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Chair of the Board: How Jeff Raikes’ roots will shape his role as head trustee


Decades before he was called to vote on divestment as a Stanford trustee, new Board chair Jeff Raikes ’80 protested the University’s investments in apartheid South Africa alongside other student activists. As a freshman in 1977, he was one of 294 students arrested at Old Union for a sit-in meant to pressure the Board of Trustees into rethinking a previous vote.

Stanford ultimately agreed to change its investment policy, but Raikes has since come to question the effectiveness of divestment as a strategy to advance social causes. Over the course of a career that has spanned technology, business and philanthropy — he has been both president of Microsoft Business Division and CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and now devotes his time to his own philanthropy — he has developed what he sees as a more a pragmatic approach toward social justice.

“The research suggests that the actual act of divestment doesn’t really have much impact,” he said. “What can have impact is increasing the awareness — and sometimes that’ll lead to things like product boycotts, [or] other things that stigmatize the behavior of companies.”

Slightly over half a year into his four-year term as chair of the Board, where he is now on the receiving end of students’ petitions and is an important figure in the running of the University, Raikes plans to draw upon the strategic leadership he has learned throughout his career to make decisions. His experiences at Stanford, in tech and at the helm of major nonprofits shape his priorities and tactics moving forward, even as he seeks to keep his Board role distinct from his other work.

“What we do in our philanthropy — that informs the perspective that I bring to the Board chair role, but the Board chair role is one in which I have to think very deeply and be supportive of the best interests of the University,” Raikes said. “My ultimate responsibility there is loyalty to the institution … the student body, as well as the faculty and the university leadership.”

“Stanford has grown dramatically in terms of its stature, not unlike my experience growing up with Microsoft,” he continued. “Specifically for Stanford, I think about the importance of making sure we continue to have a bold vision to move forward.”

The Board

As Board chair, Raikes leads the 33 trustees in their work supporting the long-term strategy and direction of the University.

The Board convenes five times per academic year on a volunteer basis to make decisions about the University’s endowment and properties. Raikes says the trustees’ most important work is to play a supporting role to the President and Provost, with whom they convene in an executive session each meeting.

“My number one goal, personally and as a member of the Board of Trustees, is to help make sure that President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell are as successful as they can be,” Raikes said. “They’re the ones leading Stanford.”

Raikes believes the role of the trustees, unlike that of full-time administrators, is to draw on their professional backgrounds and networks outside Stanford to make a contribution to the University. As a guest of Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, for instance, Raikes spoke with senators in Washington, D.C. in late January about the impact of the recent tax bill on universities such as Stanford, which will see a 1.4 percent tax on its endowment as a result.

“I had an opportunity to … give them an additional perspective on what the negative impact might be,” Raikes said. “And many of my colleagues on the Board have been doing the same thing.”

The Board’s fiduciary responsibilities encompass approving Stanford’s operating budget, its capital budget and all architectural campus improvements; this makes the trustees a target of many requests for changes in how funds are allotted. As they work on a new budget each fiscal year, their focus is the long-term wellbeing of the University and its endowment.

Broadly speaking, the trustees “have an opportunity to scope and shape Stanford to where it’s an even more impactful university around the globe,” explained former Board Chair Steve Denning MBA ’78, always with an eye to “long-term strategic issues.”

“[The trustees] work collaboratively with Persis and Marc in pushing the frontiers forward,” he continued.

Trustees also come into the spotlight on campus as the recipient of student appeals. Issues like University divestment from fossil fuels and private prison affiliates have brought student groups into conflict with the Board and lefts activists dismayed: One SU Prison Divest leader blasted the Board last fall for choosing “essentially to do nothing” in response to students’ petition. Raikes, on the other hand, contends he’s prioritized improvements in the Board’s overall investment responsibility process over individual divestment requests, both during his time on the Board Committee on Investment Responsibility, and now as Board chair.

Under his new leadership, the committee has been conducting a review to make sure its definition of “investment responsibility” still holds in the 21st century based on input from students, faculty, staff and alumni.

“We’ve got a lot of feedback, both from the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing as well as the people who were submitting requests [for divestment],” Raikes explained. “And we said, okay, let’s take a step back and think about the Statement of Investment Responsibility, the process that we take and ways in which it might be changed or improved.”

He emphasized a quantitative approach to investment strategy reform: “What does the research evidence show? What may be the mechanism that is most consistent on these issues in terms of academic freedom, freedom of speech [and] robust dialogue?”

Still, Raikes said that student protests are valuable, even when they don’t change Stanford’s investment portfolio.

“I may disagree with what [student protesters] think is the right conclusion, but if their interest in that issue shapes a lifelong interest in issues of social justice, then that is what I am happy about,” he said.

Raikes’ measured response to calls for divestment, which Denning called “a delicate issue,” reflects a leadership style that he’s developed over the course of a long career.

“He’s obviously very experienced in terms of how you run organizations,” said Denning, who worked closely with Raikes during his transition into Board leadership. “[He] is very strategic, very thoughtful … someone who’s both quantitative and qualitative in terms of being pragmatic and testing things to make sure his intuition is correct.”

For Kenneth Nunn ’80, Raikes’ roommate for several years in college and fellow apartheid protester, activists’ achievements in the late 1970s remain “one of the most significant things” the two of them have accomplished. He believes such movements “opened the door to breaking the back of the apartheid regime.”

However, he acknowledged that adulthood comes with new concerns and an increased aversion to risk.

The thing about being a student, of course is … you have a tremendous amount of power as a student that you don’t necessarily have when you have a job or you have a career or a business or something like that, because there are all these externalities you have to be concerned about,” Nunn said.

“Students have the ability to express their opinions about things and get others who have concerns and have constraints to look at it,” Nunn added, “and perhaps see it through their eyes and perhaps expand themselves in that way.”

While the two friends may diverge in their opinions on divestment now, Raikes says it was his time at Stanford from 1976 to 1980 and his friendship with Nunn that first opened his mind to questions of justice and discrimination.

Stanford roots

For Raikes, starting college was a significant transition from his upbringing on a farm outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. His Midwest roots are still strong, though. Above his desk is a framed aerial shot of the farm, where he points out the house and the cattle feedlot with pride.

“As I like to say, growing up in Nebraska — growing up on the farm — I learned some of the most important values in my life: work ethic, passion for what I do,” he said.

“Going into Stanford — it complemented those values,” he continued. “But my world was opened. Expanded.”

Raikes’ white, rural upbringing differed greatly from that of Nunn, who is African-American — even though Nunn grew up close by in Omaha. The two became fast friends, and Raikes expressed gratitude for the open and honest dialogue that they were able to share throughout their time at Stanford.

“I mean, the white farm kid from Nebraska — you know, he could have just basically decided to ignore me,” Raikes said. “But instead he was willing to help me see … some of the biases, prejudices and awful language that I had learned growing up in a completely homogenous community.”

“We were less than 40 minutes apart. And we grew up in two completely different worlds,” he mused. “[Nunn] really helped me see a part of the world that had been invisible to me.”

Nunn, who now teaches law at the University of Florida, recalled his relationship with Raikes similarly. Raikes wasn’t exactly the rural farm boy you see in movies, Nunn said — Raikes had traveled, and his father ran what Nunn called a fairly “sophisticated” operation — but racial divisions meant that Nunn and Raikes came from highly separate worlds.

Amid a pushback against affirmative action, Nunn was struck by Raikes’ approach to racial injustice.

“It was interesting that, as a person who had access to privilege in the way that Jeff did, that he’s a person who I think gets race — gets its significance in American life and culture in a way that a lot of people do not,” Nunn said.

