University News

Brown EP hosts tech exec Joe Lonsdale

Given Lonsdale’s past relationship with student mentee, WiCS holds alternative event

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2016

Joe Lonsdale speaks to students at an event sponsored by the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. During his talk, Lonsdale discussed milestones in his career, ranging from interning at PayPal to founding his own company.

Updated April 24, 2016 at 8:25 p.m. 

Joe Lonsdale, founder of Palantir Technologies, Addepar and 8VC, spoke about his business experience and professional philosophy in a talk hosted by the Brown University Entrepreneurship Program Thursday afternoon in MacMillan Hall.

An event titled “Healthy Relationships in Your Workplace” was hosted by Women in Computer Science, a student organization, at the same time as Lonsdale’s talk.

Brown EP previously told a student that the event would be canceled after she expressed concerns over charges of sexual harassment and assault that a Stanford alum — who had been in an allegedly abusive relationship with Lonsdale while she was an undergraduate — filed against him last year. The charges were dropped in November, and Stanford lifted a ban that prohibited Lonsdale from campus grounds. Still, because Lonsdale was found to have violated the university’s code of conduct with regard to disclosing consensual mentor-student relationships, Stanford did not lift the temporary teaching and mentoring suspension it had imposed on him.

After consulting with administrators and other campus groups, Brown EP decided to go forward with the event, The Herald previously reported.

“A few misguided activists may have had some issue, but we didn’t see them and would have been happy to educate them if we had,” wrote Anthony Ghosn, Lonsdale’s chief of staff, in an email to The Herald.

Ghosn also told The Herald that the University’s Title IX Office and the Department of Computer Science condoned the event.

“The CS department did not take a position (on the event),” wrote Amy Greenwald, associate professor of computer science, in an email to The Herald.

The University and the Title IX Office “neither approved this event or asked the students to cancel it,” wrote Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development, in an email to The Herald. In accordance with Brown’s Statement on Academic Freedom for Faculty and Students, the University does not interfere in the invitation of speakers to campus “unless there is a clear threat to safety created by the circumstances of an event, which had not been determined to be the case for this event.”

Emily Schell ’16, founder and co-coordinator of Stand Up! at Brown, a student organization that works to combat sexual assault at Brown, helped to organize the WiCS event, along with members of WiCS and “other concerned individuals throughout the University,” she said.

Stand Up! was disappointed by Brown EP’s choice to continue with the event after students within and outside of the computer science department raised their concerns, Schell said. Considering the way Lonsdale used his position as a mentor at Stanford, “people feel very uncomfortable inviting him to campus in a sort of similar mentorship capacity,” she added.

The WiCS event featured Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and associate dean of the College and Sara Matthiesen, postdoctoral fellow in American Studies and the Title IX Office, as well as advocates from Sexual Health and Assault Resources and Education, a University-run group.

Because some students were uncomfortable attending the Brown EP event and members of WiCS were interested in discussing the matter of mentor-mentee relationships, “it just happened to be a great time to have that conversation,” said a coordinator from WiCS, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of potential professional repercussions. The program did not include any discussion of Lonsdale.

A SHARE advocate was also available outside the auditorium during Lonsdale’s lecture for anyone who needed support or assistance.

Lonsdale discussed different points in his career trajectory, including interning at PayPal while the Chinese and Russian mafias were trying to force the company into bankruptcy and serving as an executive at a large global hedge fund.

After growing up in Silicon Valley, he studied computer science at Stanford and interned at PayPal while he was a student. After the company was sold to eBay, many of Lonsdale’s friends left to construct companies, including Yelp, YouTube and LinkedIn. “I was really lucky to be part of this whole group and get that entrepreneurial background before I started building things myself,” Lonsdale said.

As a co-founder of Palantir, which TechCrunch deems a “software and services company that specializes in data analytics.”

Lonsdale started a financial division of Palantir that aimed to fix problems in other industries, and the company also launched a philanthropic sector.

“We helped get rid of a lot of slave labor in supply chains around the world,” Lonsdale added.

The first founder to leave Palantir, Lonsdale went on to found Addepar, a company that develops investment management technology. Building on his experience with Palantir, Lonsdale brought more realism and senior businesspeople into this venture, he said.

“When we were building Palantir, we kind of had this very young, confident view that we didn’t really need old people’s help because old people are stupid,” Lonsdale said. With Addepar, he had more appreciation for the expertise and connections that come with experience.

There are prerequisites for good venture companies, Lonsdale said, listing the presence of a strong engineering culture and the basis of a network or platform as beneficial factors.

Lonsdale also lauded Silicon Valley as a friendly place for businesses. “People know that if they’re helpful to a group, then another group’s going to work with them,” he said, adding, “The nice guys and girls do get ahead.”

Lukas Biton ’17 questioned how Lonsdale reconciles his moral compass with his business ventures, and Lonsdale unpacked his philosophy regarding the beneficial nature of markets.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding in places like Brown historically. They kind of see the world of business as this money-grubbing, evil, morally questionable thing,” Lonsdale said. Businesses are frequently the best way to find solutions, he added, citing health care and finance as examples of industries in which companies offer benefits to society.

“The act of entrepreneurship is like the act of creation, and it’s fundamentally why our civilization has improved so much the last 300 years,” he said.

“This is why places like Venezuela are not doing as well: because they don’t have these markets, and they don’t encourage entrepreneurship.”

Lonsdale said that he likes to help companies that do good in the world achieve their missions, adding that in his role on the board of a healthcare company, he is excited to increase efficiency and improve experience.

Biton appreciated Lonsdale’s honesty and ethics in business. “It really appears that he doesn’t do what he doesn’t believe in,” he said.

“A lot of the answers that he gives are based on philosophical frameworks, and that makes for really structured thinking,” said Cliff Weitzman ’16. He also valued Lonsdale’s goal of bettering the world as much as possible, Weitzman said.

“It’s really hard to build a company or to help a company if you’re not interested in it,” Lonsdale said. “Your mind engages better when you like something, or you love something, and you think it matters.”


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