By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan
Tonight I unfortunately have to cheat a little bit. I’m going to be reposting a guest blog I wrote for the Startup America Partnership as my column this week. I do this for two reasons: 1) Fetchnotes rolled out to the team this week and I’ve been swamped contacting press about our beta and 2) the guest blog is exactly something I would write for NSU. Feel free to yell at me in the comments.
This guest post was written by Alex Schiff, and is the first in our upcoming blog series: “Starting Up On Campus.”
Earlier this year, Peter Thiel made waves by offering $100,000 to college students to leave school for two years and start a business. Suddenly, the unassailable necessity of a college degree was being called into question. The topic has been gaining attention recently both in academic and political circles, but the issue seems to always present an incompatible relationship between school and startups.
But like most things in life, reality is far from a dichotomy. Done properly, universities play a pivotal role in encouraging entrepreneurship in two ways. First, they produce an immense amount of research that gets commercialized every year. More importantly — and this is what I’d like to focus on in this post — they create the environment in which entrepreneurs live and work.
I’m going into my junior year at the University of Michigan, specifically the Ross School of Business. I’m 20 years old and I’m working way more than full-time starting a company called Fetchnotes. Due to the prestige of the engineering and business programs and the talented people they house, Ann Arbor is a natural hotbed of entrepreneurial students. Getting these smart, innovative and action-oriented people in the room together is the first step to turning them into entrepreneurs.
But it’s not the only step. The most important thing that turned me on to startups was exposure to the startup culture. The entrepreneurial community has an addicting and self-reinforcing dynamism. The more you experience it, the more you will inevitably get sucked in and start to become one of us. That’s why events like Startup Weekend and Michigan’s 1000 Pitches (an idea pitch competition) are so powerful for young people. Often for the first time, you have a chance to get these ideas out of your head and turn them into something. It’s empowering.
Entrepreneurship’s greatest enemy is inertia. A truly entrepreneurial community is one that constantly makes things happen. It need not be the next big social network or the newest local-social-mobile buzzword. It’s also the doctor who approaches cancer treatment in a radically new way and isn’t content with being told, “Your patient will never make it.” It’s the writer who self-distributes his or her work with a blog rather than becoming beholden to publishing houses. To completely butcher a Robert Kennedy quote, it’s anyone who looks at what is and wonders, “Why the heck not?”
With students only being on campus for four years, it is the universities’ responsibility as a permanent institution to prevent this culture from coming and going with each graduating class. They must supplement exposure with a fundamentally entrepreneurial curriculum. No, this is not classes focused on “how to raise money” or “marketing new products” or anything particularly “startup-focused.” It is baking an experiential, learn-by-doing approach into the core of the university’s ethos. This is where I believe we are falling short.
The most innovative class project I ever had was in third grade. It was called mini-society, and everyone set up storefront “businesses” in the hallway. I think I sold frosted pretzels my mom made and some Dragonball Z action figures. But more education was crammed into that project than anything in my subsequent years of learning. Just as Steve Blank says we need to get out of the building to learn about customers, we all need to get out of the classroom to really internalize new concepts. A greater emphasis should be placed on free-form projects that allow us to define our goals and the path to achieve them.
During my freshman year, I had an entire group of problems marked wrong on one of my math exams. I asked my teacher why, and he said “well, you got the answers right, but you didn’t get to them the way we taught in class.” We are groomed to tinker with systems and strive toward incremental gains rather than transformational achievements.
But let’s aim bigger. This isn’t just about business or startups or the next social-local-mobile daily deal network for pet lovers. It’s about instilling the entrepreneurial spirit into the very core of a college education, no matter what you plan to do with it. It’s about creating an entrepreneurial society that isn’t afraid to take the reigns of its own destiny.