Minority Report is a guest column by Sarah Kunst, who does business development and product at fashion app Kaleidoscope. She’s a black, non-engineer female in tech, but plans to IPO anyway.
Few founder origin stories capture the nerd mind like “Hacker as dropout.” From Bill Gates at Microsoft to Box’s Adam Levie, and of course a little-known CEO named Zuck, the allure of leaving the dorm room behind to rake in billions seems irresistible.
Recently, this middle finger to the establishment of higher education has been codified by billionaire rabble rouser Peter Thiel. This past Sunday, for the second time in three months, the New York Times found cause for a close examination of the virtues of Mr. Thiel’s 20 under 20 Fellowship as a way for exceptional teenagers to pass college and collect $100,000 to spend on changing the world. Granted, participants aren’t your typical undeclared freshmen at State College U. Rather, they’ve already exhibited Mensa-level intelligence, with a work ethic to match.
What doesn’t coordinate quite as well? Their social lives. A recent night saw several Thiel fellows–all under legal drinking age–at a San Francisco house party described by one attendee as “tech hippies doing drugs and sitting in a cuddle pile.”
It was an unsettling sight for guests surprised by the Summer of Love manifesting itself in 2012, but for the babes in the Redwoods it seemed disturbing on another level. A Thiel fellow who dropped out of an Ivy League college at age 17 spent most of her brief time at the party hugging her purse and asking for clarification about what, exactly, a whippet was.
Perhaps most telling, even those who’ve won the GED lottery don’t believe it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. In a recent interview, Mr. Levie, the Box CEO who dropped out of USC, told Business Insider, “Unfortunately this is going to produce a lot of people that are college drop outs that don’t actually have the idea that’s taking off that they can go spend time on. It’s not the right sequence.” Leaving school to become a billionaire seems logical, ending up sans degree or hockey stick company while former classmates field offers from hot tech, banking and graduate programs sounds less practical.
Tipping our hat to Malcolm Gladwell, we can acknowledge that most truly great engineers were coding long before their first CS course in college. But many other skills integral to growing a company are learned in and out of the classroom in ways the “real world” can’t always match. Morgan Missen, who attended my alma mater Michigan State University (as did Texts From Last Night founder Lauren Leto), credits her illustrious recruiting career, which has included stints at Google, Twitter and Foursquare, to her collegiate role as recruitment chair of the Sigma Kappa sorority. “It was highly strategic and strictly choreographed. I realized then how the people you pick affect the success of every organization,” Ms. Missen told an interview earlier this year.
Visiting Google, Facebook, or even Conde Nast–the similarities between work campus and college campus can’t be overlooked: Cafeteria as social minefield, new recruits wearing special clothing to signal their n00b status, recreational sports leagues and gossip running amok. Assuming these cultures are so prevalent because employees enjoy them, how do people whose last experience in a classroom involved a hall monitor create a corporate culture that approximates the light oversight and high expectations of a college campus?
UPenn has become a bastion for fraternity men turned successful startup founders. Bonobos got their start there out of Andy Dunn‘s trunk. Adam Rich and Ben Lerer‘s bromance started on campus and turned into Thrillist. Cy Massoumi went there before a banking career that lead to Zocdoc. Indeed, investor about town David Tisch is one of the many former UPenn frat boys redefining Silicon Alley.
Harvard Business School has a similar pedigree among ladies. Alexa Von Tobel from Learnvest, Amy Jain and Daniella Yacobovsky of Baublebar, Go Try It On’s Marissa Evans and Birchbox’s Katia Beauchamp all overlapped. Birchbox is even paying it forward with an informal co-working space for HBS students in their cavernous Murray Hill offices. The shared experiences and ups and downs of these confederacies give the alums shoulders to cry on and investor referrals that just don’t come from coding alone in your parents’ basement.
Skipping the formative years of college might give kids an accolade advantage, but at what cost to their social lives and networks? Are they really better off on their own with enough money to pay the bills for a couple years than they would be in R&D labs at schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT and University of Michigan? Those six schools, which boasted a combined endowment of $102 billion in 2011, supply brilliant minds with world class facilities and faculty, flexibility to pursue research and degrees of their choosing. As Harvard proved with Facebook, they also will do little to interfere with profits or process should a runaway success emerge out of the dining halls and dorm rooms. Additionally, students have an alumni network, clean and affordable housing, ready access to regular meals and a safe place to spend the years between having a curfew and polishing up your public speaking for an IPO road show.
Where would Instagram be without the contacts Kevin Systrom forged at the Stanford frat Sigma Nu, where he first met Mark Zuckerberg and Adam D’Angelo? Or even Facebook without the early adopters on college campuses who were ready to sign up and tell their friends as soon as the social network arrived. Without an early job serving as campus marketing manager for Apple and working for valley mainstays like Path’s Dave Morin would my personal and professional interest in technology have blossomed? Outliers always have and will forge their own paths in education and life, but for many, the network effects of college are worth checking in to.