Brent Dance explains how his Russian major led him to a career as global director of Google.
“Hey Google, do humanities majors have a place in Big Tech?”
Yes. In fact, Global Director of Google Brent Dance was hired because he majored in Russian. Dance recently presented on how his study of Russian changed his life both personally and professionally with his Honored Alumni Lecture, “How Learning Russian Changed My Life.” Prior to Dance’s work at Google, he started several companies including Fresh, Kartis, and Yearn. The January 19 Honored Alumni Lecture highlighted Dance’s journey to becoming more optimistic, thinking more critically, and loving more authentically through learning Russian.
Be More Optimistic
Even when life throws its toughest challenges at him, Dance claims his missionary service in Russia helped him see the bright side. For a large part of his mission, he served as a missionary in Kolyma, a place that previously housed one of Stalin’s work camps and where natives joke that, “the first twelve months are winter, but the rest of the year is summer.” Despite a dark history and climate, the Kolyma people helped him find light and optimism in his own life.
One particularly inspiring older woman lived “over the river and through the woods” in a wooden shack with little insulation and few material possessions. Dance remembered that every time he asked her how she was doing, she would respond, “I am well,” despite her dire circumstances. On one visit, the woman asked the missionaries if they brought any gospel literature for her to read. When they responded that they had a Liahona for her, she said, “Listen, I have nothing as far as the world is concerned, but I have everything to maintain hope.” Although the woman did not have much by worldly standards, she understood how blessed she was to have the gospel in her life. Her warmth and optimism inspired Dance to see the blessings in his life.
When Dance came back to BYU, he decided to study Russian and get involved with the BYU Slavic Club. He quickly noticed that the club did not have many opportunities to find the light and optimism he found on his mission. To remedy this, Dance began planning service activities. For one event, the club packed the Wilkinson Student Center Ballroom with performers from the folk dance team, a cappella groups, and vocal and instrument performers. Tickets sold out quickly, and all the proceeds were donated to children in Russian orphanages. The event’s massive success helped other club members see the value in service and providing hope and optimism for others. Eventually, this event also led Dance to start Yearn, a business dedicated to helping Russian orphans gain marketable skills to give them the best chance at having a successful and optimistic future.
Think More Critically
For Dance, exposure to a new language and culture also inspired a new way of thinking critically. The differences between American and Russian culture helped Dance understand how Eastern European countries work and how he could best interact with them in business ventures. When Dance started another company, Kartis, he realized his undergraduate and graduate study of Russian was crucial to his success because he had been taught to think more critically and speak more honestly. At Kartis, Dance worked with global experts in the nonprofit sector. They were trying to figure out how to connect people interested in volunteering with organizations in need. His honesty and critical thinking, particularly within the Russian sphere, helped him connect better with clients, understand cultures, and provide useful solutions, such as the first social impact graph powered by a map. This solution helped several nonprofits find the help they needed from nearby, willing volunteers.
When Dance was interviewing for Google, his study of Russian put him at the top of the candidate list. At the time, Google needed someone to move to Ireland to open the European headquarters and explore new markets in Slavic-speaking countries. His fluency in the Russian language qualified him for the position, but his study made him the perfect fit since it allowed him to think critically while solving pressing global issues for Google. “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see, talk about, name, realize,” he said. But for Dance, learning Russian helped him take risks and explore new ideas when dealing with these realities, leading to huge success.
Love More Authentically
Learning a new language also means learning to love a new group of people. Quoting Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Dance said, “To love someone means to see them as God intended them.” In college, Dance used the quote as the Slavic Club’s slogan during their campaign to raise money for Russian orphanages, and it has inspired him to love more authentically ever since.
More recently, Dance’s love inspired him to action when the Ukrainian-Russian conflict escalated in February 2022; Dance and his Google team halted some of their important work to focus on moving their Russian and Ukrainian employees to safety. To help those in unsafe situations, they rolled out air raid alerts for Android phones on Google and got involved with NGOs helping those affected by the conflict. “It’s an act of faith to declare that the world is good because the evidence is ambivalent. If I’m going to act as if it is good, what would my actions be?” Dance said. His personal experiences learning to love the Russian people and culture motivated him to find ways to do the same in his professional life.
The evidence is overwhelming: learning a language opens windows to personal growth and opportunities for international service. To learn more about the languages at BYU and opportunities for service, check out the Center for Language Studies website.