Singularity University at Ten Years: The Early Days & Evolution to Benefit Corp

Rob Nail
Sep 27, 2018

As I shared in a previous post, Singularity University (SU) was born out of Ray Kurzweil’s insights around the disruptive forces of exponential technologies and Peter Diamandis’s aspiration to use that understanding to make the world a better place. On September 20, 2008, an extraordinary group of people gathered at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley to support the launch of SU… not merely as an academic institution, but as a global catalyst for change. Since that founding conference, the mission of SU has remained directionally the same: to educate, empower, and inspire leaders to leverage exponential technologies to solve humanity’s grand challenges.In this post, I’d like to share where we started as an organization and what we learned from those early days that informed our business and impact models, as well as our current structure.

The early days

During our first few years, SU offered two programs. First was the ten-week Graduate Studies Program, later renamed the Global Solutions Program and recently rebooted as the Global Startup Program (GSP), which was designed to help aspiring entrepreneurs apply exponential technologies to directly tackle the global grand challenges (GGCs) through projects that would eventually become companies. Next came the week-long Executive Program (EP), which was designed to inspire a new way of thinking about technology and the future. The GSP, as well as our initial structuring as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, were largely inspired by the International Space University (ISU) launched by Peter Diamandis, Bob Richards, and Todd Hawley in 1987.Almost immediately, it became clear that we were onto something special. The GSP inspired participants to pursue moonshots alongside similarly optimistic and tenacious innovators. It has also spawned hundreds of boundary-pushing projects and startups, all endeavoring to make the world a better place for all. The EPs radically transformed participants’ mindsets and introduced them to other influencers and aspiring change agents around the world. To this day, much of our growth still comes from GSP and EP participants sharing their experience and enthusiasm through word of mouth.From the beginning, what we are doing has been incredibly exciting for everyone involved. Our campus is frequently teeming with diverse individuals and organizations from around the world, united by a passion to make a huge difference in the world, learning from the most brilliant minds in technology, and inspired by dynamic luminaries like Ray and Peter!

What we learned

I came to SU in February of 2010 to attend one of the first Executive Programs. The breadth and depth of curriculum, stature of the faculty, and collaborative nature of the participants were mind-blowing. It was like a whole new world had opened up to me, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I never left. I donated to SU and started helping out as an advisor, then took over as CEO in 2011. Many years later, the inspiration I take from our faculty, partners and community, the passion I have for supporting impact initiatives, and my sense of urgency about what we are doing and its importance in the world have never been greater. Of course, along the way, we have learned a lot, and we constantly looking for ways that we can do better. We want to make a bigger difference and are committed to continually evolving the organization to do so.As we continued to experiment and learn, a few key insights became apparent:

  1. Our narrative, programs, curriculum, and frameworks were exceptionally effective at helping people think differently about technology, the future, and their roles in it.
  2. Most participants left SU fired up, but ended up feeling incredibly isolated once they were back home. No one around them saw the world quite like they did (or moved as fast).
  3. Launching moonshot projects and companies to solve the world’s biggest problems was hard…like, really hard…and required a longer timeline and different support than Silicon Valley and investors were used to.
  4. We needed to grow faster and scale farther if we were to achieve our audacious global impact goals.

These insights inspired a series of strategic choices we made:

Programs and curriculum

The first insight encouraged us to both deepen our existing curriculum and experiment with new curriculum, programs, and approaches. When you’re running programs that consistently produce feedback like, “life changing,” “greatest experience of my life,” and “best program I’ve ever attended,” it’s tempting to think, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” and stick with what’s working. But given how quickly the technology landscape is evolving, that would be short-sighted (and the height of hubris). Instead, we embraced experimentation and tried to push ourselves to stay ahead of the curve.Sharing diverse perspectives about technology in the classroom was a big differentiator for us. Our faculty represented many different disciplines, which offered participants a range of viewpoints and often led to vigorous debates over time horizons, ethical implications, potential applications, etc. This multi-disciplinary approach and emphasis on synthesis, convergence, and debate became part of our unique approach to faculty and curriculum. It’s worth noting that SU faculty aren’t tenured, but rather engaged “on-demand,” which allows us to attract a wide range of experts and practitioners, ensures our curriculum is fresh, and gives us flexibility to deploy the right faculty to the right program wherever needed around the world.

