Stay Agile: Technology, Education and Workplace 3.0

This month’s Women on Business interview is with Diana Wu David, Independent Non-Executive Director for Da Vinci Labs, Regional Director of Financial Times Executive Education, TEDx speaker and ‘investor in people and ideas‘. Our talk covered education, technology, start-ups, investment and boards.

You are an independent non-executive director in a start-up education firm Da Vinci Labs. Do you believe start-up companies can influence traditional education institutions? In what way?

Start-up companies definitely have a role to play in educating children and adults for the future. Traditional educational institutions are set up to weather many storms and stand the test of time, so they are not always so nimble. I Chair of the American Chamber’s Education Affairs Group and we work with MNCs, the government and do a lot of work in underprivileged schools in Hong Kong, so I have a fairly good understanding of some of the benefits and drawbacks of the curriculum. I don’t know that new technologies will come in and revolutionize those institutions overnight or that they need to. But giving them the opportunity to have an education suited to the future is important. Startups like Da Vinci Labs, which teaches children computational thinking and robotics, gives them an opportunity to solve problems using robotics, coding and new technology. It also gives them a sense of challenge, failure and resilience. Robotics challenges just happen to be a super fun way for kids to learn these computational and critical thinking skills; in other times those skills were developed in other ways.

Technology will support learning (eg Hong Kong government has pledged to put broadband wifi in every local school) and can expose kids to the latest technology to use for work and life. It will have an influence on the way that children learn and teachers and schools can use it to augment their efforts to inspire kids to contribute to their community and their workplace.

So in essence you’re using robotics as a platform – a future or modern platform – to build on skills that are developed through the traditional schooling system?

Da Vinci Labs has invested a lot in linking the robotic challenges to STEM subjects in curriculums across the schools they work with from IB to local Chinese schools. There are a lot of interesting technologies that are changing the way that people learn. One of the companies I’ve invested in, Playto, has a neural feedback headset and jetplane game with various challenges. It allows children to navigate through the game and depending on how much focus you have as measured by your brainwaves, the faster your plane will go and the more easily you can win. That’s an example of technology that’s fun, cool, alternative technology….and who doesn’t want to focus more!

If you were to design a curriculum for high school students that are starting their first year in 2030, what key components would you include that are different to today?

I’ve thought a lot about this because of investing in education and thinking about what can make a difference in lifelong learning. What are universally important attributes for young people to learn these days no matter where they are?

I think that global competency in students is important. There is a lot of work being done to determine just what that means. But being able to understand that there is a wider world beyond your town and country is really important because in all realms of work and politics you need to understand that there is a wider context. To prepare yourself for the inevitablility of whatever will happen, you need to be agile. Even if you think you’re going to be running a bakery in a small town in the middle of America or Europe. The world may become more isolationist from time to time but this is an interconnected world and the overall trend is to be more and more connected. You do need to know what the price of wheat is and what happens in China, for instance, that might influence somebody that owns a bakery in the heartland of America. That is one of the big things that I feel is important for high school students and could definitely be part of the curriculum. There is a lot of study on this by non-profits and organizations like the Asia Society, ASF, EF, and US-China Strong.

The second thing would be innovation and basic ITC literacy. I don’t necessarily think that everybody needs to code, but I do think that everybody should have some basic knowledge of how to approach technology. Technology is changing so quickly. It will change the minute we teach it, so having an approach that encourages people to learn how to learn and get up to speed quickly is key. Computational thinking and the logic behind coding as opposed to knowing all of python or javascript – that this gives people a leg up in terms of the workplace. As technology changes, we hire young people to help us bridge that gap; they become experts and this gives them an opportunity to contribute at an early stage in their career.

You’re describing the new landscape, and sometimes a trap that businesses can get themselves into is thinking that this is somewhere off in the future, but actually it’s right now.

It certainly is. You can see it when you hire people. You can even see it in non-profits. I work with Cultural Journalism Campus, started by Vivienne Chow to teach arts and culture journalism to aspiring journalism students. In partnership with Art Basel the CJC Fellows cover the art fair and even there technology is crucial. You need to know how to do video, assess video art, understand all the different technologies you have at your disposal and which might be most appropriate to tell the story and reach your audience.

So I think it’s important but I don’t necessarily think that – taking it back to Da Vinci Labs – you need to know how to run specific robots. It’s more of a specific agility around technology that I think starts in schools.

The third thing would be what I’d call ‘preparation for work 3.0’. Our traditional education systems follow the industrial age model by preparing kids to go into very specific jobs and make widgets or legal briefs or whatever it is. But as I see more and more people and as I manage people, the most important training comes from allowing kids to understand what they are good at and what they might be passionate about, that exposes them to a lot of different options, including arts and culture, coding, basic english, math, research skills. Preparing people for work, whatever that might be, is important. The problem with some schools now is that it’s based on that old idea of preparing people for work that won’t exist in 2040 or 2050.

My dream curriculum would expose kids to many different options and be flexible enough to allow them to pursue those options and would also include social and emotional intelligence and resilience. It’s incredibly difficult to execute – it amounts to personalised, individualised learning – but is getting easier and easier to do supported by data and responsive learning systems.

