Meet our graduates | Eric Volmar, PhD '21
July 6, 2021. Interviewed by Jim Fabry. Edited for length and clarity.
As part of MS&E's 2021 graduates podcast series, we chatted with Eric Volmar, a graduate of the PhD program in MS&E.
Eric shares with us his research on mission-driven organizations and how entrepreneurs can be successful while doing good for society. He also shares stories about his time at Stanford and in the MS&E program.
My name is Eric Volmar, and I studied in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. My emphasis was strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Where did you grow up and where did you study before coming to Stanford?
I'm from around Salt Lake City, Utah from a city called Kaysville, and I've still got an absolutely incredible family there in Kaysville. I did my undergrad and an MBA at Brigham Young University. It was always my dream to go to BYU growing up, and I was thrilled to be able to do that for undergrad and an MBA. Something I would say that just has shaped me so very much is the university's intense focus on serving other people and reaching out to people. There's an unofficial motto that is, “enter to learn, go forth to serve.” That has really set a foundation for me and it's bled into all the research that I've later done at Stanford.
What was your undergraduate degree?
It was accounting. I got a bachelor's in accounting and realized that I didn't want to be a public accountant, so I didn't pursue that route with certification. I was fascinated by the world of strategy instead. And so right out of college, I came to the Bay Area and lived in Palo Alto for my first job, working for Accenture doing management consulting. What I loved so much about Accenture was I was surrounded by absolutely brilliant people tackling hard issues at top technology companies. It was exciting. I loved the world of consulting, I loved being on my teams, I loved working with them. I really appreciated the blend of technology and strategy in the problems that we were solving.
Later on when I chose to get a PhD, Management Science and Engineering was the perfect blend of interests because of that. Because in Silicon Valley, essentially, if you don't have a technology, you don't have a strategy. But on the flip side, just because you have a technology doesn't mean you have a strategy. And so I found an incredible home in MS&E, particularly in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, to combine those interests.
How did you become interested in engineering? Are there experiences early in life that you can draw on?
Not so much with engineering in particular, although growing up all I wanted to do was to be an aerospace engineer. And somehow, some way, I figured out that business was where I needed to be. I left that behind for a while, so it's pretty remarkable to me later on to have just finished a PhD in engineering. The engineering angle, though, has made my doctoral experience flexible because it has combined a number of interests. The people I'm surrounded by in the program are technologists and they are innovators and they are also incredibly savvy business people. So you put all that together and it has been a really fulfilling experience. Stepping back, I wouldn't have imagined that one day I would get a PhD in engineering from a department of Management Science and Engineering, but it all came together and it's really cool.
I think that's one of the wonderful things about MS&E, the diversity of interests and opportunities. For example, traditionally what I've done in my PhD would normally be done at a business school, but MS&E is flexible in that they brought in people like me to come and do what they wanted to do, to learn about startup strategy, to learn about business models, to learn about entrepreneurship and all the things that go into that. So within Silicon Valley, it brought together a few things that were just a perfect fit for me.
Can you tell us about your research? What have you worked on and how did you get into it?
Something that has always been important to me—and again this goes back to my roots and my undergrad and really even beforehand—but I am absolutely fascinated by mission-driven organizations and people. I came into the PhD program wanting to study entrepreneurs who had big missions to change the world. You might refer to it as them wanting to solve society's grand challenges—big problems that require the cooperation of business and government and communities. Things that you'd find on the United Nations sustainability goals. Things like increasing access to education, improving healthcare, or creating clean energy, helping people out of poverty. There are entrepreneurs who take on those issues, and that was the focus of all of my dissertation. So what I did was I looked at this problem coming into the program. And I had an incredible advisor who sponsored these ideas and grabbed onto them as soon as I was interviewing to come to Stanford—her name is Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt—and she really saw a lot of promise in this.
The idea was, entrepreneurs set out to create businesses, they want to create successful businesses, and those who get investments from venture capitalists or others, they're expected to have incredibly successful financial exits. But at the very same time, these mission-driven people face another challenge—they have to fit in with those big institutions. So take as an example, increasing access to education. A lot of ed tech companies have this as their goal, and ed tech companies are notoriously tricky. It's hard for them to make money because they face these two challenges. They have to create a successful venture and make money, while also fitting in with the field of education, with so many norms and practices and rules. Anybody who's worked within education knows that sometimes it can be bureaucratic or slow, or just difficult—we do things this way because we've always done them, and therefore we're going to keep doing them like that. But change is needed, but it can be very hard.
