Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Bruce Hallett

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In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at UCI, interviews Bruce Hallett ’78, managing director of Miramar Venture Partners.

Tyrus Miller (0:07–1:29): Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities.” I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, with coffee cup in hand, and I’m pleased to be joined by Bruce Hallett. Bruce is the managing director at Miramar Digital Partners. He was the co-founder. A company that offers innovation, product strategy, and team building to technology startups. Prior to joining Miramar, Bruce was a Managing Partner of Brobeck, Phleger and Harrison, where he managed IPOs, venture financing, and liquidity events. Bruce serves on the board of WellTok and has previously served on several other corporate boards.

We’re proud that he’s part of the UCI School of Humanities family. He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English from UCI, and he went on to earn his law degree at UCLA. He served as the Chair of UCI’s Chief Executive Roundtable. As the UC alumni representative on the University of California Board of Regents. He currently serves on the University of California Office of the President Innovation Council, as well as UCLA’s Venture Fund. Thank you for joining us today, Bruce.

Bruce Hallett (1:29–1:32): Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Dean Miller.

Miller (1:32–1:47): So I wanted to start out by asking, you’ve had a very successful career as an entrepreneur and innovator focusing on the tech industry. Can you tell us a little bit more about Miramar Digital Ventures and your role there?

Hallett (1:48–4:41): Yeah, I’d be glad to. Miramar Digital Ventures is effectively an investment fund. So, we raise money from outside, individuals, institutions, corporates, family offices, and then we go out and find companies that sort of meet our investment thesis. It’s sorta like being given a hunting license and a certain number of arrows in our quiver, and then we have to go out and see if we can kind of catch the right animals, beg the game, whatever kind of analogy you wanna use. Been doing this for across a number of funds and strategies for almost 20 years now.

Before that I was a lawyer. And before that I was in school. I think that if you wanna sort of encapsulate what we are looking for in Miramar is kind of high growth, potential startup in the technology field, leveraging artificial intelligence and data science to disrupt an existing industry. We’ve got companies in our portfolio that are kind of pioneers in using AI and machine learning to create mobile games, a company called Scopely up in LA, that’s sort of one of the unicorns in a mobile gaming space nationally.

Companies that use AI for ad tech, for smart home, for healthcare and for cybersecurity. Mostly when we’re looking for companies that we invest in, we sort of start with the team. And it’s not just one person, but how the team members all interact with each other, making sure that each one isn’t a replica of the others, but they’re complimentary to each other and they bring complimentary skill sets. Because that’s what you really find, or we really find that you need for success in a startup, is that ability to work together, create a culture and be able to leverage that from a very small inception to a very large business. Does that kind of give you a clear summary?

Miller (4:21–5:02): Yeah. It’s a good lead off into something I wanna ask you about a little bit later, but it’s the focus on culture and it sounds like your company really puts a lot of importance on the people and how they’re interacting with one another, which is really a definition of culture.

Hallett (5:03–5:20): Yes. I would also say the ethics around what they’re doing and how they interact with internally, with their customers and user base.

Miller (5:21–5:47): We tend to see the outcome and the successes, and we don’t necessarily see the kind of moments of uncertainty or risk or the kinds of leaps of faith. I wonder if I could ask you to speak to a situation where you had to go on and you had to make decisions under circumstances of risk or something where success wasn’t guaranteed.

Hallett (5:49–9:54): That’s actually a great question. I get interviewed at least a few times a year on podcasts, and video casts, and things like that. It seems like a lot of the focus is on either what we’re looking for because the audience is somebody who might wanna connect with us for an investment or how do they build their business, but I think that’s a really interesting question and you’re the first one to ask me that.

I think in my career and I sort of look back to my time at UCI, which was a time of…I was there in the mid ’70s, late ’70s, so it was kind of post hippie generation, but still a new campus. There was a lot of kind of experimentation, freedom of expression, lots of different points of view represented across different programs, and one of the things I learned was, I always felt free to try new things. I guess probably I developed kind of an appetite for risk when I was at UCI. I was an English major, kind of a focus on literary criticism and critical thinking in those days at UCI, but I also took breadth courses and physical sciences, fine arts, and statistics.

It was a time where it wasn’t a question of, “Am I good at this?” It was a question of, “Is this something that interests me and I wanna learn?” and the opportunity was there. I think that kind of seeded my career in the sense that I was never afraid to try new things. And if I looked across the chasm at different opportunities and sort of said, “Well do I want to stay on this side and do the safe thing, or find a way across and have to improvise? ’Cause I know I’ll meet challenges I’d never anticipated.”

But there was something on the other side that I thought was better, I always took the hard route. I always did the more difficult thing, took the risk and I think that’s kind of informed my career. It certainly hasn’t been a string of unequivocal successes across the way, but I feel like I’ve always moved in a direction that was meaningful to me, hopefully over time brought a lot of other people along for the ride, as far as creation of new businesses and new ways of approaching investment and entrepreneurship now in my career.

But it wasn’t a case of doing the safe thing or doing the conventional thing, but a lot of times doing the hard thing, but not feeling like there were gonna be dire consequences for it. It’s just sort of a confidence that came, starting at UCI with trying different things and to a good extent succeeding.

