David Ko (Stern, ‘93) will tell you there were many experiences at NYU that shaped the person he is today—including talking his way into Stern after initially getting rejected and being inspired by his theater friends to audition for Miss Saigon. And while he admits to having been a little “lost” about his future as an undergraduate, he quickly found his professional footing, first as COO of the now publicly traded social gaming company Zynga (makers of Words with Friends and Farmville), and later as President and COO of Rally Health, a digital health company that was acquired by United Healthcare in 2017.
Ko now serves as co-founder and CEO of Ripple Health Group, which leverages technology to make it easier for people to connect with healthcare services and community support. Through it all, he’s maintained an active role with his alma mater, establishing the NYU Stern Venture Fellows program for aspiring entrepreneurs, serving as a member of the NYU Stern Executive Board and Stern Tech MBA Advisory Board, and most recently joining the NYU Board of Trustees. He shared with us what gets him up in the morning (dogs!), what Stern students have to learn from Tisch kids, and whether or not entrepreneurship can really be taught.
What led you to NYU?
Guts and perseverance. When I initially applied, I didn’t get in! So I played hooky from high school one day and I got on a bus, went into the city, found the admissions office, and sat there for a long time. Once the admissions person agreed to meet with me, I pitched him on why I should be accepted. He didn’t make any promises but said he would look at the file, and two months later, I got in.
You must have really wanted to come here.
Yes. I knew I wanted to be in the city and to start a career in finance, and I was drawn to the diversity of NYU. I made friends with really different types of people right away. Some of my closest friends were film and theater kids from Tisch. I acted in a few of their student films and they even talked me into trying out for a musical.
Those friendships were very foundational for me because, while the Stern students had a set of objectives around numbers, watching the Tisch students made me see what it really meant to put yourself out there, in the rawest, most exposed, genuine way. That takes a lot, and I took that away from my experience at NYU. It's stuck with me, even though I work in business.
How did the idea for your business come to you?
Ripple Health Group was inspired by my mother. I was visiting my parents in Korea and I was watching my mom care for her mother. I was amazed at what I saw. Here I was in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and my mother had to coordinate all my grandmother's care through paper. Piles of paper. I felt the weight of my mother's day-to-day caregiving duties just looking at that pile of paper. It was at that moment that I recognized how necessary it was to address and improve caregiving globally. We have an opportunity, and an obligation if you ask me, to help ease the burden of caregiving by using technology to help coordinate between family members and the elderly, in conjunction with local healthcare payers and providers.
You’ve been very active in promoting entrepreneurship at Stern. Do you believe it can be taught?
I think entrepreneurs can benefit from guidance. That’s what my wife and I hoped to provide when we started the Stern Venture Fellows. One of the hardest things about entrepreneurship is that there are always a lot of high profile examples of entrepreneurs who have been super successful, but there are others who haven’t been as successful who are just as smart. So much luck goes into it, and the percentages are so small. So I always like for the students to meet with those entrepreneurs, because it can take a few tries, and most often you’re going to be in that category. You have to learn from that.
I also think that there was this pressure to follow the Zuckerberg way, to drop out and have [Silicon] Valley venture capitalists mentor you. At Stern, we’ve worked on making sure the university is flexible so we can give students the best of both worlds, an amazing education and degree and the opportunity to create their own businesses and be part of a founding team.
“Watching the Tisch students made me see what it really meant to put yourself out there, in the rawest, most exposed, genuine way.”
– NYU Trustee David Ko
What sparked your interest in the healthcare field?
It came from [former Aetna CEO] Jack Rowe and a discussion we had about Zynga. He asked me how many people played online games each day. And at the time we were at roughly 100 million per day. He then said: just imagine what you could do for society if you had 100,000 people interacting with their health in a positive manner. That discussion in 2011 planted the seed for my journey into healthcare.
What is the biggest issue or need in healthcare today?
I think it's less around the issues or the problem, but what change do we want to see? For me, I think about what technology can do in healthcare to create meaningful change for the consumer. Because if we don't, society loses.
What gets you up in the morning?
Two young dogs needing to take care of their urgent business outside gets me up most mornings! Seriously though, I've become more and more a morning person. Coffee plus productivity makes me a happy person. I usually have early morning check-ins with my team who are located all over the country. The bonus is helping to get my kids off to school.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Maintaining work-life balance. Many people talk about it, but it's really hard in practice. Particularly amidst the pressures of a start-up. The ability to find time for your family and ensuring you create space for yourself is something I struggle with, but it’s as important as getting the company up and running.
With such a busy schedule, what made you decide to join the NYU Board of Trustees?
The members of the Board of Trustees at NYU are so passionate and distinguished, so I’m excited to work with them and learn from them. We all want to give back, and I’ve found that people give back in many different ways—some with time, some with money. For me it was always a blend, and when I saw the impact that giving made, it drew me closer and closer into the university and made me want to do even more.
What words do you live by?
I hope you have the grit to find your way and the courage to find your why.