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Jim Donovan: “Everything is a teaching moment”

I believe enhancing our access to technology will provide students in rural and urban areas fundamental tools and teachers to have more opportunities and is crucial in preparing the next generation, especially as we learned in the past year there may be times when digital learning is needed. As a part of my interview series about […]

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I believe enhancing our access to technology will provide students in rural and urban areas fundamental tools and teachers to have more opportunities and is crucial in preparing the next generation, especially as we learned in the past year there may be times when digital learning is needed.


As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Jim Donovan.

Jim Donovan is responsible for advising many of the largest corporate and individual clients of Goldman Sachs. Donovan joined Goldman Sachs in 1993 and was named a partner in 2000. During his career there, he has worked in investment banking and investment management, and on corporate strategy for the firm.

He served on the board of the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund from 2002 to 2006. His responsibilities at Goldman have included head of Strategic Lead Management, co-head of Investment Management Services, head of The Client Experience Task Force and chairman of Investment Management Division Labs. Donovan earned his B.S. degree in chemical engineering from MIT and an M.B.A. from MIT Sloan School in 1989.

He earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1993. He serves on the Corporation Development Committee for MIT, the Athletic Committee for MIT, is a Friend of MIT Crew and a former MIT Crew Varsity Oarsman. In addition, Donovan established an MIT Scholarship Fund in 2000 to assist incoming students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Donovan serves on the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health Board of Directors. He also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is a member of The Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology, and established a fund for Prostate Cancer Research at DFCI in 2008 in honor of his late friend, who died of cancer. Donovan also co-hosts an annual breakfast fundraiser for the Institute; his gifts provide critical support to Mission Possible: The Dana Farber Campaign to Conquer Cancer.

An avid runner, he participates in road races to raise money for cancer prevention and treatment. Donovan has been featured in a number of publications for his achievements and contributions, including Fortune Magazine and Harvard Alumni Magazine. Donovan is an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. He teaches classes on corporate strategy and leadership.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Teaching is not my primary career, but it is a passion. I am very fortunate that I am able to share my professional expertise with young students looking to enter the fields of both law and business. I feel I am uniquely positioned to offer insights, share real-life experiences, challenges I have encountered and overcome and lessons on how best to succeed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have had so many interesting experiences and each semester I learn something new intellectually and personally about myself, which is a huge benefit to having this opportunity. It’s difficult to narrow it down to just one interesting experience, but I can say with confidence the most rewarding experience as a teacher is having a positive and lasting impact on my students lives and careers. I love hearing from them at the end of a course, or even years later and learning they found my teachings applicable in advancing their professional goals. I have had memorable encounters years after my students have graduated where I find them repeating things, I taught them or hear from a student seeking advice as they embark on a new and exciting challenge in their career trajectory.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I was just recently appointed to the National Board for Education Sciences, serving as one of fifteen members that oversees this independent, non-partisan institution, which houses the statistics, research and evaluation components of the U.S. Department of Education. The board has several key functions and core responsibilities including but not limited to approving research priorities for the Institute of Education Sciences, approving procedures for technical and scientific peer review of the activities of the Institute and reviewing the work of the Institute to ensure it is consistent with the standards set out in the Education Sciences Reform Act.

It is an important time to be weighing in on such crucial issues and I am proud to serve on this board in an effort to improve our education system and the bodies that oversee its growth, hopefully resulting in improvement for all.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

The US education system has much room for improvement. The unfortunate reality we are confronting is our kids are not equipped to compete with other systems around the world, which limits opportunities for our students in the future. There are some universal issues and some that are specific to K-12 and the university level. At the university level, we are struggling with a lack of diversity of thought. It’s not limited to our political discourse. Politics has infiltrated much of what has become central to academia and we need to enhance the value of this by fostering true open-mindedness, high level debate, and respect and appreciation for alternative perspectives.

