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5 Inspiring Innovators Making Gains for Silicon Valley and the World

Carolyne Zinko | April 1, 2020 | People Feature Profiles Features

Most Inspiring: 5 under-the-radar overachievers whose innovative work is making gains for Silicon Valley and the world.

MLSVAngela_DeCenzoMG2353HIGHRESPE.jpgChris Lorway, executive director of Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall

His ancestors in Nova Scotia were sea captains, and in his own way, Chris Lorway is steering a ship too. Named executive director of Stanford Live (live.stanford.edu) and Bing Concert Hall in 2016, he’s transforming a once-sleepy Lively Arts program at Stanford University with 30 to 50 events a year into a dynamic brand with 180 events a year that span music, multidisciplinary theater and contemporary dance. “I wanted to really open up the idea of what the arts at Stanford could be,” says Lorway, who has tapped international relationships to do so, thanks to a career that includes top posts at Toronto’s Luminato Festival and Canada’s Massey Hall, arts consulting, and two years at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Haven’t been paying attention? Stanford Live is bringing fare to the suburbs that’s typically only available on the big-city stages of New York, Los Angeles and London—The Barber Shop Chronicles by British-Nigerian poet-playwright Inua Ellams; avant-garde composer-singer Meredith Monk; violinist Joshua Bell; singer k.d. lang; comedian Colin Quinn; and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to name a few. It works the other way too. Lorway took program donors to Scotland’s Edinburgh Festivals for the European premiere of a Chinese work co-produced by Stanford Live. “It instills a pride,” he says, “in the power we can have on an international scale of developing and supporting artists around the globe.”

On an academic note, Stanford Live’s programming is based around annual themes: postelection nationalism and identity in 2017-18; empathy in 2018-19; art and politics in 2019-20; and reconciliation and forgiveness in 2020-21. Lofty stuff for a boy from a steel and coal town on Cape Breton Island. “Even though there was nobody in my direct family who were professional musicians,” he says, “they had a love of the arts, and that was passed down to me.”

If I could turn back time, I would tell myself to Not focus on the little things.

An excited audience makes me happy.

The best advice I ever got was Be willing to take a risk.

MLSVAngela_DeCenzoNicoleTaylor2020030541A4021_HIGHRESPE.jpgNicole Taylor, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Growing up in Hollywood as the daughter of a Jamaican domestic, Nicole Taylor dreamed of winning an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony award—and becoming a doctor. “As with many immigrant families,” she says, “there are only a few things they tell you to be, and a doctor or lawyer tends to be at the top of the list.” She not only wanted to help people, but make stories come to life that would move people to action. Today, as president and chief executive officer of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in Mountain View (siliconvalleycf.org), the nation’s largest, with $9.4 billion in net assets, she’s doing both.

As the replacement of former chief executive Emmett Carson, who resigned in 2018 amid complaints of a toxic work environment, Taylor spent 2019 on strategic planning, organizational culture and structure, and rebuilding donors’ confidence. A Stanford grad whose career includes CEO stints at the East Bay Community Foundation, College Track and the Thrive Foundation, Taylor likens the foundation to a startup that had focused on growth and expansion for years without investing enough in people or systems, and without matching donors’ areas of interest with nonprofits focused on that work. Operations were “far more transactional,” she says of the past. “I’m trying to build a far more relational organization.” As the largest funder of Bay Area nonprofits, the foundation’s donors distributed $472 million locally in 2019 (and contributed to national and global causes as well).

Donors once on the verge of withdrawing funds are now fans. At an event at Montalvo Arts Center last summer, Taylor overheard a critic of the foundation urging a friend to place her money at the foundation and work with its team. Says Taylor, “I was both honored and humbled at that moment and thought, ‘We are definitely on the right path.’”

If I could turn back time, I would tell myself to Believe that you are enough.

In the next year, I hope to Witness real change because of our efforts and see that I’ve made a difference.

The best advice I ever got was Be authentic.

MLSVAngela_DeCenzoMG1790HIGHRESPE.jpgMichaela Hoag, founder of Alzheimer research fundraiser Part the Cloud

The brain is key in Silicon Valley, where ideas spur technologies that change the world. No wonder Michaela “Mikey” Hoag’s Part the Cloud, a biennial fundraiser for Alzheimer’s research, (alz.org/partthecloud), has gained enormous traction. The Atherton resident expected to raise $200,000 when she launched the event in 2012, and garnered a stunning $2 million instead. This year’s fundraising challenge collected more than $30 million (the April 25 gala has been postponed to spring of 2021).

