Dean David C. Schmittlein
Christopher Reichert, MOT ‘04, sits down with David Schmittlein, John C Head III Dean and Professor of Marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and discusses many topics including where he finds inspiration in his personal and professional life.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own, very important one, here at Sloan. I'm your host, Christopher Reichert.
Christopher Reichert: Please, welcome my guest today, David Schmittlein, the John C. Head III Dean at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Thank you for joining us.
David Schmittlein: Hi, Christopher. It's fun doing this with you.
Christopher Reichert: Thank you. Thanks for making the time. I just walked across campus from the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, which is a shameless plug, of course.
David Schmittlein: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: Something near and dear to my heart, I ran it for 10 years and, obviously, you spoke there as well. It was great to see you welcoming the assembled crowd of an initiative also by Sloan graduates.
David Schmittlein: On a sunny day here in Boston, which it always is—sunny and warm.
Christopher Reichert: That's right. They should make a TV series about that, “It's Always Sunny in Boston.” As I was walking back across campus, I was struck by the incredible amount of construction and change, physical change, that's happening at MIT, generally, but also, particularly, down at this end of the East Campus between the construction of E-62 over the years. That's the new heart of Sloan. They have a huge building going up on Main Street. Then there’s the eventual redevelopment of the Volpe site, ably led by another Sloan graduate, Israel Ruiz.
David Schmittlein: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: I was thinking about Simon Johnson's quip at the symposium earlier today, where he said, "When I was a student at Sloan, you had to walk across campus to get mugged it was so empty." And now, it is some of the most expensive real estate in Boston, if not further. And that's really happened in the 10 years since you've joined Sloan, and Sloan is smack in the middle of this incredible transformation. I was thinking about, if you could share your thoughts with us about the role of Sloan in this ecosystem. Kendall Square has exploded in the last 10 years. And as you think about how you incorporate the resources for classes, or centers, or community into graduates’ lives. This is really about their future, being attracted to be here, their present, when they're here and what access they have to resources, and then their past as alumni.
David Schmittlein: Yes, that takes in some ground, but it's been an amazing 10 years for MIT. The way that innovative, inventive organizations and companies are feeling the desire to be very, very physically close to MIT. That physical proximity seems to be mattering more, not just here, in Kendall Square, but in other places also. One story I just love is the Stanford University trustees coming to MIT. And the signature learning or observation that they took away is the value of very close proximity, if you will, not a 10 or 15 minute golf cart ride away from someone that you want to talk with, but a five minute walk away from someone. And that benefit is seen by companies and organizations that want to be this close.
It's a bit of a happy accident of history, and of Dick Schmalensee, my predecessor as dean. That it is the Sloan School that forms, to a large degree, the East end of campus, or the end that's closest to Kendall Square. And we are, in some ways, a gateway between the science and engineering of MIT, and the organizations that wish to connect to that, and to connect to our graduates as well. Which, as you suggested, does represent extraordinary opportunities for them, in a sense, in both directions.
Christopher Reichert: Right, and is there a conversation at Sloan about the courses that might be introduced, or added, or centers to take advantage of that huge amount of influx of businesses? Which would be attractive for graduates, but also they would look at Sloan as attractive for people to hire.
David Schmittlein: Sure, some of the development of the curriculum, or course taking, relates to entrepreneurship and technology-based new ventures, which is not a big surprise, especially in light of what you see here in Kendall Square. There is some around life sciences technology that also in the way that those particular kinds of companies come into being. There are, separately, courses that connect to what's going on in Kendall in big data and machine learning AI. That's also a type of opportunity for our students. A lot of our students who would leave the school, but maybe stay in the area, or engage with activity that's related to the area, are not part of a pure startup, but they're part of a firm that has entered a rapid growth stage. In some cases, where the initial entrepreneurial team might be resigning from their role as entrepreneur leaders, and so their responsibility is to scale an organization, or to pivot the organization. So, one of our popular, new courses, is “Scaling Entrepreneurial Ventures.” A lot of entrepreneurship classes, really, are about getting the thing going, getting it off the ground, make sure—
Christopher Reichert: Right, business plan, right.
David Schmittlein: Right, you got a market. You got a product. You get some cash. And then, maybe, you sell. This is not about selling. This is about taking that firm to the next level. I mean, maybe it will go public some other time.
Christopher Reichert: Right.
David Schmittlein: So that sense of opportunity for our students, especially, in this world where more and more of them are doing self-directed search. It's not just, "Here are the big companies, and they're here, on campus, and which offer will I take, and so on."
Christopher Reichert: Right.
David Schmittlein: But they are seeking out opportunities to be, in the near term future, leaders of units, or whole organizations that feel, to them, like not only that there are opportunities to lead, but in sectors, or settings, or with the impact that they'd like to have.
