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Stanford Board of Trustees chair says serendipity and people key to success

Steven A. Denning, who has served on the Stanford University Board of Trustees since 2004, was elected chair in July. Trustees met on campus earlier this week.

After Steven A. Denning completed his final Navy assignment – seven months sailing the Mediterranean Sea aboard an amphibious assault ship, the USS Iwo Jima – he still had a few months free before starting the MBA program at Stanford.

So Denning, who became chair of the Stanford University Board of Trustees in July, decided to take a hike.

L.A. CiceroSteven Denning portrait

Steven A. Denning became chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees in July.

It was the spring of 1976. Gerald R. Ford was president. It was the year Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started Apple Computer. Among the pop hits of the year: "Silly Love Songs" and "Disco Lady." A gallon of gas cost 60 cents.

Denning, then 28, packed his 1975 BMW with the necessities: sleeping bag, tent, a canister stove, backpack and hiking boots. His plan: visit as many places of significant natural beauty in the United States and Canada as possible.

Over the next few months, Denning zigzagged east to west on a trip that began in Virginia and ended in California, with a detour into the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. He put nearly 20,000 miles on his car.

Denning arrived on the Farm with long hair and a dark beard – a look recorded for posterity in his MBA Class of 1978 Facebook photo.

Thirty years later, his friends resurrected the photo, blew it up on a poster and reproduced it on buttons to wear the night the Graduate School of Business gave Denning the 2007 Excellence in Leadership Award. The button said: This is the real Steve Denning.

In his acceptance speech, Denning said two factors had played a significant role in his success – serendipity and people.

"Some people believe they will realize success because of who and what they are, and that they will succeed independent of the context," he said.

"Others like me believe you work very hard to prepare yourself, and that other people drive events or provide opportunities upon which you are able to capitalize, or as Seneca (1st-century Roman philosopher) said more eloquently: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

Thrives on challenges

In his 2007 speech, Denning said he seeks out challenging situations.

"Frequently, when I decided to pursue these more uncertain, but potentially more rewarding courses of action, I was often quite aware that I might not be successful," he said. "But I also knew myself well enough to know I was much better in situations that were challenging and where success was not assured than the reverse."

Denning said he does his best work when engaged with other people.

"Some folks get their best ideas when reading," he said. "Others when they are alone and in deep thought. I do my best thinking and am the most creative – to the extent I am either – when I am meeting and interacting with other people."

Denning, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, was the oldest of six children. At his father's suggestion, he applied for a Navy ROTC scholarship, which led Denning nearly 2,000 miles across the country to the Georgia Institute of Technology. Only one other member of his high school class of 450 went out of state to college.

At Georgia Tech, where he was involved in student government, Denning launched a student-run business that allowed students to easily set up organizations to provide services, such as renting refrigerators and booking airline flights.

He also started Georgia Tech Free University, which offered classes to students –from history to international relations, from scuba diving to spelunking – because he thought students needed "a broader, more contextually rich education."

The popular program "went out of business," he said, as Georgia Tech evolved from a technology institute to a broad-based technological university.

After graduating from Georgia Tech, Denning enrolled in a yearlong program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, where he earned a master's degree in management. He spent another year at the Naval Postgraduate School doing research on technology transfer for the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps.

Denning spent his last two years in the Navy aboard the USS Iwo Jima, home to 800 sailors and 2,000 Marines. In 1975, he was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea for seven months, with at-sea periods of up to 45 days.

"In my early career in consulting and growth equity, I wasn't terribly sympathetic to associates who would complain about working late or an occasional weekend. I just asked them how they would like to be deployed for 45 days straight," he remarked.

An abiding interest in globalization   

Denning's time at the Graduate School of Business (GSB) was momentous personally as well as professionally.

He met his future wife, Stanford alumna Roberta Bowman Denning, on their first day at GSB as they waited to get their class photographs taken.

His time at GSB also marked the beginning of his abiding interest in international business and international finance – the result of a summer job in Amsterdam at McKinsey & Company, a global management-consulting firm.

After earning his MBA, Denning worked for McKinsey in its New York and San Francisco offices. It was a job that took him around the world.

Two years later, he became the second professional investment employee at General Atlantic Corp. Charles "Chuck" Feeney, whom Forbes recently dubbed "the James Bond of philanthropy," started the private investment firm in 1980. Feeney, the founder of Duty Free Shoppers, which sold luxury goods to tourists, created the firm to invest on behalf of the Atlantic Philanthropies foundation. Feeney was the firm's sole capital partner for 11 years.

"In the early 1990s, we spun out and formed General Atlantic Partners so we could add more capital partners," Denning said. "Our long-term capital now comes from a group of wealthy families, well-established endowments, foundations and strategic institutions."

Currently, General Atlantic has $17 billion in capital under management. All told, the firm has more than 200 employees working in 10 offices around the world. Denning, who is now chairman of the firm, is based in its Greenwich, Conn., office.

At Georgia Tech, Denning has served on the university's Advisory Board and the Georgia Tech Foundation Board, the equivalent of Stanford's Board of Trustees.

At the university's Steven A. Denning Technology & Management Program, a select group of undergraduate students from the colleges of Management, Engineering, Science and Computing proposes interdisciplinary solutions to real-world problems.

At Stanford, Denning served as co-chair of The Stanford Challenge and is an active volunteer for the Graduate School of Business.

Denning, who joined the Stanford University Board of Trustees in 2004, chaired its Committee on Globalization, which is working side-by-side with the university to oversee global opportunities for faculty and students.

"Whatever we can do to facilitate, encourage and assist in developing and ensuring that our graduates really have that broad global understanding, the better off we'll be," he said. "If we're committed to educating tomorrow's leaders, it's essential."

Denning's wife, Roberta Bowman Denning, earned a bachelor's degree in English, with Honors, in the Humanities at Stanford in 1975 and earned an MBA at the Graduate School of Business in 1978. She is the chair of the Council of the School of Humanities & Sciences and the chair of the Stanford Arts Advisory Council.

Their daughter, Carrie, earned a bachelor's degree in art (art history) and in history, and a co-terminal master's degree in sociology, from Stanford in 2008. Their son, Robert, earned an MBA from Stanford's Graduate School of Business in 2011.

The Board of Trustees

Denning said Stanford's Board of Trustees is composed of 33 experienced, talented, successful individuals who work in a collegial, consensual fashion.

"It is a harmonious and collegial group of individuals who are highly driven and dedicated to taking Stanford to even greater horizons," he said. "I'd say Stanford is in very, very good shape, but no one's content. We're asking: What is the next challenge? How do we make Stanford, as good as it is, even better?"

Denning said Stanford was fortunate to have the "very best leadership team" in the country: President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy.

"We have an opportunity to work with this extremely talented team, the deans of the seven schools and the faculty as we think through what will be Stanford's next horizon," he said.

"At the end of the day, the Board of Trustees is a sounding board. We're there to provide advice, counsel and support, and to meet our fiduciary duties.