February 22, 2021

Sonny Vu’s Keynote Speech at EdTech Vietnam 2021 Luncheon

February 22, 2021

“So the first topic: who are the most valuable people?

Gosh, what a tough question. You want really competent people, you want experienced people, we’ve learnt a bunch of things.  We’ve always talked about how it’s not about the intelligence, it’s about skills, it’s not just about experience, it’s about wisdom, and also cultural fit. That’s the usual thing that you’d say, at a startup event, or at a university event. So, let me dive deeper into a few things that I would say that we found valuable.

Number one, these are folks who think about others first. They know deeply that it’s never about them, but about the goal. Drive is intrinsic, not extrinsic. If I know someone is always just looking out for their chance to get that raise or bonus or to get an elevated title, then I’m generally less inclined to think that they’re all in with the company or have the company and their team members’ best interests at heart. I don’t want to get into this too much, because it can get a bit moralistic without careful treatment. But it suffices to say that this quality or the lack thereof, has profound implications on one’s ability to work in a team, to lead a team, to grow a team, to establish trust in an organization, to be given more responsibility.

The second is, when we think through all the folks that we’ve worked with, it’s people who are eager to serve. They say one of the best things about working for a startup or a tech company in many cases, is you get to do things you’re not qualified for. In many cases, this is about doing things you’ve never done, or have never been trained for.  They say this is about stepping out of your comfort zone and learning as fast as you can, “building the car as you drive in it”.  One of my mentors once told me that people are usually limited by the things that they attempt, not what they’re capable of.  And another friend and mentor, Dr. Ian Hunter from MIT, one of the greatest inventors of our time, told me that part of why he’s been able to invent so many things and why people haven’t invented them before, is because most people didn’t think these things were even possible so they didn’t even try.  We’ve all heard this narrative before. Go beyond, just do it. Carpe Diem. Pursue your passion.

But getting to do the things you’re not qualified for has another facet that’s important when it comes to teamwork. There are many times the tasks that are the most needed, are the ones that you’re overqualified to do, especially the tasks that you’re not expected to do: turning off the lights, cleaning up after other people’s mess, figuratively and even literally, taking notes so that other people don’t have to. The invisible, thankless work that everyone just expects someone else to do. The things that are not in your job description, not a part of your annual goals or your monthly objective or KPI. Those things often get forgotten and even at an event like this there are countless hours of work that had to be put together to organize it. And then just the AV equipment, someone had to like, put up this platform and this banner, it’s a lot of work and the folks here are never going to get recognized for it. And I truly think industry moves forward, not just by the brilliant dashes of new innovation, new inventions by the one, but by the steady work of countless invisible faces done in the dark, which will never be recognized. Another famous person once said that the meek shall inherit the earth. And that the least shall be the greatest”. How true this is, not just in the company, but in life.

And the last point here is that, the most valuable people, they are never satisfied. I’m not talking about their compensation package, but what they’ve accomplished. They’re never satisfied with what the team can do, but more importantly, never satisfied with what they’ve done, or can do. I’m not just talking about reckless or selfish ambition, but about having perspective of one’s accomplishments and how that drives one to grow. Complacency is probably one of the biggest roadblock to growth.  Bill Gates has famously said that ‘success is a lousy teacher”. It makes smart people think they can’t lose. Have enough resources and money, that’s fine. Have enough status, I don’t know anyone who says that, but that’s fine too. Have enough understanding? No, that’s just not possible. Not in the information age.

So what does complacency engender? It slows the desire to learn, you think you know enough, it can reduce the desire to connect and truly engage with others. You think you don’t need any new perspectives. It can halve the desire to work altogether. You think you’ve done enough; you’ve contributed enough time to retire.

Christy and I were talking the other day over breakfast. And she said that she realizes now that the most difficult thing is not about being strong. There’s a lot of talk about that, being strong these days, stand up for what you believe. In many cases, you just need to be firm. People think it’s difficult, but it’s actually harder to be open minded. You have to see things from different perspectives. It’s part of why the yeshiva system of education is so effective. And it’s created so many great minds, Talmudic scholars, minds that are trained from youth to disect a problem and constantly reanalyze it from multiple perspectives. So where does complacency come from? Is it lack of exposure? Can’t be. We all have limitless access to knowledge. If you can’t afford college, there are dozens of sites with great content. I mean, you can have an entire MIT undergraduate education completely online, for free.

So my thought is, the lack of purpose is one thing, I think that’s an obvious factor. But the other factor, I think, is just the lack of role models, the lack of heroes. But we have heroes, many of the people here for example, people who are sponsoring this, people that have started great companies and great organizations. So maybe what we really need is the opportunity to be able to connect with people who we can relate to, who have gone much further, can be a great motivator.

So what’s the cure? How do we reimagine education? Don’t ask me, I never finished mine. But I’ll just say that, to show people how to think about others first, to be eager to serve. And to never be complacent. I think that’s a good place to start in terms of what we can teach people. I have some ideas for which I’ll share for another time. But for now, I’ll leave that to our great educators here in the room. But I think it starts with giving your young minds a purpose for why to learn, the perspective and exposure to know that it’s not enough. And finally, the tools and rituals for how to learn.

Until next time, thank you for your time.

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