Authored by: Roneil Rumburg – originally posted on April 10, 2014 at The Stanford Daily
Much hubbub has been made recently, both here in The Stanford Daily and in other publications, over the perceived focus on vanity entrepreneurship by much of the student body at Stanford. The word “entrepreneurship” has taken on a heavily negative connotation among students here and is now often associated with the pursuit of wealth and power. And it certainly feels like more people are thinking about business ideas of their own.
But digging deeper, the motivations of students working on ideas are often more pure than people generally give them credit for. I asked a few students I know what their motivations were for pursuing businesses of their own, and there was one common thread among all of their responses: impact.
Many students argue, convincingly, that the scale of the impact they can have on the world by founding a successful company far exceeds that of any other opportunity a fresh college graduate can pursue. Wealth is certainly also a motivating factor for student entrepreneurs, but it tends to be secondary or tertiary in importance to the pursuit of impact. Common wisdom among the students I talked to was that for those motivated primarily by wealth, finance or consulting provide a much higher chance of success than founding a company. The odds are heavily stacked against anyone who strikes out on their own, as around 75 percent of VC-funded companies fail.
The widespread association between technology and entrepreneurship is a natural result of the focus on scale of impact; a small team, using little capital, can build technology products that touch the lives of many millions. WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook recently, has touched the lives of over 450 million users despite only employing 50 people, all without spending a cent on marketing. WhatsApp brought text messaging to hundreds of millions of people who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford it, charging only $1 per year.
But entrepreneurship and technology are not fundamentally intertwined with one another, and entrepreneurial thinking is often applied to solving social problems. For example, BASES runs a business plan competition called Social E-Challenge, which gives prize money away to three companies chosen for their potential to have a social impact. The d.school also runs classes like ME206A/B, which encourage students to explore opportunities to create social ventures. Some of the most successful companies to come out of the BASES competitions, like Kiva, have come from the Social E-Challenge program.
So why are many still opposed to the growth of entrepreneurship culture at Stanford? I had an opportunity to catch up with Matt Lopez, a senior at Stanford and writer of the op-ed I linked to at the beginning of this article, and it seems that the problem stems from the lack of support given by Stanford to students pursuing more alternative paths.
While the path out of Stanford as a computer science student is fairly well worn, and many alumni and students are available to support those who follow such a path, less support exists for those interested in other fields. Stanford promised students that they could be successful pursuing anything they were interested in, but students having trouble finding their way after graduation feel that Stanford has broken that promise. The continued growth of entrepreneurship culture is drawing more and more focus away from these alternative paths, exacerbating this problem.
But this is not an issue caused by the growth of entrepreneurship culture at Stanford. Stanford does not seem to make more resources available to engineering students than it does to students in other departments, but economic forces have given entrepreneurial engineering students significantly more options than others seem to have. The center of gravity on campus is shifting towards the engineering quad, and to even the playing field for students with alternative aspirations, Stanford will need to make more resources available to those students. How Stanford can best fix this is unclear, but the problem seems only tangentially related to entrepreneurship.
What Stanford has right now is a critical mass of students primarily interested in making an impact on the world, leaving their own “dent in the universe” however they see fit. Whether that impact comes through founding a company, charitable work, politics or any other field seems irrelevant, but Stanford should support students interested in pursuing any path they choose.
Roneil Rumburg is the Chief Operating Officer of BASES. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students is the central heart of entrepreneurship for students at Stanford University and the general community of entrepreneurs. Whether it is bringing famous speakers such as the founder of Khan Academy to share valuable advice at ETL or providing cutting-edge mentors to hone the pitches of student founders at E-Bootcamp, BASES is deeply entrenched in building the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders.
Defining our organization and its value for members is one of BASES’ main objectives. With that goal in mind, we are launching a new campaign called “What is BASES to you?” – a project that shares the weekly 100-word or 6-word story accounts of officers in order to serve as an inspiration for the team and community.
Among the first submissions received was a 6-word story from Liu Jiang, Operations Officer, who values her “family of close friends whose relationships extend beyond entrepreneurship and last a lifetime.” Akaash Nanda, Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Officer, remarked on “the shared curiosity with quality people.”
Help define BASES and submit your story.
Liu Jiang ’17 – Operations Team
”Family of close friends whose relationships extend beyond entrepreneurship and last a lifetime”
Worthwhile? “Yup! Excited to see what others say.”
Akaash Nanda ’15 – VP ETL
“A shared curiosity with quality people. (that’s what BASES is all about for me!)”
