Mitch Peterman was nearing the end of his first year in the MBA program at Stanford Graduate School of Business when the coronavirus hit the United States, closing campuses from coast to coast and upending the school year. Still, Peterman says, he is “pretty fortunate.” Since mid-March he has been safely riding out the Covid-19 pandemic at his family’s home in Wisconsin, and his summer internship — with a major Silicon Valley investment firm — is full-time, fully online, and full speed ahead.
Not everyone has been as fortunate. In the MBA world, uncertainty rules. Outside it, millions are out of work, and millions more are barely hanging on. The United States has officially been in a recession since February, and most economists don’t foresee a full recovery until 2021. Now, with help from Peterman and many others, Stanford GSB is swinging into action. Today (June 9) the school announced Stanford Rebuild, a “global innovation sprint” to address the countless challenges in emerging from the downturn, and in creating and accelerating solutions — a brainstorming session on a massive scale, fixed on a massive problem, guided by top minds in business and academia.
The eight-week program begins June 22 and culminates with a showcase event in September.
“I think the goal is, there are so many systems that are impacted by this right now that are going to have to rethink how they’re building differently, how they’re adapting and adjusting, not only the business models but their operations, the way they interact with customers and employees — all of these things,” Peterman says.
“We have this opportunity right now where we have this wide group of people with all these different perspectives and backgrounds. If we can get them together, just think about a ton of different ideas and say, ‘Hey, we’ve done some research. We’ve talked to a bunch of people. We thought about this as a team. And this is what we think might work. This is something we think should be explored more.’ I think that is really beneficial, not only for new ventures, but for existing organizations that are still trying to think through what can we do to better serve people in this time.”
‘WE WANT TO ENCOURAGE AND EXCITE ENTREPRENEURS’
Stanford Rebuild is open to students, entrepreneurs, innovators, and business leaders around the globe. The school calls it an eight-week “focused investigation of ideas and solutions to accelerate the path to a better post-Covid future.” The program has been organized by the GSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and Executive Education program, in partnership with schools and groups across Stanford University and beyond, with a curriculum based on Stanford Embark, “an interactive entrepreneurial toolkit designed to help people explore if they can turn their idea into a viable business.” Stanford is providing free access to the Embark platform and toolkit to Stanford Rebuild participants at no cost.
The program will begin this month with a series of online events, followed by eight weeks of individuals and teams developing, testing, and refining solutions using Stanford Embark. The sprint will conclude with a global online event in September “to highlight a range of projects that show promise to meaningfully accelerate economic, societal, and individual recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Stanford Rebuild will highlight challenges and opportunities related to the COVID-19 recovery within four key categories: Reimagine Organizations, Reinforce Healthcare Systems, Revitalize the Workplace, and Redesign Human Wellbeing. According to Stafanos Zenios, co-director of Stanford GSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the B-school’s faculty lead for Stanford Rebuild, among the challenges organizers expect to confront are implementing scalable and socially responsible testing and contact tracing; redesigning childcare and early education; addressing the mental health impact of social distancing; and supporting small businesses as they recover and, in many cases, reinvent themselves.
“We want to encourage and excite entrepreneurs,” Zenios tells P&Q. “Now, five years from now some businesses started as part of this initiative, perhaps they will play a role in the business economy and moving the economy forward — and that will have been an outstanding outcome. If we can play a role in providing tools to the entrepreneurs to overcome those challenges from coronavirus, providing them with a structure so that they can be effective in their journey, that would be extra helpful.”
STUDENTS PART OF THE PROGRAM PLANNING PROCESS FROM THE BEGINNING
Stanford Rebuild fits into the university’s commitment to enhancing the virtual learning experience, a commitment only accelerated by Covid-19. The school’s legacy as a pioneer in remote and online programs is secure, but that doesn’t lessen the enormity of Stanford’s transformation as the coronavirus spurred faculty to identify new and innovative ways to engage students. In that same mold, Mitch Peterman and other students, as well as faculty, entrepreneurs, advisers, and others, have spent months planning Stanford Rebuild.