You’re talking about empowering students to navigate their way through the world they’ll be faced with, instead of feeling like they have one path and destination. What you’re talking about are schools allowing people to gain skills that people need when they are faced with post-school reality.

In the past you were taught to go down a very specific academic path in preparation for work at a company probably for your entire working life so that made a lot of sense. I don’t think that people will have that luxury – with the advent of more freelance and more flexibility and the gig economy, they will increasingly have to figure out their own path. That’s really hard but liberating. Teach for Hong Kong Fellows, for example, found that some of the biggest impact on their students is from what Hong Kong calls ‘other learning experiences’, which expose kids to different opportunities such as art or coding or music. These open kids’ eyes to a broader perspective on how they can contribute once they leave school and also enhance their overall success as achievement in areas of passion translate to a greater sense of confidence.

You have exceptional experience in getting senior professionals ‘board ready’. What do you see as essential skills or experiences for first time board members?

It’s important to distinguish what skills and experiences people need to get on a board, vs. what they need to be effective in their first board role. In order to be effective in a first board role, taking some time to think about what you can contribute and how you’ll fit in to the larger board that you sit on may already be more than many people are doing. A lot of people don’t know what they’re getting in to with board work. Part of it is the boards themselves, in terms of educating themselves, proactively evaluating their composition and bringing on new directors. What is it about this person that compelled them to bring on a new board member. Is it market expertise? Character? Having someone ‘gung-ho’ on a bit of a sleepy board? Is it somebody who brings people together? Somebody who has had experience in a company similar to yours that you think may be relevant?

Having a conversation in terms of expectations on both sides and doing due diligence around whether those expectations can be met is something that people find very useful when we do the FT NED Diploma. They often say they have completely changed the way they approach board work, based on having had those conversations or having spent some time thinking about how they would like to pursue board work.

The second thing our alumni say is helpful, is the board behavior piece. They review risk and audit and board structure and legal and all of those things, but the thing that they use most is the whole segment we do on board behaviour. Understanding your own style, understanding how to go from an executive mindset to an influencer mindset, is something that a lot of people don’t think about.

On the flip side, a lot of people who feel they’ve done the preparation to contribute to a board, may underestimate the amount of strategic networking that they need to do in order to be available for boards. No matter how prepared you are or how great you are, if no one really knows you, it’s hard for them to have enough trust in you to invite you to join the board.

And continuing in the same theme, what do you think boards of today should be looking for?

Boards should evaluate their composition as a whole to see what the gaps are and then select a person to fill the gap that they have.

That’s the gold standard, but does it happen?

It does happen. Usually it’s very practical. For example, if a company is really keen in it’s strategy to focus on Asia, and they don’t have a board member in Asia then they might hire somebody who has Asian expertise or who has done a lot of business in a specific market or has good connections there. That said, a lot of boards in Europe I know have significant exposure to Asia now but nobody with Asia experience on their boards, so they are in a bit of a panic thinking that they had best get people onto their boards so they can minimise their risk. Whereas if they had thought about it when they started into that market, they might have maximised their opportunity.

On the flip side, they don’t often think about the way that the board will work together and function together and what kind of personalities you might have on a board. For instance, we worked with a board where they had different people from different countries and yet when we did a review of their communication styles, every single one of them were highly direct and non-expressive, very tight control on information, very direct, very unemotional. It was interesting because they had what you think would lead to a diverse board, yet all these people were kind of the same type and therefore they were having a lot of trouble communicating with management because the board was very cohesive, saying ‘well we all think the same thing, so it must be right!’

It would be good for boards to think of character and style composition, and also for candidates to think about how they might be contributing beyond their functional expertise or market expertise. How they’ll fit into the board. It’s a team effort; it’s not an individual game.

You are a board member and advisor at NEST accelerator in Hong Kong. In your experience, what makes for an ‘investment ready’ start up? 

I did work for an early stage investment company here in the late 1990s and have followed the startup scene here since then. I found after getting into my own investing that it’s important to have an investment thesis, a belief about the way the world will be in the future and try to find companies that will fit into that particular view of the world. For example, I believe the future of work will require lifelong learning and that our entire education system from birth to grave will need to change to adapt to that. A lot of my investments are related to the future of work and the future of education, and a little bit based on my media expertise – the future of storytelling, I guess. I personally don’t look at investment just for the financial return. I believe start-ups can have a huge impact in solving the world’s problems.

Generally if it’s a local Hong Kong company with no plans to scale, it’s not of interest to me. I like to see companies that take advantage of their position in Asia or the future global nature of the world. Purely local companies in the U.S. or Hong Kong are not that interesting even if they’ll make money.

If companies seem to fit into my thesis and are interesting then I’ll go through the usual checklist and seek to cap downside risk. Some considerations are the strength of the team. Do they have the right resources, i.e. a person who understands the numbers, a person who can sell, a person who can champion and lead? Do they understand what their strengths and weaknesses are so that they can build a team that can take the business forward? Do they have an idea that is really new, that might make a big impact on the world? What are the uses for the money they will raise? What will the next step be once they have use up the round? I always lead with team and idea but there are a lot of companies that don’t fit my criteria that would be really fantastic investments.

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