GTU Alum of the Year Interview | Dr. David Batstone (PhD, 1989)
Dr. David Batstone is an author, activist, entrepreneur, and academic. He is the Professor Emeritus of the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. Prior to his emeritus appointment at the School of Management, Dr. Batstone served as Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at USF and, prior to that, Professor of Ethics in the Theology and Religious Studies Department. He graduated with his PhD from the GTU in 1989.
GTU: Congratulations on being named the 2022 GTU Alum of the year! What does this honor mean to you at this time, amidst all that is unfolding in our nation and world, as well as in your own career?
DB: When I was doing my PhD at the Graduate Theological Union, the thing that I learned was how to apply the tools of how we write, how we understand history and the future. I use all of that every day!
People may ask, “How do you use a PhD in theology to build a battery company?” Or, “...to save Silicon Valley tech companies?" But I found it extremely useful. If your goal is to change the world, you need a big philosophy, a big vision, that you often don’t get if you’re just locked into the day-to-day mechanics of building a company.
I don’t know if every theological school in the country would choose someone like me to be their alum of the year. They might choose someone who is a leading theologian, or who is much more within the sector of religion. The fact that even moving beyond academia, or even beyond my Not for Sale work of fighting trafficking, this is the recognition that it’s also the things I’m doing in the business world that is making an impact consistent with the value and ethos of the Graduate Theological Union.
GTU: Liberation and transformation are core themes in your work. What spurred your interest in these areas?
DB: I say I’m the only Liberation Theologian in America who is a venture capitalist. I started to work in human rights in Latin America. I kind of followed my heart and followed my passion, and so I started working in human rights even before I started at the Graduate Theological Union.
There was a transformation happening in Latin America among the poor communities. They called it Liberation Theology, but it really was looking at the authorities—like the Bible and the Church—that for years had told them their place in the world was to be poor, and that was God’s will. Suddenly they started to read the Scriptures and the Church and the priests started encouraging them that God really wanted their liberation, their empowerment, and their freedom. It was really a powerful thing!
What was really fascinating that happened at that time is that I had set up a human rights organization to live with people who received death threats from military governments. Some of my GTU colleagues went down with me and we would live with people who the military had targeted for assassination. It was an incredible time! We said, “If you kill a Honduran, a Guatemala, an El Salvadorian, you’re also going to kill a US citizen.” It was a way of leveraging the value of a human life. We were non-armed bodyguards, as it were.
What happened is that we got signaled, I was targeted along with some of my colleagues, and they wouldn’t let us in the country for being “subversive.” So, we started an economic development agency as a cover for our human rights. We started doing “financial investing,” and I pretended to be an investor, and some of my theological friends pretended to be agronomists. What happened is we became what we pretended to be. I ended up being very good at investing money and figuring out how to employ it in the most useful ways to bring about a bigger return. That’s how I became a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. That’s where my business career started.
Liberation Theology was spoken by a Peruvian theologian who is one of the founders of that movement, Gustavo Gutierrez. He said all theology is best done at sundown [not a direct quote]. It was at that stage that I started thinking about, I was so embedded and engaged in this activity in Latin America. I said, “You know I grew up as a person of faith, I grew up in the Church. But this is really making me think differently about my faith, and how I think about theology.” And what I learned is,
When you move your feet, that is you shift your ground, now you have new questions that you ask of your philosophy about life, about the way you read the Scripture. You’re asking new questions. And new things come back because you never asked those questions before.
To do a PhD at the GTU, I was looking for answers to questions I had never asked before.
The other people who were very influential on me at that time were a GTU Professor by the name of Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) [American Presbyterian minister, theologian, and activist, who taught at Stanford, Union Theological Seminary, and the Pacific School of Religion]. He was at PSR, and he was more of a North American interpreter of what was happening in Latin America, and he became my professor and one of my advisors.
Then there’s Juan Luis Segundo, SJ (1925–1996), who was of course Latin American, from Uruguay [a Jesuit priest and theologian and a leading figure in the Latin American Liberation Theology movement]. Those are the ones who really shaped me.
One more: Jon Sobrino, SJ, from El Salvador, whose Jesuit colleagues were all killed. I knew all those Jesuits. I had met them before they died in El Salvador. They had all had an impact on me.
GTU: What would you like to share about your work at the GTU? What were you working on at the time? Any favorite memories from your time at the GTU?
DB: What I really appreciated about the GTU is that they gave me the space to do my work in South America. I would go down and do my work in El Salvador, where I’d be doing human rights work, I’d come back up and meet with my professors, I’d go back down. I was back and forth all the time. Instead of saying, “Wait, why aren’t you here in school?” They would say, “We love that your field of study is what you’re exploring every day.”
