Sprocketts by the Bay

Sprockett family adventures as California residents

Talk, talk, talk

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One of the great things about living near so many excellent universities, is the opportunity to learn. This week, I have certainly taken advantage of that by attending three talks in one day. OK. To be fair. I gave one of them to a Rotary Club in the Mission District, so I should really only call it two talks in one day.

I attended a “conversation” with Mark Zuckerberg and a panel discussion about cash transfers to the extreme poor in an international environment. Surprisingly, these talks are not as divergent as they may sound.

“President John Hennessy in conversation with Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook”

We weren't allowed to snap photos of the man, himself, so I took a picture of the auditorium.

We weren’t allowed to snap photos of the man, himself, so I took a picture of the auditorium.

Surprisingly, this talk was not so much about Facebook or Mark’s success, but more about his worldview and his thoughts behind technology growth and philanthropy.

On his own story:

  • He was actually a psych major at Harvard who took mostly computer science classes. But, he admits, “I wasn’t there for that long, so I didn’t take that many classes.”
  • He started by building a course match system to help Harvard students identify and choose classes. Which he finished a few days later. (Sure. Like you do.)
  • When asked if he regretted dropping out of Harvard, Mark answered with a resounding, “Nope!” He also clarified that he never intended to drop out of Harvard. Mark moved to Palo Alto in the summer after his sophomore year to get this whole Facebook thing going (maybe you’ve heard of it?) and planned to return to Harvard in the fall. However, the business was scaling quickly and at the end of the summer he decided to take a term off to get things under control. But things never got under control and the decision to leave Harvard was essentially made for him. (At this point, Stanford’s President Hennessy jumped in to offer a position to both Mark and Bill Gates to start together at Stanford. Mark wasn’t excited. I think President Hennessy is still waiting to hear from Bill.) Mark also cautioned the audience to know where you’re going before you make that type of life change. A lot of people want to start a company. But they leave their job or drop out of school before they actually know what that company is going to be.

A few of the most salient points:

  • There is power in using people’s collective knowledge to solve problems.
  • Our society is currently moving from one based in industry to one based in knowledge.
  • We need to provide more opportunities for computer science training at a younger age.
  • He predicts a future fusion between information technology and biotechnology where eventually it will just be a part of/in us. (Not in the scary sci-fi way/big brother way, but in the enhance-our-lives-through-collaboration way.)
  • Comprehensive immigration reform is necessary in the United States. There is a lot of potential for undocumented workers and immigrants to contribute to the knowledge base.
  • He has developed a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (valued at US$3 million) to recognize excellence in research and to elevate the role of researchers in our society.
  • The world would be a better place if everyone had the tools and resources to develop the world and to solve global problems. That is part of why he is working to make internet access available to the 2/3 of people worldwide who do not currently have access.
  • People who have achieved the craziest goals are the people who cared irrationally, and stuck to that belief, before others even knew to care.

On philanthropy:

  • Mark started early because it takes time to get good at philanthropy. It is a learning process, like any other, to build effective partnerships, identify and solve hard problems, and build the systems necessary to scale-up. He and his wife work together in their philanthropic pursuits.

At the end of the conversation, Mark left with a Stanford hoodie. I’m pretty sure he’s wearing it. All the time. Right?

“Next Gen Philanthropy: Cash Transfers to the Extreme Poor”

The next talk I attended featured Cari Tuna from Good Ventures, Elie Hassenfeld from GiveWell, and Michael Fay from GiveDirectly. By “from” I mean they all founded and currently run their respective organizations. So, yeah, they’re leading some change in this world (at my age).

These wealthy, young philanthropists discussed the expectation that we should be able to get good, reliable, impact information about the organizations to which we donate. GiveWell evaluates charitable organizations to determine which are getting the greatest “bang for the buck” in our global community, with increased focus on where money goes and the final outcomes of donations. It is also important, when making decisions about who to support, to recognize the difference between a sustainable organization and a sustainable impact.

Of interest during this panel discussion was the idea that cash transfers to the extreme poor (and we’re talking straight and direct transfers, not conditional cash transfers) are more effective than areas such as microfinance. Check out GiveDirectly’s evidence on the value of cash transfers. To frame this idea, it is also important to recognize that “extreme poverty” means living on US$0.65 per day or less. While individuals at this level may not invest in a business, as is the target through microfinance, they will invest in an area that improves their daily lives.

Overall it was a day that brought up a lot of interesting ideas and approaches to philanthropic giving. What stuck with me is that my day had been filled with wealthy philanthropists, from Rotary to Mark Zuckerberg to Cari, Elie, and Michael. But that’s not the point. Philanthropy is not a luxury that only the wealthy should pursue in their leisure. Philanthropy is up to each of us: to find our passion and give where we can, whether it be time, expertise, or money. That is the challenge for our generation, but one so desperately important to our world.

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