Today, we have Robert Chatwani on our show. Robert was EWMBA student at Haas, class of ’07. He was chief executive at eBay and Teespring before becoming the CMO of Atlassian, a collaboration software company that aims to unleash teams’ power.
Robert started his career in management consulting before going into performance marketing and consumer branding. He is passionate about international trade economics and for building early-stage and large-scale consumer platforms.
He shares with us how he started Monkey Bin, an online marketplace that became a multi-party trading system for B2B barter, and how he eventually landed an entrepreneurial role at eBay where he stayed for 12 years.
Roberts narrates his time at Haas, including his personal story with his best friend and co-founder, Sameer Bhatia, who was diagnosed with leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. It paved the way for them to launch a national marrow registration drive. He also shares the impact of this project on his life and how it brought him clarity around the power of purpose and discovering his true North.
Finally, Robert tells us how to build more resilience into our lives, especially during these turbulent times that we’re all in right now.
“I’m a big believer that the first few years of your career, or really anytime you make a pivot, it’s really important to treat those as learning years because you’re still in discovery mode of trying to understand what path you might go down or how you might harness your personal interests and connect that to things that you care about.”
“I believe that the greatest careers are discovered, not planned. So, buckle up and embrace some of the uncertainty that comes with that. Open yourself up to the most growth opportunity.”
“When I’m stuck in a decision, I catch myself to say, hold on, is this aligned with my why? There’s no separation between your why and who you are and why you do it, what you do after a certain point. And I think that’s when it becomes really powerful.”
“Doing what you love, surrounding yourself with the right people and the right energy, and staying in good health, physically, mentally, and spiritually, help build resilience.”
- The Golden Circle by Simon Sinek
- True North by Bill George
- The Pause Principle by Kevin Cashman
- Alchemist by Paulo Paolo
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas alumni podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today I’m joined by Robert Chatwani, EWMBA class of 2007. He’s currently the CMO of Atlassian and was a Chief Executive at eBay and Teespring. Robert, welcome to the podcast.
[00:00:28] Robert: Thank you very much, Sean. It’s great to be here.
[00:00:28] Sean: Robert, can you start us from the beginning so that we can hear a little bit about your origin story?
[00:00:34] Robert: Oh, for sure. You know, my parents, it really starts with their story. They came to the United States from India in the early 1970s. My father just had a very strong ambition to explore the world. Both my parents ended up settling and choosing Chicago which is where I was born actually, out in the suburbs of Chicago.
[00:00:52] And so I’ve got roots in the Midwest, but also very strong connections back to India. And I eventually made my way out to San Francisco. But I still call Chicago in the Chicago suburbs home.
[00:01:06] Sean: I do you have to ask, what part of India because India is a big country.
[00:01:10] Robert: Yeah.
[00:01:11] Sean: And what part of Chicago?
[00:01:12] Robert: Alright, good. Our family is from the state of Gujarat. So Western India and specifically the city of Ahmedabad. It’s the largest city in Gujarat. And then in Chicago, I grew up in the Northwest suburbs, a small town called Des Plaines, Illinois, globally known and famous for being the home of the first McDonald’s.
[00:01:32] So that’s the claim to fame. I remember being there and going there for milkshakes as a kid. But it’s right outside of O’Hare airport. So, if anybody’s flown through O’Hare, you’ve been within a stone’s throw of my house.
[00:01:45] Robert: So, I eventually started my career, went to school in Chicago, but the greater Chicagoland area, that’s, I still have lots of friends and family there. So, I still call that home.
[00:01:53] Sean: What did you study for your undergrad?
[00:01:56] Robert: I studied economics and Japanese. I was at DePaul University, a very classic Chicago institution and, early on, just to be very open, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. And so, my father had a finance and accounting background. I started down that path, very quickly discovered that was not for me.
[00:02:16] Explored a lot around economics and fell in love, and so much so that, you know, I’d always been fascinated by the idea of studying overseas. So, I ended up finishing my final year of undergrad in Japan, in Osaka. And that even further advanced sort of my love for economics, had a chance to study Japanese and fell in love with the culture.
[00:02:37] Eventually it came back to the US but this intersection of international trade economics was always something I was very passionate about.
[00:02:46] Sean: How did you go from that to marketing?
[00:02:50] Robert: I wanted to punt this idea and question around what to be when I grow up. And I was very lucky. I’ve held all kinds of odd jobs throughout high school and college, but after coming back from Japan, I was really fortunate to find an opportunity that really allowed me to buy a lot of time to figure out what I ultimately wanted to do with my career. So, I started in management consulting and the beautiful part about that is you get exposed to a lot of different industries, a lot of different sectors, and lots of really smart people. And so, that kicked off in Chicago, it was a very research and information-intensive analyst role at McKinsey and company.
[00:03:33] And the benefit of being young and new inside of a consulting firm is you get to traverse a lot of different clients, a lot of different industries. And it’s probably there that I really felt the power of marketing to drive growth, particularly consumer marketing. I started in the Chicago office so we had a lot of very classic and traditional clients and consumer packaged goods and retail. And a few things that I really walked away with from that experience were one, the power of consumer marketing to drive growth inside of companies and the power of purpose-driven companies that really stand for something and build meaningful relationships with customers.
[00:04:15] And so it’s really the intersection then of trade and economics and large global companies. And then this whole idea of building deep relationships with customers and just frankly being inspired by some mentors there who really helped shape my thinking around what I really wanted to do when I grew up.
[00:04:32] So that was a pretty seminal time for me. And I’m a big believer that the first few years of your career or really anytime you make a pivot, it’s really important to treat those as learning years. Because you’re still in discovery mode of trying to understand what path you might go down or how you might harness your personal interests and connect that to things that you care about.
