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Harvard ILab’s Jodi Goldstein is helping the school shed its ivy sensibilities and think about the future

By Dennis Keohane , written on July 10, 2015

From The Q&A Desk

Although it would be shocking to her, Jodi Goldstein has a pivotal role to play in helping Harvard shape its identity for the next ten, twenty, and maybe even fifty years.

She’d probably laugh out loud at being mentioned along with some other influential and well-known Crimson -- a group that includes president Drew Gilpin Faust and executive vice president and chief administrative, business, and operating officer, Katie Lapp, who is responsible for the school’s expansion on the Boston side of the Charles River.

But as the recently-named head of the Harvard Innovation Lab, a small startup incubation outpost at the edge of Harvard’s Allston border, Goldstein is charged with mentoring the budding entrepreneurs who end up on the shores of the Charles River and changing the school’s tweed and ivy image.

Entrepreneurship is in Goldstein's blood. She spent most of her youth growing up at a hotel her parents owned at Mount Snow in Vermont ("I left Vermont running, I couldn’t get out of there quick enough,” she told me. “Now, it’s my favorite place on earth”). Goldstein worked in various positions at GE around the world before landing an associate gig at venture capital firm TA Associates. Finding it more comfortable working with startups than being on the money side, she went to Harvard Business School and then cycled through roles at various early-stage companies before co-founding mobile wine app Drync.

I caught up with Goldstein recently to get her take on the direction of Harvard and how the oldest college in the land can change for the better. To be honest, her answers were quite surprising and she was very un-Harvard in her candor.

Tell me about growing up with two parents who gave up finance careers to run a hotel in a sleepy Vermont ski town.

I think my unconventional childhood made me internally driven. There was a lot of independence. You had to have a strong work ethic and be tenacious and resourceful.

My parents were working all the time. There was not a lot of oversight.

How did you end up transitioning from VC to working in startups?

I realized I liked really early stage companies. I liked a blank sheet of paper. I liked figuring out, is there a market? Is there an opportunity? I liked trying to figure out how to monetize companies. That’s why I loved the Internet -- this was in the early 90’s -- because it was the Wild West.

I ended up negotiating deals with Yahoo, Lycos, and Netscape, etc., a lot of these companies that don’t exist anymore. All of these companies were at various stages of success and failure. And over time you learn that successes were a lot of luck and timing, and your failures you learn so much more from, especially not to make the same mistake twice.

What was the process like when you initially applied for the managing director job at the iLab?

I spent about nine months meeting with every dean and everyone around the university, and it was really amazing. It gave me this look into such an incredible place.

When I spoke with each individual dean and the people in all the different schools, they all have these amazing, lofty goals and really are pushing for this “One Harvard” idea. I mean there is no university that could do what Harvard wants to do if it could pull itself together.

Although it was the birthplace of Facebook, Harvard doesn’t have the same “innovation” cache as schools like MIT or Stanford. Harvard students typically go into finance, politics, law, or medicine. Graduates of Harvard Business School are often on the partner track at VC firms or lined up for other executive business roles. Zuckerberg is a bit of an outlier, although folks like Tony Hsieh, Ellen Pao, and Steve Ballmer have all also gone to Harvard.

When Goldstein did her own homework into the innovation lab, she met with some interesting reactions from people in the Boston tech community. I asked her what that experience was like and why she still got involved in the iLab project.

Doing my due diligence and meeting with a lot of people, there were many folks who told me, “I wouldn’t touch that job with a ten foot pole.”  I heard that this would never succeed and that Harvard doesn’t know anything about entrepreneurship. There were a lot of people in the ecosystem who were very negative.

But I like a challenge, and the more people were saying that, I wanted the job more.

In trying to figure out what this is going to be, it’s been a wild ride. And I didn’t plan how I got to this position, but I love that Harvard was willing to hire an entrepreneur and an outsider. It is so crucial to the success of this place that it is not run by faculty. We call it student centered, faculty enabled.

