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A Kiwi at Stanford: Russians, bicycles, unicorns – Oh and a business school

David Downs, NZTE executive and author of No.8 Re-wired, arrived at Stanford University last week for six-weeks of high-pressure business strategy and leadership development. In the first of a series of irreverent blog posts, he explores this stronghold of intellectual endeavour – and drinks some red wine with a Russian.

The Stanford Executive Program (SEP) has a formidable reputation; it’s a six-week long executive education course (read, MBA for old people) held in the Business School of Stanford University. After only 24 hours, I can reliably report back that the 160-odd people who are attending are universally smart, curious and have a healthy taste for red wine.

I’m been lucky enough to have been accepted as a participant on the SEP, which consists of class-room sessions, guest lectures and nightly study groups. It’s an investment, both by my employer (NZTE) and my family (thanks Katherine, Jack, Joshua and Toby) to let me go for six intensive weeks study at one of the world’s finest universities.  The classes start in earnest tomorrow, but the past day or so since arriving has seen me connect with a huge variety of folk – from a Vietnamese technology start-up owner, to a Russian internet leader (“We are #1 in Russia, Facebook is #2”), to a guy who helps indigenous Canadians succeed in business.

Today I picked up a bike and tootled around the campus – a beautiful and thankfully flat expanse of land that was a gift from a wealthy railway millionaire over 100 years ago (when I get more details I will let you know). I also indulged a favorite pastime of mine when overseas, and went to a local supermarket, and saw on display New  Zealand wine and lamb.

I also, managed to spot another famous Kiwi brand, car and campervan rental company Jucy, which seems to have successfully entered the Californian leisure travel market.

There is something magical about Stanford, and the city of Palo Alto, where it’s based. It’s a small town, but surrounded by excitement and energy. Physically it looks a bit like Twizel, but in business terms it’s more like, well, Silicon Valley. People are healthy looking, interesting, with gleaming teeth and an engaging manner.  There is no room for self-doubt, pessimism or irony – however there is a measure of amazement that I haven’t detected in this part of the world before.  In discussing the startling listing prices of new start-up companies, one knowledgeable local told me that three years ago there were three $US1 billion start-up companies in the valley (known as “unicorns”). This year, there were over 50.  We are all wondering what this means.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks… I will report back as often as I can, but that somewhat depends on how well I get on with the Russian and his taste for red wine.