[00:04:54] Sean: Thank you for sharing that. Especially as a fresh grad myself right now, that’s a good reminder because I am making the hard pivot into this podcasting world. The last thing I thought about coming into the MBA was that I’m going to start a podcast business.
[00:05:10] Robert: You know, here the thing, it’s, you know, I have the benefit of now a couple of decades or more, but when I look back, my belief is that the greatest careers are discovered, not planned. So, buckle up and in as long as you’re willing to embrace some of the uncertainty that comes with that. I also think you open yourself up to the most growth opportunity.
[00:05:35] And for me, that’s been the most defining principle of the path that I’ve taken is I don’t exactly know what I want to do next. But really taking advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as possible and to bring the best version of myself to whatever I’m doing. I might get this wrong, it might be an Einstein quote, but it’s something to the effect of if you know exactly what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, what’s the point of doing it?
[00:06:16] Sean: That was some great wisdom that you just shared. I’m lost in my thoughts right now. So, you had a brush with entrepreneurship after McKinsey. Can you share a little bit about that?
[00:06:28] Robert: Yeah, definitely. Well, the other thing that I’ve learned about myself in consulting is I really want to build something. I really want to get my hands on something that I could see from concept to launch and growth. And so, I was on a pretty defined path coming from a hardworking immigrant family. The expectation was I would go through undergrad, get a well-paying job, and then go to graduate school and start my life. And I decided that’s interesting, but why not make the leap? And, you know, it sounds like it’s a small thing to leave your first job where things are stable. There’s a tailwind in terms of momentum and promotion and growth opportunity. But for me at the time, with very minimal savings, trying to balance the expectation that I knew my family had of what I would do, it was sort of a tough moment. But I was really lucky. I had a very close friend, Sameer Bhatia, who I got along with extraordinarily well, and we were basically like brothers. He and I knew that we wanted to do something together.
[00:07:39] I think this is the other thing that’s really important is when you’re facing these moments of decision, who’s on the journey with you. For me, you know, Sameer and I both discussed this, he was in Chicago at the time. I had moved from McKinsey Chicago to McKinsey Washington, DC. And we both said, Hey, whatever we do, we’re going to do it together.
[00:07:58] He was from Seattle, but had gone to Stanford now. Remember, I wasn’t at Haas yet, so we hadn’t built our rivalry quite yet. But we decided we wanted to move to Silicon Valley, specifically to San Francisco, to start a company. And, it was an online marketplace.
[00:08:13] Robert: You have to rewind back right to 1999, 2000, online marketplaces and online eCommerce businesses were just in explosive growth mode. But the idea we have is really simple, which is what if you could create an online marketplace for consumers to trade things. So not necessarily buy and sell but if you had something that you loved, video games, DVDs, books but it wasn’t a value to you anymore, you knew there are things that you wanted in exchange, why not create a marketplace where you could barter and you could trade these things. And so that was the idea. It was a business; we called it MonkeyBin.
[00:08:51] And, it was imagined kind of an eBay without cash. And we felt so passionate about this idea because we had seen this work on college campuses and Sameer when he was at Stanford, somebody would come around to the dorm every month, just with a big box of all kinds of great stuff. And the rule was you can have anything from the box that you wanted, as long as you put something in.
[00:09:15] And so the birth of the idea was really a trading marketplace for media. It would come with a community and it would come really with this idea of individuals coming and listing all the things that they were willing to trade and then shopping for things that they wanted. And that was the birth of MonkeyBin.
[00:09:32] Now the challenge in the business was creating a system with liquidity because the chance that you would have what I want and I would want what you have was very low. And so, the problem we solved was really a technology problem with an algorithm to facilitate multi-party trading. And within the first six to 12 months, we raised several million dollars.
[00:09:55] Built our team, hired a technology and engineering team. And that was the birth of MonkeyBin. We had, if you’re familiar with San Francisco, we had our first office in East Oakland. That’s all we could afford, $240 a month. But once we raised a little bit of money, we moved the office to Second and Mission. Which did not look like it looks now. It’s all skyscrapers now. But we had a small three-story building. We were on the third floor in the back corner. And, that was the birth of MonkeyBin.
[00:10:25] Sean: What ended up happening to it?
[00:10:27] Robert: So, what you realize and what we realized very quickly? Well, it probably took us a year and a half is that consumers who want free things don’t like to pay transaction fees. So, it’s sort of very obvious in retrospect but we had a monetization problem. Even if we had some scale, which we did, it was really difficult to monetize.
[00:10:48] But we had an investor who came to us with an introduction and said, Hey, I have a friend who’s in the retail and corporate barter business. They’d love to talk to you because they’re struggling with some technology issues. Of course, we had no idea what retail and corporate barter was. We had no clue that there’s actually an industry of companies that trade with each other and like any good entrepreneur you take the meeting. It was a company called Barter Trust and the CEO asks us, they said, Hey, you have this multi-party trading algorithm. I’ve got brokers who facilitate trades between small businesses. Can your technology power that? Can you create and power a platform for retail and corporate barter?
[00:11:30] The answer is of course we’re experts in that, right? So, we got back to the engineering team back to the office and we said, okay guys, we need to keep running MonkeyBin. However, we want to create a multi-party trading system for B2B barter. We can do that, right? And I just remember the blank stare that we were getting from the team.
[00:11:51] But guess what, we did it. And we made more money on some of those first corporate and retail B2B software deals than we ever would have as a consumer play. I’m not quite sure if pivot was a word back in 2000 but that’s exactly what we did and we became the de facto leading technology provider for the B2B and corporate barter industry. And that works until you run out of customers. Because it turns out that even though that at the time was a $10 billion industry, they’re really only five or six companies powering most of the market share and the transaction volume in that industry.
