees to report potential safety problems quickly through a new program called Speak Up for Safety. At the reunion, she shared her vision for redefining GM: becoming the technology leader and directing the future of the automobile. Citing GM’s lead in in-car electronics such as the OnStar system, Mary spoke passionately about the next generation of the Chevy Volt and extensive R&D being undertaken in areas such as driverless cars.
DO WHAT YOU LOVE
Many of my classmates have followed their passions, wherever they might lead.
After holding senior-leadership roles in the food industry for about a decade post-MBA, Anne Goldberg turned a childhood hobby, playing with clay, into a business. Such was the genesis of Goldberg Pottery. But she wasn’t finished there. In 2003, she took up and fell in love with snowboarding, eventually becoming an instructor for the Aspen Ski Company. In 2007, she learned about Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities, which provides adaptive and therapeutic activities to disabled military personnel, and Anne dove in. She now teaches snowboarding to vets, many of whom are suffering from traumatic brain injury, PTSD, missing limbs, and other war-related casualties. We were all moved to see some of her before-and-after videos, and it was inspiring to see the joy and self-confidence these vets were experiencing after just a few days of instruction.
A native of Japan, Akemi Sagawa resisted her mother’s wishes to learn traditional Japanese arts for many years. After almost a decade at Microsoft, she launched and headed Open Interface North America, which she sold to Qualcomm in 2007. Some years earlier Akemi had picked up a book on Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) while passing through an airport bookstore, but she’d dropped the art form while in the thick of her entrepreneurial endeavor. It was during the stressful process of selling her company that she resumed the practice, which she found relaxing and nurturing. Upon concluding the sale, she started to explore other Japanese cultural activities, including tea ceremony. She was eventually so hooked, she launched a business, Five Senses, which introduces Americans to traditional Japanese arts and crafts. I’m assuming her mother is quite pleased!
Ellen Stein is the prime example of “it’s never too late to pursue your passions,” and “it’s worth paying attention to little signs and following the breadcrumbs you get from life and yourself.” While assistant dean of students at Dartmouth’s engineering school in the mid-to-late 2000s, Ellen found herself taking courses she was eligible to take as a staff member in general chemistry, cell biology, and biochemistry. Then she found herself hauling a heavy physiology textbook on a biking trip through Italy. She also got certified in wilderness medicine and took medical service trips to places like Uzbekistan. At one point, a mentor suggested that perhaps she ought to consider attending medical school as all signs were pointing in this direction. While Ellen first thought this was insane—after all, she’d be entering medical school in her mid-40s—she actually went for it, and she now has one year left in her ER residency. So if you ever catch yourself decades down the road after you get your MBA and you say to yourself, “It’s too late to do x,” think of Ellen.
AFTER YEARS AT APPLE, LUCASARTS & SONY, A VC WITH A CHALLENGING HOBBY
With classmate Adam Grosser, even the sky’s not the limit when it comes to doing things you love. Adam’s roots are in industrial design; and he spent many years at Apple, in media companies like LucasArts and Sony Entertainment, and more recently in venture capital. He’s the consummate maker. In his presentation, Adam showed us how he first constructed a boat (that consistently floated) by hand—-a project that took several years. An aviation fanatic, he then decided he’d like to build a plane (why not?), and he proceeded to get the bones for it by importing a Vedeneyev M14P from Russia. After rebuilding and upgrading this equipment over several years, he thought it would be cool to move on to a hydrofoil, and what do you know, he found a really run-down one in Latvia. Four years later he had a flash flying boat on his hands. What next, you wonder? Well, Adam managed to get hold of a Russian jetfighter, and within four years he had a fully functioning craft. (You can’t imagine how many classmates were salivating in the audience thinking, “I want one of those!). When asked how he approached such daunting tasks as building an airplane, Adam sagely remarked, “One piece at a time.”
Taking time off from work has provided a number of my classmates the opportunity to explore passions, stretch themselves, discover what’s next in their careers, and recharge. One classmate took advantage of having a job offer fall through to bike 3,200 miles across the U.S. In addition to getting to see some of the most unusual road signage ever, negotiate with a barely clad store owner for a Steve Jobs biography, and sample squirrel stew prepared for her group by friendly folks along the way, she gave herself much-desired time to read, reflect, and simply be. After 22 years at Clorox, Jennifer Miller has been taking a year to travel, learn photography, and experiment with improv, making the space for her next adventure to emerge. Suzanne Taylor discovered she loved writing after coauthoring her first book, Inside Intuit. Wishing to improve her craft, she proceeded to take creative writing classes through Stanford Continuing Studies online and on campus. Now in the midst of what she calls her Midlife Gap Year, she has the chance to plunge in. Having recently attended the Yale Writers’ Conference, Suzanne is looking forward to the San Francisco Writers’ and AWP Conferences, and is developing some book ideas she may pitch this fall.
TIME TO PLAY
The weekend culminated with two fun events—a scavenger hunt and silent disco. Many of us had begun to bond during Orientation Week back in 1988 thanks to a scavenger hunt that spanned from Palo Alto to San Francisco (and I recall my team got very lost). To keep us from getting into too much trouble, we were now confined to the Stanford campus. This time, we were given cryptic clues associated with 60 sculptures and other art forms dotted all over campus. (Art fans will appreciate pieces by Auguste Rodin, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Richard Serra, and George Segal, amongst others.) Our mission: take selfies of our team in front of the art forms and post them to Facebook along with the associated clues. The team getting to an artwork first got two points, while the slowpokes got one. We had about two hours.
I learned two things from this activity. First, I’m still quite competitive, even though I like to think I’m not. My team was taking a more considered, leisurely approach, trying to solve a lot of the clues before we even set foot out the door. Other teams had run out the minute the organizers said, “Go!” and we could see they were already posting pictures to the class’s Facebook page. I repeatedly caught myself urging us to get moving, to solve clues while we walked, to walk faster, etc. One team—gasp—actually cheated, taking bikes even though they were against the rules! Given my team’s approach, I did have more time to talk to classmates. What I learned from the conversation was that producer Michael Beugg was about to start filming on La La Land, a musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling that was written and will be directed by Damien Chazelle, who also wrote and directed the indie film Whiplash. Founder of Federal Films, Michael is best known for producing Up in the Air, Little Miss Sunshine, and Thank You for Smoking. Look for this movie in theaters in 2016.
We can thank Beats and other high-end headphone manufacturers for the advent of the silent disco. If you haven’t been to one, imagine dozens (or hundreds) of people outfitted with flashing headphones seriously getting down, and you can’t hear anything except their attempts to sing along, often very out of tune, with what they’re hearing. Add some glow sticks that can be fashioned into necklaces or belts, and you’ve got the picture of our closing event. The DJs played a lot of oldies, and we rallied most around “We Are Family” (or as we sang it, “We Are GSB”), even though that song was popular back when we were in high school. While that no doubt sounds sappy, for virtually all of us, it felt that this was quite true.