Teach Me How to Startup

Harvard Gets Schooled: As Techies Flock to Stanford, MIT, Even Penn, Crimson Goes Green With Envy

Can Ivy leaguers groomed for success navigate the failure-friendly tech economy?
 Harvard Gets Schooled: As Techies Flock to Stanford, MIT, Even Penn, Crimson Goes Green With Envy

Widener Library. (Photo: flickr.com/cthulhuwho1)

On a clear November day, the hard-working students of Harvard College took a collective study break and poured onto the walkway in front of Lamont Library. Undergrads, an inordinate number of them sporting hoodies, pressed their bodies against a set of temporary barricades, their smartphones and cameras held aloft, eyes intent on a grinning visitor making his way from one of the Yard’s gates to a mic stand that had been set up smack in the middle of the walkway.

The excitement wasn’t for Jason Segel, who would be selected as the Hasty Pudding’s Man of the Year in February, nor for Andy Samberg, who’d be tapped to give the Class Day Speech later that year, but a former classmate—a “concentrator” in computer science and psychology—who eight years ago had been just like them, a hard-working kid with amazing grades and questionable social skills, well on his way to a comfortable future.

As Mark Zuckerberg paused to answer questions, the giddiness was almost enough to make everyone forget that, like Bill Gates before him, the Facebook founder had dropped out of Harvard well before receiving his sheepskin.

Six months later, the day before Facebook’s IPO, Stanford law fellow Brian Love published an op-ed in the Boston Globe, pointing out that Harvard had a decent legal claim to a cut of the $16 billion jackpot. After all, Mr. Zuckerberg and his cofounders built the site “while enrolled in Harvard, working in a Harvard dormitory, and using Harvard’s computer network,” he wrote.

It’s impossible to say how much Harvard could have added to its already massive endowment had the university pressed the issue. But one point of comparison might be helpful: When Stanford eventually sold its shares in Google, the transaction netted the school a cool $336 million. That would go a long way toward re-energizing development on that applied sciences campus in Allston.

Still, given the millions being minted by enterprising graduates of Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and other institutions of higher learning, and the spotty track record of the nation’s most prestigious university in the emerging realm of tech-fuelled entrepreneurship, potential students might be forgiven for wondering if a Harvard education is still the best path to success in the digital age.

A poster on the Q&A site Quora recently inquired, “How does a star engineering high school senior choose among MIT, Caltech, Stanford and Harvard?” One reply compared the various colleges to houses at Harry Potter’s alma mater, Hogwarts. Guess which school got tarred with the villainous name of Slytherin? The respondent concluded: “Harvard is known for social climbing and an atmosphere where interactions are perpetually shaded with professional networking.”

Meanwhile, Harvard’s neighbor in Kendall Square, MIT–where the term “hacking” was born to describe a clever solution to a technical problem–attracts the kind of student who will turn a building facade into a game of Tetris, just for giggles, then go on to found a promising company like Dropbox. Here in the five boroughs, two Empire State bastions are taking advantage of Bloomberg’s attempted great leap forward to expand their innovative holdings. Cornell is partnering with Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology to build a starchitect-designed school of applied sciences on sleepy Roosevelt Island, while NYU is converting the MTA’s old Brooklyn headquarters into a second tech city campus.

Meanwhile, Stanford, the “Harvard of the West,” recently received the 7000-plus-word length treatment in The New Yorker for its role in the Silicon Valley talent pipeline.

The university gave birth to both Yahoo and Google; provided Instagram founder Kevin Systrom with the connections he’d need to launch his photo sharing application and, more important, sell it for a cool billion dollars; and currently provides a home base for alumnus and PayPal mafioso Peter Thiel to hold forth on entrepreneurialism (even as he offers “fellowships” for students willing to drop out and try building something of their own). Would-be tech moguls can gather at BASES, the Business Association for Stanford Entrepreneurial Students, where they can attend weekly lectures from luminaries like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and VC Brad Feld. They wrap up the year with four simultaneous funding competitions, jockeying for $150,000 in prize money.

The University in Pennsylvania—red-headed stepchild of the Ivy League—has a strong alumni network in New York’s budding tech scene, including Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer, Local Response CEO Nihal Mehta, and the entire Warby Parker founding team. Brett Topche, who is a principal at MentorTech Ventures, a VC devoted wholly to startups emerging from the university, said Penn’s pitch to prospective students is simple: “We’re not just going to prepare you to go get a vice president title at some giant corporation—we’re going to teach you how to create something from scratch.”

Even the humble University of Washington is getting in the game, recently dubbed “a northwest pipeline to Silicon Valley” in a flattering New York Times write-up.

This is not to say that the Crimson is in any immediate danger of becoming an also-ran. The university still sits comfortably atop the upper echelon of the world’s colleges, and every year it sends 1600 or so graduates off to top-tier professional schools, prestigious jobs at investment banks and consultancies, tenure-track Ph.D. programs and, for those naive enough to have majored in Folklore and Mythology, maybe even a reporting job at the New York Observer.

Then again, those jobs are not what they once were. Freshly minted lawyers are practically making a federal case about their grim employment prospects these days, and, with storied firms like Dewey and Leboeuf imploding, even a degree from a well-ranked law school is no guarantee of a make-it-rain corporate law salary. It’s still remotely possible for a gifted academic to find a cushy tenure track—provided they don’t mind living in Doha and they’ve got a certain dramatic flair. (Have TED talk, will travel.) Meanwhile, the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be an alumni circular firing squad of Bain Capital versus the Harvard Law Review. And dare we even mention “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs”?

