Humanities at core of new professional institute for technology leaders
April 25, 2023
Picture an extended weekend in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A group of mid-career professionals arrives to immerse themselves in the history of the Battle of Gettysburg, an experience led by renowned Civil War historian James McPherson.
Among the group are executives from several global technology companies. Though they walk the site of Pickett’s Charge while listening to a Friday afternoon conference call, they are there because of a personal conviction that history is valuable to them.
Also in the group is Rishi Jaitly, now a professor of practice and a distinguished fellow in the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech. He saw something unique during that weekend excursion in the spring of 2022.
“It dawned on me that all of us, no matter our industry or institution, had an intuition that this immersive experience wasn’t merely a leisurely excursion,” said Jaitly, an entrepreneur who formerly worked for Google and, in 2012, was Twitter’s first executive in mainland Asia. “It also constituted a serious intellectual and educational experience, one that would nourish human skills and sensibilities that would show up in our professional lives the following Monday.”
At the time of this trip, he was CEO of Times Bridge, a venture capital firm he co-founded years earlier to help global technology companies, such as Uber, Airbnb and Coursera, lead in India and beyond. He also was a trustee with the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit that advances the study of humanities.
The Gettysburg experience, plus others like it throughout Jaitly’s career in technology and business, now are driving a new venture — the launch of the Virginia Tech Institute for Leadership in Technology.
The institute is a new executive education program for rising technology leaders from around the world. Through courses and a community built around the humanities, it will offer a select class of fellows each year a leadership credential that will help advance a higher form of stewardship.
“The liberal arts and humanities have long loomed large in the technology landscape in fostering the skills of reflection and rigor, introspection, and imagination,” Jaitly said. “With this institute, we at Virginia Tech affirm the role that humanities education and experiences also play, and ought to continue to play, in shaping and sharpening the essential sensibilities of leadership as well.”
The institute’s curriculum will feature courses from the fields of philosophy and religion, the classics and the arts, history and literature, and more.
Each class of fellows, about 12 in year one and representing a variety of industries, will take several courses concurrently throughout their one-year enrollment. Fellows will gather in September for a week of learning and camaraderie in Blacksburg and will end the year in April with a capstone week at Virginia Tech’s campus in Northern Virginia.
In between, coursework will be conducted through a variety of ways – virtually, through written correspondence, and via an immersive January travel experience. Before receiving their leadership credentials in the spring, fellows will present independent research, scholarship, and creative writing.
Prospective fellows can read about the program and learn how to contact the institute for enrollment details. The deadline for fellows to contact the institute for fall enrollment is July 1.
“The institute recognizes the vital importance of the humanities in shaping people who are attuned to the inner lives of others and to complexities and rapid changes of global society,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “We believe leaders, with the insights gleaned from this innovative executive training, will be tremendous assets to their companies.”
To be sure, leadership education is not new. But the Institute for Technology in Leadership is unique in emphasizing the role that human skills and humanities experiences play in distinguished leadership, Jaitly said.
“No other academic institution has identified humanities as the key to nurturing the highest levels of leadership through an executive program,” said Sylvester Johnson, who is founder of the Center for Humanities and Virginia Tech’s associate vice provost for public interest technology. “Rishi's vision is not only charting a new future for humanities, but it is also creating a new, positive direction for the future of humanity.”
Both Johnson and Jaitly serve on the board of Virginia Humanities, the commonwealth’s humanities council.
After all, both leadership and management calls on skills rooted in humanities and social science subjects, such as psychology and philosophy.
“What’s the superpower of the future?” Jaitly said he often asks. “Even before the ascendance of generative artificial intelligence, I’ve long observed, in technology and beyond, that in a world in which computing and commercial know-how is increasingly accessible to many, breakthrough leaders are those that have cultivated the exclusively human skills of sensitivity, storytelling and stewardship.”
This kind of perspective is more important in the world of technology than ever before, said Jen Pahlka, who is a member of the institute’s new advisory board. Pahlka is founder of Code for America, a nonprofit that uses digital practices to improve government, and she formerly was deputy chief technology officer for President Barack Obama.
“It’s never been clearer that technology is impacting the shape of our society,” said Pahlka, whose book “Recoding America” releases in June. “You’re designing services that need to meet people's needs. We need people who are well rounded who come to this with a sense of history and humanities. It is soft skills and a broad perspective that what we do matters outside of the lane we might be in.”
Virginia Tech is the perfect setting for this executive program in humanities, said Jaitly, who earlier in his career co-founded Michigan Corps and Kiva Detroit, both tech-enabled service platforms. “This is an institution decidedly connected to the future, but also one cognizant of the time-tested values of service, community, and leadership,” he said.
The university is known for its engineering and technology education with a mission to graduate students who will serve others and change the world for the good.
“Nearly a quarter-century ago, my committing to the humanities led to a sustained sense of awe and wonder in the other which has powered my career as an entrepreneur and executive,” said Jaitly, who earned a bachelor of arts degree in history at Princeton University and served on the university's board of trustees. “I’m honored to help create an opportunity for rising stars from around the world, no matter their field or function, community or country, to commit to and cultivate a higher form of leadership as well.”
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone