Interview

Ravi Kumar S., President, Infosys, interviewing Ellis Rubinstein, CEO, New York Academy of Sciences


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  • Ravi Kumar S.
    00:11
    Ravi Kumar S.

    Hello everyone! My name is Ravi Kumar, President at Infosys. Welcome to this next chapter of Trailblazers. I have a very distinguished guest today. Ellis Rubinstein, the CEO of New York Academy of Sciences. Thank you, Ellis, for joining us. This is one of my first chapters in 2020. I’m so excited about your background - starting with science journalism, running a few very important journals, then 17 years at the New York Academy of Sciences. What transformational work you have done! And bringing young people and STEM, evangelizing STEM as I call it, bringing them together. My first question to you teeing up is, New York Academy of Sciences is a 200-year institution. So, you get this impression when you say Academy of Science is a 200-year-old institution that it’s a very traditional organization. But, contrary to that, it’s a very contemporary organization - changing with the times and transforming itself with the times. Tell us a little bit about the culture and the history of the New York Academy of Sciences.

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    01:28
    Ellis Rubinstein

    I’d be delighted to - but let me just say that it’s been wonderful partnering with Infosys, for young people, for girls and gifted kids and STEM. So, it’s delightful to be with you.

    What makes the Academy unusual really is the founders. Actually, 203 years ago, just to my right, maybe your viewers can almost imagine it, four blocks away, in City Hall Park, where Mike Bloomberg used to be. Now we have de Blasio. There was the first medical school of New York and about five or six doctors there wanted to create a kind of a club for people that believed in the future of science and engineering. And what they didn’t like, which was what made it unusual, was they thought that Philadelphia and Boston that had some organizations a bit like that were too stuffy and too elitist. They wanted it to be open to anybody, including business people, including young people. And so, right from the beginning the Academy became the only non-honorary academy in the world. Most of them you have to be famous and all, and then you get elected. And as a result, too many academies are like old men’s clubs. But, we from the beginning, had Europeans, we had business people, Presidents Jefferson, Monroe and…so the odd thing about our academy is the bulk is tremendously diverse because of this. So, we have 20,000 members in a hundred countries. And we’re the only academy that has thousands of young members. We have almost 10,000 graduate students, post-docs and gifted high school student members. But we also have industry members, which isn’t that typical of the Academy. We have businessmen that are interested in the future of science. And you might say, “Whoa! You’re not elitist!”, but then we’re very proud of the fact that we have 36 Nobel Prize winners on our Presidents’ Council and one of every six Nobelists ever, was a member of the Academy. And we have Darwin, Pasteur and Lord Kelvin and James Joule, Bell and Edison, all imaginable great people have been members. So, that is sort of what makes us…and what we like to think of is the world’s smartest network.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    03:40
    Ravi Kumar S.

    Fantastic! You know what’s fascinating…you just said it’s creating an inclusive and a very diverse pool of talent for STEM. And, reaching out and extending that reach to the underprivileged. Was that the mission on which you’ve built this for the last 200 years?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    04:00
    Ellis Rubinstein

    Well, I wish that I could say it was for 200 years. You know, for many years, like so many organizations, there weren’t women in the organization and it wasn’t until the 1870s that we even had any women members. This is the way the world was, unfortunately. I don’t think that people were focused on the diversity and the need of…and certainly not in the 19th century and only lately in the 20th century. What I am proud of was that for 48 or 50 years, the Academy was involved in the school system in New York, which of course has one of the most diverse cultures that there is on the planet. And so, we used to have a science fair that had a thousand kids for a weekend every year. And if you went there, you would see the most diverse group of kids imaginable. But the problem with that and what we’ve changed is that that was a wonderful, made you feel good event. But, when you looked into it, you’d find out that while it sounded great to have 55 schools represented and all these diverse kids from every background, you’d find out there were 200 schools that were never there. The kids were in neighborhoods that had no science teaching. That the kids were endangered after school and so on. And here we were doing something for one weekend a year for just the elite kids in the end, even though they looked diverse. So, that’s where we changed and that’s why we’re proud to work with you. And, it was Infosys that was the very first founding supporter of this. Because what they said was…and it was Kris Gopalakrishnan …

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    05:33
    Ravi Kumar S.

