What Real Impact Means

Mike Peña, Stanford University March 21, 2016

Nowadays, it seems every budding startup claims its new app, product or service will change the way you live. But before passively accepting hyperbole as the new norm, let’s instead ask the question: What does real impact looks like?

It’s fine if friends want to post “Best. Ever.” with a phone pic of the burger they just ordered down the street, or rave about some new fashion accessory by typing, “How did I ever live without this?” But we all know what it means to truly make a difference in people’s lives, don’t we?

Venture capitalist Mike Maples, Jr. certainly wasn’t exaggerating when he ended his presentation at the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar by daring students at Stanford to “only do things that you think have a chance to be legendary.”

His VC firm Floodgate invested early in Twitter, TaskRabbit and Lyft, all of which have had a deep and ongoing impact on society. And for Maples, they don’t conjure up images of cute birds, bunnies and bright pink moustaches, either. Rather, he regards them as “thunder lizards,” startups so disruptive that they don’t just redefine markets, they demolish them like Godzilla.

Step outside Silicon Valley, and the definition of “impact” can take on new dimensions. Even just beyond the San Francisco Bay Area bubble, community leaders want tech innovation to address more basic social ills born of poverty and inequity. In the town of Stockton, Calif., city councilman and mayoral candidate Michael Tubbs challenges the tech industry to turn its attention to problems such as racism and illiteracy.

The best coders in the world may never develop apps for those issues. But as someone who came from the town once known as the biggest American city in history to declare bankruptcy – and then went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford on full-ride scholarships – Tubbs draws from both perspectives when he calls for today’s innovators to focus on real-world impact.

That mission is at the center of the world’s greatest institutions, from the United Nations to universities such as Stanford. While Hollywood and humanities majors around the country continue to portray Stanford as being singularly focused on churning out the next Google or Instagram, there’s no denying that the university seeks to solve society’s most intractable problems.

Last month, Stanford announced that it will launch the largest fully endowed scholarship in the world in order “to prepare a new generation of global leaders with the skills to address the increasingly complex challenges facing the world.” With a total endowment of $750 million, the graduate-level scholarship will begin accepting applications in the summer of 2017 from students everywhere who have the passion and potential to solve global challenges affecting the environment, health, education and human rights.

“We will bring together outstanding, courageous scholars to benefit from Stanford’s innovative educational environment, who then go on to lead governments, businesses, nonprofits and other complex organizations and develop creative solutions to effect positive change,” University President John Hennessy said at the time of the announcement.

Also speaking recently at the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar, Hennessy reflected on his 16 years leading the university and his achievements in industry as a computer-science pioneer. Perhaps most notably, he said entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting a business. It’s about transforming an idea into something real that can have wide impact:

Hennessy steps down as Stanford’s president this summer, at which point he will serve as the inaugural director of the new scholarship. In honor of his leadership at Stanford, and the generosity of alumnus and Nike Co-Founder Philip Knight, it has been named the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program.