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AI / Arts / Leadership / Universities

An OpenAI advisor wants to help tech leaders embrace the humanities

The Virginia Tech program’s first graduating class of 11 founders and leaders spent two semesters exploring the intersection of technology and the arts.

Virginia Tech's Institute for Leadership in Technology cohort gathered in Miami, Florida, in January. (Courtesy Virginia Tech)

A group of entrepreneurs and executives from across the globe recently completed a fellowship working to bridge the gap between the humanities and technology. 

The inaugural class of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Leadership in Technology, founded and led by the founder and tech executive Rishi Jaitly, seeks to make the arts, history, religion, philosophy and other disciplines approachable to more people in technology. The two-semester program for mid-career professionals launched in the fall of 2023 and ended in April. 

“I think a world in which the humanities are more accessible and available is a world that’s more curious, more compassionate,” said Jaitly, who lives near Virginia Tech’s main campus in Blacksburg. 

Jaitly ascribed his career success to integrating the arts and technology — for example, through storytelling — into his own work across academia, investment and tech policy. Jaitly is currently a distinguished humanities fellow and professor at Virginia Tech. Beyond that, he’s a cofounder and former founding CEO of the venture capital firm Times Bridge, a senior advisor for OpenAI, and the former leader of the public policy team for Google and YouTube’s South Asia branch.

In this program he leads, fellows learn about concepts like how faith and religion influence communities and the history of human leadership across different times and cultures.

The fellowship is set to return this upcoming year, and applications are due July 31. Eleven people participated in the first iteration of the program, and Jaitly said he plans to keep the class size a similar number for the next group. 

Get in contact with the institute

Members of the first class hail from a mix of large companies, including three from the Arlington-HQed aerospace firm Boeing and one from the cloud computing provider Amazon Web Services, and leadership posts at their own firms. Advisors in the program include Jen Pahlka, the founder of the tech nonprofit Code for America; and Allen Lau, the cofounder and former CEO at the storytelling platform Wattpad.

A bulk of the programming is virtual, and each month revolves around a specific theme. Typically, the fellows read different materials for the first week of the month, then attend two weeks of virtual seminars before spending the last one independently writing and journaling. A handful of in-person events took place as well, including a convocation in Arlington and a mid-year trip to Miami. The region around that city stands to build up its own tech industry after the Economic Development Administration designated it a tech hub in October; it’s set to receive $19 million for different climate technology projects, according to an announcement in early July

Bridging tech and the arts for better leadership 

The fellowship’s theme for March is titled “Full Stack Human.” This concept is all about connecting humanities concepts to technology trends, Jaitly explained. The top section of this “full stack” is being fluent in emerging themes like generative artificial intelligence. But the base is the humanities, Jaitly said. 

It’s an effort to frame STEM and the arts as integrated and not opposed to one another.

“That’s where you have capacity and athleticism that allows you to stay relevant, current and successful, and thrive no matter what the tech environment is today,” he said. 

The concept is based on founder and venture capitalist Scott Hartley’s 2017 book, The Fuzzy and the Techie,” and inspired Jaitly to push the need for skills like introspection and imagination among technology leaders. Hartley, who’s an advisor in the program, co-taught the concept to fellows with Jaitly. 

For one of these fellows, Amrita Tripathi, this “full stack” framing stuck with her. She’s a founder of two firms and a former Twitter content partnerships executive. Both the “fuzzy” and the “techie” skills are important for leaders and organizations to grow, she said. 

Tripathi, who also previously worked as a broadcast journalist, was looking to upskill as a leader in a meaningful way, she said, and came across the fellowship online. She learned a lot during the program, which also reinforced ideologies she already believes. Focusing on human-centric skills like critical thinking is essential for leaders in technology — especially those focusing on artificial intelligence, she said. 

“We rarely take the time out in our day-to-day to delve deeper into some of the big questions,”  Tripathi wrote in an email. “For example, the biggest challenge right now for the tech world and all the myriad AI companies seems to be ethical, right? What are the ethics behind this new global AI race?”

She highly recommended the fellowship, which she called a “gift and privilege.”

“There’s something humbling about going back to studying,” Tripathi said, “struggling towards finding meaning and connecting the dots.”

Companies: Amazon Web Services / Code for America / Google / Economic Development Administration / YouTube

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