“Addressing racial disparities and sort of making our culture and society as a whole a richer and fairer society is something I think he’s committed too, because, I think, of what he experienced when has was at Stanford,” he added.

Raikes often says that in college, he got one-third of his education inside the classroom and two-thirds outside. He sought this other two-thirds in large part through his continued allyship with the Black community; he lived in Ujamaa for his latter three years at Stanford and worked as a resident assistant there during his senior year. (When Nunn decided that he would move to Ujamaa for his sophomore year, he told Raikes he was sorry to part and had enjoyed being roommates; to his surprise, Raikes happily came along).

“I can trace the work of the Raikes Foundation directly back to my experience of being roommates with Kenneth, living in Ujamaa [and] being a peripheral member of the Black community,” Raikes said.

Like many students coming to Stanford from rural school districts, getting used to the academics was tough for Raikes, who went to a small school where only 20 percent of his graduating class went on to college. He remembers receiving a 47 percent on his first calculus midterm of freshman year, after which he went to meet the professor, Peter Winkler, “thinking [he] should drop out of Stanford and go back to Nebraska.”

“I didn’t really have to study in high school and it kind of worked out OK,” Raikes recalled. “And so I thought I should read the textbook and calculus before the first midterm.”

To his shock, Winkler said that many of his Stanford classmates had already studied calculus in high school. Raikes had not. But with Winkler’s encouragement, Raikes stayed at Stanford — and aced the next midterm.

Raikes came to Stanford expecting to be a business major, which he said his father supposed would be useful for farm management. He was left briefly directionless when he arrived as a freshman and found out that Stanford had no undergraduate business school. He eventually designed a major that merged engineering, business and computer science under his mentor at Stanford, Professor Bill Linvill, who was founder and first chair of the engineering-economic systems department (now management science and engineering).

Raikes’ emphasis on computer science may seem close to a track that many current undergraduates take, but he was quick to qualify what CS meant in that era.

“Relative to today, that era was kind of the Dark Ages,” he quipped, adding that he “was part of the first class to work on a terminal, rather than punch cards.” In fact, CS wasn’t even its own department yet — it was housed in applied mathematics.

But like many students at Stanford today, Raikes quickly fell in love with computing.

“I was fascinated with the idea that you could use software to help you manage information,” he said.

He developed expertise in economic modeling using VisiCalc, which he described as “the grandfather of Excel.” And he first applied this computing to what he knew best: managing the family farm.

“In fact I did a series of spreadsheet products, like feedlot management and a feed ration calculator,” he explained. “Not only did it help on our farm, I actually turned that into a business and we sold those spreadsheet templates to other people. That was my passion.”

Raikes’ academic experience at Stanford came, he said, with adopting a “growth mindset” about some of the challenges he arrived with. His residential experience, on the other hand, taught him to put his background and personal obstacles in context.

“Today, I can look back and see that I had privilege: I’m a white heterosexual male who grew up in a middle class family with college educated parents. I was riding the up escalator,” he said. “I was not running up the down escalator.”

Raikes still remembers an early encounter with racial profiling while visiting a convenience store with an African-American friend — Raikes had kept his hands in his pockets as he walked in without a second thought, but his friend saw the frightened store owner reach for his gun, fearing that the pair was armed. “Don’t ever do that again,” his friend told him later.

Raikes’ education about discrimination and race stuck with him. Today, he and his wife donate to the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity program (CSRE) at Stanford, and he remains a staunch defender of the ethnic theme dorm.

The philanthropic enterprise

Upon entering the Raikes Foundation headquarters in Seattle, where Raikes currently devotes the majority of his time, one can quickly get a sense of the approach to leadership Raikes hopes to project. Dozens of buzzwords are painted in blue cursive all over the front wall — “risk-taking,” “collaborative,” and “YOUTH” jump out — and snippets of conversations about “growth mindsets” rise above the white noise of raindrops hitting the windows.

