As part of our ongoing speaker series, we spoke with Esther Dyson, investor, journalist, philanthropist, and amateur cosmonaut (yes, really). Trained as a journalist and an economist and the daughter of two scientists, Dyson sees her life as a continuing education. Currently, in addition to mentoring the founders of many of the companies she has invested in, Dyson has a full-time job as executive founder of Wellville, a 10-year nonprofit project focused on health and equity in five small US communities. She’ll be speaking at 9:30 AM on Day 2 of the Ascent Conference.
Tell us about yourself!
My parents were both scientists, and the thing that motivates me the most is curiosity. The best training I ever had was three years as a fact-checker for Forbes magazine, not just in the sense of finding the answer, but of asking “Well, should I believe this?”, and not being afraid to appear to be stupid by not knowing something, but rather being motivated by learning “how does this work.”
I was an indifferent student in college, because it was mostly remembering stuff that someone already knew, but once I became a reporter and had to figure out new stuff, that was heaven. Everything I have ever done has been following the mantra of ”never take a job for which you are already qualified.”
From training to be a cosmonaut, to the tech industry and Wall Street, and now of course Wellville — I got involved with each of them because it promised something I wanted to know more about.
How are you managing during the pandemic? What has changed? How have you adapted?
In the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty untouched, not too worried about my livelihood, I think I had [COVID-19] in February, but I’m healthy.
I also bought gym insurance back in March right before our YMCA closed down, and that helped a lot.
It’s a rowing machine. That was a blessing.
How did you get into angel investing? What interests you about it?
In my life I’ve made very few decisions where I sat down with pro’s and con’s. It was more like discovering what I’ve already decided; I just didn’t know it yet. Those are usually the best decisions, because it’s not like tossing a coin; they emerge from something that you just can’t see yet, but somewhere you know it’s there.
I was writing this newsletter on the tech industry for 25 years, and in 1989 I first went to Russia — partly because of my dad, who had studied with Russian mathematicians in Cambridge, and thought that after [World War II] he would just go to Russia, where the great mathematicians were. [Freeman Dyson ultimately decided to pursue his research at Cornell instead.] I had no heritage there, but I had studied Russian up to fourth year in high school.
I actually learned so much about the United States, by seeing it from outside. You see everything that you took for granted that you never questioned. For example, why do things work? Well, because we have a culture that has trust and confidence. You make plans, and then you carry out the plans. Whereas, in Russia, people would never commit to anything, even a lunch meeting. Addiction is often a reaction to insecurity, and an inability to think long-term, that’s now prevalent in our country, I saw that first in Russia back in 1989. It looked so familiar to me when I started paying attention 10 years ago.
I loved it, and the people though, and I started a newsletter about the tech scene in Eastern Europe called REL-East. Basically, that gave me an excuse/reason to talk to people, and it was fascinating. I wrote that this was a great new market and people should come and invest.
Eventually a VC friend came to me and said, “What if I gave you a million dollars to invest in Eastern Europe?” I said “I can’t do that, I’m a journalist…uh, sorry, how much money did you say?”
So I decided to stop the newsletter and start a fund. My first investments in the world were in Russia, Hungary, and eventually Poland, and I discovered that I really liked it. So that was what I ultimately started doing in the US. That’s how I got started in investing — outside the US.
You’ve got a lot of irons in the fire! Tell us what you’re most excited about at the moment.
Well, it’s Wellville. That’s my full-time job. I started it back in 2013; it’s a ten-year project that ends in 2024. The mission is to make the notion of health and equity concrete and tangible. We spend so much time and effort and money trying to recapture it – but not as much on how to create and sustain it in the first place. I think the key is density; not scale. Scale will come later, when – we hope – others copy what our communities are doing. Think like a physicist: First critical mass, and then scale. –. We’re working with the leaders in small communities where a small amount of capacity can make a big difference, and the goal is to show what that looks like and ultimately scale it by having other people copy us, and also, to influence what government and society collectively will invest in – as in “pay for”.
