What drew you to apply for executive director of the Fung Institute? What about the Fung Institute in particular appealed to you?I’ve long admired the Fung Institute for its innovative approach to engineering and education, notably tackling what is today one of the most important challenges we have for training of new engineers– marrying the technical skill set with the leadership skill set. When I travel the world, talking to executives, leaders in government and nonprofits who are working with engineers, over and over again they tell me that the missing ingredient or the ingredient that separates the top performers is that ability to engage at the leadership level — to employ skills that help drive strategic decisions and collaborate across teams, to understand the operational and management differences between those projects that succeed and those that just never quite get off the ground. We’re producing and training some of the top talent around the world today, engineers that are going to make a real impact from day one and for decades to come. That’s a really extraordinary mission and responsibility that we hold here at Berkeley, at the College of Engineering, and in particular, at the Fung Institute.
Having advised leaders for most of your career, what are the best qualities you’ve seen in leaders that you want to apply to the engineering leaders of the Fung Institute?Leadership is dynamic. The contexts in which we operate are constantly changing and the challenges that we face, similarly, change on a regular basis. Yet, there are some constants. For leaders, it’s both being able to understand what consistently makes strong leadership across a variety of contexts — authenticity, listening, service and support for your team, forward-looking strategic thinking, and other similar skill sets — and having the flexibility and humility to face the new contexts with a real curiosity.
We must take seriously the responsibility that we have as leaders to do good in the world.What I hope for students who come through the Fung Institute is:
- They’re going to find their own voice and their own style of leadership.
- They’re going to recognize that that style and that voice may change — and ought to change — as they go forward.
- They’re going to realize that leadership is at its best when it’s outward-looking — it’s thinking about the team, but also thinking about the outcomes and the impact of the team on real-world problems.
What are your priorities and what impact do you hope to make during your tenure as executive director?The first and most important is to continue the Fung Institute’s work in helping the students who come through our programs find a path forward in engineering, in leadership, or in whatever they choose, so that they can find success. One of the special things about the Fung Institute’s programs is the connection with external partners and existing leaders. The fact that we draw instructors from leaders in industry and elsewhere is one of the most unique things about the Master of Engineering program, the Fung Fellowship, and the other Fung programs. So, we are uniquely positioned to help students bridge that gap between their classroom experience and the real world experience.
Today’s engineering leaders can’t merely be focused on engineering — they must be in conversation with subject matter experts across a wide range of fields to solve the problems that we have before us.We’re also fortunate to be part of an extraordinary community here at the College of Engineering and across Berkeley more broadly. So, another priority that I’ll be taking up is finding ways to further expand opportunities to engage with the college and campus more broadly, so that both the students coming to us through the Fung programs and those from elsewhere on campus will have opportunities to learn from each other.
What do you anticipate will be your biggest challenge?Right now, the fields of engineering are moving so quickly. For example, we’re thinking about developments in artificial intelligence which are impacting not just computer science, but every single discipline within the engineering sciences, and across the university as well. To remain at the cutting edge, we’re constantly having to review and revise and push our work, an effort I am familiar with given my time as Director of Education at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. The second challenge is that many of the questions for leaders in engineering today are not fundamentally technical questions but, in fact, ethical or social questions. Clearly our students do learn really extraordinary technical skills but many of the most pressing questions today center around how to deploy those tools or technical skills. What problems should we take up? How should we tackle them? Who should be in the room while we’re devising solutions? How should we assess the outcomes and inputs on each project and problem we’re looking to solve? Answering those questions requires an understanding of equity, bias, and the impact a technology will have on individual users, communities, and society as a whole. We can best determine these contours by engaging with partners across society, leaders in a variety of institutions, community members, and our colleagues across many different disciplines and departments here on campus.
Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion is fundamental to both UC Berkeley and the Fung Institute. With that in mind, DEI-centered initiatives have you worked on and how will you continue fostering an environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Institute?Here in Silicon Valley, we convene programs for women leaders in technology to help advance the careers of those who identify as women. I am also fortunate enough to be able to have offered a set of Stanford level programs to rural Native American students in the K-12 environment, helping to fill a real educational gap in their local school system through online education. At Columbia, we were able to generate one of the largest increases in scholarship students and scholarship dollars available to students in peer professional education programs in the U.S., as well as open new pathways for students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) to top leadership programs. In each of those examples, I think you’re going to pick up on a couple of things. It matters to me that we think about economic barriers, geographic barriers, and communities that have been traditionally excluded from real access. In addition to being the morally right course of action, we understand that diversifying leadership leads to better outcomes for our organizations and mission. For me, DEI is a moral and leadership imperative.
In an institution like Berkeley, which really sets the tone for much of our society, taking questions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging seriously is essential to our mission.From week one, I’ve already begun looking at questions around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, talking with our team about the current state of our programs versus our peers because I want the Fung Institute to be a leader in each of those areas. One thing I have learned already is that the Fung Institute, and the undergraduate Fung Fellowship especially, draws students from all across campus, which both emphasizes the importance of diversity of perspective, disciplinary diversity, and allows for a much broader range of backgrounds from the student population. We structure the programs in a way that strives both to live up to our ideals on the diversity front but also on the social impact front. Where we succeed in getting this dual mission right, it will serve as a powerful example for others on the power of DEI initiatives. The right lens through which we want our engineering leaders to be looking going forward is not just how we do really interesting things but how do we do them together and how do we ensure that they have that positive impact we hoped for? I always hope that we’re thinking about each of those things so that we’re training future leaders to go out into the world and do positive work on DEIB initiatives elsewhere, to ensure that that’s a core leadership value in all of our students, first because it’s the right thing to do and reflects our values and, secondarily, because it’s a powerful recipe for success.
Now that the Institute is approaching its 12th year, what role do you envision it playing both in and outside of Silicon Valley moving forward?In every team I’ve worked with over my career, I’ve asked that we aim to be a leader in our chosen field, that we set the bar so that our peers will always be able to look at the Fung Institute as a place they seek to emulate. We get there by leading with a spirit of humility and curiosity, always seeking current best practices to improve and, where possible, aiming to push the boundaries for even more impact. In many ways, the promise of the Fung Institute is that we can aim for something more — more than technical skills alone, more than traditional homogenous teams, and more than mere problem solving. When we fulfill that promise together and model leadership that takes on big challenges and is inclusive, high-impact, and driven by best practices and powerful, real-world outcomes, then we live up to the unique responsibility that comes from being here at the Fung Institute and at Berkeley. And those benefits will rebound far beyond what we could have done alone.
In this way, we can create both better leaders and a better world.… Connect with John.
The Fung Institute welcomes John Robichaux as Executive Director was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.