As technology evolves, both Scott Cook, the former CEO and founder of Intuit, and former University President Richard Levin said Yalies are uniquely positioned to take advantage of these opportunities.
Before a crowd of roughly 150 people Monday afternoon in the President’s Room of Woolsey Hall, Cook and Levin emphasized the importance of crowdsourcing — a strategy that solicits mass contributions for specific projects — in the future of technology development and pointed to the entrepreneurial utility of a Yale liberal arts education. While both men claimed liberal arts backgrounds, they now work in tech companies and said they see crowdsourced material as a powerful method to fuel innovation.
“There has never been a time in world history when people are dedicating their time and their wisdom to creating things for free,” Cook said. “There has never been an environment like this — it’s not just a perfect storm, it’s a perfect climate.”
Intuit, which Cook founded in his garage in Palo Alto in 1983, now provides a wide range of online financial service tools, including Turbotax and Quicken. According to Cook, several of the company’s products rely on crowdsourced material. He said, for example, that Turbotax uses crowdsourced answers to tax-related questions.
Levin, the CEO of the free-online course platform Coursera, agreed with Cook’s emphasis on crowdsourcing, adding that all English-to-Chinese translations for Coursera are crowdsourced.
Still, both men emphasized the importance of a broad-based liberal arts education in today’s entrepreneurial atmosphere.
“There’s nothing I would trade a good liberal arts education for,” Levin said. “I think it’s the best education anyone could ask for.”
In particular, Levin noted the differences in culture between Yale and Stanford.
Fifteen years ago, Stanford was a great liberal arts university, he said. Today, though, Levin said too many of their students singularly focus on engineering.
“The students [at Stanford] are great — they’re brilliant — but they’re less engaged with the world,” he said. “They’re really narrow in their focus on technology.”
Instead, Levin said, a liberal arts education provides the best base from which to start a company that can change the world. Cook echoed this sentiment, adding that directors of most tech companies are not people with engineering degrees. However, both Cook and Levin urged students to consider all fields when considering career paths.
“Find something that embodies your values,” Cook said. “You can choose — you’re at Yale.”
He added that the technology sector provides a wide array of opportunities to change the world, a remark that Levin quickly qualified by saying that other such sectors also exist, and that “tech is not the only ethically committed way to go.”
Still, not all members of the audience found Cook’s advice convincing.
Sam Brenner ’18 described Cook’s remarks as “refreshing, reassuring, [but] likely not so applicable.”
Ian Gonzalez ’16, a former copy editor at the News, said Cook’s advice was realistic, especially in diverse fields like tech, where plenty of companies are making a positive difference and the range of choices is wide.
Others felt that the difficulty of entering into the tech sector posed a problem.
“I feel like the startup culture is flooded at this point,” said Dan Shao ’15. “[Cook] also mentioned that a lot of startups with money and ideas failed. Even though I might have a great idea, I’d want someone like Cook to guide me through.”
Cook has served as an advisor for Amazon, Facebook and Snapchat. Levin was president of Yale from 1993–2013.