So the whole dissertation work that I've done is, what happens when these mission-driven entrepreneurs want to create a smashing success business while also trying to work within the field of education or some other big institution? I focused on online higher education as a market. Particularly, I looked at platforms that delivered what many called MOOCs or massive open online courses. You can think of platforms that do this, they take university courses and put them online for everyone in the world. You could think of Coursera or edX or Udacity or NovoEd. You could think of Khan Academy for K-12. You could think of FutureLearn, iversity—so many of these platforms pop up.
The market actually has roots in Stanford Engineering, where professors decided that they were going to democratize education, they were going to make it accessible for anyone. They had a big vision for the future of what it meant to get an education. But the problem was, a couple of years in, they didn't have viable strategies and they did not know how to make money. They were at risk of, I mean, it was a question—are these going to survive? So I did an inductive study, which means I didn't go in trying to test certain hypotheses, but I went in to find out how this works. It's really an exciting brand and style of research. I primarily used interviews to figure out what was happening. I interviewed people all over—people within these platforms, those who founded them, those who joined them, those who invested in them. I interviewed people at universities, the university partners, the ones who agreed to let professors put their courses on these platforms. I talked to thought leaders and industry experts. And through all of those interviews, I was able to piece together a little bit more about how entrepreneurs navigate this incredibly difficult balance of fulfilling their mission while also making money. I can share more about that if you'd like. But that was my focus.
What are your top three insights or findings from your dissertation?
One is that these founders can take different approaches. In one paper in my dissertation called "Mavericks and diplomats: Contrasting paths for strategy formation in nascent markets within institutional fields," I show how the startups actually have very distinct decisions, different decisions to make about how they approach the institutional field. So in this case, how are you going to interact with higher ed? I found that some can be incredibly successful by being mavericks. They break the rules, they move fast. They try to innovate in ways that no one else has ever innovated. These people often rely on concepts from the lean startup, the idea of using hypothesis testing and rapid iteration and minimum viable products to get to a strategy as fast as you can.
Now, the problem with this is that there are consequences when you fail fast in higher education. Universities are incredibly risk-averse because they have these brands to protect that they've built over long periods of time. So when a startup comes along and tries to disrupt what has been and put at risk some of that legitimacy, universities recoil. This is a really effective strategy for forming a successful business quickly, but the risk is that you're going to have to pull back from the field of higher education or whatever institution when you cause too much trouble.
In contrast, I also pulled in the lens of diplomacy. So whereas some are mavericks and fail fast and break the rules, diplomats play the long game and they build relationships, they seek legitimacy. This process can be agonizing for Silicon Valley startups and founders who want to move fast and break things. But the benefit is that if you invest in your partners like universities, you get legitimacy over time and you get to stay. But this requires a few different tactics. This requires that entrepreneurs co-evolve with their partners. It requires that they co-invest, they co-develop capabilities together. It requires that there's ongoing negotiation.
One of the most effective things I found is coalition building. So you find these tools of diplomacy that are so effective on an international scale, and you bring them into entrepreneurship and you get this really interesting approach to forming a strategy that emerged from this research. I could have never anticipated that that would be what emerged when I started, but that was one of the really exciting insights that I found in that.
Another concept that I appreciate is that a lot of organizations now form as hybrids—hybrid meaning that they pull together mental models or templates or ways of being from different parts of society. So in ed tech, you're part education and you're part technology and business. For these ventures that I studied—the MOOC platforms—they were part business, part academia, and part social welfare—meaning like, we're going to go change the world. And when you combine all three of those, you can do some incredibly novel things that no other startup can do. In fact, you could only get into this market by combining those. But keeping those together and keeping the organization from tearing itself apart is incredibly difficult.
Now, this has been something in the research, especially in the last decade or so. What I did that was particularly novel is, what happens when hybrid organizations compete with each other in a market that appears like it could be winner-take-all? If you think about it, which ideology is actually going to help you to win, and how do you compete with somebody who uses fundamentally different rules of engagement? How do you win a market when your competitor isn't playing by the same set of assumptions, rules or values? The secret to this was adaptation. The boards of directors would help these ventures to adapt over time as the game would change.
At the beginning of this market, it was all about securing supply—getting universities to sign up, to be part of this big movement—but eventually adding one more partner didn't do a whole lot for them when they had a hundred but they couldn't make any money. So the basis of competition switched to securing or addressing demand: How do you use all these courses to attract customers? And once you've attracted those customers, how do you get them to pay?
So it took them reconfiguring who they were and how they organized, and what they valued, whether it was the mission or the money. How did you integrate those concepts into your product development? How did you integrate them into your partner relationships? How did you integrate that into your engineering? The key finding in this is that if you want to compete in a nascent market, a new market, as a hybrid, you have to be ready to adapt. And letting go of an ideology is incredibly difficult for any one of us. It's difficult for me, for anyone who's listening, you could think about which might be difficult for you to let go of. This is true in any mission-driven startup, where powerful mental models and strategies are shaping the decisions that entrepreneurs are making. It was a real fight, but some of the entrepreneurs were able to let go and adapt better than others. So that was one of the things I found.
