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My father is an entrepreneur. As a child, when asked what my dad’s line of work was, I would make use of that word, the most mysterious in my 5th grade vocabulary. Its meaning was nearly as ambiguous to me as my conception of what my father actually did. From my young perspective, entrepreneurship was perceived somewhat negatively—it wasn’t working for a big company, it wasn’t having a particular job, and it certainly wasn’t as cool to my elementary mind as the doctors, lawyers, and big business people who parented my friends.
Today, I have a firmer (and more flattering) grasp on entrepreneurship, but it remains a word with which many are either uncomfortable or too comfortable. To some it means joblessness, desperation, and an inability to swallow the necessary pride to work for someone else. To others, it’s an ambiguous catchall for the unconventional—creating jobs, being innovative, and getting on the fast track to becoming a captain of industry.
While it can lend itself to either of those definitions, entrepreneurship stands somewhere in between. Many students never gain a clear understanding of entrepreneurship while they are here, though the field aligns in many ways with their interests and strengths. And as a result, most Columbia students do not explore a career path that is compatible with the education we receive.
Entrepreneurship, according to entrepreneurs
To those who actually engage in entrepreneurship, the word means the practice of building an organization that addresses a problem or vacancy in society. This can include non-profits and for-profits, Internet startups and food trucks, and two- to 2000-person companies.
“Entrepreneurship doesn’t always mean business, and startup doesn’t always mean tech,” Abigail Lewis, the program director for the Barnard Athena Center’s Athena Scholars Program and CC ’96, says. The Athena Center addresses the topic not just as for-profit, but also explores social entrepreneurship.
The common thread for all forms of entrepreneurship is a startup’s risky inception—entrepreneurs see risk and charge ahead into it, convinced that though the resources needed may not be immediately available, what’s needed will be there when the time comes.
Because of the wide range of entrepreneurial applications, it’s frequently thought of more as a mindset. Chris Wiggins CC ’93, a professor of Applied Mathematics at Columbia Engineering and cofounder of hackNY, a tech initiative, sees entrepreneurship as a broader term than most people assume. “Entrepreneurship is not limited to profit, but identifying a problem that multiple people have and feeling a drive to solve the problem.” Through speaking with several entrepreneurs, I found that they described their way of thinking of the world as one that revolves around problems and solutions.
Important to the process of critical problem solving, they say, is communicating effectively. “Successful entrepreneurs take a complex idea and communicate it clearly,” according to Wiggins. Entrepreneurs rely on their communication skills to convince people to work for them, investors to put money down, or individuals to try their services. Whether she is promoting a nonprofit or selling a product, an entrepreneur’s mind must be able to grasp how ideas are best conveyed.
In order to enter an industry with a new organization, an entrepreneur must educate himself quickly, so that the services provided will actually solve the identified problem. Beyond that, the frequency of industry changes necessitates the ability to swiftly acquire working knowledge in rapidly-changing environments.
“Having the analytical thinking ability, and being able to learn quickly and think on your feet is important for being an entrepreneur,” Eileen Lee, CC ’05, says, Lee serves as COO for Venture for America, a program that places recent graduates in startup businesses in economically struggling cities. (Some disclosure: I am applying to be a Venture for America fellow.)
Entrepreneurship is not the first role where we’ve seen characteristics like these valued and developed. The liberal arts—the guiding philosophy for a Columbia College education—places great importance on developing precisely these attributes.
Though often referred to in the abstract, the liberal arts and their study have been considered the ideal framework for mental development for centuries. The underlying educational philosophy contends that critical writing and discussion not only educates a mind, but also develops it. It was in this spirit that the Core Curriculum was born.
Despite the common complaints about the Core, one cannot deny that it forces Columbia undergraduates to think in disciplines—Neo-Platonic philosophy, for instance—that they may not have selected on their own. The point is not topical knowledge, but mental fitness—for there is no way that Columbia could teach every piece of information necessary for a successful life. David Soloff, CC ’91, cofounder and CEO of Metamarkets, points to his Core education as a significant skill builder underpinning his entrepreneurial history.
