George C. Ko ’15, aware of his luck and holding tightly to it, is an entrepreneur—a businessman, a dreamer, a musician of sorts. But standing outside of Lamont on a Sunday evening, he does not look much different from the other students who hurry past. He wears a black zip-up hoodie with a Harvard crest on the right sleeve, a heavy backpack hanging dutifully from his shoulders. It’s 5:20 p.m. on the dot, and he’s looking at the shuttle schedule on his phone.
The bus that runs between Soldiers Field and the Yard usually comes by Lamont at this time every week, he says, but when he calls the shuttle service he learns it won’t today: It’s Easter. Ko has some work to do at the Innovation Lab—he’s designing the beta site and functionalities for a multi-platform app, and he has a meeting to prepare for by Friday—so today it looks like he’ll walk.
Ko tries to go to the iLab weekly, but this term, with an even busier course load, it’s been difficult. Last semester he was pulling around three all-nighters a week, and ended up at Starbucks so many times that he accumulated a Gold Card that now earns him free drinks.
Besides serving as director of business development for Politoscape, the start-up that he co-founded, Ko is also part of the Harvard College Piano Society, where he is working to start a program that will bring professional artists to the Harvard community and the greater Boston area. His goal is to graduate from Harvard with an education that extends beyond the library. “I think it’s better to go this way,” he says, crossing the Weeks footbridge, and turning left on Soldiers Field Road.
Past the Business School’s iconic campus—brick buildings and white trim, green lawns and flowering trees—and closer to Allston, Harvard’s nearly six-month-old Innovation Lab sits on the edge of a large, industrial parking lot. Ko swipes in at the front door, entering into the same lobby Mark Zuckerberg toured in November.
“I can totally understand why people like Bill Gates and Zuck dropped out,” Ko admits, citing the around-the-clock time commitment required to build a company. But the mentors Ko has found among teachers, iLab connections, and other professionals have been trying to the myth of the entrepreneur dropout: the romantic idea that a student must forgo a formal education to become a successful entrepreneur.
The iLab is one of many recent University efforts to encourage and foster student innovation on campus. Five years ago, Fortune Magazine reported that 3,000 colleges and universities had already provided their students with course offerings in entrepreneurship. Most recently, Faust’s inaugural President’s Challenge demonstrated the University’s increased emphasis on student innovation coupled with an undergraduate degree, and hints at the evolving definition of a modern liberal arts education.
I. RELEARNING THE BASICS
A week before Ko crosses the river toward the iLab, Professor Joseph B. Lassiter shuffles through a pile of papers in his large-windowed office at the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship. The papers detail the basic information of the teams that have submitted applications to the President’s Challenge; he’s trying to organize the teams according to the schools from which members of each applicant group come. The sheer number of applications and resources provided by collaboration between schools within the University, he explains, “gives you”—he means students—“a special burden to do ambitious things and pursue them with vigor.”
The contest has attracted over 170 submissions—so many that announcement of the final contestants has been pushed back by over a week to allow for more review. There are more students, it seems, wishing to alleviate one of five social issues proposed, more groups committed to securing the $100,000 award and support offered with the prize, than the application committee was originally prepared to handle. (As of press time the results had not yet been disclosed.)
White-haired and wearing thin-rimmed glasses, Lassiter specializes in entrepreneurial management at the Business School and serves as the Faculty Chair of the iLab (“You’re supposed to rise when you say that,” he jokes).
“Entrepreneurship is not a new thought at Harvard Business School,” he states. After World War II, interest in the study of entrepreneurship intensified as Business School professors debated how to best teach it within a classroom setting. It’s HBS Professor Howard H. Stevenson’s definition of the term that is quoted high on one of the walls at the iLab in greeting: “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources currently controlled.”
For Lassiter, entrepreneurship is an intrinsic component of how we’ve been taught to think. Energetically rolling his desk chair between the table where he sits and his computer, Lassiter recalls having stumbled upon an interesting slide in his third-grade daughter’s eReader. While discussing what she had done at school, he saw a diagram of the scientific method. “It hit me that all I’d seen in [my research] is the scientific process in business application,” he says. “It was this experimental view—this idea of how you design quick experiments so you can adapt and change and discover the nature of a problem—and in the end, that’s what entrepreneurship tries to do.”
What constitute a real change in entrepreneurship’s significance, however, are the shifting prices and risks associated with “starting up” a new project today, especially those in consumer internet-based sectors. Lassiter cites globalization, shifting global politics, and the opening of different markets as contributing factors to the greater feasibility of innovation in business.
