John Maeda Talks Leadership, Learning, and Legacy From RISD to KPCB

What do you do after running one of the world’s most prestigious art schools? If you’re John Maeda, you dive into venture capital and startups—and find that the world moves even faster than you thought.

Maeda, 48, is a computer scientist, author, and graphic designer who was president of the Rhode Island School of Design for five-plus years until the end of 2013. Before that, he was a professor at the MIT Media Lab for 13 years, doing pioneering work in blending art, design, and computers.

At RISD, he ruffled feathers as he tried to bring the school into the digital, social-media age. But his administration earned high marks in terms of fundraising, lowering costs, and improving the college’s rank. He also led a national movement to incorporate “Art” into STEM education, to make it STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.

Maeda resigned from RISD to join venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as its first “design partner” in January. In that role, he is applying his eye for design and aesthetics to the world of tech startups and investing—a confluence that has become increasingly crucial to business success in companies of all sizes.

In Maeda’s words: “I advise on investments, I bring in new companies, I work with existing companies. I’m trying to craft some new things. I’m failing miserably at it, but I’m going to see what happens. I’m trying to make new ventures occur, spark them, catalyze them.”

To hear some key lessons—most notably on the tension between creativity and leadership—I sat down with Maeda (pictured above, right, with entrepreneur Max Gunawan) at the recent PopTech conference in Maine. He was the host of the techie and designer gathering, and the broad theme was “rebellion.” Here’s a lightly edited version of our chat:

Xconomy: What’s your own personal rebellion story?

John Maeda: Being an Asian person, you’re taught not to be rebellious. People always tell me, “Wow you went to art school, how did you that?” Because Dad said it was OK, and it was only after going to MIT! So it wasn’t really rebellious. Even going to MIT as a professor, I’m not sure if I was rebellious either. But I was never concerned about tenure.

Paola Antonelli [from MoMA] asked me on stage at a conference, “What’s the difference between courage and audacity?” I gave some lame answer, and I spent a whole month trying to figure out what the right answer was—and I found it in a book on warriors. How audacity is what younger people do, or inexperienced people do, when they don’t know what they’re getting into. Courage is knowing what you’re getting into and still moving forward.

In my younger years I was much more audacious, and in later years I had to discover how to be more courageous. And the courage has helped me be more rebellious, like doing things that probably aren’t natural. There are so many stories here [at PopTech] about people who shouldn’t change careers, but they did it. Like I became a college president. I didn’t have experience. Or venture capital—I didn’t have experience. People can call that rebelliousness. I would just say it’s learning how to deal with your desire to find more courage in later life.

X: You mentioned your time as president of RISD. What lesson do you pull out of that?

JM: When you’re inexperienced, you think anything can happen. Oh yeah, people will come along with the right idea. At RISD I had so many groups that really felt there was a right way, and I couldn’t come up with that right way. I had to find their way. That taught me how leadership really isn’t about you, it’s about them. And over time I really redesigned how I work as a leader. The book [Redesigning Leadership] was my own public therapy. When you’re creative, you want to do things. But when you’re a leader, you don’t get to do things. You get to symbolize the potential to do things. Only until I realized that could I lead better.

X: How do you apply that now?

JM: I strive to make myself uncomfortable. The older you get, the more semi-renowned or successful you get, it’s easier to take it easy. You can rely on what you did. So I try to be more uncomfortable now. I stay at Airbnbs, I UberX everywhere, I go here, I go there. I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now at my age, I think, but I’m just doing it. And through it, I’m getting more in touch with how I used to get to think when I wasn’t so concerned about how things “should” be.

Being president, everyone’s after you for some reason. You get thicker skin.

X: So, is leadership about being able to rally people and change their minds?

JM: It’s like a compromise between knowing what they want to do and what you want to do, and just come somewhere in between. If you’re a good leader and you have good people, the good people have a better idea of where to go anyways. So the better the people, listen to them. The less the people, you lead a little more, but bring in better people. In the venture capital world, Eugene Kleiner brought in the notion that it isn’t about the idea, it’s about the people. Because the idea could be bad. But the people know how to pivot.

X: What are your thoughts on the blending of East and West in technology and business?

JM: More people are aware that the Chinese aren’t just copying anymore, they’re innovating. That’s a weakness, I believe, in the U.S. view of China—that they’re copycats. Remember what they called the Japanese before, and suddenly out of nowhere they came. The Chinese are working hard. I’ve been seeing this. So don’t underestimate it, but don’t be afraid.

X: Are you spending much time on China these days?

JM: Not now. I’m just settling into the VC world. Kleiner has a China practice, and I love talking to those guys because you can just see how far ahead some of the social stuff is. At Kleiner, it’s so different than academia.

X: You mentioned that last time we spoke. But I still talk to people who think academia is ahead, still feeding the technology pipeline.

JM: Yes, there is research that’s exotic and beautiful. But industry moves so fast. Nicholas [Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder] told me that when I was at MIT. I learned to appreciate industry in my early years as a professor, because an industry achieves scale.

X: What’s blowing your mind in industry these days?

JM: To be very honest, just the world of venture capital. When you hear stories, you just assume that venture capitalists are bad. Everyone I talk to says, “John, you’re in venture capital, oh my gosh, you’ve sold your soul to the devil,” blah blah blah. And I know bad people who are artists and designers—it’s not limited to that! You have to believe there are some good venture capitalists out there.

I think I get to learn the good parts of VC. I’m getting to be in a firm that’s reinventing itself, that’s moving fast, and I get to see what most people don’t get to see—the non-stereotyped version of VC. These guys work harder than any person I ever knew in my past lives. They really care about the entrepreneur.

My first week, I was at my first Series A pitch. I didn’t know what Series A meant at the time. Three guys come in, they’ve got their iPhones, their screens are all on, the demo is up, they start into their thing. Fifteen minutes in, the screens go dark. It’s an “oh s-h-i-t” moment. They’re like, “Oh no, no,” fiddling with the cable. One of my partners says, “Is that us, is that our fault? We’re really sorry, let me call someone to help.” I thought that was such a noble thing to do. It’s about how do you make people feel comfortable. I’ve seen that kind of behavior more than once. I’m learning how to be a better person in the VC world!

X: That’s ironic, isn’t it. [Laughter] What are your thoughts on your own legacy? How do you confront mortality?

JM: My life changed when someone told me life is lived in four quarters. I thought about it—wow, I’m at the end of my second quarter. If I’m lucky I’ll get a third quarter, but my fourth quarter is not going to be awesome. As you get older, you confront the fact that life is more finite. I’m so happy to be on stage—I want to feel versus not feel. There’s so much less at stake when you realize there’s not much time left.

X: Is there an overarching question you want to pursue in the coming years?

JM: Regina Dugan [Google vice president and former DARPA head] really inspires me in that she can bring technology forward through great leadership and make things happen at scale. As a professor I could do that with students, but now in this phase of my life, I think, how do I do something like that? Is it making a company? I don’t know. I’d like to realize innovation at scale and in new space. I don’t know what it is. But definitely I’m not going to go back to being a professor. That’s not in my goal list anymore. It was fun being a professor, I knew great professors at MIT. But it’s not for me. I see many faculty leaving academia now. I think it’s not a lot, but it’s unusual, people leaving tenured positions.

I don’t have a really crisp answer for my next quarter. I will just tell you that I hope to be alive and not be in the hospital. And I would like to participate in bringing more technology people to design and leadership. Because you can make things as a designer, you can make things as a technologist, but if you can’t lead, you’re just stuck making things.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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