“A student of the Core becomes adept at making compelling arguments, stories, and [understanding] how people do different things,” he says. “In some ways it’s not fully baked for a specific field or endeavor.”
The liberal arts ideal is to create, through discussion, reading, and writing, individuals who are, above all, rigorous critical thinkers. With this one skill, students should be able to successfully encounter and overcome any of life’s challenges. This philosophy has been tested for centuries, and the reason places like Columbia perpetuate it is that it has been shown as the best soil for world-changing ideas.
Despite the apparent rewards of such a philosophy, Columbia students who have embraced the value of this type of education have generally avoided entrepreneurship, an occupation that promises to put a critical thinker to the test. According to CCE survey results from the class of 2010, more than 45 percent of graduating seniors entered the financial services, education, consulting, research, or legal industries, while only 1.6 percent was to be self-employed. Lewis sees entrepreneurship as a place for liberal arts graduates. “The skills you get in a liberal arts education, like critical analysis, lead to better innovative thinking—for entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship,” she says. And yet so few enter the field.
If the link between entrepreneurship and the liberal arts is so natural, why is it not a dominant career path for Columbia students? Why the persistent disconnect between educational philosophy and vocational intent? To understand, consider the competition.
The Holy Trinity
Ask any graduating senior what she is hoping to do after graduation, and she will probably indicate interest in one of three options: consulting, banking, or graduate school. They are the holy trinity of post-graduation occupations for Ivy League students. While an accepted fact on campus, the underpinning reasons bear exploration.
The graduate school track is not a new development—there have always been many students seeking to become lawyers, doctors, and academics. The consulting and banking choices are relatively new, but their appeal is readily apparent for those looking for stable, steady work straight out of college. Because companies like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs are flush with cash, they do not have to limit their outreach to campuses. They can afford to have several refreshment-laden info sessions in Faculty House, attend every career fair, and interview on campus to make it as easy as possible for students to apply. David Whittemore CC ’06, an entrepreneur, outlines this phenomenon.
“Right now, too many of our best and brightest minds are taking the easy and clear path—the one provided to them by the aggressive recruiting machines of the big consulting and banking firms,” he says.
These companies also let money speak for them in the form of huge entry-level salaries. The CCE survey reveals that 33 percent of last year’s graduates entered jobs with a base (read: pre-bonus) salary of more than $60,000. Given the presence of student debt and the attractiveness of immediate financial stability, the salaries offered by consulting and banking firms are hard to pass up.
The promise of an interdisciplinary job attracts the swaths of students who are not yet ready to specialize in an industry. Working for a consulting firm or an investment bank, we are told, means developing a wide range of skills that can be applied to whatever industry we eventually settle on. So, while getting paid well, we can defer deciding what we want to make our life’s work.
Despite these compelling reasons for more of a mainstream track, the entrepreneurs I spoke to highlighted why their field provides benefits that other routes don’t—and not just for the individual, but for society at large.
The economy continues to struggle, perpetuating a dearth of jobs for recent graduates—9.4 percent of college graduates under the age of 24 are unemployed. Amidst a discussion on how to increase employment, the Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit that encourages entrepreneurship, has released a report indicating that all of the net job creation in the past generation is attributable to small businesses and entrepreneurship.
According to the report, startups add an average of 3 million jobs each year, compared with 1 million net jobs lost from big companies. “We need to get more top students from schools like Columbia to head to early stage companies if we want to improve and re-develop our economy,” Andrew Yang, Law ’99 and founder of Venture for America, says. There are already movements in this direction close to Columbia. New York City is increasingly becoming a center of tech entrepreneurship, with many successful online companies from GroupMe to FourSquare establishing headquarters in the City.
Entrepreneurship is a pursuit that makes full use of the valuable liberal arts mind, it creates jobs in a terrible economy, but it’s up against some major recruiting competition. What can Columbia College do as an institution to promote entrepreneurship among undergraduates?
One proposal for fostering entrepreneurship is a curricular change. Some point to the example of Columbia Engineering (formerly SEAS), which has a minor in entrepreneurship, and suggest that Columbia College either incorporate the minor or offer its own entrepreneurship classes. Jack McGourty, associate dean for undergraduate studies, introduced the minor to the engineering school in 2008 with the goal of empowering engineering students to apply their technical skill to the creation of new ventures. The classes taught in the minor echo that sentiment, with most of them offering specific business skills that would be required by an engineer.
