Who’s Most Successful among MIT Alumni?

by Jay London on February 4, 2015 · 96 comments

in Alumni Life, In the News, Media

Ben Bernanke MIT Business Insider Most Successful?

Ben Bernanke PhD ’79 spoke at MIT’s 2006 Commencement ceremony.

Determining one’s level of success is entirely subjective. And determining the most successful MIT alumni seems impossible.

But, according to the news site Business Insider, 21 MITers stand out in a field of more than 130,000 alumni. The site’s list, which was released last week, includes architects, CEOs, and scientists but gives no defined method for determining success.

While it’s an impressive list, we’ll let you decide if the ranking truly constitutes MIT’s most successful. (“Most well-known” may be a better descriptor.)

The 21-person list, which actually features 22 alumni, list is below. Click on each name to jump to Business Insider for more info.

Let us know your take—and which other alumni merit mention—in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

21. Lorenzo Mendoza SM ’93, CEO, Empresas Polar
20. I.M. Pei ’40, architect
19. Drew Houston ’05 and Arash Ferdowsi ’08, founders, Dropbox
18. William Hewlett SM ’36, co-founder, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Company
17. Jonah Peretti SM ’01, founder, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post
16. Brian Halligan MBA ’05, CEO and co-founder, HubSpot
15. John W. Thompson SM ’83, chair, Microsoft
14. William Porter SM ’67, founder, E-Trade
13. Robin Chase SM ’86, co-founder, Zipcar
12. Ivan Getting ’33, engineer, co-credited with development of GPS
11. Shirley Ann Jackson ’68, PhD ’73, president, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
10. James Woods ’69, actor
9. John Potter SM ’95, former United States Postmaster General
8. Benjamin Netanyahu ’75, SM ‘76, prime minister, Israel
7. Amar Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56, founder, Bose Corporation
6. Andrea Wong ’88, president of international, Sony Pictures Entertainment
5. John Thain ’77, chair and CEO, CIT Group
4. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin ScD ’63, astronaut
3. Salman Khan ’98, MEng ’98, founder Khan Academy
2. Kofi Annan SM ’72, former secretary-general, United Nations
1. Ben Bernanke PhD ’79, former chair, Federal Reserve

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Kåre Olaussen February 14, 2015 at 8:54 pm

This is the most unimpressive list I have ever seen!!

Even among MIT Nobel Prize winners (I don’t see (m)any of those on the list), there is only one who stands out:

Richard P. Feynmann

Mankinds understanding of nature was profoundly changed by his works, in my opinion more than any other scientist in the 20’th century (including Einstein). It is a great great insult to MIT to leave him out, compared to all of 21 unimpressive, soon-to-be-forgotten people on the list.

Bernanke??? OMG!!!!

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Marshall Byer, 1945 February 14, 2015 at 8:57 pm

What ever happend to Alfred Sloan, 1895, or any other 19th century graduate? The list is obviously skewed to people in recent memory.

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Ed Richardson February 14, 2015 at 11:14 pm

How can you include actor James Woods & exclude Tom & Ray Magliozzi (Car Talk radio show)

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Joe February 14, 2015 at 11:19 pm

If you didn’t earn an undergraduate degree, you aren’t a true alumni. I despise all the MBAs and Sloan School grads posing as MIT alumni. Same for those with non-technical degrees. A MIT degree in history is the equivalent of an engineering degree from Julliard.
While we’re at it, their definition of success is very WASPy. People who devote their lives to helping others aren’t successful, but those who trample their colleagues to grasp the highest rungs of wealth and power are?
For my money, Michael Aponte is the most successful MIT alumnus I ever met.

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harold wilensky February 15, 2015 at 2:29 pm

What about engineering, math, physics, etc MIT PhDs/ScDs who were not recipients of MIT undergraduate degrees?

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John Redding February 15, 2015 at 6:38 pm

I did an SM in EE/CS on the heels of a Canadian B.S.(Eng). By your definition I am not an MIT alum.
I have an MIT alum email address (so MIT disagrees) and I suppose they are the final word on who they deem an alum.
Maybe you should petition MIT to institute another type of address at the “Tute …
“@truealum.edu”
An online dictionary’s definition is: alumnus n. 1640s, from Latin alumnus “a pupil,” literally “foster son,” vestigial present passive participle of alere “to nourish” (see old ), with ending akin to Greek -omenos. Plural is alumni. Fem. is alumna (1882), fem. plural alumnae.
Thank goodness they all disagree with you.
You caused cold shivers to run up my back as I imagined I had to throw my Brass Rat in the trash. It cost a lot of money, a lot of “mainly thesis associated” sleepless nights, a very sucky social life, etc etc to merit wearing it. And I will continue to do so.