Christopher Reichert: Do you think that's a conscious or subconscious response to what we're seeing in some of the California startups, where the goal is that exit moment? So, maybe, that's part of that culture, so this is a counterpoint to that, and we're trying to build an economy versus just a few wealthy people?
David Schmittlein: Thank you for the ... I feel there was a compliment for MIT in that, and I think it's largely justified. We have graduates who are quite different from each other, so I don't mean to paint with too broad of a brush.
Christopher Reichert: Sure.
David Schmittlein: But this sense like, "Why is it that the world's center of life sciences technology is here in Kendall?" In part—some of that is driven by analytics—but, in part, it's driven by a desire to build products that have more than just a nano-scale timeframe of ... It's not the next Angry Birds, right?
Christopher Reichert: Right.
David Schmittlein: And so, that, I don't want to say, patience exactly, but that sense that certain kinds of impact take some time to bring to fruition. That is a part of the history of MIT and of the Boston area. There's also the understanding that everything these days seems to be a device in the world of the Internet of Things. But still, the role, or presence, or importance of the physical dimension of product, in addition to the software dimension of a digital product, that's a part of MIT's history. That is more central here than it is on the West Coast. I mean, you can find some of each in each place.
Christopher Reichert: Sure.
David Schmittlein: I mean, people tend to give us the leadership in healthcare. By the way, we have great software companies here, as well. We have great consumer engagement and social media companies here, in Boston, and great robotics and manufacturing. It is a diverse economy, but more of it has to do with the physical world in which we, as humans, continue to habitate.
Christopher Reichert: I'm looking at your coffee table here, and you have a set of books that are, obviously, coming out of Sloan and a lot of interesting topics here between Jump Starting America and Celebrating Entrepreneurship. How do you find, in your busy schedule, how do you find inspiration in your own personal professional life? How do you keep yourself ... You can't be the dean all the time, and so what do you do to relax? Do you binge watch anything? We talked about your son's podcast. How do you get variety and spice into your life?
David Schmittlein: I'd love to answer that in two parts, if I could? One part, and I think a really important part, I can't be the dean all the time, but I can be a person who happens to be the dean.
Christopher Reichert: Right.
David Schmittlein: And so, a lot of the inspiration that I get, I mean, this is just the naked truth, is from the people that I'm around, because I'm the dean. It's staff at the school. It's students at the school. It's alumni of this school. And it's, of course, our faculty. You were talking about them. Not only the kind of intellectual or success oriented dimension of what they do. I mean, in some ways, that can be inspirational, but I mean the human dimension that they bring to things. I had a student two days ago tell me, as I was searching for a student leader to do a job and I interviewed eight students, she said, "I know that you interviewed my friend, Katie, as well. You need a real rock star to do this. I think you should pick Katie." Who does that? There is a thing about our community that I find inspiring, not only the student dimension of it, but including that.
I have this wall of experiences that are like that. There is an alumnus that I asked to step up in some ways this last year, including in an advisory role for the school, and tears came to her eyes. She talked about how her family had felt so fulfilled by her being able to be a member of the MIT community, and how she wanted to tell her father that this was the next step in that journey that she was able to take, and the tears came running down her cheek. I get inspiration from all of the members of our community, including staff. We were welcoming 400 new MBA students this past fall. One of them said, at the end of the orientation gathering, "I'm not feeling 100%, send the bus. I'll take an Uber home."
The staff member who he said that to decided not to take the bus either, and wait for him. 15 minutes later, she went into the men's room and saved his life.
Christopher Reichert: Wow.
David Schmittlein: I have those experiences all the time here. So to the point of inspiration, and I can talk about faculty in the same way, not only through their ideas, but through their commitment, including a commitment to tell the truth and to know the truth.
Christopher Reichert: Right, endless stories.
David Schmittlein: I get a life full of inspiration from all of that. And my hope, when I am dean, and I speak with alumni, in some cases, or students in others, is that I'm able to bring the elements of those points of inspiration, where they don't have those experiences, but I do, to bring them in.
Christopher Reichert: Right.
David Schmittlein: But, sure, I have a life outside MIT to some degree, as well. You mentioned podcasts, and I'm proud and happy to be a part of this one. My son got me back to listening to podcasts a bit. He's an undergraduate student and he, and his friends, started a very popular, I must say, podcast series called, “Anything But Politics.” It's on Northwestern Radio. You can listen to it there.
Christopher Reichert: There you have it, folks.
David Schmittlein: NSFW, maybe.
Christopher Reichert: Okay, fair warning.
David Schmittlein: Keep the kids away from that one. Honestly, I am reading a great book, right now. It's called, “Empty Planet.” It's about the way that birth rates in countries are dropping off the table, and some of the prior forecasts about global population growth are quite likely to be wrong, and what the consequences of that might turn out to be. But, honestly, a lot of the stuff that I read is shorter form. I just don't have some of the opportunities.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, the time.
