John Hennessy, Chairman of Alphabet and former President of Stanford University, joined the YPO European Leadership Summit virtually from California’s Silicon Valley to share his insights from a long career spanning technology, entrepreneurship and higher education — including his perspective on the role of science in the current COVID-19 crisis and why he remains optimistic about the future.
Hennessy identifies three opportunities for businesses to innovate in response to the global challenges accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis: higher quality online experience; rethinking how we engage in the learning environment; and AI-driven and assisted systems for cost-effective treatments for disease. He highlights the growing dependency on reliable digital infrastructure to help support all these innovations.
The digital divide
Hennessy explains, “I don’t think anyone wants to see large segments of the world left behind … so it is critical to ensure we embrace, dissolve and bridge over the digital divide. … We need to create a society where all boats rise, not only some boats. One way to do that is to leapfrog various technologies rather than rely on the technology that initially connected parts of Europe and the U.S.; to go to wireless and use other technologies as a way to move more quickly.”
He adds that the cost for technology is dropping dramatically, which will make it more affordable around the world.
The anti-science sentiment
While the rise of anti-science thinking and conspiracy theories are worrisome for Hennessy, he recognizes that this has happened before, and he is confident that people will eventually move on. However, he cautions, “we need to respect both the role of facts and science and the scientists’ best attempts to analyze the situation. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a debate. Science is all about debates. But we need to understand that when there is a consensus that tells us we need to behave in a certain way, we need to take that into account.”
I don’t think anyone wants to see large segments of the world left behind … so it is critical to ensure we embrace, dissolve and bridge over the digital divide. We need to create a society where all boats rise, not only some boats. ”
— John Hennessy, Chairman, Alphabet share
Cost to innovate
According to Hennessy, depending in which sector you are innovating, the initial cost of investment will vary. “Much of the digital space is dominated by software innovation and now in this age of cloud computing and largely available data centers, we have seen costs for the software-oriented company go down,” he says. “The exact opposite is true when you talk about infrastructure, hardware or a new car company, where they have to physically build things and have challenging technologies. That requires a different kind of investor, one willing to wait, to be more patient than perhaps an investor focused on the internet space.”
Moving business and learning online
Hennessy explains that businesses that have moved online are discovering a path to the new normal — and achieving some reasonable level of productivity and efficiency. “It is not ideal,” he admits. “We all agree not being able to get together really does remove something from the equation.”
Yet one of the emerging opportunities he is excited about is that innovation centers no longer have to be relegated to concentrated areas, such as Silicon Valley, allowing people to participate in innovation regardless of where they live.
With regards to online learning, Hennessy admits, “We were naive about how easy it would be to switch to online. People are complex learners. They learn differently. We have to invest more in improving that technology.” He says we are several years away from having the quality of online education experiences that young people deserve. In his view, the key role of technology will always be to amplify the role of teacher, not replace it.
Leadership as service
Leadership is about service according to Hennessy. “You serve the organization that you lead, whether it is your country, university or corporation. That’s your role. Your success needs to be defined by how you help that organization and community, where that organization lives, to be successful.
Government leadership in the face of COVID-19
In terms of global political leadership during the crisis, Hennessy credits some countries, like South Korea, for having done a reasonably good job. But, he says, others, including the U.S., have ignored lessons of history. “Had you simply studied the 1918-1920 pandemic, you would have known about second waves and the importance of shutting down. That’s a real failure not to learn from the past.”
Hennessy also mentions that he and other company leaders have concerns with the current U.S. immigration policy. “Normally, we try to encourage political leaders to align with future of innovation and science. In this case, we felt current administration has been so damaging to immigration, and through that, dramatically impacted high technology sector, which depends on attracting the very best talent from around the world.”
Young people will not have one job over their entire life. They will not even have one career over their entire life. So, they have to reinvent themselves and learn new skills, particularly in science and technology where things move quickly. ”
— John Hennessy, Chairman, Alphabet share
Advice for aspiring leaders
Hennessy advises young, aspiring leaders to develop both soft and hard skills. “Technology skills are fleeting, ephemeral,” says Hennessy. “You have to constantly renew these skills. Young people will not have one job over their entire life. They will not even have one career over their entire life. So, they have to reinvent themselves and learn new skills, particularly in science and technology where things move quickly.”
He adds, “Equally important are the soft skills, the liberal arts part, as these provide an understanding of global perspectives and history. Those stick with you for a lifetime and play a key role in your leadership.”
As for aspiring university students who want advice on launching a startup, the first thing Hennessy asks them is, “Tell me about your technology; what do you have that gives you an advantage; what do you understand about your market and space that you can leverage in a unique way?” Answers to these questions, he says, will be key.
“I’m a lifelong optimist and believe in the power of the young generation to create a better future. I also believe in science and innovation. Those are still strong points,” Hennessy adds. “Imagine if we had the kind of connected health infrastructure that we could have had prior to the beginning of this pandemic. With that and a little AI looking for patterns, I think we could have discovered what was about to happen before it became a crisis of the scale it did.”