Worthwhile? “Absolutely! Nothing is more valuable to reflecting upon why we do what we do.”
Aspiring entrepreneurs and startup founders, better known as “E-Bootcampers”, flooded into the foyer of Huang Engineering to attend the 2014 BASES E-Bootcamp. Participants hailed from all around the globe, including Chicago and Guatemala.
After a weekend of mentoring activities and conferences, the E-Bootcampers pitched their ideas and eagerly answered audience questions at the Innovation Expo. Startups at the Innovation Expo included The Song Market, a web application that serves as a Fantasy Stock Market for music, in which you buy and sell stocks of songs and compete with friends to streamline music discovery. EnigMedia, a mobile application that acts as an encrypted version of Skype, allows for confidential calls to protect company’s information from competitors. HackMatch, a site created by Dave Fontenot, connects talented hackers with recruiting agents from hiring startups. Several students clustered around Fontenot as he spoke, examining his pitch deck.
Many attendees expressed their gratitude for how they have improved from E-Bootcamp’s mentoring, practice, and networking opportunities. Come witness the selected finalists pitch their products at 9:30 AM tomorrow (Sunday, April 20) in the Mackenzie Room of Huang Building at Stanford University!
Authored by: Will Sternlicht
This past Friday on April 4, 300 Stanford and Berkeley students piled into the Basement of Huang Engineering. Three years in, the Big Hack between Northern California’s top engineering schools is perhaps a more emblematic symbol of the Cal-Stanford rivalry than the Big Game is. Competing for Oculus Rifts, Pebble Smart Watches and Google’s own Nexus 7 smart phone, students took a break from p-sets and assignments to collaborate with their peers over 24 hours of building and hacking.
The grand prize went to the team behind “Biome” a Google Chrome extension which leverages your computers Web-cam and facial recognition to log into websites – an aptly timed project in the midst of the concern with the Heartbleed Bug. Second was awarded to “Venture,” a term tossed around quite a bit in the Valley, returned to its original meaning: adventure. Using GPS, interests, and nearby friends, the project sought to suggest wild and memorable adventures to users. Third prize went to “Nimbus,” a cloud aggregation platform which put access to Google Drive, Dropbox and others in one easy to access place. When it comes down to it, Berkeley and Stanford students altogether put in over 7200 hours of hacking and we couldn’t be happier to see this rivalry between the two schools fuel innovation at this year’s Big Hack.
Authored by: Stephany Yong
When talking about Silicon Valley businesses, a friend of mine categorizes tech entrepreneurship into three buckets: the products, the ideas that drive their production and those who fund them. On Sand Hill, we see this play out in a similar fashion: venture capitalists are in the business of developing and funding companies, while companies are in the business of developing products.
Of course, this naturally points to a gaping hole in the analogy: What about the people behind these ideas and investments? Who has stakes in their development?
We naturally find ourselves looking to Stanford, which has been variously lauded and derided for being a tech talent incubator of sorts.
Here, it can be difficult to discern where Silicon Valley ends and academia begins. Some faculty members help build and advise startups, while many professors, armed with years of experience in entrepreneurship and industry come to teach classes about startups and the processes involved in funding them. It isn’t exceptionally abnormal for a student to take a quarter’s leave to focus on a project or work part-time at a startup, the GSB or a venture firm.
We have Start-X on Page Mill Road fostering a community for student innovators to develop their entrepreneurial skills and products. Around the world, student entrepreneurial groups are looking to build organizations similar to BASES (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students), which puts on its annual BASES Challenge competition to provides mentorship and funding for Stanford startups. (Full disclosure: I work for BASES.)
We can even observe how more “traditional” business groups like Stanford Finance, Stanford Consulting and the Blyth Fund have partnered this year to sponsor an entrepreneurial speaker series – one that, for example, recently featured EventBrite CEO Kevin Hartz.
But you don’t even need to join a student organization to get that kind of exposure. You could be sitting in Old Union, minding your own business, when someone who could potentially help you secure your seed funding round takes a seat next to you.
What’s most exciting about Stanford being in the business of developing people is just how entrepreneurial the people have gotten in the process: Students have taken it in to their own hands to create unique, individualized values for themselves while at Stanford. Campus culture’s emphasis on experiential learning manifests itself in the numerous startups, business pitches and hackathons that take place all the time.