[00:12:30] And we had, I think half of them as customers and the other half were completely comfortable doing business on phone and email and even fax machines if you can believe it. So ultimately, we sold the assets to one of our customers, actually a Japanese company. And we wrapped up MonkeyBin.
[00:12:47] We built this incredible team. We built this incredible mission-driven business and that entrenched my love for marketplace businesses. And along the way, eBay had called, the corporate development team. And we got excited because as young 20, we were in our early twenty’s entrepreneurs, you get excited about this idea of potentially selling your company to eBay.
[00:13:09] And, while that didn’t happen, I had kept in touch with the team and I had an offer to join the company after wrapping up MonkeyBin, and that was my next chapter.
[00:13:20] Sean: Your next chapter for 12 years, right?
[00:13:24] Robert: Yeah. That’s right. And going back to this idea that I believe the most interesting and exciting careers are discovered, not planned. Sameer went on to start his next company, but for me, it was really an opportunity to land at a company that I really felt had pioneered the concept of an online marketplace and brought together community, commerce, people-to-people trading across borders.
[00:13:55] And eBay just acquired PayPal at the time. So even now, all of this being powered by payments and I was a passionate eBay buyer back in the mid to late nineties. And, many people listening to this podcast may be too young to remember this, but there was a time when this idea of taking a product if you’re a seller and shipping it to somebody who you’ve never met and expecting them to send you a check and payment in the mail and exchange without really any consequence guidelines if they didn’t do it. That whole concept, was really brand new, right? To do business with somebody you never knew, you never met.
[00:14:39] And similarly as a buyer, to put money in an envelope and, again, put a stamp on the envelope, take it to the mailbox and mail it to somebody and then keep your fingers crossed and said, I hope I get the item, that was really pioneering. And it was the birth really of this idea of the democratization of commerce.
[00:14:59] That anybody, anywhere in the world, could buy, sell, and trade with anyone else. And, I fell in love with that, right. It was what we were trying to do at Monkey Bin, but eBay had really solved it at scale and Pierre Omidyar, the founder, just had this really core belief, which is people are basically good.
[00:15:19] And here you have a marketplace that’s actually demonstrating that at scale. And I really fell in love with the mission and purpose of the company and the opportunity was to come in and join a small entrepreneurial team inside the company to build out the platform and the developer network and sort of the small ecosystem.
[00:15:37] And so I couldn’t pass that up. It was an entrepreneurial role in the context of this burgeoning marketplace.
[00:15:44] Sean: So, what kind of a role were you in from MonkeyBin to eBay?
[00:15:50] Robert: Yeah, you mentioned 12 years. I had intended to stay at the company for a couple of years and then go build my next venture. That was the thing. Remember I had mentioned I’d love to build. I eventually had seven or eight different roles in the company over the course of 12 years.
[00:16:04] Except for one or two of them, almost every one of the roles that I experienced there, I actually created. The role didn’t exist; nobody had it before. And I think this is really an important piece of advice or perspective, at least, something that I’ve benefited from, which is early in your career, the power of joining a high-growth environment. And that’s what I got very fortunate and lucky with at eBay, which is high growth environments manufacture opportunities at a completely different pace than companies or organizations that are growing slower. And I would argue that even in large traditional companies or any type of company that is overall, maybe a lower growth company within those organizations, there are pockets and teams that are growing faster.
[00:16:52] Go park yourself there. That’s really what I benefited from at eBay. My first role was managing the strategy and roadmap for what we had called the eBay developers program, which is building out an entire ecosystem of third-party developers who would create apps that would integrate into eBay.
[00:17:13] Now remember, Facebook wasn’t around, Google had not opened up their API APIs or their platform, mobile didn’t exist. So, this was really at the edge of really thinking about how do you take innovation? And instead of saying, Hey, we’re going to build it here, push out the services that enable third-party developers to connect to a platform and drive that innovation.
[00:17:36] And so we saw thousands and thousands of buying and selling apps and research and data apps, things that we could have never predicted. And that was a lot of fun because here we were, this sort of small ragtag team inside of a company with a remit to go prove that this can work. And again, we had great leadership and some fantastic folks who were really believing in the mission of the power of a platform, and we were fighting up against forces in the company that just didn’t feel that was important. But that became a huge driver of eBay’s growth. And so, the hundreds of millions of listings on eBay, that would come in over the course of months, eventually, 40, 50, 60% of that came in through those third-party applications.
[00:18:21] And so we were working on a part of the business that one, was very entrepreneurial, two, was fast growth, three, was having a direct impact on revenue. And we put those three things together, great things happen. And that really led to this passion to do things like that inside of the company, to find things that were maybe at the edge, unproven.
[00:18:45] But I really believed would have a huge amount of potential. And that really, I think, is defined sort of the journey I took within eBay.
[00:18:51] Sean: There was a pretty seminal moment during your time at Haas with your best friend, your co-founder, right, for the first business. Can you share a little bit about that story with us?
[00:19:04] Robert: Yeah, it’s a very personal story, but one, really that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life. I was at Haas in business school and Sameer Bhatia, my best friend and the co-founder of my company, had gone on to start his next company. I had gone to eBay and Sameer was going back and forth between the US and India.
[00:19:25] And he was based in San Francisco. And he called me one day from India and he said, Hey, you know, I’m not feeling well. I just wanted to let you know I’m going to go get checked out at a doctor and see what’s going on. And then, I kept in close touch with him. Probably a week later, he called me and he said, Hey, listen, something’s not right.
[00:19:43] I’m going to fly back to the US and I’m going to fly through New Jersey. And, you know, Sameer had just very recently gotten married. And that was going to be a layover for him on his way back to San Francisco.
[00:19:56] He got off the plane, just did a quick checkup with the doctor and the physician said, Hey, listen, you can’t travel. We need to check you in. And he was at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Jersey. And he called me within a day or two.
