Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell

By Peter Zaballos

Why we donated to Diablo Valley College instead of MIT

I listen to a lot of podcasts. It’s one of the reasons why living in the heart of Seattle is so awesome — I walk a lot every day, and that gives me plenty of opportunity to get lost in a good story.

For the past five or so years, when I could see retirement on the horizon, my thoughts shifted to the crazy career path I had and of course the schools I had attended. I got my MBA at MIT, and they do an outstanding job of alumni relationship development. It’s amazing how easy they make it to stay in touch with classmates. I love this because I started some incredibly wonderful friendships there, and MIT has helped me maintain and strengthen those relationships.

And the MIT Foundation does an equally skilled job pursuing alumni to make donations and to help the school. Over a period of a few years, a talented member of their development office pursued me about a modest donation. These were real, substantive conversations. Honest and transparent.

My wife and I were beginning to start thinking about not if, but when, and how much.

But about two years ago I was binge-listening to Malcolm Gladwell‘s Revisionist History podcast. And his three-part series on the state of philanthropy in higher education really got my attention. The series nets out to this: Any name-brand private university is awash in money. Especially the top-tier private universities. Like MIT. Any contribution we could make just won’t move the needle for a student there.

But in his episode My Little Hundred Million, he made the point that making a contribution to the lesser-known institutions is where you can make a real and significant impact on the lives of the students that attend them. And it was like a thunderclap in my head.

It was then that I realized the school that literally made my career possible, where I was able to first see and feel my potential, was a junior college in northern California: Diablo Valley College (DVC) in Pleasant Hill.

I went to DVC from high school because I was, as Scott Galloway terms it, unremarkable. My high school grades and test scores were horrible. And at DVC I discovered math and engineering and honed my writing. I transferred to UC Berkeley, which put me into my first high-technology job and the career path it produced.

Diablo Valley College, Main Quad

So I called DVC. In an instant it became clear this is where our contribution would have an impact, where we could work closely with the educators and the staff to create a program that could really help people get a leg up.  These students are people who are uncertain of the future — so uncertain that four-year college is not an option. Ground zero of a career that might not happen due to lack of opportunity and frankly, lack of belief in their own abilities.

When I thought about my career, I could so clearly see that it had nothing to do with what my major was or the schools I went to, because I never worked in a job in my major or got a job as a result of the people I met at UC Berkeley or MIT. The path I took had everything to do with being curious, learning how to learn, and solving problems. Not grades or individual classes or test scores.

More important, my path was formed from building real relationships with the people I worked with. Literally every job I got after leaving Cal was the result of knowing someone who knew someone who was looking for a person with my experience and talent. To me the real lesson of careers is that their foundation is formed on the relationships you make along the way. 

So we crafted the program at DVC around four tenets that I can see with the benefit of hindsight were the principles that formed my career:

  • Problem solving skills and collaboration capabilities are the true foundation of future success
  • Careers are profoundly shaped on the strength of the personal relationships you form along the way
  • Curiosity and learning capacity are more important to your career than your coursework or even your major
  • And, critically, career potential is not reflected in test scores or grades

My wife and I have spent the past year working closely with the team at DVC helping create this program focused on high school students who have the potential to go to college but may have been told they aren’t college material or whose grades or test scores make college seem unlikely. The program shapes students’ problem solving and collaboration skills and provides them the support they need to find a path either to transfer to a four-year college and or to a professional role — or both. 

The program welcomes its first cohort in February 2020.

And we’ve named the program Diamante Scholars. Diamante is the Spanish term for diamonds; the program’s aim is to help find the diamonds-in-the-rough who are out in high schools. The overlooked, the unseen. And we chose the Spanish term, diamante, as a way to also honor the Spanish immigrant heritage of my family.

So, thank you, Malcolm Gladwell. If I hadn’t listened to your podcast, I never would have headed down the path that led to the Diamante Scholar program. And I am so looking forward to seeing where these scholars will take themselves.

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