Benetech, Stanford, and Tibco Adventures

Today was a great change of pace as we visited our first non-profit organization--Benetech--whose mission is to develop software to improve and transform the lives of people all over the world. Located in Palo Alto, Benetech consists of about 80 people and is utterly dedicated to tackling tough social issues such as human rights and poverty, as well as making education more accessible to people with disabilities. Though not as glamours as Google or LinkedIn, Benetech's office space was fairly, modest, neat, and had a comfortable atmosphere with friendly people.

Funnily enough, the first person we met with at Benetech wasn't a Benetech employee at all, but one of it's users, an older woman named Abby Tamara who suffers from muscular degeneration and needs the assistance of an eSight to help her see. As our class sat in the conference room, not exactly knowing what was going on, Abby sent around packets of information describing the eSight and went on to talk about her time as an educator and the work she is doing now as an activist for people with disabilities. About ten minutes into our conversation with Abby, our host Anh Bui came in the conference room and explained that there had been some confusion as to what rooms everyone was supposed to be in and that Abby had accidentally been sent to the wrong room. After a good laugh about the whole situation, Abby left to attend her meeting, though I think most of us were sad to see her go. She was a really nice woman with a cute service dog who seemed very passionate about her work.

Once the room situation had been sorted out, Anh properly introduced herself to us, gave us a little bit about her background, and began explaining the history of Benetech as a company and its aim to use software for good through creating technologies that will have great social impacts on the world. She then touched upon Bookshare, an accessible online library for those with disabilities. Bookshare offers ebooks in audio, braille, large font, and more and currently functions as Benetech's largest division. Besides Bookshare, Anh talked about Benetech's human rights program and Benetech Labs, the division she is VP of. There, she sorts through ideas and works with communities to decide which software innovations to scale as Benetech's not interested in "building a product just to build a product." What I found most interesting during our conversation with Anh was when we started talking about the pros of cons of working for a non-profit. As Anh put it: "it's a curse and a blessing." Working for a non-profit organization is a curse in the sense that it's hard to measure success. For-profit organizations can easily measure success by revenue, but with non-profits, how do you measure impact? How do you know that you did the right thing? That you helped? Doing so is hard and is often one of the frustrating aspects of working for a non-profit. On the other hand, working for a non-profit organization like Benetech is a blessing because you don't have to worry about the bottom line; the company is legally structured so that it doesn't have to worry about generating a certain amount of money as success doesn't depend just on profit but also the impact you are having on the world.

After our time with Anh came to a close, we said our goodbyes and then hung out in the conference room for another 45 minutes as Anna gave her book on Sound Recording by David L. Morton Jr, a history of sound recording devices. This precipitated an interesting discussion about the digitization of books and art and how technology is taking over real-life experiences.

When the book talk ended, we piled back in the car and headed over to Stanford University's campus just to take a look around and explore the place before our 2:00pm appointment with a Luther alumnus. It must have been a visit day because the place was packed and we had great difficultly finding a place to park. Eventually we pulled into a 20 minute loading spot, so Dr. Miller decided to stay behind in the car, while we checked out the Stanford bookshop. And holy cow, it was huge! Three stories tall, the bookshop had everything you could possibly need, including a tech center, restaurant, and a selection of convenience store items, not to mention all the Stanford apparel! Eventually, Tyler, Devin, and I made it down to the basement to take a look at all the course books. Even though the rest of the store was pretty pricey, we were pleased to find that their textbooks were at least similar in price to Luther's.

Following our bookstore undertaking, we drove to Tibco (a software company that provides analytics to customers as part of cloud computing environments), grabbed lunch at the Tibco restaurant open to the public, then walked across the street with our food to Tibco's headquarters to talk with '83 Luther grad Scott Vorthmann. While eating our food (I had a 1/3 hamburger with fruit), Scott told us about his entrepreneurial days and his startup company Genie Works that he co-founded with a friend of his. In the end, Genie Works did not work out and Scott moved on to work at the startup Extensibility where he was their 10th employee. Extensibility was later acquired by Tibco at $100 dollars a share. Scott works for Tibco now as a Senior Director/Software Architect. What I found most insightful about our conversation was when we got on the topic of exit strategies. Scott related that when founding a company, it is important to think about what equity event you are looking for, otherwise your company will fumble as it is not pointed in any specific direction. Typically, one shoots for an acquisition or IPO event. Additionally, Scott imparted on us that it is important to have a good feel for what you are interested in before deciding whether to attend graduate school or join the workforce right after college. Having a good feel for what peaks your curiosity will ultimately help you start your career off on the right foot. Soon enough, our time with Scott was up and we had to say our goodbyes.

At 3:00pm we were back at the hotel and we had the rest of the evening off! Our class decided to head to the pool for a polar plunge and then watched National Treasure together before turning in for the night.

Except taken with permission from Katie's blog.

Entering Benetech