Co-president of the GSB Social Innovation Club, Peterman had been organizing a different kind of event aimed at engaging students — a student-led hackathon — after chaos descended on the world of graduate business education in March; once he heard about a bigger, university-wide effort, it was only natural to turn his energies there.
“We were on break when the situation surrounding coronavirus ramped up, and we were all starting to feel the effects of shelter in place and hearing the impacts were escalating,” Peterman tells Poets&Quants, “and so I think a lot of classmates felt a responsibility to try and do something, especially because we had a bit of down time when things really started picking up. So we had classmates rushing together to start different support organizations, or different initiatives that they could try and help out in whatever way they could.
“Those of us in the Social Innovation Club were talking, and we said, ‘Okay, we want to do something to support students on this.’ And so preliminarily, we started talking about what a student-led hackathon would look like, got into the initial planning phases of that, and then we found out that the university was planning a broader rebuild effort. So we backed up and we were like, ‘Okay, it makes a lot more sense if we reach out, try to work with the university, consolidate resources, and provide a really robust experience for the students who are looking to develop solutions around this.’
“I think it’s really cool — the fact that the administration are really intentional about making sure that students are represented and are a part of the planning process.”
INNOVATORS ENLISTED TO HELP ADDRESS PROBLEMS & CHALLENGES
Zenios, who is also the Investment Group of Santa Barbara professor of entrepreneurship and professor of operations, information & technology, says that with the impact of Covid-19 felt in so many sectors, innovation is crucial in accelerating recovery. Uncertain times, he says, can spark great ideas and forge great companies, a process that Stanford Rebuild was structured to assist.
“Stanford Rebuild is designed to address the critical need for rapid innovation and creativity at this uniquely challenging time,” says Zenios, who is best known as the architect of Stanford’s famous Startup Garage. “Periods of disruption bring to light new problems and challenges that innovators can help address. And, they can also be a source of new opportunities as customer needs and pain points change.
“Our objective is to have many teams from around the world step up to look at both the challenges global communities will face in recovering from the pandemic, and the new opportunities that will certainly arise. By offering content, tools and expertise at no cost to aspiring innovators, we hope to inspire the next generation of services and organizations that help change lives in this new reality.
“We know that we have to rebuild the economy after this crisis and entrepreneurs are going to play a crucial role. They recognize how the economy is changing, how society is changing as result of this pandemic, and we are going to create solutions that work with this rapidly changing environment.”
A MULTIDISCIPLINARY MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS
Mitch Peterman is on a planning committee for Stanford Rebuild that includes other students and faculty. “I’ve been trying to help think through what are the different problem areas that we’re going to try and support students in solving and provide background context for,” he says. “I’ve been helping them do student outreach and engagement: communications, hosting community around the event, trying to think through from a curriculum perspective what the different panels and speakers are that we can bring on that would be appealing to students in order to provide better benefits to resources for the teams and the individuals that are starting up.”
He hopes to see high turnout from students across the entire university, sparking a vibrant marketplace of ideas. And not just ideas, but good ones.
“Ideas that if somebody wanted to continue working on, they could potentially get funding if they needed — ideas that even if they don’t necessarily want to work on them, they’re being brought to light, they’re being communicated into the public in some manner,” he says. “And maybe someone else who does have the time and resources would want to work on them.
“Something that was really exciting to me at the beginning, and still is exciting to me, is the thought of all different disciplines coming together to work on these issues and not necessarily being isolated within the business school and being able to work with people with different expertise and backgrounds,” Peterman continues. “And so it’s a design sprint. I don’t think the expectation is that there’s ever going to be fully robust businesses that crop up in eight weeks, but I would be really, really excited to see a number of really cool ideas, solutions, even policy solutions, innovations, just being thought about, researched, then expressed.”
For more information or to apply to Stanford Rebuild, visit rebuildsprint.stanford.edu.