An Interview with
Dr. Peter T. Keo
Chairman & CEO
Rapid Research Evaluation, LLC
Rapid Research Evaluation, LLC (RPDRE) is a US-based research and evaluation firm that exists to accelerate equity and opportunity in America. We achieve this by disrupting the Research & Evaluation industry which is often cost and time ineffective and inefficient. We employ the most rigorous research methods (advanced statistics, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, data science, qualitative methods) to optimize business value and human potential for our clients. Our primary areas of expertise are the ESG and social impact markets.
We work with educated consumers: CEOs, C-suite executives, senior leaders, and other decision-makers who understand the importance and value of responsibly using research, evidence, and data to continuously make informed decisions and to scale impact. We vehemently believe that data and evidence, when used responsibly, can accelerate growth and expand opportunities for clients and the communities they serve.
Our passion is to help high-performing leaders, companies, and organizations better utilize data and evidence to rapidly, affordably, and efficiently meet goals and achieve results. RPDRE was founded by Dr. Peter T. Keo who is an industry expert and respected thought leader in the US and Asia.
13 January 2022
Tell us about your background, and what are you most passionate about?
I am the Chairman & CEO of Rapid Research Evaluation, LLC – the first minority-owned rapid evaluation firm in the United States. I am in the research and development industry. With over 25 years of industry experience, I have developed a solid reputation in the US and across Asia as a respected business leader, strategic thinker, researcher, evaluator, and published scholar. My academic training and background include a doctorate from Columbia University and graduate degrees from Harvard University and The University of Chicago. Because I have deep respect for learning and continuous improvement, I decided to earn a professional certification in impact evaluation from the MITx.
Professionally, I have held executive, leadership, research, and academic appointments for Stanford University School of Medicine, The University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Columbia University, New York University, The University of Cambodia, and other universities, nonprofits, for-profits, philanthropy, and government in the US and ASEAN. I was also the Global Advisor for Leopard Capital Venture Capital.
To sum up my background, I would say that I am a firm believer in at least two things: 1) the power of education and life-long learning and taking measured steps to ensure that my training in research and evaluation is always two steps ahead of the competition; and 2) the power of taking calculated steps in the form of action in order to achieve what we want in life – AND what we want in life should almost always lie squarely on top of the hardest-to-reach mountains. We must never settle and we must always push ourselves to our highest potential.
This is a good segue to “what I’m most passionate about?” I have to compartmentalize this question into two parts: Part 1: my passion to leverage the best research, evidence, and data to optimize business value for my clients; and Part 2: my passion to utilize my research skills to drastically improve the power of human potential, especially for the most disadvantaged populations.
As an entrepreneur, I am most passionate about leveraging the best research, evidence, and data to improve business value for my clients. It is not enough for us in business to employ research without using the most advanced and rigorous research skills. That includes skills like predictive analytics for business decision-making, advanced statistics for business, pre/post analysis, focus groups, and in-depth interviews. Because I went through such a rigorous training process during graduate school, and then having the good fortune to apply my skills in practice for over 20 years, I can say with confidence that what sets my firm (and me, quite frankly) apart from the competition is the ability to understand how to zero in on specific problem areas and then identifying clear and pointed solutions to said problems – which is only possible because of the advanced research skills that I have. Optimizing business value for my clients is a top priority. Leveraging the best and most affordable research solutions is how I “get there.”
However, focusing on business value alone is insufficient – at least for me. I care deeply about the power of “giving back” and using my skills and training to optimize human value and human potential. What does that look like in a business setting? Well, for example, it could mean that I work with C-suite executives to make company-wide or organizational-wide decisions, again using data and evidence, to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not only valued at their respective companies and organizations, but that their staff feel a sense of respect and belonging. In the US, DEI is an important business agenda and countless blue-chip firms, from Microsoft to Salesforce to Google, are investing significant resources to implement DEI in their companies and organizations. In this country, the question is not whether DEI is important but rather “how” do we achieve DEI outcomes for the short and long term. Built into the DEI agenda is the recognition that all human lives have value and we must work harder as executives and leaders to optimize individual human value. From that, companies and organizations are likely to see tremendous business gains and a handsome bottom line. We must work harder to optimize results for people, planet, and profit. Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, calls this next iteration of human potential, Stakeholder Capitalism.