Global ecosystem

The second insight pointed to the importance of building, supporting, and connecting a global ecosystem of individuals and organizations who are inspired by SU’s perspective and want to respond to SU’s bold call-to-action. SU has a truly unique and diverse community that can productively come together in novel ways to contribute to solving the GGCs. In my next post, I will describe this ecosystem in more detail, including the ways members come together to make impact.Over the years, we’ve experimented with a range of structures and tools to support our growing community: a digital community app and directory, local alumni Chapters, social media forums, local and global Summits, etc., with a lot more coming soon. We ultimately want to connect people, projects, partners, programs, ideas, and resources across the globe and will be developing and experimenting with new ways to do so. Our ability to make unexpected connections (we call these “uncommon partners”) can ultimately result in unique and valuable outcomes.I think the most exciting progress we’ve made recently has been by our partners around the world. Our alumni chapters are running hundreds of meetups and salons to bring important conversations about technology, impact, and abundance to their communities. Our Summit and Country Partners are developing their local innovation ecosystems through partnerships and programs and are increasingly identifying new faculty and thought leaders, discovering local breakthroughs, and launching new impact initiatives.Best of all, our global partners are sharing and learning from one another. This collaboration results in new ideas, solutions, approaches, and models that might be relevant in other regions, and enables learning and experimentation much faster than headquarters alone is able to do. This is how SU can ultimately impact a billion people—through its network.

Startup support

The third insight led to the development of our Ventures business, which focuses specifically on the incubation and acceleration of projects and companies that are leveraging exponential technologies to address the GGCs. Because SU entrepreneurs and startups are working on moonshots, the training and support they need is different from most Silicon Valley incubators/accelerators that typically have shorter time horizons and aggressive exit goals.SU’s diverse ecosystem of thought leaders, corporations, government groups, investors, nonprofits, academic institutions, and other startups represents a unique and valuable resource pool. By connecting “uncommon partners” and providing critical resources, our startups gain an advantage that should accelerate their ability to scale and create impact in the world.

Benefit corporation

The final insight led to the exploration of a company structure that would allow us to aggressively grow and scale SU. As early as 2011, Peter began sharing his concern that a nonprofit model was too limiting for an organization with SU’s ambition. Based on his experience with XPRIZE and other nonprofits, he suggested there might be more appropriate structures that would enable broader access to capital, increase our ability to attract top talent, provide flexibility for scaling certain programs, enable us to start and participate in startups, and generally accelerate our growth in ways that a nonprofit could not.We first explored a hybrid model—adding a new for-profit institute to the original nonprofit. However, our legal and business advisors suggested that the risk of diverging purposes was significant, especially for a small organization still developing its foundational model. We simply couldn’t take on the complexity and expense of establishing licensing relationships between two entities, not to mention the challenge of operating two distinct but related organizations.Around the same time, a new structure called a benefit corporation was emerging. At a high level, this new structure blended the goals of a C corporation (to generate long-term shareholder value) with the goals of a 501(c)(3) (to create a material positive impact on society, workers, the environment, and community). This model seemed perfect for an organization like ours, looking to grow quickly and create value for all stakeholders, while maintaining focus on impact. We launched a formal evaluation.

A snapshot of SU’s evaluation of corporate structures in 2011

The Benefit Corporation

For those of you unfamiliar with the benefit corporation structure, here’s a great explanation, from“In the United States, directors of for-profit companies are required to act solely for the ultimate purpose of maximizing the financial returns to shareholders. While corporations generally have the ability to engage in any legal activities, including those that are socially responsible, corporate decision-making must be justified in terms of creating shareholder value. Mission driven and other socially conscious businesses, impact investors and social entrepreneurs are constrained by this inflexible legal framework that does not accommodate for-profit entities whose mission and impact is central to their business model.Benefit corporations expand the obligations of boards, requiring them to consider environmental and social factors, as well as the financial interests of shareholders. This gives directors and officers the legal protection to pursue a mission and consider the impact their business has on society and the environment.”Maryland passed the first benefit corporation legislation in 2010. Since then, 33 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have followed, with six states currently evaluating. Many familiar businesses across a range of industries are benefit corporations: Kickstarter, Method, patagonia Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy, Laureate Education, and Altschool.To learn more, I encourage you to watch the TEDx talk by Jay Coen Gilbert (co-founder of B Lab and the movement of Certified B Corporations).

