By Vaibhav Singh, HBS Class of 2017
David Bowie, rock star, poet, actor and icon, died on January 10th 2016. He recorded one of his most popular singles, “Heroes” back in 1977, celebrating two lovers who meet at the Berlin Wall, trying to find a way to be together. The wall stood there for another twelve years, but it did come down one day and millions of reunited souls became a symbol of the new Europe.
To many, January 2016 looked like a perfect storm. Chinese stock markets crashed by more than 20%, news from North Korea seemed like something Dr. Strangelove would enjoy, the crisis of confidence in Europe continued to intensify and Santa’s elves at the North Pole welcomed the New Year at temperatures 50 0F above average. However, if we look at the puzzle differently, we might find order and even beauty in what might look like total chaos.
I reached out to a few Harvard Business School alumni who have thrived through economic cycles, technology bubbles and much worse. The question posed to them was a simple one: “If you had a time machine and you could go back to one date in history and change one thing. What would that be and why?”
Each answer below comes from a very different perspective but sheds light on how the revolutions of tomorrow are only temporarily walled within the realm of our imagination.
CEO of Swagbucks.com, Ex-CEO of Fandango.com, HBS ’86
I think if the United States or the western Allies were first in creating and owning technologies that included GPS and mobile phone transmission, then in 1939 the beginning of Germany’s advance into what became World War II could have been averted. Thirty million people died including innocent millions transported by mobile killing vans and then trains to concentration and death camps. I have a hard time today coming to grips with the horrendous mass scale crimes that could have been prevented. Technology solves problems and we see this mostly for our everyday utilities. But saving lives, preventing conflicts, and saving innocents is where I would spend time — past, present, and future.
Acclaimed Author, Ex-Head of P&G India, Hbs AMP ’91
The standard recipe for making a poor country rich is to export labor intensive, low-tech manufactured goods. It transformed East Asia, China and South East Asia into middle class societies. In the early 1960s it was becoming clear to the world that Japan was creating a huge number of jobs based on the export of toys, shoes, and simple manufactures. Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore saw this and quickly followed suit. All of them went on to become first world countries. The countries of South East Asia also followed this model to become respectable middle-income economies. China is the latest and it was so successful that it became the world’s factory.
India missed this bus. It is hard to blame Nehru because he a product of the socialist age, looked eastwards. Indira Gandhi sneered at the World Bank’s suggestion in 1968 that India might learn something from Taiwan and Korea. Instead, she nationalized banks, committed other lunacies, and India lost a whole generation. After 1991, the reformers did try to emulate the Asian model but the overhang of bad socialist policies and red tape defeated them. This (read: BJP government elected in 2015) is the first government to make a determined attempt to fix the manufacturing ecosystem and make it easier to do business. If I could go back in history I would have adopted the Japanese model in the 1960s and the rest would be history.
Founder & CEO of Breyer Capital, Partner Emeritus at Accel Partners, HBS ’87
I would go back only to January 1, 2016/stay in present. I am passionate about Human Assisted Learning and artificial intelligence representing a venture capital/investment opportunity over the next decade that will provide greater returns than did social networks in 2005 and the internet in 1995. It is truly a magical time to be an entrepreneur and investor in Human Assisted Learning foundational enterprises.
Co-Founder & CEO of Athena Health, HBS ’97
I would never go back in history to change anything. Each tragic development is incubated by layer upon layer of contributing factor that made conditions ripe for tragic events. Our calling as humans is to pick the narrative we inherit up and ride it to a better place. Dig in our edges, keep our balance, open our heart, choose our battles, and leave a slightly better set stage for those who come behind.
I don’t bemoan the bad events of the past, thank god for them. The make your enormous calling to make the world better than before a little easier and the path (at least the one not to take) a little clearer
Senior Lecturer at HBS, Founder & Managing Partner of Xander Group, HBS ’04
Instead of focusing on the past, we should look to the present and think about the things we need to change today to shape our collective future. As Longfellow said,
“Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!”