Describe a time you had to make a tough decision (e.g. budget cuts, organizational restructuring, market withdrawal, etc.). What did you do and what was the result?
My firm employs the lean start-up methodology to conduct business. Investopedia defines the methodology as a method that advocates developing products that consumers have already demonstrated they desire so that a market will already exist as soon as the product is launched. The Harvard Business Reviewnotes that the method favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development. Bottom line: over 75% of start-ups fail in the US and part of that reason is that they go “too big too fast.” Another huge part of business start-up or project launch failure is the poor use of data and research to make informed, calculated decisions.
Because our firm operates using the lean start-up model, we have seen steady gains year-over-year. Even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when businesses were flopping or clients were late submitting payments, my firm suffered minimal casualty in part because we have been disciplined and methodical about every step of our business approach. That is not to say that we have not had our ups and downs. I am simply saying that our downward dips have been minimal and the fall has not been so painful, in large part because we take calculated risks. As the CEO, I will never make a business decision that would jeopardize the health of my company and the people I employ. Again, I practice what I preach and am always leaning on research, evidence, and data to make informed business decisions. It helps that the company’s CEO is trained in research and is not totally reliant on others to guide the decision-making process. When it comes to data and evidence in the business world, I can make decisions as an extremely well-informed consumer because of my background and training in research and evaluation.
How would others define your communication style? Do you prefer to be close to your employees or maintain a healthy distance, and why?
In general, I would say that my colleagues define my communication style as open and transparent. This is probably a reflection and by-product of the US business climate and culture. To get staff members to buy-in to the company or its product, employees must trust and respect its leaders and executives. This is essential to note because it means that their productivity is amplified if they can feel a sense of connectedness and belonging to the company and its leaders.
I practice this leadership and communication style. I believe that all executives and leaders must exercise humility and openness. They must always be willing to learn and grow and take hard feedback productively and not defensively. Too many people call themselves leaders but a true leader is one who is willing to “go to battle” for the company and its staff, in addition to having the strong capacity to learn and grow through feedback from the people working hard to build the company with us.
How has the industry been changing in recent years? What do you think are the biggest challenges your industry will face in the next 5 years?
The biggest challenge the research and development industry faces will be disruption quite frankly. Small, nimble yet highly effective companies like ours are emerging to disrupt the status quo. In the research and development industry, research has a reputation of being extremely expensive and inaccessible. My company was designed to ensure that research is not only affordable to all companies of all sizes but that it is accessible. Regardless of the industry, researchers need to do better about creating language that connects with business clients who do not have the technical expertise or strong command of the research jargon. Too often academics who enter the business world are not good about code switching; they bring their theoretical expertise and academic argon into a business world that requires hard, fast, and clear answers. This kind of disconnect is rampant among researchers and I have seen the disconnect in the US and across Asia. Part of the reason why research is probably not leveraged as much as it should has to do with the cost and inaccessibility of research. A large part of why our firm has been successful is that we can navigate efficiently and effectively in the business world, while maintaining the rigor and training of the academy in our work.
Another major challenge in the next 5 years, which is a spin-off to disruption, is the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) in research. Some of the best minds in technology do not think that AI will replace an actual human researcher in the near future, and certainly not within the next 5 years. However, researchers especially those who rely on “big data”, analytics, and statistics do believe that some portion of our work will be replaced by AI. In some instances, this is already happening. I firmly believe that AI will have the capability to run basic statistical analysis BUT we will continue to need humans to facilitate the interpersonal communication and interaction that is central to and tantamount of research in general.
What personality traits make a good leader?
