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  • Writer's pictureEmilio De Stefano

My experience at Stanford Graduate School of Business

After a couple of big growth years at Smart Fabrication, and after having established a new production facility, in April 2014 I decided I would apply for an Industry Leaders Fund (ILF) grant. It had been around 12 months since I completed my Masters in Systems Engineering and I was starting to get the “itch” again to further my knowledge. Rather than pursuing another formal post-graduate program, I decided it was time to focus on filling specific gaps in my business knowledge to tackle the business growth challenges I was facing at the time.

The program I applied for, and subsequently was fortunate enough to be awarded a grant for, was run by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The program was called the Executive Program for Growing Companies and included a general management curriculum, with a theme largely focused around sustainable business growth. Upon my application being accepted, I was awarded a grant for $17,500 to put towards the program.

The application process I found the ILF grant application process a very well thought through and seamless process. The on-line system made the process a simple one and one where I felt like I knew exactly what was expected at every step of the way. I also took the opportunity to meet with Geoff Vogt, CEO of the ILF, before putting my application in. I found that this was a great way to ask as many questions as I wanted as well as discuss potential course options. Geoff was only too happy to help.

One of the best things about the three-stage grant application process was that the first stage, whereby eligibility and suitability was evaluated, was not too time intensive and only required minimal information for an assessment to be made. I found the second stage of the process much more involved where more in-depth personal questions were asked around the benefits of the particular program I was applying for and how it would benefit my organisation as well as South Australia and its future economic prosperity. There were also questions around what characteristics I believed made a great leader and which of these I felt I needed to work on further. I found that answering these questions required significant deep thinking, which was actually a very good process to go through. It helped me develop a better understanding of myself and the gaps in my leadership capability.

Upon getting through the second stage of the process I was notified that I’d need to attend an interview with a panel of ILF Board members. This was quite exciting and also a little intimidating. There were three people on the panel during my interview. I did my research on the panellists in order to best prepare for the interview questions, however there were still some “out there” questions that I hadn’t anticipated. Thinking over this, well over a year later, I quite like the fact that the panel didn’t just ask traditional questions, but actually dug deeper to really understand why it was I was applying for the grant. One thing that surprised me a little (even though I was warned!) was that the interviews were so short – mine was only about 10 minutes. This left me wondering whether I’d done a good job; however, a week later I received a phone call from Geoff advising that I’d been successful. I was over the moon!

My Stanford experience I had a lot of time to think about what my Stanford program might be like, between being awarded the grant in September 2014 and undertaking the program in July 2015. I spoke with other individuals who had undertaken similar courses and researched as much as I could about what the program might be like; however, nothing could have prepared me for the journey I was about to experience. When I arrived in Palo Alto, California (aka Silicon Valley), it was the middle of summer and the weather was fantastic. I arrived at Stanford a day before the program commenced and had a day to look around the tremendous campus, in excess of 33 square kilometres of it! What an amazing place – the largest university by area of any university in the United States.

Stanford University's Main Entrance

Knight Management Center, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

The first session commenced on a Sunday evening with an informal dinner and drinks. This was a great way to meet my fellow colleagues from around the world and was followed by a study group session. There were 68 course participants, 27 of whom were from the United States, and the rest from all over the world including places like Germany, Nigeria, Ireland, France, Thailand and more. The next morning, Day 1 commenced at 7am with an optional boot camp session that ran throughout the program. Breakfast at 8am and by 9am we were into the first day’s content. The first session was on “Why Strategy Matters” and this was closely followed by “Corporate Recapitalisation”. The thing that really blew me away was the quality of the lecturers, the level of engagement they drove from participants, and the manner in which they delivered their material. The levels of enthusiasm were extraordinary. It was as though the lecturers had had lessons in showmanship! The content delivered was also mixed with case studies that we had worked on the evening before in our study groups of five to six people. When it came to the group discussions, this was really the first time I can say I’ve experienced genuine, high quality diversity in action. Never before had I witnessed such value coming from diversity, including the development of completely different solutions to problems, I would never have thought imaginable.

The Executive Program for Growing Companies covered a general management curriculum, and thus it included courses on business growth, operations management, mergers and acquisitions, roll-up strategies, collective intelligence, scaling excellence, building systems for growth, structuring companies for growth, design thinking and leadership challenges just to name a few. Aside from the exceptional course content, two highlights for me were listening to Condoleezza Rice and Jeff Jordon, who came in to speak to our class.

