What matters to Steve Denning and why

Steve Denning
Steve Denning

People and institutions have shaped STEVEN DENNING’s life – so much so that he feels compelled out of gratitude to give back where he can.

Denning, a Stanford MBA alumnus who served as chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees until July 2017, recently spoke as part of the popular “What Matters to Me and Why” series, in which members of the community are invited to reflect on matters of personal values, beliefs and motivations.

Denning, chairman of the global private equity firm General Atlantic LLC, grew up in Utah, leaving for Georgia Tech thanks to a Naval ROTC scholarship. He described studying at Georgia Tech as a “real eye-opener” in comparison to his far more homogeneous childhood. Denning served in the U.S. Navy for six years and earned a master’s degree in management from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey before attending Stanford Graduate School of Business.

He worked initially for the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. before joining General Atlantic as one of the first employees in 1980.

Denning talked about the influence the firm’s founder, Chuck Feeney, had on him and others at General Atlantic. Feeney founded the company with the hope that he could increase his net worth and thus his philanthropy.

“He wanted to magnify his net worth so he could give it all away,” Denning explained, adding, “He set an example that is extraordinary for anyone. There are very few people who have given away their net worth in their lifetime.”

Feeney’s vision helped create a culture of teamwork and philanthropy within the organization, with employees eager to emulate his example, Denning said.

“His idea that the sole purpose of wealth is to benefit humankind has shaped me in ways that are difficult to explain,” Denning said.

Stanford and Georgia Tech are among the institutions Denning and his wife, ROBERTA, a Stanford alumna and recent recipient of the university’s Gold Spike Award, have supported. Others include The Nature Conservancy, The Brookings Institution and the American Museum of Natural History. Denning serves on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Denning was asked by JANE SHAW, dean for religious life, to name his proudest accomplishments as chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees. Denning pointed to the support he and members of the board were able to provide former President JOHN HENNESSY and former Provost JOHN ETCHEMENDY in achieving their vision for the university; his membership on the committee that selected current President MARC TESSIER-LAVIGNE; and his support for the creation of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program.

“In 25 to 50 years, looking back, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program will be one of the most notable achievements for Stanford. The scholars will have an enormous impact on the world, and the program will globalize Stanford even more,” he said.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars will be housed in Denning House, which is under construction on a site overlooking Lake Lagunita.

Denning also elicited a response of pleasant surprise from the audience in the packed Old Union room when he listed for Shaw music and literature he might take with him to a deserted island: Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd and Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for music, and Moby-Dick, Catch-22 and The Second Machine Age for books.