Tom Byers: Ethics has always been embedded in my work
Tom Byers is the faculty director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), professor of Management Science & Engineering, and the Entrepreneurship Professor at the School of Engineering.
In this interview, he discusses the new and thoughtful directions STVP is taking – from making ethics a major component of entrepreneurship education to intentionality in diversity, equity and inclusion. Excerpts:
You were in prominent industry positions for a number of years after completing your PhD at Berkeley. What made you shift to immerse yourself in an academic setting?
I was always a “give me a whiteboard please” kind of professional. Early on, I was an executive vice president at one company that was pioneering the cybersecurity field. I helped build that part of the business and we eventually went public. Cybersecurity was so new that I did have to do a lot of explaining about that and life in a startup to employees, customers and investors. My colleagues often observed, “You look happiest when you’re explaining the process of how we raised money or what we’re trying to do with our marketing or what we’re building to satisfy users.”
And they were right! I was animated when it came to “teaching” employees – yet the rest of the job was less exciting to me. That’s when I got my shot to start teaching entrepreneurship as an adjunct at Berkeley and Stanford – and I’m very lucky how things worked out at Stanford.
But what is it about academia specifically that is such a powerful motivator for you?
There’s something about school and education for me – I’ve just always loved it. In some ways, it’s a bit of a chance to honor my mom, who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college but always wanted her sons to have that advantage.
It’s also an honor for me to be pushed every day by these amazing intellects at Stanford Engineering on the creation of knowledge itself. It’s an incredible collection of faculty, staff and students focused on solving the world’s biggest challenges. I particularly like seeing the lights go in our students and their reactions when we effectively convey entrepreneurial knowledge, skills and attitudes, whether it’s in a particular session or over an entire course. It just brings me unlimited joy and gives me a true sense of purpose.
Switching gears, ethics is obviously incredibly important to entrepreneurship – but taking a step back, can you talk about how your own ethical perspective developed?
That’s always the question, isn’t it? Did your ethics and moral code come from your family, life or your career journey? Certainly, I’ve had family role models who demonstrated what acting in a principled way meant. And I’ve faced ethical dilemmas in my career that have further motivated me to discuss ethics in a more systematic fashion as an essential part of our entrepreneurship courses.
STVP has had over 25 full-time and adjunct faculty affiliated with us since our inception 25 years ago – and it’s been an honor to help hire and promote many of them. Part of that effort always meant considering their character: What is this person’s reputation? Are they honest and ethical, as far as we can tell? So ethics has always been embedded in my work, both in the way I’ve tried to live and in terms of who I affiliate with.
And how did ethics come to be part of your entrepreneurship pedagogy? In other words, why is it so critical to have this subject formalized in the curriculum?
I am proud that STVP is appreciated as a thought leader in research and teaching entrepreneurship, including our focus on those who build technology-intensive, growth-oriented ventures. Our big turning point was realizing that we could do more to make “ethics in tech” a deliberate element within our teaching. We knew students were getting ethical reasoning education in various ways at Stanford, but our epiphany was that it should include us as well in a very explicit way. Ethical entrepreneurship is something that can be taught and learned – and it’s essential to students who are interested in building enterprises and ventures, regardless of whether they’re engineering, science or humanities majors.
All you have to do is look at the news cycle over the last decade regarding technology startups and there are plenty of situations that have made ethics clearly hyper-relevant. When you couple that with trends in science and technology like exploring the unintended outcomes of technological breakthroughs, for example — of course we’re going to respond to that. It’s fertile ground for developing both critical and ethical thinking skills in our students.
How have the students responded to this?
They’re asking for it! I’m so impressed by Stanford students and their desire to be good people, not just good students and future innovators and entrepreneurs. For example, we have two wonderful faculty members teaching a course on principled entrepreneurial decisions with two sections of 60 students each this winter – yet over 350 applied to take it and it’s not even a requirement. Students are driving this demand. We’re working hard to meet the need both through dedicated courses and by embedding it into classes focused on conventional entrepreneurship topics like product/market fit and scaling techniques.
Certainly issues of diversity, equity and inclusion must also intersect here. Would you share a bit about that as well?
Yes, it’s important to note that DEI isn’t a subset of the recent interest in ethics in technology but a parallel movement. It’s obvious why it’s critical to think about this – there is woefully inadequate inclusion of women and people of color in the venture capital community. I believe the statistic is only one of every six venture capital partners in Silicon Valley is a woman; and women, Black and Hispanic founders are still substantially underrepresented.
We believe that you cannot teach entrepreneurship without talking about this. It would be a gross missed opportunity. We should be encouraging emerging entrepreneurs and innovators to think about how to build a diverse team and pull together representative boards. No matter what, the growing environmental, social and governance (ESG) movement in business – which is important and, in some cases, mandated for public companies – is now reaching startups as well. So there’s every reason – moral and practical – to be very proactive as entrepreneurship educators.