According to Executive Director Erin Kahn, the Raikes Foundation broadly aims to improve outcomes for low-income and marginalized youth by improving education, expanding learning opportunities and ending childhood homelessness. Kahn emphasized the foundation’s focus on supporting the coordination between private, public and nonprofit sectors to build systems that support children effectively.

“Part of the unique role that philanthropy can play is what some people refer to as innovation capital,” Kahn explained. “A lot of our work, you know, takes advantage of the fact that we can be nimble; we can take risks and we can make investments that are hard for the public sector [and for which] there are no market forces [in] the private sector.”

Raikes’ strategic approach to philanthropy might sound sterile. But Nick Tedesco, who worked as a program officer at the Gates Foundation under Raikes’ leadership, said Raikes got his big start in philanthropy precisely because the Gates believed that business know-how could help to power their philanthropic enterprise.

“Bill and Melinda [Gates] respected the approach that [Raikes] took in business, and wanted to be able to apply that to their philanthropy,” Tedesco said. “Which is something that you’re seeing in the [philanthropic] sector more broadly: You’re seeing a lot more of this business acumen that is being leveraged to accomplish social good.”

Though he is known as a strategist and planner, longtime colleagues and friends have also described Raikes as something of a risk-taker. He took the helm at the Gates Foundation in September 2008, in the heat of the financial crisis that rocked the philanthropic sector. Even though the foundation’s endowment fell, its grantmaking grew by 10 percent in 2009 under Raikes’ leadership.

In a 2010 interview with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Raikes explained the decision as a calculated risk.

“You want to try as best as you can to invest in building short-term momentum,” Raikes said, “but recognize that you have to conserve enough of your resources to deliver on very big, audacious, long-term goals.”

The Gates and Raikes foundations were part of a new wave of business-minded philanthropy in the late 1990s and early 2000s that saw the logic of entrepreneurship applied to the work of giving. Journalists coined the terms “venture philanthropy” and “catalytic philanthropy” in response, and the approach has drawn criticism for emphasizing metrics and measures visible to the foundations at the expense of issues that might matter more to recipients.

For his part, Raikes described his philosophy simply as a synthesis of compassion and reason.

“Philanthropy is a journey, and in the journey you will often be led by your heart. You have a passion, or you see something in society that draws your heart to it,” Raikes said, a sentiment he’s espoused in other interviews over the years. “But you also need to pair it with the mind.”

Raikes as Chair

Raikes says his career in philanthropy has allowed him to lead based on his “own personal philosophies on a lot of issues.” As board chair, though, the long-term good of Stanford as an institution must take priority over his own personal agenda.

“I wear two hats,” he said. “I wear the Raikes Foundation hat and I wear the Stanford University Board Chair hat, and when I wear that Board Chair hat, I have to set aside my own personal philosophies might be or political views might be. At the end of the day, Stanford and universities have to be a platform for academic freedom and for freedom of speech.”

Raikes thinks of the Board as a “thought partner” for University leadership — a “sounding board – to poke when appropriate and to cheer when appropriate.” It’s a relationship he’s seen from both sides in his career, as a trustee himself of the Raikes Foundation and with his close work alongside trustees Bill and Melinda Gates as CEO of the Gates Foundation.

“[Raikes is] respectful of the role of trustees: we’re a collaborative, collegial, cohesive body that’s quite driven to make Stanford an even better university in the future,” said former Board Chair Denning. “But at the same time, he’s someone who understands that trustees have one role, and the president, provost and leadership team have another role. They run the University day to day; we kind of shape at the edges.”

Raikes emphasized that the priorities and approach that he’ll pursue on the Board differ from his approach to philanthropy in that the former has less leeway for individual ideology in decision making. But his role as Board Chair calls for the same big-picture approach that Raikes’ other roles have required, in that doing what he believes to be best for the entire system of Stanford often means making decisions that can’t possibly be ideal for all stakeholders.