Miller (9:54–10:03): It sounds like it’s led you beyond the obvious horizons that you might think that you have as a bachelor’s student in English.

Hallett (10:03–10:04): Yeah.

Miller (10:04–10:32): As a collaborator and an investor in technology startups, you’ve talked a little bit about what you were looking for in terms of the ability to work with a group, to think about organization, to act ethically, but I would wonder if you have advice for students, and this is really regardless of major, STEM, humanities, art, who want to be entrepreneurs.

Hallett (10:34–13:10): Well, I’d start with making sure that because part of entrepreneurship is some of the qualities I just talked about, where it’s always sort of putting yourself out there where you’re not staying in your comfort zone. Because you’re always going to meet situations you’ve never encountered before, but you also wanna make sure that you have the resources either personally, or kind of in your organization, or your own orbit, or your ecosystem where you can get good advice. I think that’s the key thing. Don’t look inward, look outward. I’m always fascinated by things that other people do and wanna learn about them. I think that inquisitiveness is an essential component. I think that comes too from the studies at UCI.

Reading things from whether it was middle-age texts, forcing myself to read literature in the French language instead of English and sort of understanding a different way of thinking about things even though my reading comprehension was about 25 probably. Again, a little bit of being fearless about things, but not throwing to the wind. Then, mostly just being confident that you can learn on the fly.

As long as you’re open to learning and you’re with people who are willing to share their knowledge and experience, you can figure it out. I think that the humanities is a great foundation for that because you start out with critical thinking. To succeed in the humanities, you have to express yourself well, write well, and communicate well. That’s really the key, in a lot of cases, to both figuring things out and leadership.

Miller (13:11–13:42): Yeah. I think that point about learning on the fly is really important. I’ve talked to people who started more in the sort of nitty gritty kind of engineering building things type of mode, and as they move up in the company business, they find that they’re spending most of their time really pondering people, their motivation, their interests. The humanities really do focus on that kind of cultural dimension a lot.

Hallett (13:43–14:45): Yeah, I think that’s right. Particularly the communications aspect and the understanding that we all have unique experiences, we have to be up to people who didn’t have the same experiences we did, and can learn from that, and they can learn from us is an important key to that. On the STEM side of the ledger, which is critically important for tech startups, you do have things that are more cut and dried, there’s formulas that work, there’s things that don’t work, but it’s that overlay of the humanities and critical thinking and communication that sort of holds it all together. So, I would argue that both are required for a successful business or any kind of endeavor.

Miller (14:46–15:37): I wanted to bring up something that we’ve had the opportunity to talk a little bit about in previous conversations, and that’s the idea of innovation ecosystem. There is this sort of mystery about why certain periods, certain cities, certain areas, Silicon Valley, being a prominent one in California, give rise to a particular culture where there’s a lot of innovation that’s happening.

I wonder if you have any observations about the kind of culture that might be needed to really have that kind of innovation ecosystem flourish in Orange County. What are some of the particularities of Orange County that might contribute to that kind of innovation ecosystem?

Hallett (15:38–20:09): Well, I think one of the positives of Orange County is that it’s a community where most people are from somewhere else. We were just having dinner on Friday night, we invited some new friends over, who both a husband and wife came from D.C. and had worked in various branches of the federal government. They were commenting on how friendly people in Orange County are and how open they are. They’ve lived a lot of places. The husband was a surgeon in the military. The wife actually was in intelligence and a lot of the places they’ve lived were very kind of closed communities to newcomers. They’ve been in Orange County a few years now and said it’s probably the most open place they’ve lived in the country.

I think that’s the real positive. I’d say the biggest challenge we’ve had is in some sense, the diverse economy we’ve had here. Over the last 40 or 50 years, you’ve had real estate, tech, finance, and in finance, sort of all the auto lending and home mortgage companies. It’s an area that’s never had a really severe recession because there hasn’t been a concentration. Whereas, 1970s had a severe recession because they were so based on aerospace and military, and they didn’t have the real estate economy, they didn’t have the retail economy, they didn’t have the entertainment economy that Southern California does.

But it also sort of took them to the brink at a time where they were forced to reinvent themselves. And you did have a confluence of things like, investors there, the investment club that became the first wave of venture capitalists. But you also had a real crisis. I think it was the fact that they were addressing a crisis of their economy, of all these aerospace and electrical engineers who were out of work, that really said, “Hey, let’s try this startup thing.” And really got rolling by the late ’70s and the ’80s, whereas in Orange County, there were always big companies, and a bunch of industries that could employ people and people moved around, they could go to San Diego, they could go to LA. So, we’d sort of never had the crisis that was the real birth of Silicon Valley.

As a result now, 40 years on, we’re way behind. I mean the number of venture firms here is kind of a rounding error, the dollars under management, the number of startups, it’s a lot harder to be a startup up or a tech company in Orange County than it is there and some other places. Now, the good news is that I think because we have a smart and forward-thinking business community, they’re now focusing on that and really bringing kind of a lot of brainpower and dollars to bear to try to change that. It’s sort of the right petri dish, but we haven’t induced the reaction here yet. I guess it’s how you’d explain it.

