Scarsdale alumni panelists inspire students to follow their own passion

By VALERIE ABRAHAMS of the Scarsdale Inquirer, November 28, 2014

“There is no one path; no right or wrong college” to find success, Scarsdale High School alumnus Dan Rosensweig told juniors and seniors as the moderator for a panel discussion with distinguished SHS alumni in the Little Theater Friday, Nov. 21. “Evidence suggests wherever you go [to college], if you follow your passions the opportunity to go into any field is available to people who come out of this high school,” he said. “Focus attention on doing some of the right things and being willing to take risks and take chances.”

To illustrate his point, Rosensweig invited six alumni who have traveled along very different paths to share their stories. The panelists were: Suzanne Nossel, ’87; Mara Liasson, ’73; Andrew Ross Sorkin, ’95; Jon Oringer, ’92; George Kliavkof, ’85 and Tom Rogers, ’72.

The panel members explained how they developed a passion in high school that led, in most cases, to a lifelong purpose. 

Human rights activist Nossel said she was inspired by the plight of Refuseniks — Soviet Jews who were denied religious freedom and exit visas in the 1980s. She helped start a Soviet Jewry Club at the high school, which marched in solidarity at the United Nations. “That sparked something. I felt alive and connected to something much bigger. We could get ourselves together and make ourselves heard.”

Journalist Liasson said she was inspired by the activism of the 1960s and ’70s when news media reported on the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall and the anti-war movement. As a high school student, she tuned in to the idea of “creating community-based, self-made, self-run institutions,” which led to her participation in the effort to create what is now the Scarsdale Alternative School.

“Coming out of high school and college, there was never any question or doubt that we could do what we wanted to do, what we were passionate about. That’s really a gift from that time,” she said, adding, “I feel like the only limitations I’ve had are my own.”

Sorkin, now a well-known journalist and TV star who got his start at The New York Times at age 18 during SHS senior options, said “I always was fascinated by media; I always watched television and would think: Could I ever be on television? I read the newspaper religiously and would think: Could I ever write these articles? I never would have believed it.” Being able to do something that you are passionate about everyday is “a great blessing,” he said, and to “actually make a living doing it is even more shocking.” 

Media innovator Kliavkof’s path was less decisive. Unsure of what he wanted to do as a litigator and “just trying to figure out what was next,” he went to Seattle in the mid-’90s, where a small startup known as Amazon needed a lawyer. Kliavkof became the company’s first outside counsel “just by sheer luck,” he said. “I ended up buying companies for them and learning what Internet law was all about.” That led to his jobs at Hearst and MLB, old-storied conservative companies where he was an “instigator, the guy who tries to create new things from within the company.”  

Internet billionaire Oringer loved computer programming and “building things” in high school. He wasn’t interested in landing a job. Once he realized he could build things on the Internet that people would want to buy, he spent hours and hours experimenting. “I just hung out in my apartment, building stuff to sell to people,” he said. His first success was a pop-up blocker, which was profitable until Microsoft put him out of business. But he kept on building Internet products. When he realized he needed imagery “to power and sell those products” he bought a camera, went on a photo-taking binge, and posted 30,000 images on a website. When companies around the world began buying his images, he set out to learn what it took to shoot images that major corporations wanted to buy, and to teach those skills to thousands of people. Shutterstock now has 70,000 contributors uploading 50 million images daily — and sells about four images every second, he said.

Media mogul Rogers, who took a more traditional corporate path but did very untraditional things inside the corporation, said his interest in the media was “sparked by virtue of how cocoonlike Scarsdale High School was at a time when the rest of the world was going crazy” — the era of Vietnam War protests and dramatic unrest on college campuses. “This was a pretty insulated place,” he said. “The only outlet to find out about that world was video and network TV. … Broadcast news was fascinating to me, and I just wasn’t getting enough of it. That opened up my interest in the media.”

The Nixon administration’s crackdown on the press during Watergate prompted his interest in First Amendment law, Rogers said. After practicing law briefly on Wall Street, he moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue his interest in media law. As luck would have it, he got in on the ground floor when the cable industry was in its infancy. “I ended up on the council that wrote the basic laws to define the cable industry,” he said. “Suddenly I was an expert in cable and the regulatory framework for what was going to develop into the most powerful media industry.”

Rogers’s words of wisdom to Scarsdale students: “Everything that you think you need to do to package yourself up [for college applications] can squeeze out of you the thing that you may have the passion for. Try to take hold of that and dig deep inside to figure out what that may be. … Contend with the pressures here, but don’t lose sight of the one thing you’re likely to want to spend time focusing on.”

Moderator Dan Rosensweig shared his perspective as well. Having followed the life path you were “supposed” to follow (college, job, family), he realized he was tired of being the one wondering how the others got rich or found interesting pursuits. “The difference between that person and me was that person went out and did it, took the risk, took the chance,” he said. So at age 40, “I decided to bet on myself,” he said. He moved with his family to California to become chief operating officer of Yahoo during the time when Yahoo needed to be rebuilt. For five years, paid only in equity, he worked to turn the company around. It paid off. That success led to other opportunities, he said, including a stint with Guitar Hero and now at Chegg, where he follows his passion of democratizing education and helping students learn and get into college. “When my daughter was your age, I realized how broken the system is of getting into college. This is something I wanted to do. And for the first time in my life I have the financial means to do it.”

Seeking advice

Questions from students in the audience ranged from “What is the most needed college major today?” (Answer: a balance of liberal arts and computer science) to “What kind of students were you in high school?” or “What was your biggest struggle at SHS, and what motivated you to overcome that struggle?”; “Do you feel that you would have been as successful if you went to a college of lesser degree?”

The intended takeaway was summed up by Klavikof: “Wherever you choose to go to college, if in your heart you think it’s the right choice, irrespective of what your parents or anyone else says, it’s going to turn out to be the right choice.

“It’s important to recognize that by sitting in this room, you have already won the lottery. This is a great high school. You will make friends for life. So enjoy your time here and take advantage of the assets you have — the people sitting here with you."