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Stanford Report, May 24, 2000

Thom Massey emphasizes principles over profits

In a frenzied environment that lures students to start-ups promising quick cash, Thom Massey, the resident fellow of an undergraduate focus house that emphasizes "entrepreneurial spirit and ideals," tries to inject some perspective and balance.

Massey, who also is an assistant dean of student affairs and assistant director of the Graduate Life Office, spoke about life as a resident fellow as well as his African American heritage May 3 in the "What Matters to Me and Why" series at Memorial Church.

Living inside Naranja --not, he emphasized, in a cottage like most other resident fellows --Massey said he hears "the creaks and cracks" of comings and goings and witnesses such undergraduate antics as water fights. Many of the dorm's residents have decided to live there because they plan to pursue careers in business --or, in these Internet economy-driven days, they already may have begun an enterprise with nothing more than a laptop in their room.

"It seems to me that one of the things entrepreneurs have to learn more about is how to be ethical and how to be inclusive," said Massey, 53, who has worked at Stanford in various capacities since 1971 and is an alumnus of the Class of 1969. "They need to know that profit may not be the best motive. It is for me not the only motive."

Massey, who played football and track as a Stanford undergraduate, said businesspeople too often think in nothing but sports metaphors as they pursue profits.

He plans to engage the students at Naranja next year in a frequent dialogue on business ethics. "I want to have a constant dialogue about this with my students next year," he said. With today's startups built from nothing "but a couple of computers," it's easy for their founders to ignore their surrounding communities, he added.

"What matters to me is to be humble in whatever I do," he said in opening his talk. He said he doesn't believe in royalty and is particularly offended by the term "patrician. I believe in the common person."

Massey discussed his participation in two recent spring break trips with a group of faculty, staff and students. Led by linguistics Professor John Rickford, director of the Program in African and Afro-American Studies, both helped Massey delve deeper into his roots and heritage.

The first was in 1999 to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, not far from Atlanta and where Massey's mother's family comes from.

Slaves were brought to the region from Africa specifically because of their expertise in planting rice fields. The region's remoteness has meant that some residents still speak vestiges of Gullah, an English-based creole that comprises vocabulary and grammatical elements of various African languages.

Visiting the area, he said, "made me feel a part" of that community. "I was able to get a better understanding of my own culture, and get an intellectual bearing on my culture and race. And I realized how powerful culture can be, to be able to last that long and sustain such trials and tribulations."

As a result of the visit, he said, "I feel a little closer to knowing who I am."

This past spring, a similar group traveled to Jamaica. It was hardly your average college spring break, however, as the group explored areas most tourists ignore and studied language that, Massey said, varied from "patois to the Queen's English."

The group was struck by the extremes of wealth and poverty in Jamaica. "I saw a country trying to help itself, but with a long way to go," Massey said. "But the trip solidified my feeling that we need more African American intellectualism --that we need to think comparatively and that there is a place for cultural studies." Historically, he said, not enough value has been placed on cultural studies such as African American studies. "To improve our understanding of each other, we need to take the study of culture seriously and take it to another intellectual level --so that we're not just studying slavery, for example," he said.

Finally, Massey touched on "cultural mutualism," which he said went beyond getting to know one another's cultures to "feeling obligated to one another. . . . It's not enough [for people of different cultures] to just be in the same room --they need to get to know each other," he said.

"So what matters to me is that different cultures be honored." SR