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Reid Sheftall MD February 15, 2015 at 10:58 pm

I agree Joe. The undergrads are the elite at MIT. And of those, the physics, math, and ”JOY OF SIX” majors are the cream of the crop.

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John Winner, ScD February 16, 2015 at 2:21 pm

Funny how you didn’t post your full name with a comment like that. Well over half of MIT alums are grad students these days, Joe Loser. Also, grammar and Latin clearly don’t count in your version of MIT engineering education. It should be “…you aren’t a true alumnus.” And while we’re at it, let’s bring race into it! The non-WASP/minority representation in that list is way out of proportion to actual alumni stats (not that I agree with the list, either).

Your name is clearly: Joe Loser, BSc.

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John February 19, 2015 at 6:28 pm

Joe,

I agree there is an authenticity gap between the college and the university, especially at schools that prioritize undergraduate education, like Princeton or Dartmouth. Certainly some at Harvard feel that way too and a degree from “the college” carries implications of privilege, class and access that isn’t available to all those grad school strivers.

That isn’t the ethos of MIT however. And even if it were, 60% of the enrollment are grad students. The economics department, whatever your views on the subject’s difficulty, is the envy of the world, with only Chicago having more laureates. I also just saw that 6 of 30 on the Forbes 30 under 30 list are sloan grads.

You should reconsider your views. Perceptions drive reality, and we should work together to advance the perceptions needed to put more MIT people in control of more important institutions.

John

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Miles Fidelman February 21, 2015 at 5:33 pm

So let’s see:
Ray Kurzweil – Course 21 (in Music, if memory serves) – Kurzweil Reading Machine, a bunch of other things
David Boucher – Course 24 (Linguistics & Philosophy) – Kurzweil co-founder, then founded Interleaf
to cite just two counter-examples

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Tim Chambers 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0 February 24, 2015 at 3:04 am

Joe gives undergrads a bad rep for being such a snob. As a mere undergrad I greatly value non-undergrad masters and doctors, especially non-undergrad professors. And three cheers for President Reid for being made an honorary member of the MITAA [1]. Take that, Joe! 😛

[1]http://www.technologyreview.com/article/530111/president-reif-awarded-honorary-membership-at-tech-reunions/

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Afarin March 6, 2015 at 11:10 am

MIT has MORE graduate student than undergrad. Most of its world class research work in engineering, science, economics and management is conducted by graduate students. Its reputation is based on this work and not that of undergrads (who although bright are not yet up to the par). Calling them not MIT grad is short sighted and not very worthy of an MIT grad. Please think before insulting more than half of our grads;

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Hajime Sano February 15, 2015 at 2:48 am

I think prominent may be a better description of listed alums rather than successful.

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Ken Sills February 15, 2015 at 4:57 pm

Bob Metcalfe, (MIT ’69) the inventor of Ethernet isn’t in the ranking??

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John K. Stenard '80, SM '88 February 15, 2015 at 5:54 pm

These are all great comments, but we are not going to win playing someone else’s game. The “List” is explicitly based on “famousness” or just “name recognition” (and implicitly, name recognition, as perceived in today’s pop culture) rather than any of the many other attributes which may be correlated to “success”.
On one hand, name recognition is as good a metric as any other, and better than some. Having famous alumni certainly burnishes an institution’s reputation. On the other hand, focusing on name recognition is not playing to our strongest suit. As noted, numerous other MIT alums are obviously highly “successful” (in every way but name recognition), and yet they will never make a list *of this type*. Case in point is that Technology Review magazine has for several years published the “Top 35 under 35” technology innovators, as well as the “TR10” list of the emerging, impactful technologies, and most people have no awareness, let alone memory of them.
I suggest we (1) accept this list graciously, since it is good to have famous alums, (2) graciously acknowledge the contributions of the alums on the List, since seriously, some of them have jobs that are not only hard, but exceptionally hard (would you like to try being Prime Minister of Israel?), and (3) work to promote a more tech-driven list, such as the TR10 or TR35, and let alums from other schools try to compete on our playing field. It’s not a competition anyway. Best regards, John

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Reid Sheftall MD February 15, 2015 at 8:11 pm

Correct Kare and Marshall. Feynman and Sloane were major omissions.

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Frank Sheeman February 15, 2015 at 8:33 pm

The list needs a lot of improvement. I would insert Tom Perkins (founder of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield and Byers early Silicon Valley venture capital firm, founding chairman and funder for Tandem Computers and Genentech, and much more) ahead of at least half the list.

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Herb Lin February 15, 2015 at 10:18 pm

“If you didn’t earn an undergraduate degree, you aren’t a true alumni. I despise all the MBAs and Sloan School grads posing as MIT alumni. Same for those with non-technical degrees. A MIT degree in history is the equivalent of an engineering degree from Julliard.”

