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Cambridge
02138

Hugo Van Vuuren

Entrepreneur / Investor

Building Teams & Technologies.

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If -

Hugo Van Vuuren

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling, 1895

Madiba

Hugo Van Vuuren

nelson_mandela_apple.jpg

Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

Invictus, William Ernest Henley

The Morning Question

Hugo Van Vuuren

Ordinary habits create extraordinary people.

Just one of my many insights gleaned over Thanksgiving from Walter Isaacson’s biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. The original founder was perhaps the most distinguished writer, scientist, diplomat, printer, inventor, and strategist of his age. He rose from humble beginnings in New England, where he “dropped out” of the storied Boston Latin School, before successfully experimenting with demography, oceanography, meteorology, physics, and of course, electricity. It should be no surprise that he pioneered the first personal productivity method and trade-off decision matrix. He also played chess and various musical instruments. Before his statesmen years on the international stage, he took the time to set up the United States Post Office, advocate for the abolition of slavery, and ultimately, direct his considerable talents and energy to the founding of the United States of America.

He was a polymath and a leading collaborator.

How could one man accomplish so much?

n order to surround himself with smart, ambitious, and well-connected contemporaries, Franklin formed The Junto, a young man’s club for mutual improvement, not unlike today’s famous leader cum idea conferences (TED, Renaissance, Davos, Aspen) and selective societies and fellowships of Oxbridge and the Ivy League. His early commercial success no doubt afforded him freedom and access. Many others had those advantages and more, yet few accomplished so much for the common good. Franklin opened all his Junto meetings with Socratic queries, a strategy he would later encourage at the Constitutional Convention, and one he applied in his daily life.

Early every new day, Franklin would ask himself; “What good shall I do this day?” and then also end the day by asking, “What good have I done today?” Could his habit of positive, regular, and honest questioning be at the root of his personal and shared success?

His direct “morning question” defies the anti-earnestness of today’s "hipsters" and could even be considered an early version of the popular Positive Psychology movement. “The Morning Question” is simple and powerful because it primes and prioritizes our behavior for the day, when, as Charles Duhigg notes in The Power of Habit, our store of willpower is greatest. Completing what we would today call the positive feedback loop, he would follow with an honest end-of-day assessment, to ensure integrity of thought and action.

What question do you ask yourself at dusk and dawn every day?

This is one domain in which I am quite content to follow one of the American Founding Fathers.

American Ubuntu

Hugo Van Vuuren

Almost 50 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy created a ripple of hope at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, not far from where I was christened, when he announced to a diverse crowd:

I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; … a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage.”

He was referring, of course, to the United States of America.

Kennedy reminded those assembled that Southern Africa had the same ancestral and natural ingredients as Northern America. His words helped me understand my own Euro-African roots as I ventured from the Commonwealth of Africa to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Founding Fathers’ great American Dream drew me, like generations before, to these promising shores. During the intervening years I encountered the dream’s challenges as well as its opportunities. For all its promises America faces mounting perils posed by unequal incomes and unbalanced budgets. I discovered that The American Dream is to give the next generation a better starting point in life than we were given. The question is then, how to bestow that gift?

Well, South Africa faced this dilemma in 1994 when we had to rebuild a fractured society into a whole Rainbow Nation. South Africa is not perfect by any measure, yet as our unlikely liberation story attests, we pulled together to forge peace and to grow prosperity. With this in mind, I want to share with you a little insider’s story about South Africa’s peaceful revolution.

Two of South Africa’s Founding Fathers, President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu championed the idea of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is an age-old African humanist philosophy that was nearly forgotten after centuries of disruptive colonial and post-colonial turmoil. Mandela and Tutu injected its spirit into the public realm just as South Africans grappled for a new national identity. Our tribes, Zulu or Xhoza, British or Afrikaner, embraced the idea of Ubuntu and immediately rallied to resurrect its spirit.

Ubuntu is very hard to define, perhaps because it predates English. It simply means: I am, because we all are.

In other words, you can only become greater in anything you do alongside others, not independently of others. This is an ethos that rings true in today’s hyper-connected world where we all share in the bounty of the expanding Internet, the risk of climate change, and the impact of transformative globally linked democracy movements.

Archbishop Tutu explained Ubuntu as an act of human “inter-connectedness” that makes us open and available to others. It is the knowledge that when we are diminished I am diminished, when we are excluded I am excluded, and when we flourish I flourish. When you work through the night, I’d give you a wake-up call.

President Nelson Mandela, with his characteristic wisdom once explained Ubuntu to youths when he said:

A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

Looking back on his words and my own experience as a stranger in this land I realized that America has Ubuntu.

I showed up in America almost 10 years ago with two backpacks and my loving family an ocean away. My alma mater, faculty, and friends sustained my body and cultivated my mind, and through others I could take the first step toward the American Dream. I am not alone in experiencing America’s Ubuntu. Every year thousands of entrepreneurs, students, and leaders come to America to grow and to learn together. They do so to better themselves so that they may one day enable their colleagues, communities, and compatriots.

We are all incredibly fortunate to benefit from the freedom, opportunity, and community created by the great American Experiment. It is our duty to ensure the next generation continue to enjoy our good fortune.

So when we generate profit, may the community share in that profit, when we champion justice, may that justice serve all equally, when we heal, may that lead to global health, when we design cities, may our efforts serve our planet as well as our people, and when we engineer and experiment, may our breakthroughs advance human progress.

Adapted from 2012 Crimson Commencement Editorial. Special thanks to all the families, friends, and co-founders in America who got me started and keep me going, and to my mother, who raised me with Ubuntu.