“It’s become much, much less costly to start a business,” he explains. “You can find out very quickly that an idea isn’t worth pursuing.”
It’s exactly these changes that have created a new niche of students on campus who are fascinated by entrepreneurship. This fall, Lassiter aimed to address the needs of this group by offering a new General Education course, United States in the World 36: “Innovation & Entrepreneurship” American Experience in Comparative Perspective,” which he taught with HBS professor and course head Mihir A. Desai. The popular course enrolled two students below its 95-person limit.
II. CHANGES IN TRADITION
Marc F. Atiyeh ’14 thinks USW36 is the best class he will ever take at Harvard, and stresses the need for more classes that focus on the case-method approach associated with the B-School. Atiyeh’s views on learning entrepreneurial skills in the classroom are grounded in a country far from Cambridge. “I’m going to talk quickly about myself,” he blurts out apologetically. In Lebanon, his home, it’s hard to make a living if you’re not an established doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
That’s why Atiyeh had originally wanted to go to MIT—to learn the practical, technical engineering skills he expected he would need in the future. But Atiyeh decided on Harvard because he thought it would provide him with a better network. “Everyone always says, ‘It doesn’t matter what you know, but who you know,’” Atiyeh explains.
At home, simply saying that he studies at Harvard earns Atiyeh headlines and attracts public attention. In February, it gave him the opportunity to present his international SAT-tutoring company, Help Me Get In, on “Min El-Ekhir,” a talk show on MTV Lebanon. “So I am leveraging my education at Harvard to help these students [through my start-up],” Atiyeh says.
The app created by Vladimir Bok ’14, who also took USW36, performs some of the same basic functions as HeyTell, he admits. “But have you seen HeyTell? What does it look like? It looks like garbage, right?” Visibly proud, he takes out his smart phone to demonstrate Coco Voice’s capabilities—it is better, you have to admit—scrolling through different conversations, sending voice messages to his most recent contact as an example.
Bok enthusiastically relates the University’s cultivation of students with entrepreneurial potential; he himself is an example. “The story goes that people go to Harvard wanting to change the world, but leave going into I-banking or consulting and wanting to make money,” Bok laughs. “In my case, it’s the opposite.” Bok was interested in a financial track, but meandered from that path after his freshman year. Taking Computer Science 50 last year sparked his interest. Through a networking event at the iLab in November, Bok met his business partner, a statistics Ph.D. student at Harvard who had developed the original prototype for Coco Voice.
In an entrepreneurial setting, changing paths, taking risks—the possibility of failure—all are associated only with experience. Having such opportunity in the absence of other obligations is particular to being a student, and “it’s a tremendous time to do it,” says Lassiter.
Atiyeh echoes Lassiter’s emphasis on the university’s risk-free environment and the ease with which such projects can succeed. He references the “Draw Something” iPhone application; the company didn’t spend any money advertising and was just sold for nearly $200 million, he says. He’s sure that it’s time and interest, of which he seems to have infinite supply, that matters. “Why not work on two different things?” he asks, hinting at other projects he wants to pursue. “Something like one in 10 start-ups end up being good, so maybe I want to do 10 to succeed in one.”
His grin breaks the solemn earnestness with which he usually speaks, and you believe that it’s almost possible, that he probably could.
III. A FULL-TIME VENTURE
The enthusiasm of students like Atiyeh and Bok reflects an attitude that, according to School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Lecturer Beth Altringer, stems from an increasingly accessible cultural narrative that traces young adults, even teenagers, starting successful businesses of their own. It’s the extreme underdog story, the screenplay of “The Social Network,” in which a savvy dropout still makes it big.
But Altringer cautions that we overestimate the frequency with which that story actually plays out. “This is kind of a promise,” she describes. “You used to have to work for decades for someone else to create [something of your own], but now at least it seems really possible that you could do it yourself.” She pauses. “How could that not be immensely attractive, compared to other options?”
Attractive, maybe, but W. Hugo Van Vuuren ’07, points out that “start-ups are perhaps the hardest thing that you can do with your life.” He continues, “It’s lonely, it’s painful, you run out of money, your family doubts you, you doubt yourself. It’s the hardest thing you can do.” Facebook, as the go-to example, “is a once in a decade start-up.”
Recognizing that entrepreneurial students would benefit from institutional support, Van Vuuren and venture capitalist Patrick S. Chung ’96, along with their faculty adviser, SEAS professor David A. Edwards, launched the Experiment Fund this past January. The seed investment fund aims to offer financial support to projects created on college campuses like Harvard’s, and to incentivize continued connection to Cambridge as a hub of technology and innovation.