Recent controversies on campus have brought this challenge to light for Raikes — in particular, he cited conservative writer Robert Spencer’s highly disputed speech.

“We stand at the Raikes Foundation for exactly the opposite of [Spencer’s views],” Raikes said. “But with my Stanford hat on, I have to recognize that having these discussions, having that dialogue is important. While I certainly support free speech, I think there is an interesting challenge in trying to decide whether something is free speech versus hate speech.”

“That’s the kind of issue we wrestle with — fortunately, we have a great philosophy department with people who think a lot about ethics,” he said with a laugh.

“I obviously have my views on social issues that the students care about,” he allowed. “[But] what the Board can do is to encourage the University to have a robust platform for dialogue… so you’ll find me actually encouraging other views into the dialogue that may be different than my own.”

Salazar, Raikes’ Office 365 collaborator, noted Raikes’ willingness to risk possible controversy if he thinks it will do good for the organization.

“My bet if I need to predict anything, it’s that [Raikes] would be willing to take some more social risks,” he said.

Even though not all groups can benefit immediately from decisions made by the Board and University leadership, Raikes says he has continued to prioritize gathering input from all the sources he can.

When Raikes was appointed Board chair in January 2017, he took a “listening tour” among Stanford faculty, administrators and students as well as his peers at other institutions. During his transition into his new role, Raikes and the rest of the Board have also devoted time to synthesizing input from thousands of University stakeholders for Stanford’s long-range planning process, which Raikes says will play a large role in his work in the coming years. University leaders received over 2,800 ideas from the Stanford community; Raikes himself submitted seven proposals.

“I probably had 1.4 percent market share of the alumni submissions — seven of 500,” Raikes said with a laugh. “I wanted to participate in the process, see what it was like. I find it very rewarding.”

His ideas ranged from an undergraduate program in multicultural leadership development to promoting continuing education for alumni — who, he predicted, will be changing careers much more frequently as technological change accelerates.

Raikes also proposed a program called Cardinal Pathways that he hoped would support students who wanted to pursue careers in the nonprofit sector and in global health and development. After seeing his daughter, Gillian Raikes ’16, take on a social-sector job in Nairobi, Kenya, he was inspired to help others with similar interests find postgraduate experiences like hers.

“She and many of her friends who are interested in the social sector found it hard to get into these kinds of opportunities early in their career,” he explained. “And so they end up going to high-tech companies or something like that, because that’s the only view of a career path they have.”

As the outgoing Board Chair, Denning expressed concern about the current political climate toward higher education and the difficulties that might pose for Stanford as Raikes tackles his new role.

“There is more disruptive change in the world today than there has been in recent memory,” Denning said. “Federally funded research has been in decline in certain areas, the fact that we have a tax on large endowments — I mean, it demonstrates the role of universities in our society are not well understood and not well appreciated.”

“In fact, [universities] provide an enormous benefit to us collectively, and I don’t think we’ve been as effective as we could have been in communicating what those benefits are,” he added. “Because if people understood, then we wouldn’t be having some of these adverse impacts.”

As Board Chair, part of Raikes’ task is to represent Stanford to the outside world to poise the university for future growth — a prospect that he is optimistic about.

“Stanford’s on an incredible trajectory,” Raikes said. “The level of talent that we bring in terms of students — undergrad and graduate — and faculty is, you know, the best it’s ever been.”

Raikes admitted that one of the ideas he submitted to the long-range planning committee was “a little selfish”: his proposal that Stanford establish itself as a leading provider of lifelong learning opportunities, so that graduates like himself can continuously ready themselves for career changes and learn about new fields.

“Gosh, I wish I could be a student again,” he said with a smile. “It’d be amazing.”


Contact Katie Keller at ktkeller ‘at’

Katie Keller '19 is a Desk Editor for the Local News beat. A Northern California native, Katie enjoys running, listening to podcasts and incessantly sending news articles to her friends. Contact her at ktkeller 'at'