[00:20:10] He told me that they had diagnosed him with leukemia. And so here he is, you know, my best friend who I had started my company with. In fact, it’s because of him that I had met my wife Sheetal and it’s also because of him that I decided to move to California. And, he had recently gotten married, similar to me, we were at the same life stage, 32 years old, and diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, AML.
[00:20:38] Robert: There’s a treatment protocol for that. And so, he went to that treatment protocol, eventually transferred to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Care Center out of Seattle where his family was based. And what we thought would be a path to recovery in the medical system and a path towards resolution and for somebody his age, what we thought would and hoped would be a speedy path to recovery actually turned out to take a twist and go down a very different direction.
[00:21:20] Sean: What’d you have to do? I know you embarked on an adventure of your own.
[00:21:25] Robert: Yeah. So, the treatment for AML, is typically some combination of chemotherapy, radiation, the first line of defense, a set of drugs to really treat the disease very directly and head-on and within a matter of months, all of that failed. And the doctors told Sameer that in order to survive, he would need a bone marrow transplant, which is a common procedure and it’s not unusual for leukemia patients.
[00:21:54] And so we said, Hey, this is scary and it’s tough, but he’s young and there’s a process for that. There’s the National Marrow Donor Program in the United States, which at that time had about 8 million registrants. And the idea is you get matched with a potential donor in the registry.
[00:22:13] If you are a patient in need, the registry is really the first stop for doctors and physicians to see if there’s a potential donor out there. And with 7.8 million donors, what we knew is that, it’s a very successful source of really helping patients recover from leukemia and other blood cancers.
[00:22:35] The good news is if you’re Caucasian, the chances are actually greater than 80% that you would find a match, and you could get a donor to contribute their bone marrow, and getting a bone marrow transplant is effectively like a copy-paste of somebody else’s immune system. It’s a pretty remarkable procedure that was pioneered decades ago but has really saved millions of people throughout the world.
[00:22:59] What we quickly discovered, however, was if you’re South Asian, the number of potential donors in the registry is actually very small. And instead of the odds being 80% of getting a match, the odds were actually one in 20,000 that you would be able to find a donor. And so, then we’re thinking, okay, no problem.
[00:23:23] Yeah. You know, if we can’t find a potential match in the US which we couldn’t in the registry, the next stop, we thought for Sameer would be to go to India, right? A country with a population of well over a billion people, certainly, because the likelihood of a bone marrow transplant and a donor match or highest within the same ethnic population that you’re from, the probability and the propensity for a match, we thought would be much greater in India. Only one problem, it turns out that India didn’t have a national marrow registry at the time. And we were entrepreneurs in our early thirties, problem solvers. And at this stage in life, you don’t really feel that there is a problem that’s not surmountable. You really think that, Hey, especially being in San Francisco and based in Silicon Valley, this is what we do.
[00:24:16] We’re pioneers, we’re innovators. Of course, there’s a solution to most problems that we face, and coming to terms with this reality was difficult, which is first-line treatments didn’t work. He needs a bone marrow transplant. There was nobody in the United States that matches him, a high-quality match.
[00:24:36] There’s nobody in India and there’s no other alternative. And that was sort of stark reality to come to terms with. We didn’t want that to stop us. And in fact, I was at Haas at the time. I was in fact, Jennifer Aaker, one of my favorite professors, her father, David Aaker, is a legend in marketing and brand strategy.
[00:24:56] And Jennifer was also teaching at Haas and I was in her class and I told her, Hey, I think I’m going to have to drop this semester because I need to focus on helping my friend. And she said, okay, I don’t quite fully grasp everything that you’re working on, but tell you what, come to me with some more detail and figure out a way, whatever you’re going to work on can just become part of what this class is about.
[00:25:19] And, we had mapped out what we were gonna do here. All I knew is I needed to spend more time with Sameer and yeah, figure out how we could help him. And so that’s exactly what I did. I stayed at Haas and really inspired by her. Took the time, time, and space to sit back and really talk to Sameer about what’s next?
[00:25:38] What does this actually mean? The challenge that Sameer was told and we later learned is Sameer desperately needed a bone marrow match, and just not need a bone marrow match, but he actually needed a bone marrow match within the next 12 weeks. It was that pressing and that urgent. And so, we had three options.
[00:25:59] Option one was to do nothing. Let the medical system take its course, hope that a match happens to turn up if a new donor enters the registry, that we’ll be able to find somebody who matches him. The second is that we could actually do something, which is we could go to all of our friends and family.
[00:26:17] We can go through our network of South Asian professionals and people that Sameer knows and ask them to become a donor, a potential donor in the registry, and the process of joining the registry is actually very straightforward. It’s a cheek swab. You take a swab, rub it up against the cells of your cheek on the inside, and put it in an envelope and you ship it off to the national marrow donor program, and you register. So, it wasn’t painful, very straightforward. But then we also realized that, Hey, there’s actually a third option here.
[00:26:49] The third option was to actually do something seismic, to go big, and play the odds. And what that would mean is if we actually went out and registered 20,000 people, then we can make the math work because if the odds were one in 20,000 that he’d actually be able to find a match, then let’s go get 20,000 South Asians registered and that should mathematically at least, you know, help us find the match that he needed to save his life.
[00:27:19] So, it sounds simple, but the problem, if you remember, is we only had a matter of weeks to actually get this done. And that was a challenge. And so, you know, I mentioned earlier, I was at Haas, sitting in Jennifer Aaker’s creativity, innovation, and marketing class. And I’d come back to her and said, Hey, Professor Aaker, I have to drop this class because I need to help save my friend’s life. And it wasn’t just me. But there was another really good friend of ours who sadly at the same time as Sameer, a Berkeley grad, Vinay, who also had leukemia and needed a bone marrow match. And so, we wanted to spin up and start really powerful campaigns for both Sameer and Vinay, to go out and find a donor, to save their lives.