Listing a slew of Harvard innovators throughout history—from John Adams to Sheryl K. Sandberg ’91—Van Vuuren appreciates how Harvard “champions” the liberal arts, “creat[ing] men at first—now young men and women—who know how to think.” Yet, the Experiment Fund does not extend to students who intend to simultaneously balance the leap into such a venture with their academics. Van Vuuren does not believe this is possible: “A start-up is a full-time adventure.”
IV. SEXIER THAN GOLDMAN
Sujay Tyle, only 18 years old but formerly of the Class of 2013, takes off his glasses when he answers questions, dragging them back and forth across the table. Tyle started his first company when he was nine—it was called “Sprited Sweets,” and sold custom-wrapped candy bars. Even in sweatpants he has the air of an experienced professional, but when he spots a friend from across the dining hall, Tyle just as easily molds into the attitude of a college student: “Hey, dude, what brings you to Mather?”
During his occasional visits back to Harvard, Tyle has discerned a larger emphasis on entrepreneurship on campus: “Maybe it’s more sexy,” he laughs, his eyes squinting, “because I-banking has become less sexy. Google and Facebook are hotter than Goldman and Morgan Stanley.”
Although he loves Harvard, Tyle hopes that he won’t need to return for more than the occasional weekend: “I didn’t leave out of any disrespect for Harvard,” he says. “I left more because I personally thought I would never have this chance in my life again, and I’m a pretty risky guy.”
The Thiel Fellowship that Tyle won last June mandates that he take at least two years off of school, but the $100,000 award and network of successful entrepreneurs at his fingertips might be even rarer than a Harvard degree. A quote by Mark Twain on the homepage of the Thiel Fellowship website reads, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Now working for a growing tech company, Tyle likely won’t need a Harvard diploma to move onward and upward: “At the end of the day it’s about a story you’re creating, more than about the classes you’re taking,” he explains. Tyle’s story seems to fall into the myth Altringer describes of the young and instantly successful entrepreneur.
“In the classroom,” Altringer says, “you can fail safely in a way that the real world doesn’t provide. In that way I don’t see it as really different from training a scholar or someone in the humanities or in engineering.”
Unlike Altringer, Tyle does not believe a formal education is essential to entrepreneurial success. “The only way to learn about entrepreneurship is to actually do it,” he says. “It can’t come from a book, it can’t be taught.” And, although Tyle attributes much of his maturity to his experiences here as a student, he says that he has learned more in the past five months away from Cambridge than he has in his life.
Like Tyle, Max D. Novendstern ’12 decided it was necessary to take time off to devote all his energy to the internet start-up he co-founded, CommonPlace, which is dedicated to building up a local community network.
“For the first 20 years of our lives, we’re locked in a system that teaches us to think about ourselves every second of the day,” he says confidently. “But entrepreneurship forces you to abandon yourself and focus entirely on a product that might matter for someone else.”
Novendstern chose to leave because he doesn’t believe that you can experience this change in focus as a student. “The challenge of Harvard—of impressing TFs in section and reading through class syllabi—became much less interesting” he laughs. But he “100 percent plans” to come back and graduate, citing figures like Paul Farmer and Lawrence Lessig as the “archetypes for the 21st century activist,” the perfect combinations of entrepreneurship and Harvard: people who study the effects of the actions they propose.
Academia, he says, forces us to consider the serious questions students must solve: “If you can’t point to a book that addresses the problem you’re working on, then there’s a good chance the problem’s not worth your time,” he says.
V. THE RIGHT TIMING
After starting a type of turbo-tax program for student loans for a CS50 project last year, Zach M. Hamed ’14 was determined to pursue this work, initially through the HackHarvard incubator program, of which he is now on the Board, and later throughout the summer. The project, however, ended up merging with another start-up that was working on a similar idea. When Hamed was offered a position on the condition that he take time off from school, he turned it down.
He felt as though the project wasn’t his own anymore, he says, and wasn’t willing to take the risk. Hamed slows a bit, pausing: “Of the people I know that are into entrepreneurship, this is one of the more pessimistic views,” he warns. “But until there’s a class [in which] I can work on a start-up and get credit for it to ease my workload, people are going to continue to take time off, because that’s the only way they’re going to get the company and the business they want. I have yet to see a legitimate start-up run out of the college.”