    He’s a part of your international board of…

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    05:35
    Ellis Rubinstein

    He’s one of your founders and he said “Ellis, nobody knows better than Indians that you can have a kid in the most remote village with nothing. And if somebody gave him a hand, he could become the CEO of a company. And if you’re going to do stuff for underserved kids in New York, we’re with you. So, we’re very proud of the fact that we actually use our thousands of PhD students and Postdoc members here in New York; we train them to be mentors. They go into the worst schools, the worst neighborhoods, and they actually provide role models and hands-on science for kids. And that was the beginning of what’s now the global STEM alliance, which we could talk about if you like.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    06:14
    Ravi Kumar S.

    Sure. Absolutely! Ellis, you know…just touching upon it. Diversity in STEM education is still an issue. Extended reach to underserved parts of the societies is still an issue. And in fact, I still believe there is a bridge needed between STEM education and employment. Which I believe, either firms like yours or firms like ours or in partnership, we have to build that bridge so that you land these people in jobs related to STEM, which is still underrepresented in my view. So, what do you think we need to do to fix this? The percentage of women in STEM-related jobs is still a minority. And the reach of Computer Science to parts of society is still an issue. In fact, the Infosys Foundation works on K-12 schools and education…computer science education there. What do you think are those one or two things organizations need to do to bridge this gap or the divide if I may add?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    07:20
    Ellis Rubinstein

    So, I would point to the following couple of things. Role modelling, hands on experiences and social networking, since we can now work really without having to go through the headaches of trying to transform schools. So, as you know, Ravi, because Infosys was very pioneering in creating its own skill…what I think of is skilling it, campus, in Mysore. What we’re trying to do is take that idea, of being able to skill people but outside of the brick and mortar high expense site. And actually, what I call go-direct to consumer skilling, with kids. What we’re doing in effect with our global STEM alliance which is this program that we’ve created after we started working with the kids here in New York is that we put these kids…we give them a chance to do what we think of as the sustainable development goals…this my little pin that shows all the colors of the goals, challenges that companies like yourselves put up there. How to make safer homes for old people. How to improve water quality. How to make more efficient planes and so on.

    Ravi Kumar S.Is that what this global STEM alliance is about?

    Ellis RubinsteinThat’s what the global STEM alliance is all about.

    Ravi Kumar S.Tell us a little bit more about it.

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    08:36
    Ellis Rubinstein

    Sure! So, here imagine that you can have thousands of the kids applying. Tens of thousands of kids applying to get into a junior academy. Which means that if they’re between 13 and 19, they apply. If they’re accepted, they can actually create their own profiles in a social network. Begin to meet each other all across the world.

    Ravi Kumar S.And they get mentors from the alliance?

    Ellis RubinsteinAnd they get mentors after THEY propose a solution. This is what’s wonderful. Companies put up a challenge, like the ones I mentioned.

    Ravi Kumar S.And you curate all these challenges together?

    Ellis RubinsteinExactly! And then the kids put up a solution. Then other kids say I want to join you. So, there’s a kid from Tennessee trying to…

    Ravi Kumar S.And these are virtual groups joining…

    Ellis RubinsteinThey’re all virtual.

    Ravi Kumar S.Amazing!

    Ellis RubinsteinThey’re all hundred per cent online. They could do this in the evenings.

    Ravi Kumar S.And this is across countries?

    Ellis RubinsteinExactly. And engineers…professional engineers and scientists from academia and industry are their mentors.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    09:31
    Ravi Kumar S.

    And where do you source these mentors from? Do you have a network?

    Ellis Rubinstein Yes. We have the…

    Ravi Kumar s.And this is a voluntary network or…?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    09:36
    Ellis Rubinstein

    All volunteers. They love it. I mean, my favorite story right over to…your right, is Goldman Sachs. And Goldman Sachs decided to honor most high performing women by letting them be mentors to our girls. They went at Goldman’s. Now, by the way, speaking of diversity, and your issue about women, sixty per cent of the kids getting into the junior academy, the best in the world, are girls, which is quite interesting. And it gives you hope that basically we’ve transformed that situation. So, Ravi, this is why we really believe in your actual principle of skilling. But, we want to take the skilling direct to the consumer because I think it’s cheaper and it is an opportunity using, for example, Artificial Intelligence to analyze whether the skilling is being well done enough. And then you can actually certify with certificates and so on. New jobs, right?

