Leadership

Q&A with Chris Haroun: Venture Capitalist, Best-Selling Author and Business Educator

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Editor’s note: Chris Haroun is an influential leader in Silicon Valley. He founded several tech companies, serves on the boards of several Bay Area tech companies and charities and is a venture capitalist. In this article, Chris shares his views on how education can help Silicon Valley tech companies and charities, his leadership insights around disruption and innovation and much more.  

But his deepest passion is in education. He has written eight business books, two of which are ranked as the second- and third-best-selling business education books on Amazon.com. He founded BusinessCareerCoaching.com, focused on helping people reinvent themselves to take their career to the next level. He’s also an award-winning professor lecturing at business schools including Berkeley and Stanford and teaches many online courses at Udemy.com for students in 164 countries.

You have said that you’re a firm believer that all problems can be solved through education. What was outstanding about the education you received throughout your life that led you to this belief?

Chris HarounChris Haroun: When I was younger, I wasn’t passionate about what I was learning in school. Teachers thought I might have a learning disability and wanted me to repeat a few grades. That had a dramatic positive influence on me.

I recently read Malcom Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath,” where he mentions that many children that were diagnosed with a development issue have become incredibly successful – including Richard Branson, John Chambers and Charles Schwab, who are some of my business heroes. One of the reasons these three business icons are successful is because they had to work harder than their peers in order to succeed. The same can be said for me. 

However, the turning point in my life was in the 1980s when my father bought our family a Macintosh; it literally changed my life. I became passionate about technology, and using the Macintosh to do school projects was a lot of fun for me!  

So your parents were very influential in helping develop your education and tech passions.

Chris Haroun: My parents helped me to find my passion, which has always been technology and finance. I think that parents need to focus on finding what their kids’ passions are in life and encourage them to follow their dreams (and not their parents’ dreams).

A few years ago, I brought the founder of one of my portfolio companies to meet with Google CIO Ben Fried. I asked Ben to please give me one quality that most of the top executives at Google have in common. He told me that most had at least one parent that was a teacher. This is one of the reasons I started teaching. I think that teachers embrace reading and being intellectually curious, which can rub off on our children.

In what ways do you believe education can help improve some aspects of Silicon Valley such as the dearth of women in tech roles?

Chris Haroun: I am proud to be on the board of Providing Opportunities for Women (P.O.W.), which was founded by one of my students, Brenda Ibanescu, here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Brenda recently presented to one of my classes, and she noted that “there are more CEOs in this country named John than there are women CEOs.” This needs to change. And it will.

You believe education will drive this change?

Chris Haroun: I think that education can actually solve all of the world’s problems. I was so inspired by 18-year-old Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. She is one of my heroes as she stood up to the Taliban and demanded education for women. I think that if all countries removed all Internet firewalls, then we could change the world through embracing education through online democratizing education platforms like Udemy.com or the Khan Academy.

I would love to see space enthusiasts like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos collaborate and develop the next-generation wireless broadband technology and beam unfiltered Internet access to countries that embrace firewalls. Then we will see thousands of Malalas rise up and force social justice to take place from within. Call me the eternal optimist, but I think this is how we change the world for the better and fight all wars from within. 

Who are a couple of the leaders in the tech world that you admire?  

Chris Haroun: I admire Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff as he is incredibly generous and selfless through his personal and corporate donations (the same can be said for Salesforce employees).

I also admire what Netflix CEO Reed Hasting is doing for education. He has given away millions to start chartered schools and is working on creating better software education programs. I met with Reed recently at one of his education speeches, and I think he has the chance to change the world through streaming education one day as part of the Netflix streaming service.

Bill Gates is also one of my heroes for what he and Melinda are doing to eradicate diseases and poverty. God bless him!

I also love former Splunk CEO Godfrey Sullivan’s management style as he is well known for praising in public and only criticizing in private.

Lastly, Electronic Arts’ Probst family has spent more hands-on time and energy helping underprivileged students in East Palo Alto than anyone else I can think of.

Please share your observations about the most difficult aspects of being a leader in a software company facing a lot of disruption.

Chris Haroun: The end markets change much faster today than ever before. In the past, when you started a software company in the old client-server world, you knew that the platforms wouldn’t change much (Windows dominated) and the competitive landscape wouldn’t change quickly. Now the barriers to entry are much lower and there are multiple platforms that change often.  