A proponent of all the ways in which the University has been moving toward a focus on innovation—the iLab he frequents, the classes he takes, the resources to which he often turns—Hamed still thinks the University could do more. Harvard does not provide enough funding, or academic support, to allow students to comfortably pursue these options while still remaining students. “Give me a way to work on a start-up, so that I don’t have to drop out of school,” he says.
There are the outliers, of course, the students who seem to find their way into entrepreneurial paths out of instinct and who can balance it all. When Annemarie E. Ryu ’13 arrives at Quincy dining hall, she is enthusiastic and well-put-together—straight brown hair, a white button-down shirt, a comfortable smile—but she’s a bit tired, you can tell. “It’s been a long day,” she confesses. She’s just returned from New York, where she attended an official reception as one of Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women of the year.
Ryu’s most recent project is called Global Village Fruits, a company that aims to import jackfruit to U.S. grocery stores, providing more income for local farmers in India. Although Ryu calls herself a social entrepreneur (“My main motivator is the benefit of others”), this venture is what she pegs as a more “profit-oriented enterprise,” sparked when she tried jackfruit in a market in India last summer and was shocked at its surprising flavor. Ryu’s pitch was strong enough to get Whole Foods on board; jackfruits will be sold in this franchise and other stores within the next few months.
Ryu laughs—there’s hesitance, a pause—when prompted for the number of projects like this one on which she has worked: “Oh, that’s so broad, though. What counts as a project?” Then, more seriously: “A lot—I don’t even know off the top of my head.”
Success in extra-curricular projects aside, Ryu still places a strong emphasis on her academics. A social anthropology concentrator who is also pre-med, she sees schoolwork as an integral part of her college experience. “I’m here to take classes,” she says, “it’s never a burden for me to do my coursework.”
There’s a myth, she says, that you can’t possibly be doing well in school if you’re doing entrepreneurship, but that’s not necessarily true, and it doesn’t mean that college is not the right time to take that leap. “I feel like if you put off following your dreams until some later time, there comes a time when you forget that they’re dreams and you never get to following any of them.”
VI. ONGOING EXPERIMENTS
Ko, who has by this time made his way to the iLab, has experienced greater intersection between his academics and his projects than Ryu. In fact, the idea for his start-up was developed in a class he took last fall: Altringer’s Engineering Sciences 21: “The Innovator’s Practice.”
“Can you teach someone to be a successful entrepreneur?” Altringer asks. “I don’t know if that’s a useful question. The goal of education is not generally to turn someone into a specific thing, it’s to give them development opportunities so that they can decide what they become.”
Ko’s start-up, Politoscape, grew out of a last-minute change of heart he experienced while developing his final project for Altringer’s class. Weeks before the class’s deadline for a prototype for the final project, Ko’s group developed a new idea: to counteract the political echo chamber that characterizes the 2012 elections by helping people broaden the scope of sources they access for political news. Months after the final proposal, as this Sunday afternoon comes to a close, Ko is still working on the project.
The project born inside the classroom now often keeps him outside of it, but Ko remains optimistic. He knows the lingo of the trade—those same upbeat, inspiring and sometimes absurd quotations that are written in colorful whiteboard markers around pillars in the iLab: “Welcome to the IDEATION ZONE,” or, “In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.” When Ko talks about his business plans, he sounds older than he looks, but there are moments when the novelty shines through. “I’m just a freshman, but I wish it would never end,” he glows. “The passion for knowledge here is really vivid, it’s really wonderful.”
Gordon S. Jones, director of the iLab, thinks this enthusiasm is something to be harnessed: “We as a University have an opportunity that has not been addressed to create a university-wide resource. When I think about the trend, I think that within Harvard, this is a realization that the University wants to be institutionally resourcing this.”
Ko walks into the iLab and through the space—past circular conference rooms, the “student-venture pods,” the multi-purpose classroom where desks can be rearranged into different formations for group activities. The sun is just beginning to set over the arches of Harvard stadium, visible from the horizontal windows at the end of the building. The motion-sensing lights in another section of the room flicker off, and a few others in one of the conference room are all that remain. The iLab is emptying, but Ko is just setting up for the evening. He opens his computer, takes out his phone to place a call (“I’m at the iLab now, do you want to stop by later?”), and pops open a Coke. Next is concentration. The following day, he’ll find out that he has won a Gov 2.0 Grant from the Institute of Politics, allowing his team to further develop Politoscape in even less time than was previously planned. For now, the cleared work tables, the rows of white boards covered with diagrams and equations, the momentarily unoccupied chairs—all stare back in anticipation.
—Alexander J.B. Wells contributed to the reporting of this feature.