What drivel!! An MIT degree in the humanities is probably the best all-around liberal arts education someone could have.

But I agree with other commentators that the list is quite unimpressive.

73 SB, 79 ScD

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Mark Coggin February 16, 2015 at 12:22 am

I think that not listing Ken Olsen is a major oversight. I would also consider Ray Stata and Alex d’Arbeloff as worthy of inclusion on such a list.

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Robert February 16, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Charles and David Koch (the Koch brothers) Co-owners of the largest private company in the US. philanthropists and avid supporters of liberty.

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Robert February 16, 2015 at 12:56 pm

Can’t forget Doc Draper.

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Reid Sheftall MD February 17, 2015 at 10:45 am

Yes Robert. Great choice! Also their father who started Koch Industries…

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Eduardo Testart February 16, 2015 at 2:43 pm

I don´t think to be an nundergraduate as requisite to be in the listing of known, recognized or watever people. One of the nice things learned at MIT, among many other was the fact that I decide to take an exam on some courses “required” for my studies because my level in physics was superior to the required level for my MSc degree and after “passing” the I decided to pass more courses… so my advisor ask me why? I thougt it was possible this way to shorten my studies, therefore, my advisor told me: No body no matter how smart is nor how many courses have taken, to earn a degree at MIT you must spend at least ONE year of studies, on campuss because yo need not only knowledge, yo have to get the spirit.

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Will Siegfried February 16, 2015 at 4:46 pm

Benjamin Netanyahu might be better described as least successful, since he has managed to involve his country in almost continuous war. The Magliozzis have probably brought more happiness to more people than anyone else (but we should divide by two, eh?).

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Gary February 16, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Philip Terry Ragon, owner of ImterSystems headquartered at 1 Memorial Drive in Cambridge, made Forbes 400 list of billionaires last year. He is class of ’72. I call that pretty successful.
Congratulations Terry!

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Gary February 16, 2015 at 4:57 pm

That is InterSystems, ipad typo.

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Liz Fisher February 16, 2015 at 8:52 pm

I agree that the term prominent or infamous would be a better term. From whose perspective are you evaluating? For example, Netanyahu’s accomplishments are somewhat dubious — akin to Hitler’s “success” — but would Hitler make the list if he’d gone to MIT?

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Mike Dornbrook February 17, 2015 at 12:13 am

Some suggestions:
Doc Edgerton – strobe, EG&G, and most importantly for his teaching and inspiration
Charles Stark Draper – inertial guidance
Vannever Bush – first presidential science advisor, initiator of the Manhattan Project, initiator of the National Science Foundation, founder of Raytheon, …

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Jon Dennis February 17, 2015 at 3:51 am

Very bad choice for number one. Bernanke could have been the one to address the lack of regulation and vast imbalances that led to the 2008/2009 Global Financial Crisis, instead he chose to propagate them. We need another 10 years to pass before we can properly evaluate what Bernanke did for the Global Economy.

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William Griffith February 17, 2015 at 9:32 am

There is too little emphasis on scientific achievement.

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Don Morrison February 22, 2015 at 4:06 pm

How can you not include Richard P Feynman, SB ’39?

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harold wilensky February 23, 2015 at 1:05 pm

What about an MIT Professor without an MIT degree?

Paul Anthony Samuelson

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Tim Chambers 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0 March 8, 2015 at 10:41 pm

They’re not alums, but they’re valued members of the community. Note that President Reif is an honorary member of the MITAA. [1]

[1] http://www.technologyreview.com/article/530111/president-reif-awarded-honorary-membership-at-tech-reunions/

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José María Larrauri Ucelay March 12, 2015 at 4:42 pm

In my opinion, the list should include Professor Moshe Ben-Akiva, for the application of original economic concepts, mathematical models, and digital technologies, to state-of-the-art transportation engineering.

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Paul Ackman March 21, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Was the list biased in favor living alums and recently departed?
In addition to those alums mentioned above who were omitted from the original list, mad props to Jimmy Doolittle, Pierre S du Pont, Andrew Viterbi, and Margaret L. A. MacVicar. Where did you find all these haters who commented? Graduate degrees are alums, too. I got my MS from University of Southern California, and they would never diss me the way you haters diss our Sloan grads and other grad school alums.

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G.A.M.(Tony) Butterworth March 21, 2015 at 10:13 pm

I did not see Frank Press amongst the most successful MIT alumni.

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Sanford Asman April 21, 2015 at 8:22 am

Harold “Doc” Edgerton (S.M. ’27 and Sc.D. ’31) should definitely be on the list. He was an icon both at MIT, where his teaching spanned the gap from a freshman seminar and grad students, as well as being a founder of EG&G.

Paul E. Gray (S.B., S.M. and Sc.D.) for making many of those on the list possible.

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