Rishi Jaitly will contribute to the university mission of infusing technology with humanistic perspectives.
22 Jun 2022
Rishi Jaitly had just been elected to his alma mater Princeton University’s Board of Trustees when he was asked to deliver the closing prayer at an upcoming board meeting. After reciting his prepared invocation, a fellow trustee leaned over to him.
“We don’t need anymore technologists at Google,” said Eric Schmidt, then CEO of the technology giant. “We need more people like you.”
And in that moment, nearly two decades ago, a history major’s career trajectory evolved from advocacy in education reform to leadership in global technology.
Schmidt convinced Jaitly to join Google as his communications aide and speechwriter, and Jaitly soon progressed to lead public policy and partnerships for both Google and YouTube across India and South Asia. Years later, he was Twitter’s first employee in mainland Asia, where he helped lead the company’s expansion across Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and North Africa as vice president.
Now he will bring his humanistic perspectives and his technology background to Virginia Tech. In August, Jaitly will join the Center for Humanities as a distinguished fellow and the Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies as a professor of practice and leader of the digital transformation and scientific collaboration area.
“In an age rife with concerns about the ethics and human impact of technology, Rishi Jaitly is a brilliant addition to our faculty,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, which is home to both the center and the academy. “His deep understanding of Big Tech combined with keen awareness of how technology can both advance and imperil human rights is a perfect fit for multiple initiatives in the college that are delving the intersections of technology and the liberal arts.”
As an undergraduate, Jaitly said he discovered the power of the humanities and the field of history in particular.
“Committing to the humanities during higher education was, at first, a leap of faith,” he said. “I’d grown up envisioning a career in the sciences, but it was the humanities – and its great variety of disciplines, which provide insight into human character and civilization – that exhilarated me day in and day out. And so, with a concentration in history and a certificate in American studies, I paid heed to Princeton’s emphasis on growing an intellectual life that felt true to me and my mind, trusting that it would prepare me for all the knowns and unknowns to come. What began as a leap of faith ultimately became a labor of love.”
Learning to think, communicate, and act with clarity and purpose – skills he developed while pursuing his degree – enabled his meteoric rise in technology. But he said that his career still felt incomplete and lacking in a kind of multiplicity of pursuits that humanities had taught him to nurture as well.
“I was and am proud of my work at Google and Twitter, but I’ve also, and I think primarily, felt a call to public service,” he said.
Between his stints at Google and Twitter, Jaitly co-founded Michigan Corps, an online service platform for Michiganders to give back to their home state no matter where they live. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s founding of the Peace Corps in Michigan in 1960, Michigan Corps has since 2010 helped students generate ideas for community change, connected local entrepreneurs with global resources, and increased the public policy capacity of social entrepreneurs.
Jaitly’s other civic entrepreneurial and executive experiences have spanned a range of sectors. He has served as commissioner of higher education in New Jersey, a director of the Knight Foundation, and director of strategy for the nonprofit College Summit (now Peer Forward) that partners with low-income high-schools and their students to boost college enrollment rates.
He also co-founded Kiva Detroit, the country’s first online, peer-to-peer microlending initiative, and helped co-create the BMe Community, now the nation’s largest digital storytelling and leadership network for Black men and boys.
Upon leaving Twitter six years ago, Jaitly co-founded Times Bridge, an investments and partnerships firm with a mission to help the world’s best ideas expand internationally and in India in particular, “from the west to the east and from the global north to the global south,” Jaitly said.
The firm is a part of The Times Group, India’s oldest media and largest digital company, and has a portfolio that includes Airbnb, Canva, Coursera, Girl Effect, Headspace, Malaria No More, Niantic, Stack Overflow, Wattpad, and Uber, among others. In recognition of his two decades of leadership in technology, culminating in Times Bridge, Jaitly was named a top 100 global tech changemaker by Rest of the World, an international nonprofit journalism organization.
While leading as a technology entrepreneur and executive, Jaitly has concurrently lent his voice and perspective over the years to the humanities as well, with a particular focus on evangelizing the role of the humanities in education, culture and civic life.
“During the past decade in particular, I’ve come to appreciate the role the humanities has played in my career, and so advocating with and for the field’s leading organizations has become increasingly important to me,” he said.
His advocacy has led him to seats on the boards of the National Humanities Center; PRX, a public media company specializing in audio journalism and storytelling; and Virginia Humanities, the commonwealth’s humanities council.
It was through Virginia Humanities that Jaitly met fellow board member Sylvester Johnson, who is director of the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech. The two realized they shared a passion for the interplay between technology and the humanities.
“Rishi is one of our nation’s most devoted advocates for humanities,” said Johnson, who is also the assistant vice provost for humanities at Virginia Tech and executive director of Tech for Humanity, a universitywide initiative that takes comprehensive, human-centered approaches to technology. “His tremendous knowledge and global understanding of the human condition will transform student learning, our research, and our programming. It is inspiring and exciting to witness how Rishi is creating more pathways for humanists to participate in leading and shaping our technological society.”
Jaitly said he’s looking forward to his new role at Virginia Tech.
“To be a creator of and convener around new knowledge, to be a teacher and mentor to the next generation of leaders across sectors, and to represent a public institution committed to the meeting point between disciplines in an always-technologically-advancing world, I can’t imagine a more perfect backdrop than Virginia Tech,” he said.
His role in the Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies will enable him to work across disciplines. The academy’s digital transformation and scientific collaboration area will be an incubator for research, teaching and outreach.
“Rishi Jaitly has the credentials, connections, and particularly the contagious excitement to manage and advance those collaborations as we create curricular offerings and research projects that challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries and benefit our students, faculty, and external constituencies,” said Carlos Evia, associate dean for transdisciplinary initiatives in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Jaitly said his path has prepared him well for Virginia Tech.
“While my journey from Princeton to Virginia Tech, with lots in between, may appear chockfull of zigs and zags, I’ve felt a throughline and compass throughout, which is place,” Jaitly said. “More than anything, I’m enthralled by opportunities to lead locally, in place, and to give people new ways to see, engage with and commit to places, including by drawing on the potential of technology platforms and the people charged with their stewardship.”
That compass has led him to retain ties with Princeton, where he presently serves as chairman of its alumni association’s communications and technology committee.
“I began my time in higher education at Princeton, whose motto is ‘In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,’” Jaitly said. “And I’m returning to higher education at Virginia Tech, whose motto is Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). These calls to serve move me in more ways than one and I feel I’m coming full circle – and home.”
Written by Paula Byron
Jenny Kincaid Boone
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