Rishi who? Sunak says Stanford business school changed his life, but few remember him

Teachers at Tory leadership contender’s alma mater say they have no recollection of the man who would be prime minister

Rishi Sunak has said going to California’s Stanford business school changed his life. Stanford “teaches you to think bigger”, he told a venture capital podcast last year. In place of a “more incremental mindset”, studying at the heart of Silicon Valley encouraged him to embrace “a slightly bigger, more dynamic approach to change”, said the former UK chancellor.

While Stanford clearly made its mark on him, it’s less clear whether Sunak made much of a mark at Stanford, one of the highest-ranked business schools in the world. After receiving a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US, he graduated from its two-year MBA programme in 2006.

Stanford is a busy place, and a dozen professors and lecturers from that time told the Guardian they had no memory of the man vying to become the UK’s next prime minister.

These included teachers on some of the school’s signature courses (although it is not suggested that Sunak was enrolled in their classes): Irv Grousbeck, an expert on entrepreneurship; Andy Rachleff, who holds classes on technology entrepreneurship; Charles O’Reilly, who runs courses on leadership; and Carole Robin, one of the teachers of interpersonal dynamics, a popular elective students refer to as “touchy-feely”.

When he delivered a prestigious business school lecture in London last year, Sunak, now 42 and also a University of Oxford alumnus, cited one of his “inspiring” Stanford professors, the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Romer, and described the impact of Romer’s lecture on innovation. “I have no recollection of ever interacting with him,” Romer told the Guardian.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, who teaches a renowned course called The Paths to Power, posted on LinkedIn that Sunak had been among his students and that he hoped they learn lessons about power to “rise to positions where they can have the leverage to make a difference in the world”.

Asked for any recollections of Sunak, Pfeffer said he did “not have the bandwidth to respond to this query” as he was about to travel.

Another professor, James Van Horne, initially said he had not taught Sunak but later found a record of him enrolled in one of his corporate finance classes. “He was a good student and participated well, but beyond that I do not have a lot of recollection,” Van Horne wrote.

Robert Joss, the dean of the business school at the time, said he barely remembered Sunak but vaguely recalled a “very bright and a very good student”. “My impression of all of our students was that they’re great,” said Joss, who retired in 2009.

With roughly 400 students in each business school graduating class, Joss said, it was not possible to get to know everyone deeply and, as administrators, “you remember the students that get in trouble or the students that won the big prizes”.

Sunak was not listed among the students in his 2006 MBA class awarded prizes at graduation for being among the top 10% academically, for service to the university, or for contributing to the school’s social culture and sense of fun. Dozens of his classmates did not respond to a request to share memories, or declined to comment.

Sign up to First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST

Joss said he did have a stronger memory of another MBA student in Sunak’s year: Akshata Murty, his future wife, whom he recalled as “very bright, very smart”. The dean knew her parents because NR Narayana Murthy, her father and the billionaire founder of Infosys, was a member of Stanford business school’s advisory council.

It is common for Stanford classmates to meet and marry, a trend that he sees clearly in the alumni magazine, Joss said.

Four years after Murty and Sunak wed in Bengaluru in 2009, they made a “generous” donation to Stanford’s business school to fund a fellowship in social innovation. A university spokesperson declined to comment on the amount donated.

The couple also gave $3m to Claremont McKenna, a small private liberal arts college outside Los Angeles, where Murty majored in economics and French. She has been a member of Claremont McKenna’s board of trustees since 2011.

Their 2018 donation funded the college’s Murty Sunak Quantitative and Computing Lab. The couple said the gift was inspired in part by a favourite motto of Murty’s father: “In God we trust. And everyone else must bring data to the table.”

• This article was amended on 28 October 2022 to insert wording that clarifies Rishi Sunak may not have attended the school’s “signature classes” which are optional and among which students can choose a set number. Andy Rachleff, for example, has confirmed that Sunak was not on his course and also that he generally teaches technology entrepreneurship, not innovation.


Lois Beckett in Los Angeles

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Raab and Shapps back Rishi Sunak in race for Tory leadership
Deputy PM and transport secretary throw weight behind frontrunner in campaign to succeed Boris Johnson

Heather Stewart, Jessica Elgot and Aubrey Allegretti

12, Jul, 2022 @12:05 PM

Article image
Spotlight on Rishi Sunak’s family as they prepare to enter No 10
His wife, Akshata Murty, is the daughter of a billionaire; their garden parties are one of the hottest tickets in their home town

Caroline Davies

24, Oct, 2022 @2:31 PM

Article image
Rishi Sunak: Britain has moved on from judging people for being rich
PM says Labour criticism of family tax arrangements doesn’t bother him, as rich list shows he and his wife have lost £200m

Rowena Mason in Hiroshima and Aletha Adu

19, May, 2023 @9:30 PM

Article image
Rishi Sunak camp says debates against Truss will change Tory members’ minds
Sunak supporters claim Truss will perform poorly at hustings, as former chancellor launches fightback in Grantham

Aubrey Allegretti

22, Jul, 2022 @4:59 PM

Article image
Private school polish and big dreams: how Rishi Sunak became a contender for PM
Tory leadership candidate is praised as an earnest workaholic, but critics say politically he has a glass jaw and is naive

Heather Stewart, Josh Halliday and Simon Goodley

06, Aug, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Rishi Sunak admits taking money from deprived areas
Video shows candidate telling Tories in Tunbridge Wells he started making sure ‘areas like this are getting the funding they deserved’

Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor

05, Aug, 2022 @12:48 PM

Article image
Does Rishi Sunak’s £730m fortune make him too rich to be PM?
With a weekend home sporting a £400,000 pool and spa, the ‘insanely rich’ ex-chancellor is dividing opinion in his Yorkshire seat

Rupert Neate Wealth correspondent

22, Oct, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Rishi Sunak pledges to double number of foreign offenders deported
Tory leadership candidate says current system too soft but rival Truss camp says plan is unworkable

Peter Walker Political correspondent

28, Jul, 2022 @9:30 PM

Article image
Rishi Sunak reveals favourite McDonald’s food … which no longer exists
Former chancellor talks about favourite breakfast meal, which went off menu in 2020

Peter Walker Political correspondent

18, Aug, 2022 @12:28 PM

Article image
Rishi Sunak faces fiscal dilemma after rare political misstep
Analysis: Ill-timed US trip and reluctance to turn bailout taps back on could tarnish chancellor’s carefully polished image

Heather Stewart Political editor

16, Dec, 2021 @7:07 PM