Adaptability and Empathy. In terms of adaptability, some of the best leaders I know are leaders who are nimble and adaptable to the changing environments. Conversely, some of the least effective leaders have been those who cannot immediately “shift” their cognitive and physical abilities from the situation they are currently in and the direction they need to go to save their companies. I call these people “technical leaders.” Technical leaders are usually great at checking off boxes on their “to-do” lists, reading books, memorizing quotes, analyzing case studies in a classroom setting, receiving the best grades, and do very well in a theoretical / academic setting.
However, when push comes to shove and they are confronted with live, real-world business challenges, these leaders often falter. Their “book skills” do not come in handy. They are not nimble. They cannot think on their toes. They do not make swift, hard, and smart decisions that save their companies but rather rely on theory. As a former academic myself, I have tremendous respect for theory. There is a time and place for it. There may be a place for it in the business world. The best and most effective leaders I know are trained from the best schools; they can excel inside and outside of the academic classroom. However, what sets them apart from so-called technical leaders is their innate ability to make hard, fast, and smart decisions that ensure their companies move along an upward not downward trajectory. When their companies face a slump, they take immediate action to reverse the course.
Bottom line: adaptable leaders have the ability to maneuver through any given situation. So, while there are other important traits of a leader, I think adaptability is way up there.
Empathy is another important trait. Empathy is the ability to experience the pain of others, putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. I believe in this trait so much that I wrote an entire book on the topic called, Critical Humanity: Embodying Actionable Leadership in an Age of Compassion and Empathy. Empathy is a muscle we all have but have atrophy because we ignore it. Empathy research has evolved significantly in business over the past decade. Business leaders recognize that empathic leaders are able to better connect with their employees and customers/clients. They are better able to be the moral leader we sometimes need to traverse through difficult times.
Covid-19 is a good example. I would argue that companies and organizations led by empathic leaders probably have seen better results during the pandemic in terms of employee satisfaction AND the bottom line. Why? Because human beings are sensitive and we react to our environment. The pandemic has created tremendous challenges for many of us. Therefore, during the pandemic, I would dare to say that many employees across industries and sectors were looking for a moral leader who had the power to keep their companies afloat WHILE ALSO having the human empathic skill to connect with them. Empathic leaders give their people hope and sometimes hope is the only thing we have when darkness prevails.
Turnover rates are a good metric to measure whether someone is an empathic leader or not. During the pandemic, I have seen multi-billion-dollar organizations experience over 50% turnover rates. People were dropping out of the organization like flies. The person running this organization is a technical leader who is neither adaptable nor empathetic. Leaders like these have made dealing with the pandemic even more difficult. Conversely, I have seen moral leaders who are both adaptable and empathetic. The net result: they were able to bring in millions of dollars of new revenue during the pandemic while also ensuring that employees are happy and satisfied. In the aggregate, we need more adaptable and empathetic leaders to increase business value for people, planet, and profit.
What does the future hold for your company?
As the CEO, I am strategically prepared to re-enter the Asia-Pacific market. Number one for us is creating and joining networks like the Asia CEO Community. We want to build strong, effective relationships with other C-suite executives and leaders across Asia. We want to let them know that we are ready for business but not business as usual.
In the Asia-Pacific region, we want to introduce the concept of research affordability and accessibility. We call this disruption. We are not trying to disrupt your company or organization. Rather, we are disrupting the practice of research. We are disrupting the cost of research. We are disrupting the academic and theoretical world of research for the business community. We are also disrupting the quality and rigor of research findings so that C-suite executives and leaders can make effective decisions – better and faster.
We are also adding a new vertical: Training. We are developing a training platform that can host both virtual and in-person training. We believe that knowledge is power and that it should not be restrained or restricted. Knowledge should not be limited to the privileged few. Knowledge should be available, accessible, and affordable to everyone regardless of where they are in the world. It should be accessible regardless of family background, class, ethnicity, gender, or income level. If you want to learn, we want to make learning possible. We will offer short 2-3 training workshops on the nuts and bolts of research and how to make informed business decisions using the best and most advanced research practices.