[00:28:04] And one of the things that I learned in Jennifer’s class was this philosophy of reversing the rules. And one of the rules I remember very vividly is, when you’re trying to do something big, act first, then think. Right.
[00:28:18] And she said, Hey, do what you need to do, don’t drop the class, figure out how to tie whatever you’re going to do, and bring it back to us.
[00:28:26] And so that was, really powerful inspiration, to have that kind of freedom and flexibility. And it allowed us to really put an incredible campaign in place that we called Help Sameer. And we went to work, it’s this very basic belief that doing nothing was just not an option.
[00:28:46] And I think this applies to many dimensions of life. If you feel stuck, if you feel like you need to move something forward, dream of a solution that’s as big or bigger than the problem that you’re trying to solve.
[00:28:59] And don’t sit still, right? The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making any mistake. Because what you can do is when you journey to go drive change, you will figure out along the way what you need to do to adjust.
[00:29:14] And so, we took this very basic idea of dreaming big and we went for it. In 12 weeks, we ended up hosting 470 bone marrow drives across the country. We enacted 3,500 volunteers through Vinay’s campaign and Sameer’s campaign. At the time, it was Senator Barack Obama, even shared an endorsement letter, supporting the initiative and the efforts.
[00:29:40] And in the end we registered collectively 24,662 new donors into the Be the Match registry. And it was remarkable because when we got started, there were only about roughly 40,000 South Asians in the registry. We brought that up by over 24,000 new individuals, just in a matter of a few months. And from that effort, Sameer found, as did Vinay, bone marrow matches, which was remarkable.
[00:30:15] And we had a very clear purpose, which is to save our friend’s life, for both of them. And we went bigger than we could not because we necessarily want to do, it’s we didn’t have a choice. And it’s by thinking big and going big and really breaking the boundaries of what had been done before, that we were, as a team, were able to achieve those kinds of results.
[00:30:39] Sean: Does this story tie in at all with the DragonFly Effect?
[00:31:01] Robert: Yeah. So, professor Aaker, I think was inspired by this and a number of other things that were happening in the world, which is leveraging and harnessing the power of social media. You have to rewind back into the early days of Facebook and Twitter and these social platforms. And I feel that –
[00:31:19] Sean: Remind us. This is what?
[00:31:22] Robert: Yeah, this was around, 08’ 09’. Yeah. Which, you know, for those platforms was early.
[00:31:28] Sean: Yeah, Twitter had just launched.
[00:31:30] Robert: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. And so, in many ways, the way professor Walker had framed it is you have positive forces at work here, and there are ways that social media can help drive and change, certainly save lives, but also start movements, you look at that today and that you accept that as fact, but back then, there weren’t a lot of large-scale examples that necessarily had proven that out, but there were many that were emerging. And so the Dragon Fly Effect, which is a book that professor Aaker wrote, with Andy Smith, really captured and codified examples of this inaction. And so, if you remember, it was Senator Barack Obama who became President Obama, and that was one of the first, I would say most pioneering presidential campaigns to harness the power of social media. Other organizations like kiva.org had emerged. And these were very powerful bottoms-up movements to engage people in enacting social change or having a social impact and proving that any one person could have an impact that perhaps previously couldn’t have happened. And it’s because of the way that we connect, it’s because of the way that we have the opportunity to contribute, to give back, to be part of something bigger than just ourselves. And that’s the premise of a dragonfly effect, which is the power of any individual to drive positive social change.
[00:33:03] Now, unfortunately, as much as we try to be problem solvers, we also realize that we can’t solve everything. Within a matter of months, sadly, both Sameer and Vinay passed away. They had relapsed, their cancer had come back, and while the transplants were initially successful, they hadn’t fully grafted and they had a recurrence of their cancer. But the story doesn’t end there. The silver lining here is that because of that effort and really because of their stories, that in just a couple of years following their campaigns, I think it was in the first 12 months, there were 80 matches from the new donors that had joined the registry. That means 80 other patients had found matches that previously went unmatched and you fast forward, even just a few years after that, we learned that there were over 300 patients who got matched to new donors that had entered the registry. And, you know, keep in mind that there may have been folks for years who’ve been on the list and couldn’t find a match because not all bone marrow transplant needs are urgent and immediate, some patients do have more time, but this is ultimately Sameer’s and Vinay’s legacy and that legacy continues to this day.
[00:34:44] Sean: Think we should encourage all listeners to register, right?
[00:34:48] Robert: Yeah. It’s really easy to do. You can go to BetheMatch.org, even if you can’t physically show up, given the times we’re in, at a local drive, you can go to Be the Match and request a kit to be sent via mail and you can mail it back in and it’s painless, it’s just a cheek swab.
[00:35:06] And you are signing up to potentially save someone’s life. It’s one of the most powerful gifts that any of us can give. Yeah. And you know, the lessons from that story, frankly, apply to so much more than just that campaign that I mentioned. You know, Sameer was a prolific entrepreneur, and in many ways what we did embodied a lot of his beliefs and how to build an organization, how to build a company.
[00:35:31] And if you break down what we did, and we’ve tried to codify this to help other patients in need as well. But one is to define a really clear goal. And we had a very clear goal, which is we needed to get 20,000 people registered in 12 weeks. Tell your story. We told Sameer’s story, we made it very personal as an entrepreneur, as a newlywed, as a Stanford grad.
[00:35:55] There are many different ways to connect to different audiences, by telling his story in an authentic and very human way. And he did it as well. He posted videos on YouTube. He was a prolific blogger. And he had his authentic voice. Yeah. It’s how you tell your story. The next thing I would say is act first then think, right.