Barnard also offers classes in entrepreneurship, particularly social entrepreneurship. These courses and those at SEAS are open to Columbia College students; Barnard’s social entrepreneurship course is taken by many CC students. In this indirect way, CC students have opportunities to be exposed to formalized entrepreneurship training, but skepticism remains about the effectiveness of curricular training in entrepreneurship.
Liberal arts purists complain that having entrepreneurship classes would be a step towards pre-professionalism. The community is already sensitive to this idea, which showed when Columbia College introduced the special Business concentration and the Financial Economics major. To the critics, teaching a professional skill related to entrepreneurship would not produce the intellectual vigor of more traditional liberal arts classes.
Other critiques come from entrepreneurs themselves, who question whether entrepreneurship can even be taught in a classroom setting. Many of them told me that in their experience, success is achieved by going out in the world—they “just do it.”
“My opinion is that you can’t really teach what we’re doing. I’m learning more doing this than anything in business school,” Zach Sims, a senior in CC, says about his own entrepreneurial endeavors. These include working for GroupMe and founding Codecademy, a website which teaches its users how to code and recently raised $2.5 million in funding.
Even students who have declared the entrepreneurship minor do not see it as a lynchpin in whether or not they will become entrepreneurs. For those decisions, they look to their experiences in the entrepreneurial world, not the lessons learned in the classroom. Brian Watson, senior in SEAS and VP of Networking for the Columbia Organization for Rising Entrepreneurs, says, “It’s accepted that the best way to learn [entrepreneurship] is through doing. Formal education can give you a skill set to make you comfortable, but the training doesn’t mean anything until you’ve gone out and done it.”
NYU, a school that has made a name for itself in the New York entrepreneurial community, has found a middle ground between teaching entrepreneurship and leaving it to the students. One of the most popular classes at the school is called Ready, FIRE! Aim, taught by Lawrence Lenihan, a successful entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and founder of Pequot Ventures and FirstMark Capital.
In addition to his own lectures, Lenihan brings in experienced entrepreneurs from various industries to speak. While principles of entrepreneurship are the subject of lectures, the class relies on professionals sharing from their experiences. To complement these, the assignments for the class involve hands-on challenges and exposure to real entrepreneurial challenges. If Columbia College was determined to go the route of offering courses, this would seem the most natural path.
Outside the administration?
Entrepreneurship has already seen some success among undergraduates, despite a lack of formal administrative assistance or support.
In 2010, Professor Wiggins of Columbia Engineering co-founded hackNY with a colleague at NYU. Dedicated, according to Wiggins, to “giving a taste of startups and entrepreneurship,” hackNY organizes “hackathons” in which students get together for 24 hours of coding. Students create new programs and, potentially, the foundations of new businesses. Additionally, it supports the hackNY Fellows program, a summer internship for students to meet experienced entrepreneurs and other like-minded students. In these community settings, the mutual encouragement provides the positive encouragement of entrepreneurship that may be lacking in typical academic environments.
The student-led Application Development Initiative also provides a platform and community for students at Columbia to explore the types of programs they can create and, if possible, turn into businesses. According to their website, their goal is “to nurture student creativity and technological aptitude by creating a communal resource for developers of all talents and interests.”
One of the most effective examples of how Columbia College is already fostering entrepreneurship arose from students and is perpetuated by alumni. The Columbia Venture Community began as an unofficial group of Columbia-affiliated individuals generally interested in entrepreneurship. “We deliberately wanted a group that spanned across every school and across students, faculty, and alumni, because of how nascent the entrepreneurial community was back then and we wanted to leverage the benefits of wide access across schools,” David Whittemore, CC ’06 and current president of CVC, says.
With more than 2,000 members, it has become a central hub for startup-minded Columbia alumni and students. CVC falls into the experiential school of thought regarding the best way for CC students to become entrepreneurs. “We try to support every life cycle of an entrepreneur: from students learning about it as a field, to helping people as they start their businesses, to having experienced entrepreneurs share their expertise,” Whittemore says.