What excites you about the future of where your field is headed?
I couldn't be more excited about the overall direction. I think there is a massive wave of entrepreneurs and business in general moving toward societal goals and missions. I believe that, more than ever, society is expecting business to be part of society and not just to make money. This is something that's been happening for a while—it's all over the news—but I think what that means for entrepreneurship is right from the founding, from the get-go, entrepreneurs are going to need to consider their societal impact. Now, I believe people are already doing that, but there aren’t templates for how entrepreneurs should do this successfully. And I think that that will become imperative for startups, for incubators, accelerators, for venture capitalists, to help entrepreneurs to understand how to balance the mission with the money, how to balance their business goals and also their societal impact.
My dissertation looked at these things, and there's so much more to examine as well, but I believe that that's the direction that things are going to go. And the more the entrepreneurs embrace their role in society, I believe that they will have more success, not only in creating products that are needed and solutions that are needed, but I believe that customers and partners will be drawn to these entrepreneurs more and more and more. Values matter. People are going to be buying values, not just value of a product, in unprecedented ways. That's where I see it going. It makes me excited because as many problems as we have in this world right now, we have so many opportunities. There is so much good that is happening and so many inspiring people who are sacrificing to make the world around us better. Now, the degree to which those people are entrepreneurs and start ventures, we're in for some exciting times.
I'll also add one of the things about MS&E and STVP that I find particularly exciting as the field moves forward, is how do you do well by doing good? And how do you do good by doing well? It's this thing that goes back and forth on that. And Tom Byers, Professor of MS&E in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, is really on the cutting edge of how we integrate better ethics into entrepreneurship. How do we avoid the consequences of just pure greed and excitement about building a product? How do we get entrepreneurs who will integrate ethics from the very beginning?
Ethics is a thing that we talk about and we know that it's good and important, but kind of like the research that I was discussing before, there aren't good templates and models for how to do that well. So as far as where I see this field going, I think that big missions are going to be more important, and I think ethics are going to be much more important and emphasized and expected while entrepreneurs design their businesses. Again, from the very beginning.
Do you imagine that—because your focus has been on what you've been calling the mission-driven organizations—these shifts will happen more in that area? Or do you think ethics will be at the forefront regardless of industry or sector?
What a great question. I think that more and more organizations across the board will adopt missions. Not everyone, mission-driven organizations are unique and not every organization needs to have a big social mission to be successful, but some do. As far as ethics, I believe that all of them, every single one of them will need to bring in a higher level of rigor with ethical decision-making.
Ethics are hard because what's true for one person isn't always true for another, but there are expectations in society about how people should behave. I know that they're murky, but there are emerging standards for that. Whether that should be regulated or not, I will leave that up to other people. But I believe it's incumbent on every single entrepreneur to search deep within about really questioning, yes, I can make this product, but should I? And if I can make this product and I should make this product, how should I do it?
So I think that's going to go for every sector in every capacity, or at least it should. I believe that new thought leaders are going to arise to help guide that. Tom Byers is really leading on that, and I couldn't be more thrilled to be watching how that work unfolds. But that's a trend to be watching. And the degree to which that's successful will really shape a lot of how business and society interact going forward.
How do you imagine your research interests might change in the next five to 10 years?
Something I've been thinking through is, in my research for the dissertation I focused on how startups and entrepreneurs interact with the big institutions around them. Again, big institutions being things like education, healthcare, energy, finance, government, it goes on. There are these core institutions, there are these startups, how do they interact? I looked at how the entrepreneurs interact with the big institutions. Going forward, I would like to learn more about how the institutions work with these startups.
For example, the flip side of my research would have been, how did universities respond to the MOOC platforms? Or in healthcare, how do universities, hospital systems, healthcare providers or healthcare researchers work with the many, many health tech startups that are coming? The first response is naturally to feel threatened, but if every new opportunity seems more like a threat than anything else, then we're going to miss so many novel solutions.
I think an interesting area also is in our defense sphere, and how defense interacts with startups. Silicon Valley was built largely on relationships with the United States government and defense. Some companies have shied away from that, but I see a lot of momentum with startups re-engaging with the defense sector, which I think is an exciting prospect. So the direction I would like to focus on in the future is that flip side, big institutions working with the startups, and then at the nexus of all of this is some really exciting innovation. Some disruption that may be unsettling for many, but that's part of our progress. That's where I'd want to focus.
