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

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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.

Related: Tory minister criticises ‘weird and dumb’ Sunak boast about diverting funds from deprived areas – UK politics live

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

These included teachers on some of the school’s signature courses: Irv Grousbeck, an expert on entrepreneurship; Andy Rachleff, who holds classes on innovation; 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.

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.”

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