Launching the Next Generation

After German reunification, I was in Potsdam, in the former East, for the first time since my very early childhood at the end of World War II. Once a Prussian royal residence and military garrison, Potsdam since the days of the European Enlightenment has also stood for art and science. I was standing at Erich Mendelssohn's spectacular Einstein Tower with the governor of the newly created state of Brandenburg, whose capital Potsdam had just become. He pointed to some of the research facilities nearby. I realized that after 40 years of communism, this ancient landscape of learning was going to need a lot of care if it was to blossom again. Cut off from next-door Berlin by the wall, few areas had suffered more from Germany's long division than this bucolic countryside of rivers and lakes, where my father used to take me on his boat. My first thought was that this would be a perfect place for me to found a new university. I discovered that a young Potsdam University had just been founded, and I was ready to get involved.

And so, in 1998, I founded the Hasso Plattner Institute for Software Systems Engineering. It's associated with the state-funded Potsdam University but is financially independent. Its graduates (B.A.s and M.A.s in IT systems engineering) are getting snapped up by the industry. It's great fun for me getting personally involved in teaching and research. Why did I see this as my duty? I am grateful for the great education at a public university that Germany gave me, and that—added to a little luck— allowed me to achieve. Education is the key to a career, and its basis has to be provided by government. Where young people get a first-rate education, entrepreneurial companies like my own SAP can spring up and thrive. The role that private initiative can play in creating this kind of environment is something I saw firsthand in Silicon Valley—once not much more than a few fruit orchards before railroad entrepreneur Leland Stanford founded Stanford University with $20 million a century ago.

Stanford, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller—it impressed me how these American industrialists gave large parts of their fortunes for education and science. It impressed me even more because in their age, industry was less dependent on education as a resource than today's knowledge society. I made my money with software—encoded knowledge without which few products and services can exist today—and so it seemed imperative that this would be the field where I would give something back.

I believe that whoever is successful should help ensure that the next generation can be successful, too. For me as a philanthropist, the key is not just to invest money, but also to help with my knowledge and experience. Cash has to be fused with commitment. As a regular commuter between Germany and California, I wanted to repeat my commitment to Potsdam in Palo Alto. But Stanford told me right away that it wasn't money it lacked, but benefactors who get involved hands-on.

I liked this attitude, and so I decided to support Stanford's design school (now called the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), as well. After all my years in the industry, I've become convinced that many innovative ideas fail to be commercially successful because we haven't understood the role of design. Design isn't d?cor. At Stanford, we teach "design thinking"—that is, we put together small, interdisciplinary groups to figure out what the true needs are and then to apply the art of engineering to serve them. Only by combining design and technology will we create innovative products and services that can succeed.

At the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, we took the Stanford model and set up the School of Design Thinking, which opened its doors this fall. That is now coupled with the Potsdam-based Hasso Plattner Ventures, which supports students' and professors' information-technology start-ups with investment and advice. With all this I'm trying to do my part to help set off developments in science and business that will help future generations to be successful on their own account, and not live off past achievements. To get there, we will need more people with an excellent education, with the capacity, creativity and courage to build something new, in Germany and around the world.

Launching the Next Generation | Business