I found great professors [at the GTU] in different areas: biblical studies, theological studies, and ethics, who helped give me the tools to start to put together how to think not ideologically but how to think critically. The thing I loved about the GTU is that the only pressure was to challenge your thinking, so that you’re always in a mode of learning forward, learning forward, learning forward.
Still today I say that in my companies: “If we’re not getting smarter every week then there is something wrong. Are we smarter this week?”
GTU: In what ways did your studies at the GTU prepare you for the broad-sweeping work you have done since leaving the GTU—from writing seven books (including Not for Sale (HarperOne, 2010)) and teaching (The University of San Francisco) to founding a non-profit aimed at turning a spotlight on and ending modern-day slavery across the globe (Not for Sale Campaign), creating an alternative approach to venture capitalism (Just Business) and co-founding four socially responsible and sustainable companies: Regenerate Technology (battery recycling), Dignitá restaurants, REBBL beverages and Z Shoes (sustainable fashion)? Are there any specific influences on your work that you would like to recognize?
DB: Even today, I’m very involved in the de-carbonization of transport. That is, how do we get away from petroleum-based fuels? How do we bring in hydrogen as a replacement and also electric vehicles? A lot of my work in investing is in that area today. If you look at climate change as an enormous problem that we feel the practical effects of, it’s almost a dark cloud over the psyche of so many people—including young people. In one way, we used to say, “Well I don’t know enough to do something about it.” Now it’s like, “I know too much to do something about it.”
At a very philosophical level, the GTU encourages you to shape big dreams, in a way, to create redemption narratives that were grounded in day-to-day reality. I think what we lack today are redemption narratives. What I hear every day from people is, “My God, you’re the most hopeful person I know!”
And I say, “Well it’s not that I’m in denial of the challenge. But I also know that following the redemption narrative allows us to find meaning even in those failures or setbacks.”
So I’m really glad I studied philosophy and theology at the GTU. Reality always presents itself as the ultimate truth. To be able to understand that ultimate truth are the narratives we create out of reality is a very powerful force. That is number one.
I grew up with a narrow view of, say, the Bible. Then, at the GTU, I would go into my classes with William Herzog on Biblical Studies, and he would say, “Well let’s look at the text and see what they’re saying. Not what I’m saying or what you’re saying. Let’s look at what they’re saying.”
It taught me what I would call proactive humility. Be very proactive in your learning, but always know you’re probably wrong as much as you’re right. That comes from the intellectual rigor that came out of my training at the GTU. The faculty I had and the classes I took led me to that kind of ethos.
GTU: Can you name some of the breadth of the work you’ve been involved in since leaving the GTU? Where do you see the most resonance with the GTU’s mission and values and the work you’ve done?
DB: An outgrowth of my education was the integration of learning. Social analysis, economic analysis was weaved in many of my classes with theological reflection and biblical interpretation. It was the application of social sciences, economics, and theological and philosophical traditions. That was true of the whole of my PhD studies. For me, it’s all one thread.
I will admit, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, they felt almost different channels. The work I was doing in Silicon Valley didn’t relate to the work I did in academia which didn’t relate to my human rights work. But what happened in say the last 25 to 30 years is that I started to weave them all together. My teaching and my students would be involved in the work I was doing with human rights or business. And all my businesses I incorporate into my teaching. Now I see them all as integrated. It took me a while to be able to understand, to put them all together.
All truth is God’s truth, not just the truth that comes out of [Jurgen] Moltmann or [Rudolf] Bultmann or something, but all truth is God’s truth. How do you think theologically about the future of green economy? How do you think theologically about the fact that the world is in crisis? It is bringing multi-faceted analyses to every subject.
GTU: As the GTU prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, we are inviting GTU Community members to begin imagining what a brighter future 60 years from now might look like. What does that future look like to you? How would you like the GTU to be contributing to that brighter future?
DB: No matter what age we live in, we need people who can think of the bigger picture. They have a basis of transcendence from which to make critical decisions. The GTU raises up scholars within the academy and leaders within religious contexts. But it is also one of the few places that can raise up leaders for society. Those heads of corporations, heads of government should be thinking philosophically and theologically as much as they’re thinking about scientific or political solutions. It shapes how we embrace the future, and who gets included and who gets left out. What becomes important and what is de-prioritized. That’s where I value my education.
I hope that the GTU for the next 60 years is still training those leaders who are driving our future and not just trying to make sense of what our presence is, but driving a better future, embracing hope, and having a clear sense of what’s most important.