[00:36:14] And think really big. Don’t be shackled by maybe the constraints of the resources you have access to because what’s possible, it goes well beyond the resources that are immediately within the scope of your control. Go enlist your army of people who you need to support you on your journey.
[00:36:32] And don’t ask because if you ask somebody for help, you’re opening up the possibility that they might actually say no. And so just require it, say, here’s what I need from you. Here’s what I’m trying to get done. Hopefully, you have something to inspire them with, and then tell them what you need.
[00:36:50] And it’s remarkable when you just require it, how people who really believe in what you’re doing, how they respond. And then the last thing, execute like crazy, right? There’s no success without hard work. And in this case, it was an incredible amount of volunteers and folks across our teams that actually made this possible. You could apply those principles to anything that you do in life.
[00:37:12] Sean: I imagine a lot of this must’ve transferred to your career. Just to switch gears a bit, what are some other impacts this project has had on how you look at the business world?
[00:37:22] Robert: I think the biggest one is, sort of a reminder and it probably brought into more clarity for me than ever before around the power of purpose. I talked a little bit about this when we discussed why I loved working at eBay. It was a purpose-driven organization with a core set of beliefs around commerce and economic democracy. In Sameer’s campaign and in what we were able to do with him, for him, it’s a story really defined by a purpose, right? And in that case, it’s a purpose to help save his life. But it had an even bigger purpose, which we didn’t necessarily focus on. When you embark on this journey, you’re just trying to solve the problem that’s immediately in front of you. But when you look back, you realize that it’s a really powerful organizing force to affect change beyond your imaginations. And so for me, this has really been a central theme to organize my life and live a life defined by purpose. And in fact, when I say that, I literally mean writing it out and I would encourage anybody to do this, which is, there’s what you do, which is the things that we work on day today. The choices we make around how we spend our time. But there’s the why and the why should come ahead of the what, or at least don’t go too long on the what without first defining the why. And one of the classic TED talks is from Simon Sinek on this, Start With Why.
[00:38:46] Robert: But this is really powerful and the reason I say write it out and when I say write it out, it literally takes a pen and pull out a sheet of paper and make it tactile, right? Like your eyes, your touch, your senses, all connect to this and spend time on this. And for me, it took a while, but when I wrote it down and I got it right, it was so authentic and so to me that it’s really served as the North Star for my life. I defined my purpose as building meaningful businesses that create hope and opportunity in the world and to do it with high performing teams. I expanded on that later, which is in addition to that, to serve as a role model, and be an inspiring father, husband, and son.
[00:39:29] And so a powerful purpose, I think for anybody serves as not just a North Star and a guide for what you do, but arguably it’s even more powerful to help you define what not to do.
[00:39:42] And what I’ve found is when you write this down, sort of the world organizes itself to help you. And one creates a lot of energy because you have clarity now. And secondly, it actually serves as a filter for how you spend your time and how you don’t spend your time. And I think for many of us these days barraged by opportunities, continuous shifts in how we’re being asked to divide our time and focus our attention or not focus our attention. It’s even more important to have that clarity and purpose because it serves as a governing logic for what you eliminate, not just what you introduced to your life.
[00:40:22] Sean: How often do you review this, your North star?
[00:40:25] Robert: Yeah, I keep it in my wallet. In fact, John Donahoe, who is previously the CEO of eBay, now the CEO of Nike, when I learned from him that he has his own purpose and he wrote it down and he keeps it on a card in his wallet, I was like, wow, that is powerful.
[00:40:42] Now he could tell you what it is. He doesn’t have to look at it, but he knows it’s with him. And I started doing a little bit of the same. But you know, I revisit it at least once a year. I have an exercise where I plan the year with the family and sit the kids down and with my wife and think about what do we want to accomplish next year?
[00:40:58] And I go back to that. And what I find is oftentimes when I’m stuck in a decision, whether it’s a career opportunity or an opportunity to spend time with a nonprofit organization or a particular project, I may go down a certain path and I’ll catch myself to say, hold on, is this aligned with my why?
[00:41:17] And the answer is typically pretty evident if it is or isn’t, and it’s always with you, it doesn’t really stop you. There’s no separation between your why and who you are and why you do what you do after a certain point. And I think that’s when it becomes really powerful.
[00:41:34] Sean: I love that. I’ve actually recently revisited my own North stars and this was back in June as part of an exercise and it was the first time because I just had a baby boy right in January.
[00:42:03] Thank you. That I created a North star for my family, separate from my, I guess my career aspirations and the career one, which is still very short, but my purpose is to connect people in a meaningful way through stories. It’s a vein that’s always been an undercurrent in my life, to help connect people. And so, you know, this podcasting kind of falls under that.
[00:42:33] Robert: Yeah.
[00:42:33] Sean: For sure. Uh, and then for the, on the family side definitely was something similar to be a role model. And not just to my son, but to my family and my friends around me.
[00:42:45] Robert: That’s wonderful. Yeah. I love the idea of a family purpose.
[00:42:49] Sean: I really like what you said in that when you’re stuck in a decision, which I’m finding myself more and more so in this new entrepreneurial journey that I need to go back and visit my North star, my purpose, and let that guide me, versus be swayed by some other decisions.
[00:43:07] Robert: Yeah. And, look, I’m the product of a lot of incredible mentors and people who’ve really helped me think through this very thoughtfully and carefully. But, you know, just a shout out to one of the most powerful forces in my life, which is a personal leadership development coach.
[00:43:23] His name is Vance Caesar. And I think it’s important for all of us to think about who do we lean on when we’re looking for guidance or discovery or a better understanding of who we are as individuals. Certainly, we have our friends and family around us, but also as anyone embarks on this journey, think about building your personal board of advisors.