Unfortunately, literacy remains a major issue and has become increasingly difficult to confront. While the digital age has brought new resources to the forefront, it has also created new obstacles. Additionally, another area I feel we could improve in is quality and implementation of testing. Merit is hugely important and demonstrating the ability to produce results on these assessments are important metrics for teachers, students and in evaluating curriculum. I strongly believe our educational systems should be focused on increasing the value of these assessment programs, not diminishing them.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

While there are many positive attributes of our education system, I would narrow my answer to three important points. Greater educational choice is essential for parents and students. My primary career is in the finance industry and I am a strong believer in competition producing better outcomes. More school choice usually means more competition, which I believe will create more opportunities, and better results for teachers, parents and children. School choice has been expanding in recent years and I believe this is a good thing, especially in urban areas. I am also a proponent of vocational education programs as addendums to traditional curriculums. Skills based education is a crucial addition as we look to develop well- rounded individuals that are prepared to enter the workforce in various capacities. This is something that will allow us to compete with other major industrial countries around the world. It will also help our students identify strengths and rule out weaknesses in their personal arsenals early on in their development. Finally, our institutions of higher education are globally recognized as marquis brand names in academic achievement. For example, schools such as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are widely respected around the world and degrees from schools of this calibre are immediately helpful in generating unique opportunities and reliably successful careers for their graduates.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

I would reiterate some of the points mentioned in my previous answer such as emphasizing the importance of merit-based testing as a metric for all, and a stronger focus on improving literacy, especially in the earliest years of student development. Additionally, I believe enhancing our access to technology will provide students in rural and urban areas fundamental tools and teachers to have more opportunities and is crucial in preparing the next generation, especially as we learned in the past year there may be times when digital learning is needed. That being said, in-person instruction is irreplaceable. In my own experience, I don’t believe I would have been able to convey the key lessons, or provide the insights needed to build a greater understanding of strategic thinking and developing a solution-oriented mind-set without students present in my classes.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

1. Preparation — For every hour I teach I prepare for 20.
2. Humor — It’s always good to be able to have a laugh, whether it be at your own expense or just fostering an environment where good sense of humor abounds.
3. Empathy- Having the ability to put yourself in the position of others, whether it be your students, or your subjects is essential to really absorbing the lessons at hand.
4. Create an environment for questions and discussion- always encourage more conversation, not less. Questions and answers are fundamental to how we process new information and I always want my students to feel comfortable initiating or participating in these exchanges.
5. Be willing to share personal experiences that relate to the material. Anecdotes bring the material to life and humanize you and the topics you are covering.
6. Everything is a teaching moment- especially the use of jargon. My goal is to teach, not confuse. I want my classroom to follow along and be excited to hear more, not be confused by technical terms they haven’t yet learned.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

The education field would greatly benefit from more practitioners, in addition to the excellent career academics. People who have been in the field they are now teaching about and can apply their own experiences and anecdotes is hugely valuable for students and institutions. I am so fortunate to teach at the University of Virginia, where there are a lot of examples of this construct in the business school, law school, medical school and beyond. When I was in law school, I would have been captivated to sit in a classroom with a law school professor who was teaching for a semester after a trial, or on leave from a corporate mergers and acquisitions career. Now, as a teacher, I understand the power of speaking from my own real-life experiences the effect on my students. It brings the material to life and gives meaning to the lesson beyond what is expected.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My brother John always told me, “Don’t be ordinary. Nothing extraordinary ever comes from being ordinary.” This has stuck with my whole life. Whether it means exceling at your chosen field, pursuing new and exciting passions outside of your career, or just in thinking about the kind of person you want to be and the life you want to live, this quote is evergreen. Also, never give up.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’ve been really fortunate to meet so many interesting and influential people in my life. Many have been mentors, friends and colleagues, but if I had to pick just one, I would choose my mother. She has taught me more than anyone in my life, and even now, every time I speak to her or spend time with her, I learn something new. I encourage everyone to have a relationship like this in their life and never take it for granted.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I don’t have social media and I would encourage my students to use these tools less as well. However, you can view one of my lectures “Are You Destined to Deal?” on youtube.com. I’m told by my teenage son, that 1 million views are just ‘ok’.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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