SU Converts to a Benefit Corporation

California approved benefit corporation legislation in 2012 and SU, along with Patagonia and a few other companies, took the leap to adopt the new structure.While the conversion and communication of the new structure took significant time and energy, it quickly provided some important benefits that have allowed us to grow to the organization we are today: new capital, employee participation, and more flexible business models.New Capital—we are now better able to access capital from the market, including alumni investors, venture funds, and strategic corporate investors. We raised a Series A round of funding to help us scale from 2012 to 2017. We also recently announced our Series B funding, which will allow us to invest in more scalable and accessible digital programs, international expansion that will enable broader participation by individuals and organizations around the globe, infrastructure to facilitate critical components of our model (like faculty engagement and deployment), and additional corporate programs to attract both capital for SU, as well as organizations with resources and capabilities needed to move the needle on global challenges.Importantly, all of SU’s investors believe in our mission and our ability to scale the impact we can make in the world. We do not have traditional venture capital investors who expect us to “flip the business” in three years. We have an extraordinary selection of strategic investors who believe that we can build a sustainable and scalable organization that can create tremendous value and impact in the world. We are incredibly fortunate to have such a supportive and long-term thinking base of investors!Employee participation—employees should not have to choose between making money or making a difference. As a benefit corporation, our employees can participate in making an impact and receiving equity compensation. Practically, one of the most difficult challenges in growing an organization is hiring the best people as competition for talent is fierce—especially in the San Francisco bay area. If we are going to seriously pursue our mission, we need to offer a compensation package that enables us to compete with Google, Facebook, and Airbnb. I’m incredibly proud to say that, much more than typical private companies, our stock options are widely distributed to all employees, including meaningful participation by faculty who have contributed significantly to the organization over the years. We will continue to evaluate opportunities to better align the incentives of the many contributors to SU, including our broad network of global partners and faculty. I have had many late night brainstorm sessions on the interesting possibilities of crypto-coins, and I anticipate the incentive models of the not-too-distant-future will look a lot different!Flexibility—by broadening our programs, partners and model, we have increased our target audience and deepened our understanding of how we can create an impact. The benefit corporation structure allows us to deploy capital more flexibly, develop sustainable programs, and support the creation of startup companies. Our focus on long-term growth is a key driver behind our ability to make an impact at scale. The benefit corp structure gives us flexibility to scale while pursuing our mission.It’s also worth mentioning that our Summit and Country Partners each choose the most appropriate legal structure for them. As an illustration, our SingularityU Nordic partner is a B-Corp, while SingularityU Canada recently organized as a nonprofit.Since we adopted the benefit corporation structure, I’m proud to say that the operating capital we’ve been able to raise and the incredible team we’ve assembled have allowed us to reach an exponentially growing number of people and organizations and influence over 5,000 impact initiatives. As required of benefit corporations, we report these numbers in our annual impact report; you can always track our progress here: believe we will continue to see this space evolve in the coming years. We believe what we teach our participants—that organizations can and must do well and do good simultaneously. It is time we move past the historical dichotomy between “good” nonprofits and “evil” for-profits. The benefit corporation enables this congruence, and I’m excited that SU is an early participant in this next frontier. I also know that, as our organization continues to grow and evolve, we will continue to evaluate our structure and consider new opportunities to strengthen it in service of our clients, our employees, our shareholders, our community, and our mission.In my next post, I'll outline the elements of our unique impact model that enables our diverse global ecosystem to implement, support, and scale impact initiatives around the world.