CVC actually assisted one of the most dramatic recent examples of entrepreneurship in Columbia College. Sims is currently on a leave of absence to advance Codecademy, which he started with Ryan Bubinski, CC ’11, in June of this year, while at Y Combinator, a prestigious startup incubator in Silicon Valley. At the beginning of his time at Columbia, Sims met some key people through CVC who ended up giving him resources for navigating through the burgeoning tech-startup world of New York.
After working for GroupMe, a group texting application created by Jared Hecht, CC ’09, and recently purchased by Skype for $85 million, Sims began pursuing his own entrepreneurial interests. While he had been interested in entrepreneurship when he came to Columbia, the implementation of his plans was enhanced by the CVC. According to Sims, it was through CVC that he connected with Columbia alumni who helped him break into the New York startup scene.
In many ways, Sims serves as a model for what Columbia College could do for its students when it comes to entrepreneurship. The school cannot possibly create passion or make entrepreneurs. It can, however, provide as many resources as possible to expose students to the prospect of entrepreneurship, and the tools to make an entrance into the startup world as smooth as possible.
So what can Columbia College do to better foster the entrepreneurial spirit? It needs to step back where it’s hindering and stock up where it’s lacking.
When it comes to alumni and students who want to come together to pursue entrepreneurship, Columbia can come to their aid, not make it difficult to use resources in bringing people together. For example, Columbia Venture Community was initially met with chilliness by the administration. “Now that they see what we’re doing, they’ve been really helpful and have reached out multiple times to support us,” according to Whittemore.
The Center for Career Education could do both—it should beef up on its familiarity with entrepreneurial activity in the city so that its representatives can present entrepreneurship as an exciting, stimulating career choice. Their silence about working in the startup world contributes to the perception that it is a significantly less legitimate choice than the banking options they tout so freely. “People need to realize that entrepreneurship can be non-profit or human rights. It doesn’t have to be profit-generating online applications,” Julia Miller, a Barnard senior, blogger for Barnard’s Entrepreneurship House, and The Eye’s View From Here Editor, says.
A big step for CCE would be for it to support organizations that are promoting entrepreneurship as a post-graduation path—the most notable of which is Venture for America. Started this summer by Yang, VFA seeks to facilitate relationships between limited-resource startups and ambitious graduates in a style similar to Teach for America. “The goal is to funnel a new generation of talent into the start-up ecosystem to both support current companies and, over time, create new ones,” Yang says. Acting as a recruiter, trainer, and educator, VFA attempts to overcome the advantages held by more established industries. It is a promising model—part of the reason why I myself am applying.
Columbia College could make a much bigger effort to publicize and promote alumni who have successfully navigated the startup world. By publicly praising such individuals, it would contribute to a culture that values innovators of industry just as much as public intellectuals, bankers, and politicians who graduated from this school. “Columbia Engineering highlights people who get patents—that should happen for entrepreneurs,” Frank Pinto, senior in SEAS and president of CORE, points out. Highlighting such alumni would go a long way in making entrepreneurship a common consideration for students on their way out of Columbia.
On a holistic level, though, there needs to be much more of an effort to foster discussion among students about how our ideals of interdisciplinary learning and critical thought in the classroom can be transferred to the rest of our lives. There should be real conversation about what it means to be critical thinker in one’s relationships, roles, and career, not just how it might enhance a midterm essay. If the liberal arts really live up to the hype, then they can be applicable to much more of our lives than they are currently.
We would never accept a majority of classmates in CC accepting a dominant opinion without criticism. Why don’t we challenge our peers who overwhelmingly choose between two careers? For that matter, why don’t we subject McKinsey to the kind of skepticism that St. Augustine receives?
To a certain extent, we need not promote entrepreneurship as much as the successful transition of critiquing books to investigating careers. If we are as intellectually honest with ourselves in our professional journeys, I am confident that, like the diverging opinions of freshmen in Lit Hum, our career choices can be as diverse as our senior class.
“You can come into work every day, have fun with your friends, make something that people use, and change the world,” Sims says.
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