Srinija Srinavasan ’93, a vice chair of Stanford’s Board of Trustees, has served as a member of the board since 2014. She is also the co-founder of Loove, a startup focused on artistic values informing the marketplace. After graduating with a B.S. in symbolic systems, Srinivasan became one of the first employees at a nascent Yahoo. She left the company in 2010 and joined Stanford’s Board of Trustees in 2014.
Beyond her role with the Board, Srinivasan also serves on the Advisory Council for Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered AI and the Council for Humanities and Sciences. The Daily sat down with Srinivasan to explore her time at Stanford, her career path and her vision for the future of Stanford and the role of the Board.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Could you tell me a bit about your upbringing? How did it influence your choice of career?
Srinija Srinivasan [SS]: My father was a mathematician, and my mom was a polymath. She got her first masters in Sanskrit in India, and her second master’s in art history in the United States. Then she sort of did a 180 in midlife, starting to dabble in computer science courses. I watched her not only reinvent herself and try new things and model this lifelong love of learning, but also pick computer science from art history at a time when CS was not in fashion. I had this model of intellectual life and curiosity and love for learning and that was a major part of my upbringing. [My parents] also had a love and reverence for the arts and I was surrounded by that.
TSD: Did you have any unique experiences in your time as an undergraduate?
SS: Because of the distribution requirements at that time, I needed to have a number of quarters of a foreign language. I chose Japanese. It had nothing to do with what ended up being my major, symbolic systems, but it was this other set of neural pathways I got to exercise. I started thinking about how I would use this Japanese, and so I applied to Stanford abroad. While Symbolic Systems ended up being topically relevant to what would become my career, if not for Japanese and if not for this detour of studying abroad, I never would have met Jerry Yang and David Filo [the two co-founders of Yahoo], whom I met in Japan. So both symbolic systems and Japanese ended up being really consequential, and yet I chose neither of them with any idea of what I would do with them.
TSD: What did you do after graduating from Stanford?
SS: I spent the first couple of years after graduation at this artificial intelligence project called The Cyc Project. And then that experience of working at a large-scale, AI, basic research effort funded by consortium turned out to be conceptually wildly relevant to what Jerry [Yang] and David [Filo] had begun to build in this fledgling database of tens of thousands of websites about anything and everything. There’s too much to say about the next 15, 16 years at Yahoo!, because that was an epic experience of being in the front row of witnessing the dawn and explosion of an entire industry.
TSD: After leaving Yahoo! in 2010, you went on to co-found Loove, a start-up that is distinctly different in scope than Yahoo!. How did that come to be?
SS: In the 15-plus years that I was at Yahoo, for about 10 of those years I was also on the board of and chairing, for many of those years, SF Jazz, which is a nonprofit in San Francisco devoted to jazz. These parallel twin experiences of working in the front row of tech and the web while I was in this nonprofit arts organization left me with a lot of questions about this very relationship between commerce and culture. Is there a better way for these things to interact?
TSD: What was your involvement with Stanford before joining the Board?
SS: I stayed living in Palo Alto as my anchor even when I moved part time to New York, so I had the luxury of being able to go to campus and still stay involved. It was continually rewarding to stay engaged with parts of the University. I wasn’t seeking the Trustee opportunity, and I didn’t know much about it. But the more I learned about it, the more it felt like a tremendous opportunity to try to be of use, to try to be of service and absolutely learn a lot.
TSD: How do you view the role of the Board in impacting Stanford’s identity?
SS: My nephew was obsessed with the oceans, and he was teaching me about the different strata of the oceans. There’s the sunlight zone, the twilight zone, the midnight zone and the deep. Each strata has its own unique ecosystem of different kinds of creatures, and yet it’s one interdependent entity of the ocean. I think of the University that way. Students are in the sunlight zone, and they have the most dynamic influx and outflux of new energy. Trustees are in the deep. We’re tending to the low, slow, long rhythms. Each is critical to sustaining the independent life and vitality of the whole.
TSD: Do you have a particular vision that you hope to see through during your time on the Board?
SS: Something that has followed me my whole life is the integration of the creative culture of the arts into the day-to-day. I think, if I have a particular lens, it is about how we really embrace our strength in engineering, the practical and the tactical and how it’s not all at odds with “the fuzzy.” We have an opportunity at Stanford to practice and demonstrate the power of having those practical endeavours be foundationally led by our deepest humanistic values. It’s precisely at the intersection of these things that I think we have the most to offer. Where else but at a comprehensive research university can all of these things be in walking distance of one another? It’s in that possibility that we can ensure that scalable impacts are guided from our deepest humanity.
TSD: What one piece of advice would you give current Stanford students?
SS: It mostly comes down to taking care of one another. We’re spinning on a planet in the middle of nowhere. We don’t know how we got here or how long we get to be here, so let’s look out for one another.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.