A group of 16 U.Va. McIntire School of Commerce students (my alma mater) came to San Francisco for a week during their spring break to learn about life as an entrepreneur in the mecca of geekdom. I had to be in Cincinnati giving a mobile conference keynote, so my co-founder Sean kindly spent 90 minutes with them, talking about life as a tech entrepreneur and bringing other startups from our SOMAcentral space in to speak with the students. After meeting with us, they also met with a slew of other startups, including my brother Sam's company, FreshPlum (read about how Sam and I ended up in SF from our DC roots).
Here's my message to the 16 students who spent their spring break in SF: Our nation needs you to be entrepreneurs, and badly. I don't mean this in a fluffy, "you can be anything you want" type of way. Rather I mean it in a "our nation is facing threats from ascendant countries, and the only way for us to maintain a dominant global position is to capitalize on what we do best" way. And what we do best is leverage our unique melting pot culture and freedoms to create value through creativity and capitalism. Entrepreneurism -- and tech entrepreneurism in particular -- is the most direct and value-adding way to leverage the unique strengths of our nation. It's the winners that write history and we are in jeopardy of losing that privilege.
It's easy to go work for someone upon graduation, and sadly, most universities are geared towards supplying employers with copious numbers of educated young people to act as proxies, creating value for corporate bank accounts. The entire machine is structured to foster just enough fear that most graduates are reluctant to strike out on their own to realize the full potential of what they're capable of.
I do see glimmers of hope, though. When I was a student at U.Va., I was highly discouraged from being an entrepreneur. I had no choice though -- I had to pay for college myself, so I did crazy things like selling U.Va. branded Frisbees at the area bookstores like Mincers. I pitched a Hoos Savings Club Card (think: analog Groupon) to students in front of Kroger for $20. The university was so unfriendly to me as an entrepreneur, though, they tried to kick me out, saying that the grounds of a public institution funded with taxpayer dollars was not an appropriate place to be running a business.
The fact that students from U.Va. are now being encouraged to visit entrepreneurs for a week (albeit on their spring breaks -- 'not yet quite a part of the curriculum, dear students -- you'll have to do it on your own time!') is a start. Other schools like Duke have gone even farther, setting up programs like the Duke Global Entrepreneurship Network where students spend summer breaks working at tech startups.
And the category leader is Stanford, which has long been progressive in seeding and encouraging tech entrepreneurism and producing heavyweights like Google, Yahoo and countless others. I hold Stanford up as the model to which all other universities should race, with a strong emphasis on value creation through entrepreneurship, and specific examples like its "How to Change the World" week, labeled as a 'practical guide for impractical people' -- love it, classes on entrepreneurship with guest lectures from the best tech thinkers in the world (photo above is of Reid Hoffman speaking at one of Heidi's classes), challenges like this one from Tina Seelig, and countless other resources for entrepreneurs. To put it simply, being a student at Stanford means the world is at your doorstep as an entrepreneur. Being at any other university means you're the doormat, with everyone else stepping on you as they race to join the corporate ladder.
By and large, universities and students need to wake up to the immense and urgent need to inoculate our student culture with the values of entrepreneurism. It's not just a "nice to have" elective-style course. It needs to be a foundational element of any business school, it needs to be offered in non-business curriculum like computer science, engineering and medicine, and it needs to be taught in a very hands-on, non-ivory tower academic manner. As I argue in a presentation to these MBA students at Georgetown University, being an entrepreneur means facing your fears head-on. Since most students would fail this litmus test to being an entrepreneur, universities have an opportunity -- dare I say an obligation to our nation -- to step in and help young students get past their fears.
If you're a student and you want to take control of your future and do something for our nation, I encourage you to get involved in tech startups in whatever way you can. Spend a summer in Silicon Valley. Read, then re-read, all these essays by Paul Graham. Learn about best-in-class tech practices like A/B testing and Scrum agile development, how to play a computer like an instrument and generally how to be massively efficient with technology. Start applying those principles in your life now -- don't wait until you graduate. Take my GeekSpeed challenge if you think you're up to it, to see how well you're doing.
The University of Virginia took a big step this week towards being as entrepreneur-friendly as other top institutions like Stanford and MIT are by sponsoring the U.Va. Cup competition, with $35,000 in prize money up for grabs.
The winners were Adam Malcom and Scott Kasen of U.Va's Engineering School, with a belt-based live preserver concept that is "more comfortable, unobtrusive and wearable than typical personal flotation devices." Their design had previously won first place in a 2006 international competition by the Boat U.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association.
Competitions like this are key to encouraging entrepreneurism at an institution like U.Va. When I graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce in 1998, the school was mostly a feeder school for the large investment banks in New York. Being an entrepreneur at U.Va. in the late 90's was a very lonely experience, exacerbated by the institutions's attitude that as a public university, its hands were tied as to how proactive it could be in encouraging private endeavors like entrepreneurism. In fact, I encountered quite a bit of resistance from the University while I was there.
Fortunately, these attitudes are changing. One only need look to MIT and Stanford as models of how an academic + private partnership can bear tremendous fruit. Companies like Yahoo and Google are a result of their founder's time at Stanford. And it turns into a virtuous cycle, as Jerry Yang's $75MM pledge back to Stanford shows.
Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal summed it up well in this article:
In our never ending quest to improve as math teachers and help make math enjoyable for students (or at least less painful) we slapped together a few goals for the upcoming school year.
INCREASE TEACHER MATH KNOWLEDGE
We have spent a boatload of time this summer tearing apart the math common core standards. Not just our grade (7th), but all grade levels from k to 8. As we enter the school year we feel as prepared as any school year. We want continue adding to math knowledge as the year progresses. We are currently taking the Stanford math class with Jo Boaler which has been very enjoyable.
INCREASE STUDENTS INTERST IN MATH