t (^) le
S+B: You were president in a period when students at Stanford were dropping
out to form companies like Snapchat and Google.
HENNESSY: Wait — let’s get rid of a few myths. It’s not true that lots of people
drop out to start a company. It is especially not true for undergraduates; almost
every single undergraduate finishes their degree. Someone may start something
during the summer or after graduation.
There are cases like Larry [Page] and
Sergey [Brin], and [Yahoo founders]
Dave [Filo] and Jerry [Yang] before
that, where, as graduate students,
they stumbled on some really great
technology, and before they knew it,
they had a road map to start a [successful] company. And that’s perfectly fine.
When a student says, “I want to be an entrepreneur,” I say, “Fine. First go get
some technology because that’s what makes a great company.”
S+B: You’re not alone in saying that you read a lot of biographies for guidance
on how leaders conduct themselves. But not many mention Ulysses S. Grant as
a source of inspiration.
HENNESSY: Grant’s public image is: great general, terrible president. And by the
way, also an alcoholic. But he largely tamed the alcohol problem, himself, through
exerting a lot of self-control. I think his image gets distorted by the fact that he
had one fatal flaw: He trusted people who said they were his friend too much.
And he put in positions of power people who betrayed his trust. But he also was
an incredible defender of the rights of African Americans to be citizens in this
country in the aftermath of the Civil War.
S+B: Many of today’s undergrads were raised to learn that all the systems of
power are unjust and corrupt. They want action on climate change, inequality,
and more, and they want it immediately. As the leader of a university, how do
you temper their idealism with the sense of what is possible?
HENNESSY: In order to play this role appropriately, you need to build a sense of
trust and have them believe you’re a rational human being who’s trying to think
“Let’s get rid of a few
myths. It’s not true that
lots of people drop out
to start a company.”