West Coast Alums Stay Connected Via Remote Participation in tjSTAR
tjSTAR is TJ’s day-long symposium run like a professional conference. Seniors and freshmen present research project results; corporate sponsors and others display and demonstrate technology; and professionals from government, industry, and academia discuss their work and help students explore career options. Alumni from all fields discuss their work and their unique TJ-enabled career paths.
Disney producer Jason Hintz Llopis, TJ ’89, participated in three tjSTAR blocks: In a sequel to an earlier tjSTAR visit (see August 2012 issue), he described the exciting work at Disney Research; using the new system donated by Cisco, he moderated a remote panel of Hollywood-based alums; and he participated on an alumni career panel.
Joining him on the panel was Dr. Courtney Dressing, TJ ’06, who went from conducting senior research under TJ’s Astronomy Lab Director Lee Ann Hennig to obtaining her PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Harvard and a fellowship at Caltech this fall, and Elizabeth Winston, TJ ’90, whose TJ background and MIT Math degree launched her career as a law professor specializing in intellectual property and patent law.
Alumni in Hollywood
It was at UVA’s McIntyre School of Business that Hintz Llopis realized he wanted to work at the intersection of business and media. Because he was fortunate enough to intern at Disney, he landed a job there after graduation, working as a creative manager on animated films. The technical background he obtained at TJ was key to his career development, as it was during his time at Disney that the computer revolution transformed the business of animation.
For the last seven years, he has been a producer with Disney Research, an academic arm of Disney that supports all five of Disney’s major business segments. In this role, he works with PhDs on “tech transfer,” solidifying their results and applying them to improve the entertainment experience (see also December 2014 issue). Research is more important to the entertainment industry than ever, he said, because of the constant pressure to thrill and move audiences in new ways. From rendering animated faces more emotional and realistic to creating robots that can play catch with untrained humans, and from personalizing the theme-park experience to allowing kids to digitally change attributes of their favorite characters, Disney research continues to “push the envelope.”
The Hollywood alums calling in from LA pointed out other influences technology has had on the entertainment industry. Ron Hohauser, TJ ’86, is a Wharton MBA in the entertainment finance field who worked for Marvel Studios and was CFO at Summit Studios when it released “Twilight.” Although, as he says, he’s a “suit,” not a “creative,” he enjoys working alongside creative people as he navigates the industry’s complex financial deals. The rise of digital technology has had a huge impact on the movie business, he explained, noting that the collapse of the DVD market, which provided a revenue stream for films that weren’t cinematic blockbusters, has placed tremendous pressure on studios to come up with blockbusters.
Scott Zabielski, who was in TJ’s Class of 1997 but moved prior to graduation, attributes much of his early success to his work with former Video Tech Lab Director Ed Montgomery. After attending USC Film School, he worked his way from reality shows to comedy. Last year the award-winning Super Bowl Doritos ad that he created in only two weeks brought him instant stardom. The low cost of video-editing tools and the reach of YouTube means that anyone can get discovered, he said, encouraging students to just dive in.
Alumni in Silicon Valley
Tim Abbott, TJ ’03, who has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from MIT, told students about dropping out of grad school to start a company in the midst of the financial crisis. With TJ classmate Jeffrey Arnold, Abbott co-founded software start-up Ksplice, acquired by Oracle, and workplace chat platform Zulip, acquired by Dropbox in 2014. Abbott, who now works with Arnold at Dropbox and noted that a large number of his MIT classmates are also in the software industry, said that “the TJ network is almost as good as MIT’s.”
Anne Toth, TJ ’89 (on screen, top; see also December 2014 issue), explained how she became one of the nation’s experts on Internet privacy, her so-called “career by accident.” After considering law school and dropping out of public policy school, she was hired by Internet start-up Yahoo as “data miner number two,” where she was tapped to research privacy issues. She became Yahoo’s head of privacy, the first ever at an Internet company. Much of her work involved testifying on Capitol Hill, where she found TJ to be her single most important credential. After holding the same position at Google+, she brought her expertise to a start-up, workplace communication platform Slack.
Toth discussed the privacy implications of ubiquitous data collection, issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and addressed work-life balance questions. “The most important career decision anyone makes is choosing a partner,” she said.
Sander Daniels, TJ ’01, whose Internet company Thumbtack employs 1,000 people around the world helping to connect small businesses with customers (see May 2013 issue), sees the TJ network as a key resource. His first eight employees were TJ grads (his wife also graduated from TJ).
Both Toth and Daniels have hosted Bay Area TJ alumni events, and all three noted the trend of TJ tech grads migrating westward. These alums have all seen first-hand the way that technology has changed the world by allowing individuals and small teams to create powerful new products.
In 2014-2015, Emily Orser’s AP English Language/Global Studies class, team-taught with Monte Bourjaily’s AP Government class, piloted a social entrepreneurship curriculum introduced by non-profit LearnServe International, a group dedicated to empowering high school students to address global problems. The final project took the form of an “elevator pitch” made to a panel of judges in the style of TV’s “Shark Tank.” Instead of for-profit businesses, students pitched non-profit social ventures, and instead of a panel of celebrity investors, the panel of judges featured one parent and five alumni, all of whom had business and/or international experience.
Students learned about issues of global importance and then selected a problem for concrete local action. One team created a website where individuals could report instances of corruption they had observed; another team met with FCPS Family Life curriculum administrators in an effort to improve sex education; a third group proposed having autistic students author letters to Members of Congress to raise autism awareness; a student working alone proposed guidelines for the use of animals in research conducted by TJ students. Altogether, fourteen teams pitched their solutions, with a few minutes for questions after each.
The judges, who were impressed but not surprised by the quality of the presentations, were asked to evaluate students on innovation (how new, clever, and different was their proposed solution), visual presentation (how clear, organized, and eye-catching were their slides), and traction (how concise, direct, and motivating was their plan and call to action). Although the judges did not formally grade the students, they were asked to agree on a Judges’ Choice Award for the presentation that most effectively demonstrated a problem, a viable solution, and an effective plan for implementing it. Choosing a winner was difficult, but the judges were quick to form a consensus about the “Shark Tank” style final — they loved it.
This year’s volunteer judges were, from left to right, above:
Sheena Gill, TJ ’00, General Counsel, C2 Technologies, Inc.
Michelle Walters Klancnik, TJ ’94, Founder/President, Tay-Sachs Awareness & Prevention Organization
Mo Kim, TJ ’89, Owner/VP Operations, Rinker Design Associates
Justin Valentine, TJ ’97, Senior Consultant, World Bank
Michael Martinka, TJ ’87, Parent ’17, ExecutiveVP, Ntrepid
Jennifer Simpson, Parent ’15, Executive VP, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation