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Corporate VP of education marketing, Microsoft
Tony Prophet Promotes the Transformative Value of Education
The corporate vice president of education marketing at Microsoft shares his own career lessons and explains how technology is transforming classrooms around the world.
by Jen Swetzoff
Even as a child, Tony Prophet was a quick learner and a fast adapter — skills that have served him well in the corporate world of consulting, aerospace, clean energy, and technology. Before Prophet turned 13, his father’s career in the U.S. Army took their family from Oklahoma to Germany, then to Ohio, back to Oklahoma, then to Illinois, then Michigan. They finally made a home in Lansing, Mich., and remained there throughout Prophet’s middle and high school years. Prophet did well academically and was recruited to the five-year co-op program at Kettering University (which was then known as the General Motors Institute) in Flint, Mich.; he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. After that, Prophet attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business under a General Motors fellowship.
“Business school is where I was first exposed to opportunities outside the industrial world — including consulting,” Prophet said.
In 1986, he started his career in the operations practice at Booz Allen Hamilton, based in San Francisco, and was named partner after six years. Just two years after that, in 1994, he was recruited to AlliedSignal and there led a startup subsidiary — later Honeywell Power Systems. The company was focused on unlocking the potential of aerospace technologies (such as fuel cells and small gas turbine engines) for electric and hybrid electric vehicles, as well as distributed clean power generation.
“Being a leader in the foundation of the clean energy movement was a career highlight for me,” Prophet said.
In 2001, he moved to United Technologies, ultimately leading worldwide operations for the Carrier Corporation business there. Later he tackled the senior operations role at Hewlett-Packard, where he re-architected the company’s supply chain and implemented a range of social and environmental initiatives that improved the lives of workers and the quality of the environment.
Today, Prophet is the corporate vice president of education marketing at Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., where he lives with his wife and children. He also serves on the board of directors for Gannett and volunteers with nonprofits to motivate low-income teens to obtain a college education. During a recent wide-ranging conversation with Strategy&, Prophet discussed the cross-sector value of operational expertise, why healthcare and education equity are good for business, and the importance of doing homework.
Tell me a bit about your work at Microsoft.
There are 1.4 billion students on the planet today, and education is a clear priority for Microsoft. Every day we focus on building immersive and inclusive learning experiences to “empower every student on the planet to achieve more.” We’ve got three amazing scale platforms in Office 365, Windows 10, and our Azure Cloud — and we’re using these platforms to enable teachers and empower students around the world.
That’s no small task. What’s the most fulfilling part of your work?
It’s very exciting for me to come in to work every day and know we are truly changing lives and impacting society in the most important ways. I’m thrilled by the opportunities I’ve had to meet with students and educators, and know that we are truly making a difference. I’m super proud of the work we do!
What’s the most critical impact you see technology having on education?
Technology is the great equalizer. It’s flattening the world. If a classroom has access to the Internet and affordable devices, the information available through distance learning can bring nearly the same education opportunities to students anywhere in the world, regardless of socioeconomics or geopolitics. It is absolutely closing divides and leveling the playing field.
But there must still be significant challenges on that front.
Absolutely. Across the world, I’d say the largest obstacle is access to the Internet. Second is ensuring that societies around the world honor the basic right of all children to a quality education. That’s still not happening in many places, particularly for young women. I firmly believe that both boys and girls in every country on the planet deserve a great education. Finally, the skills required to succeed are changing quickly. The “3 Rs” (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic) are no longer enough. Tomorrow’s career will require the “5 Cs” — creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and computational thinking. Those are the 21st-century skills.
What did you learn as a consultant that still resonates with you today?
Knowing how to collaborate and work in a team has been incredibly valuable for me. As I’ve gone to different companies throughout my career — tackling new subject matter and new roles — having the thought process, rigor, elasticity of thinking, and openness that I learned as a consultant has helped me adapt and ramp up in vastly different situations and with a great variety of people.
What was one of your career highlights at Booz Allen Hamilton?
I’m most proud of the team we built and relationships that have lasted more than a quarter century. The firm hired the most incredible people, and we had an all-star team — brilliant, dedicated, and diverse. In 1991, the work of our team was honored with the Professional Excellence Award. I’ve been so proud to watch colleagues’ careers flourish and see their broader impact over the years.
After eight years with Booz Allen Hamilton, why did you decide to move on?
About two years after I was named partner, I was presented with a high-impact strategy role at AlliedSignal. It was just a natural fit based on my interests, my skills, and the people I met. AlliedSignal was a client and had great market positions. I felt I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with the world-class leadership team there.
How did you transition from aerospace to technology?
Ultimately, the operations thread is what connected my career across four different industries — aerospace, power generation, air conditioning and refrigeration, and personal computers. Getting that deep, functional expertise at Booz Allen was a foundational experience that carried me through the next 30 years.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I’m proud of my work at Hewlett-Packard, where we re-architected the supply chain to improve the lives of our employees. Because things made in China were generally shipped by sea, most of the PC manufacturing industry was initially concentrated in coastal regions. Over time, that drove the industry to a migratory workforce, with workers traveling seasonally on trains between their families and our factories. It took a bold strategy to move the manufacturing of PCs for HP, or a significant part of it, into Western China where the workers were living. So many in the industry said it couldn’t be done, but that’s just what we did.
Rather than putting the people on trains, we put the PCs on the trains—working with the Chongqing government and the governments of Kazakhstan and Russia, and [the railway company] Deutsche Bahn — and together we created what’s now known as the “New” Silk Road. It’s a transcontinental railway that cut weeks of transit time off the previous trans-Siberian route. Today there are New Silk Road trains departing nearly every day from Chongqing, destined for Europe. This transformation of the industry was good for our workers, and it was good for business. It helped solve the tough issues we were facing like absenteeism, labor availability, and labor costs over the short and long terms.
Around the same time, we created the HER (Health Enables Returns) Program, which offered education and training programs for tens of thousands of young women from Mexico to China that focused on reproductive and other women’s health issues. Outside China, we worked hard to bring visibility to conflict minerals, particularly in Africa. We demanded to know where the minerals that went into our electronic devices came from and where the money was going. I’m very proud to have led and championed that effort.
How would the people closest to you describe you?
Intense, deeply curious, a champion of equity, and someone who tries to have fun along the way.
When and where are you happiest?
With my wife and children, exercising, and volunteering with young people — talking about the life-changing benefits of going to college.
Tell me more about your volunteer work.
For the past decade or so, my passion project has been trying to inspire and assist low-income teens to achieve a college education. I’ve worked a lot with two incredible organizations in California: College Track in the San Francisco Bay Area and Eastside College Preparatory School in Palo Alto.
When I speak with low-income high school students, I often say, “I am not much different from you.” I show them a picture of the humble home where we lived in rural Oklahoma. “Maybe it’s a little better, or maybe it’s a little worse than where you live, but I’m sure it’s not that much different. What did I do to get where I am today? I focused on education. That’s the secret for success: Do your homework. Turn it in on time. And if you don’t understand your homework, go see your teacher.” If kids just do those three things, our education system in the U.S. generally works. There are so many great examples, and I count myself as one. You can’t control where you start, but you alone can determine where you finish.
What motivated you as a young person?
I had great role models. My mother was a home economics teacher for decades and my father went back to school as an adult thanks to the GI Bill. Through hard work and perseverance at night school, he earned his bachelor’s and his master’s, and continued to a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. He became the superintendent of public education for Lansing, Michigan, and he later became the superintendent of public education for Portland, Oregon. I’m so proud of his accomplishments because it was far from an easy road.
Eighty years ago, my father was growing up in rural Mississippi — and for him, as a young African-American man, compulsory K–12 education didn’t exist. The core of his education included Civil War history and agriculture. His only economic opportunity was to skip school and work in the fields picking cotton. If he picked 100 pounds of cotton, he earned $1, and that was real money in the 1930s and 1940s. He was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean conflict, and it took him 20 years to get his degrees. He focused on education. He never gave up. He went on to serve others.
What’s next for you?
I love the work I’m doing at Microsoft. It’s a truly amazing era for the company. We are doing incredible things to empower people and companies. Gannett is a terrific company, and serving on the board is a remarkable experience, seeing daily the importance and power of the First Amendment. Finally, serving young people is my deep passion. It’s an area where I can have life-changing impact, sometimes simply by sharing my own story — or, even better, my father’s.
Effective August 2016, Tony Prophet has moved on from Microsoft and now serves as the Chief Equality Officer at Salesforce.
Jen Swetzoff is a freelance writer and editor. Previously, she worked with Strategy& as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.
Disclaimer: Please note that historical references to Booz & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton are found in this article/section since the alumni featured here left the firm prior to Strategy& joining the PwC global network of firms.