Hours after receiving his Bowdoin diploma in the spring of 1983, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings boarded a flight to Swaziland, where he would spend the next two and a half years.

Born and raised in Boston, Hastings’ decision to attend Bowdoin was nothing out of the ordinary. After he was accepted, Hastings decided to defer for a year to continue working his summer job, selling vacuum cleaners door to door. 

“I loved it, strange as that might sound,” said Hastings. “You get to meet a lot of different people.”

At Bowdoin, Hastings made his name in the math department, according to Bill Barker, one of his former professors and the current chair of the department.

“He’s a student you remember” who had “confidence without arrogance. He has a desire to make things work right and get them going,” Barker said.

In the early ’80s, the math department ran a self-paced calculus program that stressed learning at the student’s own rate. Instead of attending a traditional lecture style class, students would meet one-on-one with professors and peer tutors to complete the course load. 

Hastings was deeply invested in the program. He was a committed peer tutor who took care, according to Barker, to “explain basic concepts to the average student in ways they could understand.” After a year “he wrote up this detailed scheme on how we should revamp self-paced calculus,” recalled Barker. “We ran the program for well over 10 years and no student had ever turned in anything like that. He was already in the mode of planning and doing things.”

Not surprisingly, Hastings received many accolades in the math department. He was awarded the Smyth Prize for receiving the highest grades in mathematics courses. His senior thesis was “one of the best honors projects we’ve seen,” Barker said. 

During his junior year, Hastings spent a semester abroad at the University of Bath in England, which piqued his sense of adventure. 

“I got to travel and hitchhike around Europe and North Africa and it definitely made me realize how little of the world I knew,” said Hastings. This curiosity is likely why Hastings found himself in rural Africa after graduation, teaching math with the Peace Corps.

Hastings described his experience in Swaziland in a letter he wrote to his former Bowdoin professors.

“The first year I loved. I lived with a family about 3 km from school, and walked through gorgeous valleys twice a day,” he wrote. “The second year I lived at the school with the other teachers and spent my afternoons playing cards and drinking beer.”

Hastings found teaching there highly rewarding. He wrote to Barker, “If I ever do go the grad school/professor route I know I would be much more into teaching, inspiring and developing the students than my own research.”

At the Hhelehhele School in Swaziland, Hastings remembered his students as “super motivated.” However, his routine there was much slower than the fast-paced life he was used to. He enjoyed the routine of being fully immersed in the community but at times felt he was stagnating. He recalled occasionally thinking, “I would never dribble away my days at home like this.” 

Hastings wrote in a letter to his “friends, enemies, Grandmothers, siblings and assorted no-goods” that though his days were full, they had acquired a monotony and “the strong feeling persisted that I wasn’t very challenged.”

Hastings countered this by taking on challenges outside of teaching.

“The answer to my boredom and under-utilization was to get involved with the community as a whole instead of limiting myself to the school compound,” he said.

In Ntonjeni, the small rural town in which Hastings lived, he began noticing opportunities to increase efficiency and add convenience to everyday life. For example, villagers struggled transporting water to the schoolhouse located on top of a hill. He wrote, “Great view, cool breezes, but getting water up there is a real bitch.” 

Here, Hastings recognized an opportunity to innovate. Instead of spending money on water pumps that are “expensive and notorious for breaking down,” he developed a plan to build tanks to collect rain water on top of the hill. Hastings made his contribution sustainable by involving community members in the process, writing, “the parable about teaching someone to fish vs. catching fish for them is a big philosophy here.”

Hastings also got involved in the business behind harvesting honey from African killer bees, a project he described as an “escape valve.” Despite the peace the work gave Hastings, the actual work was far from peaceful. 

 “The ‘killer’ bees approaching America are the diluted descendants of our bees. Smaller, slower livestock (chickens, rabbits, etc.) are not infrequently stung into paralysis and death,” wrote Hastings. “Faster creatures, like me, can sprint out of harm’s reach with only a few bees giving spirited chase.”

For this project Hastings wrote a proposal requesting U.S. aid for Swazis to start their own safe and productive beekeeping businesses. The aid was granted, and Hastings, with the help of an agriculture teacher, taught an introductory course “covering how to build hives, manage bees, and market honey.”

Hastings’ systematic tendencies didn’t stop his time in Africa from being adventurous. He returned to the States feeling uncertain that he would ever experience the same freedom he had in Swaziland. In one of his letters he wondered “Will I ever again race across the hot savannah, bare chested, motorcycle purring, admiring the acacia trees heralding ‘this is Africa?’ I hope so.”

Hastings began preparing for graduate school while still in Africa. He was drawn to the field of artificial intelligence because “it’ll synthesize my two great interests; psychology and mathematical thinking.”  In a statement of purpose for Stanford, Hastings wrote, “several nights a week I light my lamps and pour over a collection of introductory AI texts. The more I read the more serious I become.”

In 1985 Hastings enrolled in Stanford University’s computer science program where he spent the next few years studying artificial intelligence. Upon graduating, however, Hastings decided he was more interested in writing software.   

In 1991, Hastings started his first company, Pure Software. This venture ended up being lucrative enough to fund the birth of his next project, Netflix.

The success of Netflix is rooted in the fact that it rose in tandem with another technology, the DVD. In 1998, a friend told Hastings about plans to release a new invention that was lighter and smaller than a VHS yet served the same purpose. Hastings connected this breakthrough with video rentals.

“In ’95 or ’96 I’d had this really large late [video rental] fee,” said Hastings. “I remember it because I was really embarrassed about it and I didn’t want to tell my wife.” This memory, combined with the accessibility of mailing lightweight DVDs, led to the birth of Netflix.

 The idea of a mail-in video rental company that didn’t charge late fees was a huge commercial success. By 2007, Netflix had delivered a billion DVDs. Perhaps even more impressive is the company’s constant innovation in its business model. When Hastings noticed the rising popularity of YouTube, he again saw an opportunity to expand based on the success of a new technology. 

“It’s up to Netflix to harness the power of the Internet better and faster than other people, to provide a great consumer experience,” said Hastings. Internet streaming now accounts for about 90 percent of Netflix’s usership.

Hastings has continued to push for creativity and expansion of content at Netflix—the company now boasts a retinue of original programming with a cumulative total of 14 Emmy nominations. 
Netflix releases entire seasons of TV shows at a time, in response to viewers’ tendencies to “binge-watch.” Hastings calls this a “natural evolution”.

“Fiction with Dickens was written serially and a new part of it would come out every month in a magazine,” said Hastings. “Then it got cheap enough to manufacture a book and people started releasing entire novels at once.” 

From Bowdoin to Africa to computer screens across the country, Hastings and his entrepreneurship have made their mark on most everything they’ve encountered. Yet Hastings never expected it.

“Mine was a path of serendipity but it was a path of just being passionate about whatever I was doing at that time,” he said. “I’m as surprised as anyone about my business success.”

As he wrote in a letter to Professor Barker, “life trudges on with me happily by its side.”