[00:43:45] You know, a company has a board of directors, right? Why not your personal board of directors? Who are the two, three, four, five people, who will give you the unvarnished truth, tell you straight up what they think when you go to them for perspective? They may not answer every question for you, but will at least challenge you and ask you the right questions to help you on this path of self-discovery.
[00:44:08] I think that’s really important. Once you land it, once you’re there, it’s like this incredible force that gets unleashed because now you have clarity, right. And by the way, it changes as different stages of life expand. I mentioned, you know, I added this part to my purpose around family.
[00:44:26] That was really important. That’s okay. That evolves. But at any given moment in time to have the clarity of what you want to achieve and why you’re doing that, is really powerful.
[00:44:36] Sean: Do you have any advice on, you know, how to build this board of advisors because just from personal experience, sometimes, you feel like, Wow, there are these amazing people out there. How could I possibly ask them for their time? What do I have to give back?
[00:45:11] Robert: Sure. Sure. Look, in every good relationship like this, I’m a big believer that each person has to feel like they are getting more than they’re giving right? And if two people in any relationship, frankly, this would go for anything, but if two people feel like they are getting more from a relationship or an opportunity than they are giving, one, you’ll avoid any sort of resentment; two, it’ll be self-reinforcing over time. And what I would say is, start with those immediately around you, individuals who you admire, you respect. Tell them why you admire them and why you respect them, whether it’s a manager, whether it’s the CEO of the company you’re working for, whether it’s a thought leader in an industry that you’re really passionate about. A Professor, right?
[00:45:55] I mentioned professor Aaker for me, played a really powerful force. And, what I found to be a practical tip is once you identify somebody who you believe could really play a powerful force in your life, to tell them why, tell them what you’re trying to work on, and ask them very directly if they’d be open to helping you. And an insurance policy for a lot of these types of relationships and hopefully it’s somebody who already knows you or you can get to know pretty quickly, they can get to know you pretty quickly is to put a timeframe on it and say, Hey, I’d love to have maybe three conversations over the next three months, and see where it can go from there.
[00:46:36] And what it does is it sort of gives these persons in out, right? Like you’re not committing to something beyond a certain timeframe. If it’s not working, no problem, you’ve contained it. You’ve time-bound it, and it’s an easier thing for somebody to commit to.
[00:46:50] But what I bet will happen is if you think wisely about who could you learn from in potentially what can you offer them? These things turn out to be lifelong relationships in many cases and certainly in my situation, that’s how they’ve turned out.
[00:47:06] And I would say just like a company would build this board, as you think about your personal board of directors, each person should bring a different point of view to the table, right? They should know you perhaps from a slightly different perspective. Maybe somebody knows you more personally, somebody may know you more professionally, it should be well-rounded over time.
[00:47:26] At the same time, progress over perfection, right? You don’t have to get it perfect. Start by engaging someone who you can learn from and then build from there. This is a lifelong journey and I think that’s really powerful. And what happens is when you have those around you, who can be very direct, open and honest with you, it’s a sort of a mirror and it’s a reflection on yourself and it allows you to live, I think, a more integrated, more holistic life because you’re growing through all of these relationships and conversations and you’re effectively striving and aiming to be the best version of yourself.
[00:47:59] Sean: This is also very sound advice for finding co-founders. I mean, I get this question a lot, right. People ask, how do I find a co-founder? Because sometimes you feel like I barely know this person, but we’re committing to something. Well, just put a time constraint to it, to do this experiment. So that people have an out, otherwise, it’s like this awkward dance.
[00:48:22] Robert: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it depends on what you’re doing too. Right? If you’re starting a company, you probably want to make sure that the foundation of who you’re doing it with is as strong as possible and runs deep. If you’re working on just a project or if it’s something that’s time-bound, it can really vary.
[00:48:38] But you know, I go back to this, which is, first and foremost, do you connect to the mission? Do you share the values, principles, and really the purpose of the relationship or the purpose behind the organization?
[00:48:53] Because anytime let’s say, you use an example of a cofounder, if there’s a deep intersection between what you believe and what that other person believes, whether it’s purpose or mission or values, or you’re making a decision to join a company if you feel connected to that company’s mission, purpose, and values, if that’s strong, honestly, you’ll figure out the rest, right? But very often, you start with an emphasis on competency, skill sets, is this person’s abilities complement what I can do? Is there a good logical fit between us? And oftentimes the mistake that I see get made is yes, the answer to that is, Oh, wow, this is a match made in heaven, me and this company, or me and this co-founder, or me and this person that I’m bringing onto my team. And you check all the boxes on competency capability fit from an execution perspective. And you don’t spend enough time thinking about the character, the energy, the values. And certainly, when I’ve made mistakes, it’s typically when I feel really good about the logical side of a relationship, and I might have some open question on some of the other things I mentioned, mission, purpose, values, character, energy. Those are the bigger mistakes that tend not to work out versus the inverse, which is, I am with someone who believes what I believe, and I’m bringing up the best version of myself to work every day or to this relationship. And the values are running deep, you know, the manifesto behind why there’s such strong alignment there. But maybe you don’t know the business. Maybe you don’t know the function or the role.
[00:50:39] Maybe you don’t know the industry that you’re in that well. But, guess what? They’ll figure it out, right? Like we all do. I couldn’t have predicted that I would be doing what I am doing today 20 years ago. Great careers are discovered, not planned. What’s most powerful is when you align yourself with the individuals and the organizations and the people, and you surround yourself with individuals who make you better but share that same belief system that you have because the WHAT is going to change, I can assure you. You can’t predict that, but when the WHY is strong and aligned, who cares, what you’re working on.
[00:51:34] Robert: Another one of my friends and mentors, a guy named Gary Briggs, who was long ago, the CMO of eBay and later the CMO of Facebook, one of the most storied marketing careers, incredible human being. And every time I asked him, Hey, Gary, what’s next?