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    10:30
    Ravi Kumar S.

    Absolutely. In fact, you know, I have to say this that the first time I met you was when I started thinking about changing our approach at the Foundation. From going to where the teachers are to bringing them to a digital platform. And I know you are a big evangelist of digital platforms to get extended reach. So, this is fascinating. So, what’s the size of the network for the global STEM alliance now?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    10:53
    Ellis Rubinstein

    So, right now, we’ve reached about 10,000 kids. And we’re doing about a thousand a year.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    10:58
    Ravi Kumar S.

    And how many countries are they representing?

    Ellis RubinsteinHundred.

    Ravi Kumar S.Hundred countries! Wow!

    Ellis RubinsteinIt’s all over the world. Hundred countries.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    11:03
    Ravi Kumar S.

    And do they come and meet at some point?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    11:04
    Ellis Rubinstein

    So the winners of the challenges get to come. I wish we had money to bring all the thousands of kids. But, we bring about a 150-200 that win in the challenges. They come to our wonderful center in New York.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    11:15
    Ravi Kumar S.

    And it’s sponsored?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    11:16
    Ellis Rubinstein

    Yeah. And the companies that support them and so on. So, we raise money, we sponsor them and they come and they get to meet each other. It’s one of the most moving…I get the chills when I see the young ones meeting each other because they’ve only met each other online. And then, of course, they also get to mingle with Nobel Prize winners here in New York or visiting companies and stuff. So, it’s a fabulous experience for them. And we have now certain countries beginning to join us, like Sweden, as a kind of a country has joined us, with Volvo, AstraZeneca, Clas Ohlson, Chalmers University. And the big philanthropic Wallenberg family. I’d love to be able to mimic that model in many countries. In Mexico, India and China and so on. But, we have many Indian kids by the way. After the U.S., it’s the second most successful cadre of kids coming in.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    12:06
    Ravi Kumar S.

    And Ellis you know, you spoke about the United Nations sustainability goals, sustainability development goals and you’re a big evangelist for that. Tell us a little bit about what the New York Academy of Sciences is doing at this.

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    12:19
    Ellis Rubinstein

    So, there’s another outgrowth and you almost imagine the steps of how this has happened. Where we take the junior academy concept to the next level. So, imagine that you are, let’s say the Secretary General – Deputy Secretary General of the UN, and you’re worrying about how are we going to accomplish Goals 4 – which is education for all. Goal 5, which is gender equity. And what would be a mechanism by 2030 that would bring education to everybody. So, if you look at his agencies, the Guterres agencies, the Secretary-General, you know those agencies initially were thinking okay we’ll produce 50 new teachers…50 million new teachers. Because we have to reach 750 million kids that are not in good schools or no school at all.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    13:05
    Ravi Kumar S.

    In fact, I read a UNICEF report recently which said 250 million kids don’t have access to education, they don’t even go to school.

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    13:12
    Ellis Rubinstein

    Precisely. So, in fact, you bring up a good point. These 250 million don’t have access. 500 million that have access but they’re terrible teachers and terrible schools. And then they don’t even talk about the 750. I’m…maybe it’s 500 or 800 million young people who are in good schools and not getting the skills of the future that the companies like Infosys, IBM, J&J and so on need. So, how are we going to do this? Are we really going to produce 50 million new teachers? And if we did by 2030, would they be better at skilling than the ones that we have now? So, thinking about this puzzle, we were approached by the Deputy Secretary-General, a wonderful woman named Amina Mohammed. And she said… your idea of a social network with direct to consumer approaches to mentor these kids in order to empower them to do more exciting things, why couldn’t that be taken to scale? Couldn’t we get a big gigantic Public-Private partnership and a collective action initiative that would take it to scale because it would be cheaper, it would be more efficient and if you used Artificial Intelligence, be very smart about this, she said you could analyze in real-time whether it’s working or not. This is what we’ve ended up doing. We made an alliance we’re very proud of with UNICEF and the head of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, also with The World Bank, and we’re very excited about many companies that see this as an opportunity, not only to do CSR but maybe they’ll actually make money in the long term. In a way of…in effect doing what you are talking about, Ravi, which is skilling people directly for the jobs that they need for the future. And when the jobs change, to reskill them.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    14:51
    Ravi Kumar S.