Condoleezza Rice, Former US Secretary of State, spoke to us on a number of topics including her experiences in leadership, the challenges she’d faced over her career, some advice and other topics, such as the Iranian nuclear program and her experiences during the September 11 terrorist attack. She was extremely open and honest and more than happy to take questions from the participants. I also found Jeff Jordon, former President of and former General Manager at, extremely inspiring. Jeff led from an “on-line flea market”, as it was called, to the giant it has become today and is now the venture capitalist behind and a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Answering one of the program participant’s questions, he spoke about the top three things he looks for in a start-up when he’s considering whether to invest. Most importantly, he looks for the right entrepreneur/founder. He explained that secondly, that entrepreneur/founder also needs to be able to tell a good story, as it is often through story-telling that start-ups bring on investors, employees, board members, customers and more. Third most important was what Jeff described as “unbelievable courage and persistence”. Given Jeff’s impressive career history, listening to his insights was an experience I’ll never forget.

Me and a few of my fellow program participants with Condoleezza Rice after her presentation

After each day’s class, we’d have a 45 minute break before our study group sessions and then networking drinks and dinner. The study groups were very worthwhile, but I also found the ability to get to know my colleagues, ask questions and share experiences just as valuable. Over the two weeks I became friends with some really inspiring people, quite a few of whom I’ve remained in constant contact with since returning home. From Irish toy manufacturers to Dutch education providers to manufacturing companies from the US, there was no shortage of diversity and talent to learn from.

Through speaking at length with many of these people, many of whom were quite young and very successful in terms of business, I learnt very quickly that anything is possible and that age is no barrier, especially in an increasingly on-line world. The sheer passion and enthusiasm many of these people had for their businesses could not be rivalled. It wasn’t just business owners either; there were Presidents and CEOs of other companies, venture capitalists, private equity partners, former Wall Street bankers who had started their own mortgage insurance businesses, and more.

Class of 2015 - Executive Program for Growing Companies

Post-Stanford Since returning home, I’ve been doing a lot of deep thinking. What it is that sets Silicon Valley apart from places like Adelaide? How we can “bottle” the Silicon Valley spirit? These are two questions I’m currently in discussions with an international researcher on. For me personally, the whole experience has caused a real mindset shift and really “turned me on my head” so to speak. I now think of business and opportunities in a completely different way: through a different lens. I can now see that so much more is possible. There are too many takeaways to mention, however one thing that has really stuck with me is the Valley’s attitude towards risk-taking and its tolerance for those who have “failed”. I truly do believe South Australia is at a cross roads, and that we really need to learn from places like Silicon Valley if we want to lead the nation and become more than a place where we simply dig stuff out the ground and export it. I believe this transition needs to be led by industry. Government can assist, but it also needs to learn when to step aside and let disruption take its normal course, as I believe it should be doing with Uber. The truth is that you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to create something special. It’s not the venture capital, the people or the Bay Area itself that make Silicon Valley what it has become, but the culture that inspires people to pack their bags and create their dreams there (interestingly, more than half the people in Silicon Valley’s science and engineering community are from overseas). I believe it’s also assisted by the California Government’s approach to supporting innovation and allowing disruption to take place.

As a city, Adelaide has a similar sized population to Silicon Valley, we’re surrounded by world-class educational institutions, and we have some of the brightest people in the country who call our city home. Collaboratively, we need to support risk-taking, support entrepreneurs (both within and outside our organisations), and understand that with risk comes failure, but also great success if we learn from it. I know it’s easier said than done, and I understand South Australia has traditionally been a conservative state, but in my opinion South Australia is better positioned to tackle the problems of tomorrow than most others. We are still relatively small and agile. As a result, we can make significant changes in relatively short periods of time. Just a few years ago, words like “entrepreneur” and “start-up” were hardly part of the South Australian vocabulary. Now we have co-working spaces and business hubs popping up all over the city, universities opening new industry/enterprise arms, and we’re fast becoming known as “the place” to start innovative, high-tech companies. This is evidenced by Adelaide’s recent award of the inaugural Innovative Regions Award in the Australian Technologies Competition, which we should all be very proud of. If you haven’t been down to the new Tonsley Precinct yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. It is an extremely inspiring space and a great example of the type of support government can provide in leading the shift required in South Australia’s economy. In this case, the State Government has done a fantastic job in bringing together industry and educational institutions to develop a collaborative eco-system which has the potential to deliver real growth in economic prosperity for South Australia over the medium to long term.

There’s no doubt about it, the hard part is changing “the way we’ve always done things” to allow for breakthrough technologies and industries to flourish in South Australia and yes, this requires a complete mindset shift in leadership. In my opinion the best way to achieve this mindset shift is through education. My recommendation? Apply for an ILF grant, and experience for yourself the game-changing experience I just have.

More information on how to apply for an ILF grant can be found at I would like to thank the ILF and Smart Fabrication for making my Stanford study experience possible. If you have any questions or you would simply like to have a discussion about the ILF or my experiences at Stanford, please contact me at any time using the Contact Us form.

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