What advice would you have for future students of MS&E? How can they make the best use of their time in MS&E and at Stanford?
To embrace the interdisciplinary nature at Stanford. There are a few universities in the country that are like Stanford in this regard, but they are few. Stanford is so interdisciplinary in nature, in that you just weave in and out of departments at the university to create solutions. It's so cool. I really enjoyed taking classes in business, sociology and education in addition to the wide array of classes offered in engineering. Those were just the core courses, and then there were also all the seminars. I just appreciated that even though I was a PhD student in the School of Engineering and the Department of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, I felt part of Stanford as a whole. I would embrace that.
I would also take advantage of learning from classmates. My classmates were absolutely brilliant. I was blown away by the insights they had day in and day out. And I love the vibe at Stanford where everything seems possible. The students truly believe that the future is theirs to write. I was struck by that. In my first weeks at the university, I noticed that the students didn't expect to go out and be part of a world that others would create; they expected to be the innovators. I was blown away, especially talking with some of the Stanford undergrads in my first few months, and with a straight face they would talk about how they were going to disrupt and change sectors, or they were going to be leaders of this and that. Some of them will and some of them won't, but many of them will. And that was the amazing thing, is that they believed it. And that was the important thing to me is that Stanford was this place where everything's on the table. It's all possible, and if somebody is going to change it, why not me? That was a little bit different for me. I appreciated that and it's helped me to get even more confidence that I can make an impact by watching so many others around me do that.
So what would I do if I were coming to Stanford again? I would just absolutely embrace all the opportunities on campus for all these thought leaders and all these students who believe in big visions and chase them. It's such a special place. I'm just so grateful that I was able to be part of it. Again, I started my career out in the Bay Area, I lived in Palo Alto for a number of years before ever thinking that I could possibly go to Stanford. And to have studied there, it was a life changing experience and I feel fortunate that that happened.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your last year at Stanford?
You know, it's certainly not the way I thought it was going to wrap up. I really missed seeing classmates and having that in-person experience. But you know, the university made it work like everyone else did in society. Would I prefer to be in person? Sure. But it didn't take away from how special the experience was. And the truth is that toward the end of your PhD, there's a lot that you can do remotely. You've done so much of the coursework. For me, I had to do all those interviews. This is the first time I'm thinking about this, but wow am I grateful and fortunate that the timing of the PhD worked out for me to collect more than a hundred interviews with people in person before there was a pandemic. I guess I could have done those on the phone, but it was so good to do those in-person and go to startups. But yeah, it really disrupted some elements about being in person, but overall, I think it worked out fine. Maybe that was just a part of where I was at in my program. I know it has impacted others in more serious ways, and it’s been hard to watch that.
What will you miss most about Stanford or the Bay Area?
I am already missing my frequent walks at Half Moon Bay. The truth is that some of the greatest inspiration for my dissertation came while I was on the coast. Usually at sunset, I'd often take a notebook and write while listening to the waves come in. I can think of key pieces of my dissertation that came together in that California golden sun. It's a part of Stanford, the Stanford experience that you may not think about right at first, but that time on the coast meant so much to my program. I'll miss that, I really will. I love the Bay.
I was talking about the Stanford vibe where everything's possible, and that goes hand in hand with how things are in Silicon Valley. I spent a good portion of the last decade in Silicon Valley, whether at Stanford or before in consulting. The entire mindset in the valley, again, is that everything is possible. And people are working on cool stuff. When you're at Stanford, when you're in the Bay Area, by the very nature of being there, so many of your friends are working on these cool projects, whether you have your friends that are working at Apple or Google or wherever else, or these startups. There's just this buzz of excitement about the possibilities. I'm going to miss that.
As for Stanford, I’ll miss the people. I'm surrounded by remarkable people who are chasing big dreams, and I learned so much from the people around me. Stanford is such a special place. I’ll miss biking through Stanford campus on the way to the office area and the engineering quad. I'll miss biking home, I’ll miss walks around Stanford campus. Many nights, there's something about it during sunset where there's this warm glow that just kind of comes right over the whole valley. And it's like the trees are on fire sometimes. I'm going to miss that about Stanford. I'll miss so many things. It was truly an extraordinary privilege to be there. And it's wild to think about wrapping up now.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I would say to anyone who is considering Management Science and Engineering as a place to study, absolutely go for it. It is an exciting place where there's so much flexibility. There are opportunities to study what you care about to make an impact. You're surrounded by thought leaders who encourage you to go big. And again, right at the beginning, I would have never imagined that I'd go to Stanford and that I would study engineering. Those two things I didn't know that I could put together, but MS&E was the perfect spot for me. And I think that can be true for a lot of people.