[00:51:52] He’ll say, ah, I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out. I’m still kind of a work in progress. You’re a work in progress. Are you kidding me? You’re like one of the most remarkably successful, pioneering, global CMOs I’ve ever encountered and met and had the privilege of knowing. And, he says, eh, we’ll see, I’m a work in progress.
[00:52:13] Sean: That’s amazing.
[00:52:14] Robert: I think we all are.
[00:52:15] Sean: Yeah, the student always. I think one of my last questions is, just interacting with you throughout this interview and seeing your demeanor, I’m really curious how you stay calm, how you manage stress as a leader, and especially in these turbulent times?
[00:52:37] Robert: We talk a lot about this because I don’t think anybody across the world could say that they were really prepared for the time that we’re in right now. And so how do we ensure that, well, this might be an extreme situation that even small things, day to day that we’re ready to take them on. And I always come back to this word resilience, which is how do we build more resilience into our lives?
[00:53:00] And for me, again, I don’t have the answers on this. I think we all, especially as knowledge workers, in front of computers all day, and we are rewiring our brains. I’m convinced there’s like neuro-plasticity happening here as we interact differently with technology, how do you build resilience into your life?
[00:53:18] And I don’t have any magic answers, but for me, it is the basics, which is one, whenever possible, do what you love every day. And you might not love every day, but you have to sort of fundamentally enjoy what you’re doing. Two, find things that serve as a source of energy for you.
[00:53:37] And I’m a big believer that there are two types of people in the world. There are the people who help create energy, there are people who take it away.
[00:53:45] Surround yourself with those who create energy. And then third is, there’s no such thing as balance, it’s truly about tradeoffs. And so, when you make those trade-offs, be conscious about how you spend your time, where you spend your time, who you spend your time with.
[00:53:58] And then all the fundamentals, right? Good nutrition, good sleep, exercise, fitness, and not just physically, but also spiritually and mentally as well. We all have our paths to that. I’m not here to promote or prescribe one method or the other, other than to say, design it into your life because I believe that it’s those things around, doing what you love, surrounding yourself with the right people and the right energy.
[00:54:24] And introducing some of these balancing mechanisms around good health and nutrition and sleep. Together, I think all of that together combined helps to build resilience.
[00:54:37] Sean: It seems like you have an answer prepared for every question that I ask and because there’s like a bullet list for everything. And I’m really curious, you know, every time I see a wall book behind someone I have to ask, what are the top three books that have had a big influence on you?
[00:55:11] Robert: Well, I love to read and I have a few that are my go-to’s that are just happy to recommend to folks, but from a business book perspective, in fact, a book that John Donahoe, when I was at eBay, inspired me with and encouraged me to read was True North by Bill George, who’s a professor at Harvard Business School. And I think it’s a remarkable read for anybody, whether you’re in business or not, in discovering really your personal purpose. Secondly, there’s a great book by, Kevin Cashman, and it’s called The Pause Principle, which is this idea of having moments of change in our life where we are transitioning from maybe one career to the next or as a student going into professional life.
[00:55:53] And you have these inflection points or these moments of change. Sometimes it’s not by choice, you’ve lost a job or you’ve lost a family member or there’s a serious life moment. Instead of trying to just power through it, to embrace the opportunity to pause, and acknowledge and recognize that maybe you’re on a plateau, maybe you’re in a transition moment. But there’s a lot of wisdom that can be discovered during those transition moments. And that book has been, and it’s an easy read, it’s been, you know, really just a fun read for me and I go back to it quite a bit. And then one of my all-time favorites is the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, right. And I’m a big believer of that, having clarity around what you want to achieve and sometimes be willing to let go and let the invisible hand of the universe help you get there. That’s right. And, yeah, maybe you can pick up on a theme here. And I think there’s a lot of power in this idea of expressing intent, having a strong sense of why you do what you do and what you want to achieve. And, letting go just a little bit, it’s not a substitute for hard work, but sometimes you need to let go and let that invisible hand of the universe come help you.
[00:57:17] Sean: I’m so glad I asked because the first two books I’ve never heard of and the second book especially is, I don’t know if this is serendipity, but this is a book that I need, like right now, because I’m learning to give myself the grace to pause.
[00:57:35] Robert: Sometimes, we need to just be.
[00:57:37] Sean: Yeah. Yeah. This is really wonderful. And so, I have to ask you for a little bit more, which is what are three recent books that you’ve read?
[00:57:49] Robert: Okay. Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s one I’ve just picked up. I got actually have it here. There are actually two, there around health, nutrition and wellness, Dr. Michael Greger, How Not to Die and How Not to Diet, both thick reads, bold titles.
[00:58:06] And then, Leadership From the Inside Out is one that I’ve just picked up. So, you could sense a theme here, books on leadership, personal development, and then health and wellness. Those are sort of things that I actually love to digest now. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times and you know the moment we’re living in.
[00:58:27] Sean: I got recently dragged in by a friend into a couple of Zen books. One was called One Blade of Grass. And then I was reading Practicing Stoic, and then one of my favorites lately that I’ve been recommending a lot is called The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi.
[00:58:47] Robert: Okay. I’ll check them out. I’ve added these to my list.
[00:58:50] Sean: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Robert. It’s been such a pleasure.
[00:58:54] Robert: Yeah, Sean, it’s absolutely been a privilege. I appreciate the time and getting to know you and certainly the Haas community that’s very personal to me and what I’m very passionate about and even anybody who’s connected and not in the core Haas community, but shares the values and principles of Haas. I love the opportunity to spend time with you. So, thank you.
[00:59:14] Sean: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please remember to hit that subscribe or follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate it if you could give us a five-star rating and review. You can also check out more of our content on our website at haaspodcasts.org. That’s podcasts with an S at the end, where you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts until next time. Go bears.