Miller (20:09–20:11): The kind of takeoff factor.

Hallett (20:11–20:12): Yeah.

Miller (20:12–20:41): I know in Silicon Valley also a key thing was the concentration of universities and UCI is really playing, I think, an important role — Applied Innovation with our Antrepreneur Program. I’d like to ask you for the humanities angle on that, what would you say to employers who are considering hiring humanities graduates or humanities alums?

Hallett (20:42–21:56): Well, I would say absolutely do it. Because some of the things we talked about earlier, the ability to communicate well, think critically, kind of dig down on issues. I’ve known a lot of people, probably you have too, who, where their career took them, maybe they didn’t have the background in technology or software development or computer science, and they were able to pick that up later by going to coding camp, or some of these programs, even like the ones that UCI offers.

But the fundamental education they received in the humanities was a great foundation for how to really develop a culture inside the companies they were working for, or in some cases leading because a lot of times those people end up being a key partnership team in the companies, not usually on the technical side, but on the business side.

Miller (21:56–20:20): You’ve also been very involved in education at UCI, at UCLA, at the Office of the President, University of California, I’d like to ask a little bit about your perspectives on changes that are occurring right now in higher ed, particularly for the University of California. But obviously it’s a bigger context also that you see existing.

Hallett (20:21–26:22): Yeah. It’s definitely interesting times. I mean, you’ve got in some respects, it’s the best of times in terms of number of applicants, quality of applicants, and really resources available in the University of California. The difficulty is you got the overlay of COVID right now, a lot of uncertainty around what’s the correct environment for getting people together to learn?

Certainly what we’re in right now is suboptimal. I think a lot of people can’t wait to get back. ’Cause I mean, you could only…these kind of Zoom conversations are so much better than a telephone call or a recording, but there’s so many nuances to interpersonal communication and the kind of relationships and learning that comes out of that, and small groups in the classroom, that’s sort of lost in a lot of these settings. So that’s a big challenge. Then system-wide, there’s sort of these questions around, should or shouldn’t you do SAT and standardized testing. There’s the cost of an education, and who should bear it? What it should cost?

When I attended the University of California in the ’70s and ’80s, it was measured in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands of dollars. Yet, even at today’s costs, the University of California is a great bargain compared to private universities and other public universities. There are a lot of issues. One of the things I would say that while I was on the Regents, and I wish this was more applicable across the spectrum of organizations, is that all of the regents were volunteers. They were doing it for the love of it. Nobody was trying to get elected. Nobody was trying to raise money. Everybody I think had really good intentions. There was a probably wide diversity of political views on the part of individual regents. But everybody pulled together ’cause we knew we had to get a job done.

We had to make sure that UC remained the finest public institution in the world. And that students here and elsewhere had access to the education, that we weren’t losing talent to other places, to other universities. We had a budget that we had to make every year and we had to figure it out. So, it’s kinda like almost going back to the very earliest stuff we were talking about in the conversation is, you take risks, but you’re committed to an outcome. And that outcome is if not outright success, sort of the best you can do, and everybody’s working toward that goal. That’s how companies succeed too.

I am disappointed sometimes that we seem to be living in times in a political system where there are a lot of our elected representatives aren’t committed to that.

Miller (26:24–26:33): You’ve laid out a mission for the University of California that I think many people who work for the university really get behind and work on every day.

Hallett (26:33–26:35): Yeah. I think that’s right.

Miller (26:35–26:50): I’d like to conclude with just a question that I like to ask. It’s a little more personal, but what you’re reading now? That could be either in business or what’s on your night table before you go to bed?

Hallett (26:51–28:32): I am reading a book right now about baseball and like a lot of things I read, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s about the 1966 World Series, the Baltimore Orioles and Frank Robinson and sort of the ups and downs of his career before he joined the Orioles that year, and then there was Brooks Robinson. So, they were the Robinsons, who weren’t related. Then the L.A. Dodgers and how that was the end of their first great era. We’re kind of in their next great era right now. It’s an interesting book. I can bring it back to you or I could go in the other room and grab it, so I could give you the title, but it’s very well written. It’s interesting in the social context of what was going on in the mid-1960s and the Orioles as a team, that was, it was the first year of their ascent. And, it was the end of the first empire of the Dodgers. All of the unrest and everything else that was going on with Vietnam and civil rights and so forth around that same time are all in the book. It’s really well done.

Miller (28:33–28:43): I’m gonna have to get the title from you. I’m a native Baltimorean. So I grew up on that, particular Orioles team. That was my introduction to baseball.

Hallett (28:43–28:46): I can email it to you, or get it to you otherwise. Yeah.

Miller (28:48–29:08): Great, thank you. I wanna thank you again, Bruce, for taking the time to share your story and some of your thoughts with me and with our viewers. I wanna thank our viewers for tuning in. I hope that you’ll join us, coffee cup in hand, for our next episode of “Over Coffee.” Thank you very much, Bruce.

Hallett (29:08–29:10): My pleasure. Great to see you.

Miller(29:10–29:11): Great to see you.

Watch all episodes of “Over Coffee” here.

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