Young Entrepreneurs Put College on Hold

Students who worry about balancing classes and trying to start a new company shouldn’t fret—they’re in good company. Bill Gates, arguably the University’s most famous drop out, used to fall asleep in his combanitorial applied math class because he had been up writing code all night.

But—technically—he is not a drop out.

Harvard’s leave policy—which allows students to return and complete their degree after an indefinite time of absence—is a boon for contemporary tech entrepreneurs following in Gates’ footsteps. For them, attending Harvard full-time while simultaneously building a company is an impossible balance.

John B. Collison, who would have been a sophomore in Winthrop House this year, officially went “on leave” last fall to work full time on his tech start-up, Stripe, a web company that allows businesses to charge money online—without the long processing delays of companies like PayPal.

Collison can no longer swipe into Harvard’s dorms or dining halls, but he does have access to Harvard’s libraries and can log into fas.harvard.edu.

“I think nobody ever actually drops out of Harvard,” Collison says. “It’s a very optimistic view.”

“Harvard is great because the cost of taking time off is extremely, extremely low,” Collison adds. “You just fill out a housing form.”

In a field that has volatile rates of success—according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, only six out of 1 million high-tech business ideas ultimately become companies that go public, and 60 percent of high-tech startups that get venture capital eventually go bankrupt—the decision to leave Harvard is unconventional.

And at a campus that has given birth to some of this generation’s most successful tech entrepreneurs it has become clear to those who hope to pursue their own start-ups that if they want to make their idea happen they probably have to go on leave.

While the College can provide prospective tech companies with great resources—experts in the field, business acumen, and access to a young, tech-savvy audience—it is also difficult to balance classes and a young company.

But it also represents a deal of courage to leave Harvard, according to Harry R. Lewis ’68, a computer science professor who taught both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg before they left Harvard.

“This field is extremely dynamic—the windows of opportunity are very narrow sometimes,” Lewis muses between stories about Gates falling asleep in CS 121 and an email exchange with Zuckerberg that introduced “Six Degrees to Harry Lewis,” the precursor to Facebook.

“They both had an idea, [and] they just saw an opportunity that they recognized ... was not going to be there in six months,” he adds. “The real question is whether they’re willing to risk failure on some kind of dream they have.”

DECIDING TO LEAVE SCHOOL

Working 80 hours per week on his start up, Meir Lakhovsky was quickly realizing that building his company while taking classes at the same time was simply not a workable option.

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