The characteristics that are viewed as most critical to success in the startup world happen to be some of the very ones that Harvard has for centuries viewed as the kiss of death for eager applicants. Harvard students are, by and large, a population of people who’ve never been described as “disruptive” in their lives. And anyone willing even to entertain the idea of failure—a badge of honor on the startup scene—might want to refrain from mentioning it in his or her admissions essay.

Of course, being out of step with the times is not always a bad thing, and Harvard can usually afford to take the long view. Founded in 1636, this august institution predates the differential calculus that makes computing possible, the piano, and the Enlightenment itself.

But the leveling effect of the Internet has only just begun to lap at the steps of Widener Library. Coding is about competence, not pedigree. A sufficiently motivated teenager can build the next online juggernaut with little more than a Code Academy account, a MacBook, and a liter of Mountain Dew. And the recent explosion in online learning will only hasten the trend, threatening the relevance not only of Harvard, but of formal education itself. (Perhaps that’s why Harvard recently partnered with MIT to launch an online learning initiative dubbed EdX.)

Harvard remains a leader in biotech and other capital-intensive fields, and it has numerous patents to show for its efforts. A consumer Internet startup doesn’t need the support of a research insitution; all it needs is some server space. While some universities have tried to assert their claim to startups created on campus (University of Missouri being a prominent example), there’s really no way to shoehorn consumer Internet innovation into a traditional research university model.

That’s one likely reason Harvard didn’t angle for a cut of Facebook: the school’s technical contribution was relatively minor. “Students, in fact, are perfectly capable of writing code in their dorm rooms,” said Brian Love, a Stanford Law fellow who’s written on the subject of university patents, and they’re “at the vanguard of what’s going on in the high-tech world.” So a couple of undergraduates can team up and create something valuable “without faculty mentorship, and without funding—at least, direct funding—from the university.”

That said, Harvard University is not run by a bunch of dummies. The institution’s leadership is not about to sit back with its collective nose in a Loeb Classical Library tome while Stanford, UPenn, and NYU vie for the prestige, the superstars and the future donations that it once took for granted.

Instead, the university is unleashing a campus-wide push to spruce up entrepreneurial offerings and lend more support to would-be innovators. Hence the creation of the Innovation Lab (known on campus as the I-Lab), a new home for would-be entrepreneurs. Students contemplating the notion of starting up can attend workshops on topics like user-interface design, while those who’ve reached the idea development stage can schedule office hours with entrepreneurs-in-residence. Once they’ve got a workable idea, they can claim their own corner to work in, like a study carrel but bigger.

With its open floorplan, enormous windows, and bright yellow walls, I-Lab—a $25 million redo of the former WGBH studios—is clearly based on someone’s untested assumptions of what inspires young people to productivity. Ideas are scrawled across whiteboards; tables are equipped with wheels; power cords drop from the ceiling. There’s also a kitchen stuffed with free food and consoles for after-hours gaming.

In 2011, the school announced something called the Experiment Fund,  a venture capital fund based at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which will make seed-stage investments in companies with some connection to Cambridge. Eager to avoid any conflicts of interest, Harvard has no financial stake in the fund. Rather, SEAS offers access to faculty advisors and, once renovations are complete, will provide partner Hugo Van Vuuren with an office. So Harvard isn’t likely to make any money out of this deal, though the somewhat intangible benefits to its reputation will likely prove useful.

Mr. Van Vuuren (class of ’07) was quick to point out that the X Fund will serve Boston’s entire Red Line corridor, which also includes MIT and Tufts. But he was effusive in his praise for the university as a partner, and he expressed complete faith in the school’s ability to change with the times. “A university does not remain the top university in the world for 375 years without adapting,” he said.

The question is whether a real cultural shift can take root with sufficient speed in such staid soil. Harvard hasn’t been a startup in centuries. Nor is the school particularly famous for its population of engineers and entrepreneurs. Tuan Ho, whom The Observer found working in the I-Lab when we visited a couple of months ago, graduated in 2009 and is now the cofounder of Tivli, a digital TV startup aiming to disrupt the cable business. When he was an undergraduate, Mr. Ho explained, Mark Zuckerberg was “like, the one guy who did a startup—in spite of Harvard.”

Yet the student body seems ready to force the issue if they must. Harvard’s introductory computer science course, CS-50, is bursting at the seams. That growth is due partly to the aggressive evangelical efforts of instructor David Malan, said teaching fellow Lexi Ross, but she also name-checked both The Social Network and the near billion-dollar Instagram acquisition as having had an effect.

“You didn’t have to be a computer science person to know what was going on,” she said.

Peter Boyce, a founding member of Hack Harvard, has also seen a shift. Mr. Boyce started out on the “Goldman quant” track, but found himself seduced after a summer at Skillshare, a New York-based startup that aims to be a kind of Airbnb for those with in-demand skills. “It’s a more popular option,” he said of the startup track. “I still don’t think it’s, you know, the most popular option.”

To some, the problem is best viewed in economic terms. Even with the troubles on Wall Street, there’s still not much real incentive for students to venture out onto any entrepreneurial limbs.

“The opportunity cost for them to become entrepreneurs is much higher than the grads of regular schools,” said entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa. MIT, on the other hand, “has a huge advantage in being an engineering school—so grads leave with excellent technical knowledge and mentors. Their likelihood of success is higher and opportunity cost lower.”

Moreover, the entrepreneurial career path takes emotional resilience and openness to the humiliating public faceplant. “It’s a very different world now,” said Mr. Topche, one where students can choose to create their own job instead of pursuing one at a multi-billion-dollar corporation. But that requires a different skill set, he noted, “and the schools that figure out how to prepare students with that very different skill set, I think, will have a very big advantage in the coming decades.”

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com

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