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Tristan Harris '98 | Personifying the “Pledge to Ourselves”

Maria Carrillo HS ‘02
Stanford University ‘06
Co-Founder and CEO, Apture     
Tristan Harris associates the school’s “Pledge to Ourselves” with his entrepreneurial zeal. “I remember that Headmaster Nix would end assemblies with the pledge,” the founder of the high tech start-up Apture says, “The phrase, ‘I promise to use this day to the fullest, realizing it can never come back again,’ is important to me. I believe that the more you perceive your life as limited, the better you’ll use it, and make sure to do something you love.
“I remember the teachers: the math teacher Mrs. Blake (now Gaab), science teacher Mrs. Lyons, English teacher Ms. Hirsch, and especially history teacher Mr. Cole and how he taught us about current events such as the Gulf War and the war in Bosnia by relaying the information like he was telling a story.”
Tristan also enjoyed his first experience as a member of a band when he played the piano in the eighth grade jazz band. In view of his professional passion for enhancing interactive learning, it’s interesting that he also recalls an early example of a computer-based learning lesson in band class. “Mr. Schlaeppi was using a software program which could call up songs with different instruments and interactively scrub through the music. I’d never seen a program like it before,” he says.
As a middle school and high school student, Tristan’s interest was computer programming; he was always tinkering with projects and things he wanted to design. Yet, it was not until he was a Stanford undergraduate that he saw his interest in programming was based on what it could do for the user.
“I was interested in the end result, making it as easy as possible for the user to maximize use of a program, not the technical challenge of creating the program,” he says. Following that lead, he enrolled in a master’s degree program in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at Stanford, only to leave the university shortly thereafter.
“I found that I wanted to apply what I was thinking to the real world, so I dropped out and started Apture,” he says. His company created an interactive in-page search technology that lets readers immediately find and browse the best content from across the Web without having to open multiple windows. The program can be downloaded by visiting www.apture.com.
Since the term dropping out is not encouraged for middle school students, it’s important to note that Tristan’s decision reflected the college’s environment!  “Stanford does an effective job of encouraging students to think creating a start-up is possible,” he says. “There’s a nascent message encouraging Stanford students to drop out and pursue a start-up.
“Start-ups recruit on campus, venture capitalists are welcome, and there are examples all around of people who have taken something from nothing in just a few years. It gives you a sense of what is possible, and that you are just as capable of doing the same thing.”
After three years, Tristan is transitioning Apture from start-up mode to a longer-term operating strategy. “We’ve had some big announcements recently and will raise some new capital for the first and second quarter of next year,” he says. Tristan has also earned some acclaim, including being Number 16 on the Inc. Magazine 2009 list of the coolest thirty entrepreneurs under thirty.
The Apture premise is maximizing learning by capturing readers at the very moment curiosity is triggered. “At that moment (literally a one-second opportunity) people are most open for furthering learning,” he says. While learning more about the behaviors associated with the concept fascinates him, he’s conscious of the constraints of time.
“I wouldn’t mind getting a PhD in behavioral sciences or philosophy, but the entrepreneur in me leans to a faster solution than attending a university,” he says. “For entrepreneurs, time is critical. I’m always trying to find loopholes, so I can learn it faster and apply it faster. If I can get the information in my head faster outside of college by being around some of the smartest people in the world, I’ll do it that way."

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The premier, fully accredited, independent TK-8 college preparatory school in Sonoma County. Located in northern Santa Rosa and proud home of The Jackson Theater, SCDS offers a challenging academic program rich in fine and performing arts, music, world languages, and social and emotional learning. For more than thirty years SCDS has been the school that brings learning to life.