That’s not to say that success is guaranteed. Before writing this piece, I consulted with friends who launched startups (with varying degrees of success) on campus. They’ve taken the renowned design thinking and startup courses. They consulted with professors and mentors throughout the process, while some of them even went through the BASES Challenge or a student accelerator on Sand Hill. Yet at the end of the day, the overwhelming takeaway was this: none of the theoretical case studies and ideal practices discussed in class have much weight unless you go out, start something and, more likely than not, fail.
Stanford objectively does a solid job in terms of developing people through myriad channels – typically institutional – relating to faculty interaction and research. Stanford’s remarkable ability to develop people has less to do with its tangible resources and more to do with the people who came here with the intention to “join” this business and this world.
These people internalized the Valley’s “Move fast, break things,” mantra – they created a safe space, with an abundance of risk-takers and potential co-founders, where people can actually test out the principles learned in tech entrepreneurship classes, make mistakes and continue to iterate.
Stanford’s business is to develop people, and its most effective tactic is this exact self-improving mechanism: it brings people together, so that in the process of learning, listening, and doing, they develop each other.
Stephany Yong is the Vice President of Branding at BASES. Contact her at email@example.com.
Authored by: Roneil Rumburg
Stanford’s faculty and Silicon Valley are inseparably intertwined.
Members of our engineering faculty will at times build, advise or work for Silicon Valley companies, and some professors advise entrepreneurship-focused student organizations like BASES or StartX, which encourage students to explore their interest in entrepreneurship. Faculty often leave Stanford to found companies, and many successful founders and leaders come back to teach: Even President Hennessy has deep industry ties after founding and advising technology companies throughout his academic career. Many of our most well-known Computer Science faculty members, like Mehran Sahami ‘92 M.S. ‘93 Ph.D. ‘99, Andrew Ng or David Cheriton, have had simultaneous successful careers in academia and industry.
Some have criticized this sort of revolving door between Stanford faculty and technology industry leaders as being detrimental to the purity of academia at Stanford. Stanford’s successful ties to Silicon Valley do indeed draw external attention away from the humanities, and with Computer Science recently overtaking Human Biology as the most popular major at Stanford, one might be led to believe that students are studying engineering disciplines for the wrong reasons.
Stanford’s increasing ties between research and industry are also often seen as detrimental because the motivations of industry may distract students from being motivated purely by the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I would argue, however, that Stanford students do still have the ability to choose to study whatever they want.
Moreover, this problem is independent of Stanford’s ties to the tech industry. Some students are always going to be drawn to studying what is currently in vogue, whether it’s engineering, economics, business, finance or any other discipline, and when trends change this group will move to whatever starts trending next. Pursuing engineering right now is fairly lucrative, but if the tech industry cools down, this class of students will be driven to pursue other more lucrative fields.
Stanford could try to solve this problem in a few different ways, but severing ties to industry or weakening the quality of the engineering school would not be likely to improve students’ confidence or freedom to pursue their real passions.
I would also argue that research linked to industry has some significant benefits. People often speak about a sort of “valley of death” in the commercialization of research, referring to the difficulty of successfully making research breakthroughs usable for the masses. In most cases, research done in labs never makes it into the hands of consumers. Stronger ties between research and industry could help strengthen the path from research to commercialization, because when commercialization is considered from the start, research findings may end up being more usable in industrial applications.
However, if all research were linked to industry needs, important breakthroughs or even complete fields would likely never have been discovered. Many of humanity’s greatest accomplishments have come from undirected research. Some sort of balance between these two competing areas needs to be maintained, but, if anything, it seems that we need more practical research to be done to overcome the valley of death.
Stanford’s mission statement, as written on ExploreDegrees, says that the objective of the university is “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” Stanford was founded at a time when academia was completely disconnected from everyday life, and for this reason the Stanford family hoped to bridge the gap between intellectualism and “usefulness” by founding our university.
Given this mission, it seems inevitable that faculty may want to leave academia at times to broaden their experience and gain some perspective on what it takes to succeed outside of the university. Stanford was founded on the notion that education needs to be practically useful, and it seems to me that the best way to achieve “direct usefulness” is to learn from those who have been successful both in and out of academia.
For those interested in industry, Stanford has an unprecedented level of access to industry leaders and knowledge, but for those uninterested in Silicon Valley, there is nothing forcing them to pursue this knowledge further. A true liberal education should give students the freedom to prepare themselves to follow any path they choose, whether it is in academia, industry or somewhere else entirely, and maintaining ties to industry gives Stanford access to a body of knowledge that could never exist solely in academia.
Roneil Rumburg ‘15 is the Chief Operating Officer of BASES. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org