The recent tech boom inaugurated an age of invention, but NationSwell Council member Greg Gunn, who founded his own education technology software startup, has been “frustrated” by the sector’s lack of diversity. For the last five years, he had an open-door policy of passing on advice to anyone who asked, but he recently formalized his informal professional coaching into Lingo Ventures, systematizing his advice, researching how programmers enter their chosen field and investing in platforms that connect diverse employees with tech companies.
Across a round dining room table on the first floor of his Brooklyn brownstone, NationSwell spoke to Gunn about how technology is changing our lives, where it falls short and how the future might be different.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
The power of the leader is to provide stability, or even just the feeling of it. When the boss comes in, things don’t go into freak-out [mode], but calm down. There’s the importance of the boss coming in every day with positivity. If you’re freaking out, everybody around you feels the freak-out 10 times as much. So, it’s being conscious, grounding yourself and coming in with positivity and stability every day, no matter how tough things are.
What’s on your nightstand?
I draw a lot of my inspiration from science fiction. I’ve been reading “The Three-Body Problem” series. It’s a science-fiction trilogy by the most award-winning science fiction author in China, Liu Cixin. Only two of the books have come out in English, so [I’m] waiting for the third one. It…starts in the Cultural Revolution in China and ends up in the future in space. It’s got these powerful ideas of how society responds to stability and chaos and how it survives those cycles. Some of the strengths you build during a period of great stability can become not-strengths or liabilities in a moment of chaos, and I’m really thinking of it right now in terms of economic change that our society is going through. Everybody’s worrying what’s happening to the American economy. Is it stable? How do we really know? And I think about it even more in terms of the impact of technology on the economy, which is already starting have profound changes, but people aren’t predicting how profound those changes are going to be. How does our way of thinking about work evolve in the face of that?
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
The most important educational technology today is YouTube, because any time you need to learn something — whether it’s a small thing or a big thing — there are resources out there. Not only can you learn whatever skill it is, but there are 100 different ways out there that people [acquired] it, and you can find the one that actually works for your brain. I don’t know if democratizing is the right word, but that literally makes the best personalized education experience out there and free for everybody.
People talk a lot about Khan Academy, which I think is just a subset of the bigger phenomenon of people sharing how they learn things. More and more learning content is coming out of the universities, so things like EdX, Coursera. The edge of innovation right now is we’ve gone through this great wave of getting a whole bunch of content out there, and now that it’s all out there, we’re figuring out: Where do I actually need human touch again to get the optimal learning experience? How do I bring human tutors, teaching, peer support and coaching back into that? Now we’re remembering what we’ve always known: the content itself motivates to a degree, but having a human really motivates you a lot more.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
One thing that I started to learn and I think I’m still learning now is to be more open about what you’re working on. I’ve always been a perfectionist and a bit afraid to share what I’m working on or what I’m thinking about until it’s a finished product, especially with what I’m trying to do with Lingo Ventures. I think it’s important that I’m talking to more people, so that I’m both sharing and learning at the same time. It’s taking that personal risk to put the half-baked idea out there so that I can bake it with others.
How do you try to inspire others?
For my coworkers, in the work we do, part of which is diversity related, it’s easy to look at what’s happening in Silicon Valley and be really frustrated. So a big part of the work is how to flip that script. If this thing is wrong, where can we get value to get past it? If I’m working with an entrepreneur of color who feels like they’re constantly at a disadvantage in fundraising, part of the work is figuring out how do we turn those things that you believe are being perceived as disadvantages into things that are competitive for you. It’s not easy work, but you’ve chosen the problem because it’s a hard problem.
What’s your perfect day?
Have breakfast with my son and take him to school. Go to the white board with two or three entrepreneurs. Write a piece on something I’ve been thinking about. Get my team unblocked on whatever the organization needs that day. Then spend the rest of the day doing art: drawing, sculpting, whatever.
What don’t most people know about you that they should?
Star Trek is the vision that guides almost all of my work; it always has. My vision of what I want the future to look like and my companies to look like is really guided by the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in Next Generation: the way people interact, the diversity, the values, the goals, the technology. What would Captain Picard do? It sounds geeky but it really shapes what inspires me and what I want my workplace to look like.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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