David Schmittlein: New York Times or Wall Street Journal is more of what I spend my time reading. I binge watch programs that have been off the air for about 10 years, it seems to me. It's a little embarrassing to go in that direction.
Christopher Reichert: Catching up, right.
David Schmittlein: Let's just call it, catching up, that's right. My kids told me about this show, “Parks and Rec.” Some of you probably haven't heard of it, but I'm on the cutting edge.
Christopher Reichert: There you go. You talked about the woman having tears about having the opportunity to give back to Sloan and MIT. I want to talk about the creation of the alumni board and its evolution over the last four years, I guess, it's now been.
David Schmittlein: Some of the signature feelings about understanding the alumni community, and how passionately they feel, and how deeply they feel about the school, have come from my experiences with this board. That's not the reason for the creation of the board, but I'm certainly very grateful for that. As you know, the board was created as ... One phrase for it, I'm not sure it's full and fair, but it's a “working board.” It's a board that is deeply engaged in action on behalf of the school. And also, of course, on behalf of the alumni community. And I think, as you know, a significant fraction of the board's energy is expended on strengthening the alumni community, and strengthening the relationship, for instance, of students with alums, and so on. That's been an important priority for me during my time as dean.
I would also say that it's really important to have the right composition for a board like this, and there was a lot of thought that went into that in the first place. By the way, I would say some people feel like it's right for them, and other people decide that some other kind of engagement makes more sense, maybe with the research center or something like that. Because it requires a curiosity about the school, a listening as much as speaking, in some cases. And then, as we said, the working or acting on behalf of. I think there's a generosity of spirit that it asks of the board members. And, again, that's really a great thing to see.
It is also one of the ways in which our Sloan communities are different from communities at other schools. I know a great deal about other schools, because the deans of those schools are friends of mine, and I worked, as you know, at another school before coming to MIT. Alumni boards are not often the favorite thing of the school's administration in some other business schools. And I think it is because there is less willingness on the part of the alums who serve to serve a modern sense of the purpose of that particular school and to support and facilitate that. A little like the difference between being customers and co-producers. And I think the alumni board succeeds best here, and has succeeded extremely well in being a co-producer, and I'm grateful for it.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, I see that as we set off each year on our new missions. Instead of spending a lot of time thinking about things to do, I found it really helpful to have the Office of External Relations come to us and say, "Here are the challenges that we are facing, help us chew on them, and come up with something. Advance it in some way, or not." Find that it's useful or not.
David Schmittlein: Really important, yes. Because if you turn that around, alums have many enthusiasms, and sometimes a great many ideas. And some of those are calibrated, and some maybe not with the school's opportunities or capabilities at a particular moment. And so, if there isn't the right starting point for conversation back and forth, it can feel to the alums like they're just shouting into an abyss, and that's very frustrating.
Christopher Reichert: From your perch, what do you see as the biggest challenges where alumni can play a role in solving? There's obviously a fundraising component to it. Are there other things that you have on a short wish list?
David Schmittlein: It's clear, Christopher, to you, and to me, that we're not at the end of the path of engaging alumni, in particular, but business leaders more broadly. We need to do more and better. We need to experiment in some ways that are thoughtful and clever and well-informed, and pick the right learnings from those experiences. I think of that as one of the sweet spots of engagement with the alumni board historically. And the fact that it's been a historical point of focus, doesn't mean that we're washing our hands and saying, "Okay, we're done with that," because we're really not. In some sense, we're about a third of the way to where we would ultimately like to get in that engagement.
So I hope for continued good work in that regard. There's a student piece of this as well. I mean, honestly, the faculty drive the curriculum, and so that's not such a sweet spot for it. I mean, on occasion, there are interesting and good ideas that come from alums, but the overall experience of students and the way that engagement with alums, or ideas from alums, can support and strengthen that experience. I'm also very grateful for that kind of avenue of engagement with the alumni board. I know that our students value it greatly. There's going to come a time, this is not an economic forecast, so I'm not saying when. We were saying earlier this has been a very kind 10 years for MIT, and for about nine of those 10 years, there's been an economic growth background to this. Those things never go on forever. And so, among the things that we hope and trust that we're doing is building the resilience of the community for times that will come when opportunities are much more scarce.
Christopher Reichert: Right, you can pick and choose.
David Schmittlein: And we need to connect the various parts of our community, alums with alums, students, or graduating students with alums, in order to create, or sustain, or preserve opportunities. That may not be before us today, but what are the things we can do today to ensure that we have a strong enough community to take us through those times?
Christopher Reichert: Set the foundation. Well, thank you very much for joining us, Dean Schmittlein. It's been great to talk to you, and I hope listeners will subscribe to the series, Sloanies Talking to Sloanies, for more interesting conversations with Sloanies. Thank you very much.
David Schmittlein: Thank you.
Christopher Reichert: Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the office of external relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the MIT Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential, flexible funding to assure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting, giving.mit.edu/sloan.