Understanding the entrepreneurship culture and resources at Stanford

There is a strong entrepreneurial undercurrent at Stanford. Approximately 30% of undergraduate students surveyed self-reported that they considered themselves entrepreneurial. Perhaps as was to be expected, a greater percentage of engineers (47%) responded yes than those majoring in humanities and science (20%). Significantly, more upperclassmen than underclassmen noted that they were entrepreneurial. This suggests that being at Stanford may make students more entrepreneurial, or broaden their view of what it means to be entrepreneurial.

This trend was also reflected in the interviews. What was less apparent was the driving motivations behind the entrepreneurial spirit. Jay Borenstein, a computer science professor and mentor for SSE Labs noted that, "the Silicon Valley environment tends to drive more people to entrepreneurship than anything Stanford does [...] Stanford's impact is 20%, and the environment is 80%." However, students had many positive things to say about the environment. Ricky Yean, who co-founded Crowdbooster, a Twitter analytics tool, that was funded by Y Combinator, directly noted the role of Stanford's environment in driving him to work on his startup. "Stanford created the mindset," he said. "I originally came to Stanford literally because they gave me the most money." On the whole, many students pointed to the resources, student groups, and fellow students as key factors in their own decisions to go into entrepreneurship.

Indeed, Yin Yin Wu, CS '11, and co-president of BASES noted that the multitude of student groups "all fit a specific niche: STVP, CEO, ASES—they all fit different niches. There wouldn't be all these different programs if there wasn't the demand for them." Travis Kiefer, Urban Studies '11, and founder of Gumball Capital, a social entrepreneurship organization, also saw the value in student groups. "In BASES, for example, going through the institutional hierarchy gives you a lot of connections and leverage," he said.

Of course, for many students, they are introduced to entrepreneurship by other students. Part of this can come from student groups - Marty Hu, CS '11, co-founder of Tezzit, noted that, "student groups are a great way to meet other interested students," - but a great deal also comes from interactions in the classroom. In particular, a number of computer science classes allow students to work in group projects. These were cited as being key motivators for students to get involved in entrepreneurship. Joachim de Lombaert, Symbolic Systems '09, was not involved in student groups, noted that by taking advantage of his studies, he was able to meet great people who would become his future teammates and capitalize on course projects that would eventually lead to future start-up ideas. As a result, he created a number of successful projects, including the popular "Send Hotness" app on Facebook. De Lombaert noted that "Stanford is the catalyst and everything else is part of the reaction. [It] provides an environment where all the pieces are." Indeed, Erin Parker, Economics and Math '11, noted that she, "value[s] classes on the network they provide."

These viewpoints largely tended to be reflected in the survey as well. When asked, "what resources at Stanford were most helpful in preparing you for entrepreneurship," students across all four years noted that exposure to other entrepreneurial minded students was extremely valuable. It also seemed apparent that as students remained at Stanford, they began to realize the benefit of class projects increasingly cited with age. Approximately 30% of freshman surveyed valued class projects, as opposed to 70% of seniors.

Apart from student groups and class projects, institutionalized resources were also seen as being particularly helpful. Yin Yin Wu noted that, "ETL is the gateway drug to entrepreneurship." ETL, or Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders seminar is a for-credit class that brings in successful CEOs to speak to students about their experiences. This whets the appetites of students and allows them to realize that CEOs of major technology firms were once in their shoes and uncertain of exactly how to proceed or how best to implement their project. Other resources include the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) and their initiatives, including the Mayfield Fellows program, which providers a mentoring program to student entrepreneurs with the goal of fast tracking them into the Silicon Valley world. Additionally the Office of Technology Licensing provides students with resources to register their ideas and turn them registered intellectual property, evaluate them for commercial possibility, and whenever possible license them into industry.

However, there are also more intangible aspects about the Stanford environment. Failure on campus is not inherently bad. Travis Kiefer felt that the environment at Stanford allowed students to experiment and fail, and did not see failure as a negative. "Here in Silicon Valley, you never really hear that story (of failure)," he said. "It's survivor bias. I think Stanford does this well: A lot of people on the East Coast often view failure as final or fatal, like you lose once and never win again." Dan Thompson, CS '13, co-founder of Think Outside, a entrepreneurship networking collective agreed, and noted,"people here can fail without being ridiculed." Finally, a strong system of mentoring, a large alumni network and professors open to entrepreneurship provide students with the support structures needed to start their own companies, find other teammates, and gain access to venture capital firms.
Back to the top ↑

Entrepreneurship versus liberal arts

With such a strong culture of innovation, one might be left wondering whether Stanford focuses too much on entrepreneurship at the expense of a classical liberal arts education? University administrators are clearly concerned about the issue. A Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), chaired by history professor James Campbell '83 Ph.D. '89 and biology professor Susan McConnell, is currently underway at Stanford. The committee aims to study the shortcomings of the undergraduate curriculum and provide general solutions. One danger noted by Professor Campbell is the notion that students isolate themselves in "silos" rather than exploring different areas of study. As a result, at the heart of the SUES study is a push to "reclaim a vision of liberal education." More specifically, SUES aims to build broader, and more well rounded students in the future by introducing students to a broader set of general education requirements in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, applied sciences and technology.