Hoag was inspired by her father, the first parent to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, followed by her mother (both now deceased). A hereditary component means she and her five siblings are also at risk. Her galas, with low-key elegance (not high-society spectacle) alternate with a luncheon every other year. To date, $30 million in grants have gone to research on drugs for human trials, and those projects have gone on to receive $290 million in additional funding from the government, industry, venture capital and other sources. “This is important, because every year, hundreds of thousands of potential drugs die in what the scientific community calls the ‘valley of death,’” Hoag says. “Because of a lack of funding, many promising drugs can’t move from the laboratory through clinical trials and, ultimately, to patients. Part the Cloud funds high-risk, high-potential new ideas for Alzheimer’s disease treatment, pushing them past this ‘valley of death.’”

This year, tech billionaire Bill Gates, whose father has the disease, committed $10 million if Hoag raises $20 million. By March, she’d already surpassed that goal and tickets had sold out. “Like millions of others, I have witnessed the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease firsthand,” Gates says. “The Alzheimer’s Association Part the Cloud program is impressive and accelerating early clinical phases of drug development to slow, stop and ultimately cure the disease.”

In the next year, I hope to See breakthroughs that Part the Cloud has supported.

If I could turn back time, I would Understand that setbacks are learning opportunities.

Great conversation with my kids makes me happy.

The best advice I ever got was To excel requires focus and hard work.

MLSVCraig_LeeOrkutBuyukkokten19Feb2020037HIGHRESPE.jpgHello.com co-founder Orkut Büyükkökten

Orkut Büyükkökten is watching as people worldwide share their lives on social media and doesn’t like what he sees. “Social media was supposed to bring us closer together and create a better world,” he says. “Today it’s driving us to isolation and unhappiness. Loneliness has become a global epidemic.” As a former Google product engineer, he knows that corporations create algorithms that focus on optimizing engagement and advertising clicks to drive revenue and growth for shareholders. It’s a problem he’s crusading to fix.

The Turkish engineer with a computer science doctorate from Stanford University created orkut.com, a social network, in 2004, and co-founded another, hello.com, in 2016. Launched in Brazil, the app has 1.5 million users globally and is driven by Büyükkökten’s buoyant, unrelenting optimism. The network’s communities are based around shared interests; a heart icon for clicks of approval records those clicks anonymously. “It shouldn’t matter where that like is coming from,” he says. “It gets very competitive and people start measuring love, respect and self-worth by the number of likes they get and the comments they receive. It ends being a numbers game.”

Hello is focused on fostering unexpected connections and genuine conversations about shared passions, not virality. “I believe with all my heart,” Büyükkökten says, “that we should use the power of technology to unite people, and create a healthy and happy community.”

I describe my leadership style as Compassionate, mindful, inclusive.

Who inspires you? My dad, a surgeon who often would only charge patients for what they could afford or, if they couldn’t pay, he wouldn’t charge them at all.

If I could turn back time, I would tell myself Don’t take what other people say or think personally.

Going to Stanford changed my life.

The best advice I ever got was To lead by example (from my dad).

If I had three wishes, I would wish for An end to wars; the ability to read minds; to make the first contact with intelligent alien life forms.

MLSVCraig_LeeSalKahnKahnAcademy25Feb202015638B74HIGHRESPE.jpgSal Khan, founder of Khan Academy

Sal Khan’s head has long been in the clouds. “I was a kid who would draw pictures continuously, morning to night, and get in trouble with teachers, always doodling,” says the son of Bangladeshi immigrants in New Orleans. In high school, his imagination shifted to science and theoretical physics, “to understand the deepest meaning of the universe,” he says. In college, he studied computer science. “Instead of understanding reality, I wanted to make reality,” he says. For a time, he was pre-med, and then pre-law, noting, “I’ve never been solid in what I wanted to do.”

It’s a self-effacing statement from the creator of the Khan Academy (khanacademy.org), whose well-defined mission is to provide a free, personalized, world-class education for anyone, anywhere on the planet. Classes are available from pre-kindergarten to college level in 40 languages to more than 90 million registered users in 190 countries around the globe. (A new app, Khan Kids, serves children ages 2 to 7.) The school in the cloud was hatched after Khan’s early tech career in Silicon Valley and subsequent graduation from Harvard Business School. In 2004, recently married, he learned that his 12-year-old niece was having math trouble. He tutored her remotely, saw that his cousins needed help too, and, after moving back to Silicon Valley for work, began developing educational software and posting YouTube tutorials as a hobby. When 100,000 users a month began crashing his $30-a-month web-hosting service, he launched the academy in Mountain View in 2008 as a nonprofit that today has a $60 million annual operating budget.

Among his success stories? A girl from Afghanistan who took his classes online after the Taliban told her she couldn’t go to school. Says Khan, “She’s now a theoretical physics researcher in the U.S.”

If I could turn back time, I would tell myself to Relax.

Being born in this country changed my life.

If I had three wishes, I would wish for A world where no one’s denied their potential.



Photography by: Hoag, Taylor and Lorway portraits by Angela Decenzo; Büyükkökten and Khan portraits by Craig Lee