UNC Hussman innovation stories: Students enjoy ‘surreal’ remote visit from Zoom CEO Eric Yuan

A spotlight on the ways UNC Hussman students, faculty and staff are innovating to connect our community online and continue education remotely.

Talking remote work with Zoom CEO Eric Yuan

As the UNC Hussman community continues to navigate remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students in faculty member Gary Kayye’s “The Branding of Me” class got to hear from the leader of a company that’s now central to their working lives: Zoom Founder and CEO Eric Yuan.

Yuan, a friend of Kayye’s, joined the remote class via — what else — Zoom on March 26 to discuss his path to success and how the company is navigating unprecedented demand. Yuan spent over 40 minutes answering questions, offering advice and encouraging students who have spent the past few weeks navigating a new, and more remote, world.

“As someone who almost exclusively listens to podcasts and watches documentaries centered on entrepreneurship, it was surreal getting the opportunity to speak with Eric Yuan of Zoom (on Zoom!) and learn from his experiences,” Amari Dawn Pollard ’21 (M.A.) said. “It was a bright spot in my week — one I really, really needed.”

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Zoom, a video communications company, has seen unprecedented use in the United States and across the world, Yuan said, as institutions, including UNC-Chapel Hill, have had to transition to remote work and education while social distancing, quarantine and self-isolation orders take hold. At UNC this Wednesday, for example, over 45,000 participants used Zoom in a single day, holding over 3,000 meetings and webinars.

Yuan, who appeared with an on-brand Old Well photo as his background (and revealed that background flexibility was one of his favorite Zoom features), told the students that his career was built around one goal: the pursuit of happiness. When he was their age, Yuan struggled to find his purpose. But that changed when he hit on a new professional and the personal motto: sustainable happiness comes from making others happy. “I wish someone told me that when I was in college,” Yuan said. He told the class that he built Zoom on that principle, emphasizing customer care and internal culture.

“Considering how much anxiety my students are feeling, I knew that Eric’s presence would be calming,” Kayye said. “Think about it, there’s probably no company in the world with more pressure on it right now to keep us all connected than Zoom, and if they saw its own CEO as his happy self, they’d feel hopeful.”

Many of the “Branding of Me” students, who have spent the semester learning about the importance of digital branding and marketing, drilled down with informed questions about the importance of corporate culture and branding. Martha Bennett ’20 asked Yuan how he managed both external and internal expectations during Zoom’s time in the spotlight. Yuan admitted that the pressure sometimes kept him up at night and revealed that Zoom had a war room to handle the current usage where “it can get challenging.” “But my number one priority is to make sure employees are happy,” he told Bennett. He said that even under intense pressure, the company and its customers would flourish if employees were happy because they would give all they could. He advised seniors to take a close look at internal company cultures as they embarked on their careers. And he told Jordan de Mourais ’20 that companies need to not only have a corporate culture, but write about it and “think about it every day.”

Yuan also gave the class an insight into his own hiring process after a question from Ann Rogers ’20. He revealed that managers at Zoom don’t focus on applicants’ corporate backgrounds, but rather on two traits: self-learning and self-motivation. “Everything else is secondary,” he said.

As the students, like many Americans, face a long stretch of working from home, Yuan advised them that it could get challenging. The way through, he said, was community and connection. Yuan outlined a number of new measures at Zoom including virtual happy hours, all-hands meetings, regular video messages from company leaders and community service initiatives. That led Emma Shell ’20 to ask about corporate social responsibility, which Yuan said was key at a time like this, noting that Zoom’s core value was “care.” “The moment you don't think about others, everything will collapse,” he noted.

UNC Hussman Dean Susan King, who joined the class via Zoom, also emphasized the importance of connection. “Nothing can replace the classroom, but we are a community at UNC Hussman, and it’s key that faculty and students stay connected during this time,” King said. “It is so valuable for students to hear from the founder of a company that is helping us build that community remotely.”

“In all my classes, I heavily integrate technology so my students will embrace it, naturally, in their professional lives,” Kayye added. “Digital collaboration and virtual meetings will be mainstream in less than five years so I want them using Zoom now as seamlessly as they use Instagram!”

And Yuan left the class with a message of hope for their future despite the stressful time. Cecilia Fang ’21 asked how Yuan faced adversity and found the strength to carry on after setbacks. Yuan responded that though things may seem out of the students’ control, they could still shape their futures. “As long as you work hard and stay humble, America recognizes your hard work,” he said. “If you keep working hard, I think something good will always follow.”

For more behind-the-scenes details from Yuan's talk, head to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram.   Stay tuned for more UNC Hussman innovation stories as our community adapts to this unprecedented time.