However, student entrepreneurs tended to value liberal arts highly and did not appear to be concerned about a potential decline. Travis Kiefer noted that he was able to use skills he learned in an interdisciplinary major to help with him his start up. "I pulled a lot from psychology classes and urban classes studies, [such as] different perspectives and different thought processes," he said. "For a CS major who has no idea about psychology, it's hard to get your product out there. You think if it's good they will come, but that's not the case." Further, Erin Parker noted that if she could redo Stanford, she would "probably be an English major." "I definitely think there's a bias against fuzzy stuff," she said. "The whole fuzzy/techie divide got to me as a freshman. There are people who change the world who don't take Math 53." Marty Hu also explained that there was a lot of value that non-technical majors could bring to startups. "Being able to sell is the most important: You need to sell to your co-founders to get them to join you. You need to sell to investors. Liberal arts majors tend to have a better time doing this," he said. "A true liberal arts education teaches you the ability to learn anything."

The survey also found that students were largerly in favor of a broad education. When asked whether a university should provide a broad classical education or a focused vocational education, 77% of respondents preferred the former. This held across the different schools, however, there was a stronger preference within the school of Humanities and Sciences. Additionally, most students did not think that Stanford focuses too much on entrepreneurship at the expense of a classical liberal arts education. Approximately 83% of respondents indicated that they did not believe this to be the case. This too, held across class year and school.

However, this seemed to be at odds with some professors. Jay Borenstein noted that, "many students just don't see the value of majoring in the humanities." He argued that engineering produces graduates who go on to make a lot of money and give back to support those departments, while humanities graduates can't really hope to make a fortune, even if they have a fantastic idea (for example, an idea for a book). Thus, he noted that universities often have to use income from engineering to support the humanities departments. "Luckily, Stanford values the liberal arts education highly and continues to encourage this redistribution of resources, but it's still a fundamental problem in education everywhere," he said.
Back to the top ↑

The Thiel fellowship

The Thiel fellowship provides 20 students that are under the age of 20 and have a good idea, with $100,000 to work on their idea or project full time. This often means that students have to stop out of college for a couple of years, or forgo it altogether. Perspectives on this fellowship tended to be rather mixed. On the whole, 55% of students surveyed noted that if they had great idea and were offered $100,000 to work on it full-time for two years, they would take it. At first glance then, the data would appear to suggest that students were divided on the issue. However, examining how these responses changed based on the class year revealed some interesting insights. A higher proportion of upperclassman than underclassmen indicated that they would take the opportunity. Additionally, as expected, a higher percentage of respondents who voted that they considered themselves entrepreneurial also indicated that they were likely to accept the opportunity, should it arise.

Perhaps surprisingly however, when asked whether they would take the opportunity if they had just graduated from high school, the responses were divided according to class year. On the whole, a majority of students -- 63% -- would take the fellowship in college but would not take it after high school. With regard to the timing of the fellowship, however, a greater number of freshmen and seniors would take the opportunity than sophomores or juniors. This perhaps suggests that students tend to prefer the continuity of a 4 year college degree. Interestingly, 13% of respondents said that they would not take the opportunity in college, but would take it after high school. Is begs the question - Is college not satisfying their needs?

On the whole however, most people interviewed strongly valued a full college education, but also acknowledged that the skills learned when running a personal start up were extremely valuable. However, Professor Jay Borenstein was opposed to radically reforming an educational experience, and as such, did not view the Thiel fellowship in favorable terms. "I don't think it's an investment in the person, he said. "Is it worth it to disrupt the personal development of a high-schooler in exchange for the early experience of founding a company, or building a team? I don't think so."

Jim Plummer, the Dean of Stanford's School of Engineering, recently published an op-ed in TechCrunch in which he also seemed to echo Jay Borenstein. "The suggestion that students should bypass university education and jump immediately into the entrepreneurial world strikes me as equivalent to suggesting that all college athletes should simply play their sport for a couple of years, take no academic classes and then go on the NFL, the NBA etc," he wrote. He added that most young people he encountered, at Stanford and elsewhere, are not ready to start their own venture at 18 or even 20 years of age. "A university education gives a large majority the tools to become innovators and entrepreneurs throughout their live," he added. Alumni also valued the importance of a college degree, Joachim de Lombaert noted that in a hiring situation, a college graduate always has better prospects. He explained, "if they're a college grad and you're not, they have the advantage."

Back to the top ↑