For instance, the dominant players in the cloud space in the US are AWS, Google Compute and Microsoft’s Azure. However, we will see the balkanization of the cloud computing market overseas as foreign countries don’t trust non-domestic software security protocols. As a result, we will see many cloud computing platforms emerge overseas, which likely will be dominated by global telecommunications companies.

To add more platform complexity, we will have many smaller and virtual platforms emerge as Internet of Things (IoT) products gain traction in the years ahead; this market won’t be dominated by iOS or Android. Then we will have voice capabilities, which will add another layer of convenience and complexity when it comes to deciding which platforms to embrace.

What do you think are the most important things a software leader can do to build and sustain a culture of innovation?

Chris Haroun: I think that the best software leaders create a loyal team-based culture; they don’t micromanage, and they praise in public and only criticize in private. Loyal employees that have some degree of creative flexibility/autonomy are much more productive as they don’t see their work as a job; rather, they see it as a passion.

Large tech companies that are not run by their founders simply can’t innovate (which is why they are so acquisitive). David and Goliath is also relevant at large companies in that only small groups of people can really change the world. The best example of this is Amazon, where CEO Jeff Bezos won’t allow any meeting to take place that requires more than two pizzas.

You are involved in several education initiatives with Bay Area charities. Please share what is happening there.

Chris Haroun: One of the reasons that I started teaching was a way to help end poverty. In East Palo Alto, the high school graduation rate is only 40 percent. Unacceptable, especially since there is so much affluence in the surrounding areas. I used to volunteer through Saint Vincent de Paul and go into the prisons and counsel young offenders that were in their 20s that had one small misdemeanor. Most of these poor inmates were raised by single mothers in East Palo Alto.

However, I stopped volunteering there once I saw the most prophetic and empowering speech in my life by David Taufoou, who is a founder of a Redwood City-based education charity called the LEMO Foundation. David was raised by an incredible single mother in East Palo Alto and received a scholarship to go to a private school. In the speech, David said this, which changed my life: Do not expect to accomplish your dreams if you’re not willing to help others accomplish theirs.”

I am so proud to be on the board of the LEMO Foundation, where we provide scholarships to high school students from East Palo Alto. There is no need for me to go into the prison system anymore as we can get to them earlier before they commit crimes and are sent to jail. Education has changed so many lives through LEMO and more than 80 students in the LEMO program are now at the top universities in the world!

My favorite education charity activity in the past year was a 12-hour Saturday course I taught to underprivileged kids from East Palo Alto. The course was called “An Entire MBA in 1 Course” and it is also available online at Udemy.com and at Amazon (“The Ultimate Practical Business Manual: Everything You Need to Know About Business (from Launching a Company to Taking it Public”). These LEMO students were absolutely brilliant; these are our future business leaders. This generation can end poverty by embracing online education; it’s about time this sector gets disrupted. 

There is no better feeling than empowering students from all over the world from difficult backgrounds. This is my purpose, and I can’t wait until I get out of bed each morning and help others. Education can and will change the world in our lifetime; we are only in the first inning of benefiting from the global democratization of education, which is the quintessential equalizer between the “haves” and the “have nothings.” 

If someone reading this article wants to become involved in helping educate others, where is a good place to start?

Chris Haroun: Please donate to educational charities that provide scholarships to those that need it the most. If you are a teacher or if you would like to impart wisdom on the skills that you have to others, then please teach online at sites like Udemy.com as you can reach over 10 million students in 190 countries and help them learn how to be independent and productive at literally 0.01 percent of the cost of doing a university degree. Anyone interested in joining us at Providing Opportunities for Women, please email Brenda at Brendaibanescu@gmail.com.

Also, I think that we need to embrace and congratulate companies that do their part to make the world a better place and politely pressure others that are not doing so to start today. For example, Salesforce gives away one percent to help the poor. Please watch this incredibly inspirational short video and encourage the company that you work at to embrace this one percent concept.

Chris Haroun founded BusinessCareerCoaching.com and is a venture capitalist. He is also a graduate business school professor at several Bay Area universities. He is on the boards of several companies and charities including the LEMO Foundation and Providing Opportunities for Women. Previously, Chris started a few technology/finance companies, worked at Goldman Sachs, Accenture and Citadel. He has managed and raised over $1 billion in technology investments. He can be reached at chris@businesscareercoaching or on LinkedIn. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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