    Yeah. It’s a constant cycle of lifelong learning as I call it.

    Ellis RubinsteinPrecisely.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    14:55
    Ravi Kumar S.

    In fact, you know I was at Wharton a couple of weeks ago and I was talking about how education is going to move from ‘just in case’ to ‘just in time’. ‘Just in case’ is the kind of education I did which is you study everything just in case something is required in life. You want to get to this point where you will be imparted just in time learning, you should be able to absorb it and apply it to your job. And you should do that continuously on an ongoing basis. So, if you have this digital platform which creates that mechanism to reskill thousands and thousands of employees direct, you know it’s going to be a game changer.

    So, what’s the end goal for that? Is there a goal you have for this?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    15:43
    Ellis Rubinstein

    Yes, so what our hope is, is to go in the following direction - We have…we’re trying to create about five proof-of-concept projects and different kinds of venues in countries. So, we’re planning to start something in South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, India and the U.S. in particular, in 2020. What we want to do is we want to create many Public-Private partnerships in each case to prove the case of how it would be done. And we have many-many companies wanting to do in-kind work there. Our hope, then, is to learn in the first year how to improve it and scale it. Once it begins to be shown whether it’s working in some countries, it can be taken on in others. And our real hope is that by 20…three, maybe four years, by 2024-25 that industry itself, different parts of industry will discover that there’s a role that they can play and make money on it. And it won’t anymore be an NGO type of UN concept. It will just explode on its own. It’ll be a new way of people being educated for the jobs of the future. And as you know, most industry people say seventy percent of jobs in the future, we’re not skilling people for. And the teachers don’t know. By the way, that skilling platform that we were imagining building, it’s the growth of the junior academy one, that could be also done for the teachers themselves. So that in effect teachers will learn how to do better skilling directly and apply it from…

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    17:13
    Ravi Kumar S.

    Teachers would be the fastest way to get to the students.

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    17:16
    Ellis Rubinstein

    Precisely. That’s another way you scale. So, the whole idea of this is how to scale, how to scale at an unprecedented level. And thanks to IT, the Internet of Things, smartphones, lot of our kids are working on smartphones without even computers when they’re working on these challenges.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    17:32
    Ravi Kumar S.

    Yeah, absolutely. Ellis, I had one last question for you. In the 17 years of transformational journey at New York Academy of Sciences, what’s that one proud moment you will always cherish?

  • Ellis Rubinstein
    17:43
    Ellis Rubinstein

    Well, I’m going to say that it was the realization that our academy could be a young academy. Because, within the first year we had a thousand graduate students, post-doc members. And then we kept growing in this way. And we’re very proud of the fact, I haven’t mentioned to you, Ravi, but you’re aware of it, that we have a wonderful philanthropist Len Blavatnik, who’s funded what’s in effect the Nobel prize for young scientists and engineers - 42 or under. These are the future change makers and, in the U.S., UK and Israel right now we’re identifying the most change agent scientists and engineers you could imagine and we want to take that globally too. So, if I was proud of one thing it’s the idea that our academy uniquely can be a platform for the future leaders to come together, to collaborate, to learn how to change the world and to me this is only possible with the partnerships that are with companies like yours.

  • Ravi Kumar S.
    18:48
    Ravi Kumar S.

    We are so excited about the possibilities of the partnership which we’re exploring with you and the number of open initiatives we have started to think about. Very excited about our own partnership with you. Thank you again for your time today and wonderful talking to you. What a noble cause of the New York Academy of Sciences. You know I’m so excited about what impact it can make. Thank you again for talking to me.

    Ellis RubinsteinMy pleasure. Thank you very much.

    Ravi Kumar S.See you.