A Note From Our Director, Monika Gruter Cheney

While I have served as Executive Director of the Gruter Institute for over 20 years, I began my career as an intellectual property lawyer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati during the heyday of Silicon Valley’s great innovation boon. I loved the hands-on experience of helping entrepreneurs build new companies with exciting new technology. Yet what I was most deeply interested in was understanding how this extraordinary abundance of innovation could arise in the first place. Why here in California, why at this moment in time? What was Silicon Valley’s secret sauce? Having grown up in Palo Alto, I wondered whether the level of freedom and openness to the exchange of ideas that I saw in the 1970s-2000s, and to which I attributed the rapid pace of innovation, was replicable or sustainable.  

My curiosity was also highly influenced by the observations of my grandmother, Margaret Gruter, and the experiences of my entire family under Hitler’s Germany. Pre-Hitler Germany was a sophisticated culture with an educated populace. I was impressed by stories of my grandparents and their classmates learning five languages in school, of my grandmother’s many female friends with graduate degrees, the dances at the local castle, and the extraordinary exchange of ideas between scientists, poets, philosophers of this time. And yet in Germany freedom had been extinguished. What went so horribly wrong? I certainly have no perfect answer for this question, but I do believe that the more we understand about human behavior, the more we can solve society’s challenges, whether those challenges relate to the behavior of leaders, markets, legal systems or other institutions. I also believe strongly that a necessary prerequisite to understanding more about human behavior is that we maintain an open exchange of ideas, across many disciplines and viewpoints.

After eight years on the Gruter Institute Board of Directors, I chose to leave the practice of law and come to the Gruter Institute full time. It was clear  that what the Institute was doing was truly unique inside the world of academia: fostering the exchange of ideas across disciplinary lines and outside of university boundaries; participants are not only exposed to new ideas, but are positioned to meet people with whom they can collaborate to expand new ideas. The relationships formed in the Institute’s network are as critical as the relationships I saw in the most successful SIlicon Valley startups. Ask any VC about their most successful startups and they will tell you the success stories always involve the right people being able to join together, which is something I continue to witness in each of our Co-Labs.

One of the best parts of my role as executive director is getting to strategize about which topics to prioritize for our interdisciplinary analysis/Co-Labs. Imagine all of the issues you read about in the news and in the latest books and journals and saying, ”Let’s gather 30 people far smarter than I, from disciplines and domains all across the spectrum, to shed light on this topic?” Then imagine them saying yes, and going on to provide extraordinary new insights on these problems. Sometimes I have to pinch myself – I feel so fortunate to have the privilege of leading this organization. For example, a key challenge we recently turned our attention to is how the isolation brought about by our highly digital age is affecting us. Covid practices brought about even greater isolation. When combined with AI, the “attention economy” luring us into less and less in person interaction, and the dynamics of impersonal social media interactions, the sense of disconnection continues to deepen. So we asked the question, how can we anticipate and mitigate the negative effects on mental and physical health, cooperation and trust? Thanks to the vision and long-standing leadership of our colleague Gordon Getty, we were able to organize three conferences on this very topic in the late days of Covid.

In the 20 plus years since I became executive director, I have worked to ensure that the Gruter Institute continues to provide a forum for scholars across disciplines to explore scientific findings about the human mind and human nature, and to consider how this information relates to a wide range of legal and social issues. Communicating and utilizing insights about human behavior is not a simple task – such interdisciplinary work is often a bit messy and lacking in pretty models that you often see in a given discipline. Tackling the complexity of messy interdisciplinary work is the mission of the Gruter Institute and I am extraordinarily grateful to our many collaborators and supporters who engage in and facilitate this work every day.