The Venture Alchemists:

How Big Tech Turned Profits Into Power

Image © Foster + Partners, ARUP, Kier + Wright, Apple

Rob Lalka

Professor of Practice, Albert R. Lepage Professor in Business
Exec. Dir., Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
A.B. Freeman School of Business, Tulane University

In conversation with:

Andy Rabens

Fmr. Director for Global Engagement and Multilateral Diplomacy
National Security Council

At Busboys & Poets, 450K St 

We once idolized tech entrepreneurs for creating innovations that seemed like modern miracles. Yet our faith has been shattered. We now blame them for spreading lies, breaking laws, and causing chaos. Yesterday’s Silicon Valley darlings have become today’s Big Tech villains. Which is it? Are they superheroes or scoundrels? Or is it more complicated, some blend of both?

In this conversation, Rob Lalka demystifies how tech entrepreneurs built empires that made trillions. Meta started as a cruel Halloween prank, Alphabet began as a master’s thesis that warned against corporate deception, and Palantir came from a campus controversy over hateful speech. These largely forgotten origin stories show how ordinary fears and youthful ambitions shaped their ventures—making each tech tale relatable, both wonderfully and tragically human. The discussion will cover adversities tech entrepreneurs overcame, the troubling tradeoffs they made, and the tremendous power they now wield. Using leaked documents and previously unpublished archival material, Lalka takes the audience inside Big Tech’s worst exploitations and abuses, alongside many good intentions and moral compromises.

Lalka shares his insights on a path toward more responsible innovations, so that technologies aren’t dangerous weapons but valuable tools that ensure progress, improve society, and enhance our daily lives.

Time will be allocated for Q&A.

Co-sponsored by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Tulane Clubs of Washington DC

This program is part of the ColumbiaDC CUP series.


"This masterfully researched book reveals the all-too-human origins of today's tech titans. Rob Lalka transports us to the dorm room debates, campus lab breakthroughs, and free speech controversies where iconic companies like Facebook, Google, PayPal, and Palantir first emerged. Lalka traces the ambitions, adversities, and compromises that transformed young innovators into billionaires; here, the companies are vivid characters, and the entrepreneurs are real people, flaws and all." Walter Isaacson, National Humanities Medalist and author of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs

Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing at the event.


Rob Lalka is Professor of Practice in Management, the Albert R. Lepage Professor in Business at Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business, and the Executive Director of the Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He has twice received the A.B. Freeman School’s Excellence in Intellectual Contributions Award and is the author of a forthcoming book, The Venture Alchemists: How Big Tech Turned Profits Into Power, from Columbia University Press, which has been the #1 new release in both Venture Capital and Business Ethics on Amazon.

Lalka moved to New Orleans from Washington, DC, where he was a director at Village Capital and a senior advisor at the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Prior, he served in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships and was on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, for which he was recognized with the State Department’s Superior Honor Award and its Meritorious Honor Award.

Lalka currently serves on the boards of Public Democracy, Inc., Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, and Venture For America in New Orleans. He graduated from Yale University, cum laude with distinction in both history and English, holds his master’s degree in public policy from Duke University, and earned executive education certificates from Harvard Business School.


Andy Rabens is the Special Advisor to the Vice President for International Economics and Global Partnerships, where he coordinates policy priorities at the intersection of international economics and national security, creates and implements public-private partnerships, assists with multilateral diplomacy efforts, and shapes engagement with key global audiences through public diplomacy.

He is the former Director for Global Engagement and Multilateral Diplomacy at the White House in the National Security Council. He also previously served as the Director for Global Economic Engagement at the White House in the National Economic Council. While in those roles, Andy helped lead U.S. Government engagement with and negotiations at the G7; the G20; and APEC – three key multilateral vehicles for engaging with allies, partners, and competitors to tackle pressing global challenges. He served as the U.S. Government’s G7 and G20 Acting Sous-Sherpa in 2021 and 2022 while also focusing on issues at the intersection of diplomacy, multilateral affairs, international economics, and global engagement. Andy is a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Department of State where he has worked in a variety of roles. He most recently served from 2014-2019 as the U.S. Department of State’s Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues where he led efforts to coordinate and amplify youth policy while representing the U.S. around the globe.

He also previously served at the U.S. Department of State in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and the Bureau of African Affairs in addition to details at a number of overseas U.S. Embassies/Consulates. Prior to joining the U.S. Department of State in 2008 as a Presidential Management Fellow, Andy worked for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein in Washington, DC and for the Rt. Honorable Ed Miliband in the UK Parliament. Andy graduated from Harvard University and holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

CUP Series: This is a new initiative between ColumbiaDC and Columbia University Press to showcase acclaimed and pioneering work by renowned academics, scholars, and researchers published by the Columbia University Press.

May 24, 2024 at 6:30pm - 8pm

Busboys and Poets

450 K St NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Miyako Yerick

Jeanine Turner

Will you come?

$10.00 All other guests #tickets at $10 each
$5.00 Tulane Club of DC members #tickets at $5 each
$5.00 Yale Club of DC members #tickets at $5 each
$5.00 Princeton Club of DC members #tickets at $5 each
$5.00 Harvard Club of DC members #tickets at $5 each
$5.00 ColumbiaDC members #tickets at $5 each