In a new book, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman asserts that we need to overcome the Internet’s sorting tendencies and create tools to make ourselves ‘digital cosmopolitans.’
Neil Webber of Austin, TX, a 1983 graduate in electrical engineering and computer science, has made a gift of $1,442,500 to establish a scholarship at MIT. The Neil Webber Scholarship Fund will support undergraduates from the Washington, DC, New Orleans and Austin areas starting in 2001.
"Education is permanent," Webber said when asked his reasons for choosing scholarships. "You teach somebody to do something and it's a lifetime gift."
"Neil is a highly talented entrepreneur who is putting his energy and creativity not only into his business but into other things he believes in," said President Charles M. Vest. "At MIT, financial aid enables every student who is admitted to attend regardless of his or her financial situation. It is gifts like Neil's that will enable this great tradition to continue in the future. We are proud of Neil and of his accomplishments and very grateful for his generosity. Quite a few young MIT graduates like Neil are contributing to the exciting high-technology industries in Austin, and we are pleased that he has recognized MIT through this wonderful donation."
"It's really the idea of helping people who aren't as fortunate as we are to be able to get the education they need to do something great," said Mr. Webber. The geographical references stipulated in the scholarship fund correspond to the childhood hometowns (Washington and New Orleans, respectively) and current home (Austin) of Mr. Webber and his wife Noelie (SB 1983).
Mr. Webber hopes his donation to MIT will influence others to follow suit. "I think it's just a question of encouraging people," he said. "To the degree that this donation inspires other folks to do the same, that's great. It's another way of leveraging the resources."
The Webbers share more than a strong belief in the value of an MIT experience. "Education's been very, very important to us," he said. "We just started thinking about what were some of the other ways that we could benefit people along those lines." This mutual interest in general educational issues has also led them to establish the Austin-based Webber Family Foundation, which focuses on education-related initiatives.
In 1995, Mr. Webber founded Vignette Corp., a supplier of e-business applications that went public in February 1999. He left his position as Vignette's chief technology officer in January, though he is still a consultant with the company. He also serves as master entrepreneur at Austin-based AV Labs, a venture capital firm that invests in Internet-based companies and guides them through startup and subsequent financing processes, and he also advises several other startup companies.
Though he conceded that helping start a new company was risky, Mr. Webber noted that the thoughtful evaluation of risk is commonplace at MIT and pervades its culture. "To my mind," he continues, "the real risk was the opportunity cost of not trying it." Even though there was no formal entrepreneurship program at MIT when he was here, he still believes the Institute helped set the stage for his entrepreneurial ventures. "The ability to balance the theoretical with the practical is really a very, very valuable skill set. And you get that from an MIT education," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 2000.