Poor people don’t have the capacity to pay for the luxuries that bring you health, and at the same time, society as a whole benefits when those are invested in. If you look at the long-term, and across society, that’s how we need to be thinking, so the next time we have Coronavirus, the poor and the cast out won’t suffer so much, and the economy won’t be such a mess. For that, new local leaders have to emerge. Our job is not to anoint them, but to help create an environment where that can happen.
What excites me right now is that we’re doing a few things within our communities, with partners that might be early vectors to scale — we’re working with counties in California and with the YMCA and Goodwill in Muskegon, MI, to build some of this human and social infrastructure.
How did you get started with Wellville? How did you decide which communities to target, and build your team?
We wanted to pour rosewater into a bathtub — what we wanted was smallish, self-contained places that already had some sort of cross-sector collaboration. My CEO [Rick Brush] came from Cigna, and I purposefully brought in a CEO who would tell me when I was being overbearing or unrealistic.
From my own previous experience at the newsletter, I realized how out-of-control people can get so easily — you see it all the time. When I invest, I look for people who have a strong partner, and they have to agree. That’s how it is at Wellville, Rick and I have to agree. (I mean, in the end, legally, I put in the money, but it’s not working if we can’t figure out how to work together.) That’s a good model for just about anything — it’s just like seeing the United States from the outside, you cannot see yourself, you need someone reflecting back at you what you’re actually doing, how you’re actually doing, how you’re making these decisions.
Regarding the communities, we did not show up and say “We’re here to fix you”: we put out a call for applications for what actually began as a contest along the lines of the “X Prize”, but it quickly became clear they preferred to collaborate and learn from one another. Anyway, to our surprise 42 communities of under 200,000 people, self-contained and with some kind of cross-sector collaborative, applied. Rick and I visited 10 of them in the summer of 2014 (an amazing education!) and ultimately picked five. Not the “best five,” but the “best group” of five. We wanted some diversity across (as well as within) the communities to learn from.
So how do you decide where to invest? What do you look for in a company or a potential partner?
If you get someone who says “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be CEO” or “oh, I’ve always wanted to get rich,” those are both really bad signs in terms of building something sustainable. I like to invest in people who want to solve a problem, not just sell a product or embellish their own CV.
I invest my own money, so in the end, I need to like the person and like what they’re trying to accomplish. I need to think I can learn something. In theory, at least, I bring more than money, and I look for someone, usually, that’s focused on fixing something. If I were a maid, I’d look for a dirty room — it’s no fun doing something that doesn’t really change anything.
I know you have experience investing in and working in genetics. What’s interesting or exciting to you there?
Synthetic biology and genetic engineering, it’s all fascinating — I invested in 23andMe because I wanted to know more about genetics, and I liked Anne Wojcicki. Still, I think people overestimate the usefulness of genetics, compared to say, the environment, when it comes to realizing the capacity of human beings. For now, especially, we just don’t understand it very well yet. Your genome is like a Russian novel, and all we’ve got is a glossary. We don’t even have a dictionary, and we certainly don’t have a translation.
As for space travel, It’s not constructing geodesic domes; it’s synthetic biology that will get us to a colony on Mars, and it will, I hope, help us terraform the Earth back to something livable.
Can you give us a sneak preview of what you’ll be talking about at Ascent?
Well, I’ll definitely be talking about Wellville, and the quadrant chart (see below):
In the upper right corner, where everyone properly belongs, you have people thinking long-term, and investing in society. We need to move up from our self-centered individualism, and we need to understand that for a good and purposeful life, you need to live and care for other people over the long term.
You don’t need to be Mother Teresa, but you need to have some sense of something beyond yourself. It’s actually very relaxing, for example, to know that you’re going to die. You don’t have to solve all the problems: you can hand them on to somebody else. That’s my mission, to do really great work at Wellville, but I won’t have fixed everything.
Practically, I’ll be touching on early childhood education, mental health, molecular modeling, the genetics of diseases, so forth and so on.
Anything else before we let you go?
Well, there’s my other motto: “Always make new mistakes”.