The Lab at Harvard

Hugo Van Vuuren

We enter a lab to explore and discover, and each minute inside should be like turning the page of a smart novel. Art and Science, while commonly encountered as creative outcomes, are, as creative processes, inherently intertwined in the unpredictable arc of laboratory creation. 
Manifesto of Artscience labs
Cafe Artscience, Cambridge, MA

Cafe Artscience, Cambridge, MA

One of my core beliefs — to the point of mantra — is that working at disciplinary intersections is key to any truly paradigm-changing experiment. My work with experimenters who display this special kind of courage helped inspire, and name, The Experiment Fund. I’d like to tell the story of one of the first grand experiments I joined at Harvard.

We believed in experiments at intersections. And the art that we made, with real science backing it, has become more rewarding for ourselves, our backers, and our institutions, than we could have ever guessed.

More than 3 years ago I joined Professor David Edwards (our brilliant Principal Investigator), as the Founding Director of The Laboratory at Harvard. We set out on an adventure to bring together Cherry Murray’s Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Don Ingber’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Paul Farmer and Sue Goldie’s Global Health Institute, Diane Paulus’ American Repertory Theatre, and Mohsen Mostafavi’s Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Entrance to Le Laboratoire, Paris

Entrance to Le Laboratoire, Paris

We had this crazy idea — call it an hypothesis — for a three-year experiment. We wanted to throw together leading artists and scientists to investigate ideas at the frontiers of culture and knowledge. Each year we would showcase the fruits of this wild collaboration on in a new inter-disciplinary building designed by SOM, convening and inspiring the entire community. In this space we’d create a forum to help catalyze ideas, teach engineering workshops and design studios, host challenging exhibitions, and bring various audiences; the college, graduate schools, faculty, international artists and scientists, and residents of Cambridge, together to explore and play.

It was, given the context, an uncontrolled experiment with highly controlling subjects.

It was also one of the more fascinating periods of my life. Not only did we get to play the role of naughty catalyst in the heart of a safe and storied institution, but we also had the privilege to interact, on our terms, with some of the most respected faculty and passionate students this side of the Atlantic. We learned a great deal about the unique differences and potential that exist between insurgent team-leadership and defensive institutional-governance, the space between private and public funding, and the complementary nature of the scientific method and artistic process.

Alexandre Terrien, Le La Paris

Alexandre Terrien, Le La Paris

 

We proved that the fertile ground between the arts and sciences is not confined to the era of Aristotle, nor daVinci, nor Descartes. Indeed, we found that people yearn to live and work at the intersection and that its greatest potential is yet to be discovered. Not just at the frontiers of analog and digital knowledge, but, as David Edwards wrote in The Lab: Creativity and Culture at the intersection of institutions, cultures, and fields.

It was not always easy. But over the last few years, with the generous support of Lab @ Harvard Partners, classes of enterprising students, and leading faculty, we have spun out venture backed companies, sent dozens of students to AfricaEurope, and Asia, got publishedhosted state of the art traveling exhibitions, and helped pioneer new methods of experiential learning at Harvard. We had fun and in the process mentored dozens of students who went on to create startups, join leading incubatorspublish their passionsexperiment, and further their studies at top graduate schools. Many chose to stay close to the nest and now lead lab spin-outs with competence and charisma.

We came, we experimented, we spun-out.

Today, nearly three years later, we are proud to announce that the Lab @ Harvard will continue on its mission, reborn, as The Lab Cambridge. Not content disrupting just one stroried university… the now independent Lab will exist at the geographic and spiritual intersection of Harvard and MIT.

THE NEGATION OF TIME, PROLOGUE. William Kentridge + David Edwards

THE NEGATION OF TIME, PROLOGUE. William Kentridge + David Edwards

The Lab Cambridge will join The Lab Paris, better known in France as Le Laboratoire, as part of Artscience Labs. This independent network of cultural innovation labs will continue to join the great minds of Harvard and MIT, and also The Boston and Cambridge Public Schoolsystem, through cultural experimentation in the international Petri-dish that is The People’s Republic of Cambridge.

Enriched through my time at The Lab, and with degree in hand, I left earlier this year to co-found The Experiment Fund with deeply humbling partners. Anchored at Harvard, this new commercial venture bridges the world of academia and the world of venture by seed investing in world-changing startups. The Lab @ Harvard inspires our method, instilled a love of risk-taking, and christened us with deep friendships in university administrations, alumni world-wide, and the student body.

Startups, at their core, are small tribes of experimenters advancing progress.  - Experiment Fund founding creed.

I have learned that when it comes to successful idea translation, whether in labs, ateliers, or startups, it is not only the breakthrough eureka ideas, but the chemistry of the team, that determines success or failure. Venture and academia are not polar opposites, as some might have you believe. After all, serial entrepreneurs and productive labs are known for their ability to rapidly re-assemble teams to exploit new opportunities. Pick your collaborators — your tribe — wisely. They ensure your continued success and make the experiment all the more worth undertaking!

Special thanks to my mentor and friend David Edwards, and collaborators Jessica Sara Lin, Aviva Presser Aiden, Suelin Chen, Carrie Fitzsimmons, Tom Hadfield, Paulina Mustafa, David Sengeh, Alexandre Terrien, Sauli Pillay, Liz Liao, Jesselynn Opie, Mark Pimental, Dan Borelli, Beth Altringer, Brandon Bird, Harvard SEAS, The Office of the Provost, and Mike Smith. Also our individual and institutional friends in Cambridge, Paris, Singapore, Dublin, Cape Town, and Riyadh.