Everything we do here is so practical and skill-based, everything an entrepreneur should want to know. We are very un-Harvard. I like to joke that the rest of the university teaches students how to learn, and we teach them how to do. You need both. We want to complement and augment what is happening at the colleges.

This isn’t just about spinning out companies, it’s about educating. It’s important that our student entrepreneurs have full confidence in what we are doing.

What is it like trying to serve undergrads, HBS students, as well as those who attend the Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law, the Divinity School, and the Kennedy School of Government, among others?

It’s funny that you ask that because we don’t treat anyone different. Everyone is welcome. We don’t have any special programming for any one school, because that’s what we are about.

You often see innovation programs and similar organizations at other schools that are part of one school or department or another. We sit outside any one school and so it is a unique place to be because we are one of the few places on campus where students can come and all fell like equals.

A lot of what we do is to help entrepreneurial students find each other organically. We are not going to match people up, but we want to create opportunities where potential co-founders can find each other.

One thing that I can’t take credit for, but is a Harvard thing, is the breadth of ideas that we see being turned into companies here. It’s just amazing, the diversity of ventures.

This is one big experiment. First, we had to ask if we build [the iLab] will students come across the river. But also, we didn’t know if we could bring together Harvard in a cross-disciplinary way, but it’s amazing that the student have just come in droves. [In 2014, that number exceeded 3,800 students.]

 

I asked Goldstein how she can help break the mindset of some Harvard students who may think the shiny new Innovation Lab -- it was opened in 2011 -- is gauche or others who want to go full Zuckerberg and build what they hope will be the next big American Internet company in their dorm room.

When we first opened our doors, people just sort of found their way to us. But I’ll argue that those initial people who came were the low hanging fruit. They would have started companies in their dorm rooms or Starbucks anyway, and now we built this wonderful community.

Part of the initial experiment with the iLab was whether or not people would actually come across the river. And we’ve found that our students kind of love that we are a bit out of the way on the outskirts of campus. In a way, a happy byproduct is that we’ve built this really strong community because all these very like-minded people stay here and interact with each other.

I think there are so many accidental entrepreneurs here, who graduate and say that they never imagined in a million years that they would come out of Harvard building startups. And that’s who we are trying to find. The people that come to the iLab are a bit more scrappy, they are students who are amazingly brilliant, but also driven and want to do great things.

There is just a very different, collaborative vibe here.

Do you think Zuckerberg would have been hanging out at the iLab if it was around when he was here?

I don’t know about that. When he came by, he looked around and shook his head and said, ‘This place is very Facebook-y.’

And he did say, ‘Maybe if this existed when I was here, I wouldn’t have had to move to the West Coast.’

But he says that everytime he comes to Boston...

Exactly. Who knows if that would have happened. It’s the right thing to say. But I like to think with the iLab, that students don’t have to drop out of school anymore to build a company. It allows you to do both.

I mean, it’s the summer and this place is packed.

What about your own lasting lasting legacy? What will your story be at the Harvard iLab?

I don’t think about legacy as much as some of the other Harvard people do, but I think about impact. How can I have the most impact to the most people? For example, there are all these people working in the biomedicine and life science community, all these unbelievable researchers. And it doesn’t occur to them to commercialize their technology because that’s not in their DNA, and that’s not what Harvard is supposed to be teaching them.

But if we can help them get it out of the lab, help them find co-founders, and get it into the marketplace, what an amazing gift to the world.

In addition to running the important iLab project, Goldstein and her husband, North Bridge Venture Partners’ Jaime Goldstein, also have a young family. So not only is she charged with helping hopeful entrepreneurs at on the country’s most prestigious colleges work through the challenges of starting businesses, she also helps to manage youth sports schedules, the logistics of keeping track of teenagers, and just recently, the college selection process. 

One day, I came home and my kid asked me how come I wasn’t there everyday at the bus to pick them up like so-and-so’s mom always does. So I said, ‘Well, do you want me to do that, I can find a way.’ And after pausing for a moment, she looks up at me and says, 'No, I don’t think that you’d be very happy doing that. Keep doing what you’re doing.'