OPINIONS

Op-Ed: A new strain of “techie evangelism”

Meet the Startup Kid. The Startup Kid is the Organization Kid that speed-reads “The Organization Kid” — Organization Kid 2.0, if you will.

The Startup Kid pursues his life with a kind of intellectual, deliberate interest, somehow emotionally detached even as he runs charity 5Ks and takes pottery. You get the feeling that somewhere there’s a list where he needs to cross off: “Enjoy various athletic and artistic pursuits” and “Achieve minimum viable soul.”

The Startup Kid’s heroes are Steve Jobs, Gandhi and the Instagram guys. The Startup Kid, like the Organization Kid, wants to be in the top one percent, but a .01 percent implementer, or a .01 percent-design thinker or a .01 percent-paradigm shifter. His brain seems to have, by and large, become a whiteboard covered in graphs going upwards, and everything and everyone has their own color-coded post-it. Startup Kids are creative and therefore don’t need the more obvious gold stickers of their Wall Street or consultancy counterparts, but don’t think they’re not ambitious. By striving for the nebulous, the Startup Kid aims to be ubiquitous; he doesn’t want to be the Man — he wants to be the System, the Platform, the context for everything his smaller-minded classmates will do.

The Startup Kid believes in data and metrics. Nothing is unquantifiable, and at the very least there’s some data visualization software for it. Self-discovery? There’s an app for that. Empathy? It can be learned in a workshop. His view of history is profoundly teleological, not that he thinks much of history. The Startup Kid doesn’t have enough time for history. The Startup Kid feeds history, national flavor, cultural quirks, into the same lean-mean-winning-machine as whimsy, romance, spontaneity, gesture, immaturity, joy, personal development — these are sacrificed for ambition presented so wholesomely we often fail to appreciate its ferocity.

This certain kind of ambition is, I believe, currently being expressed in the ASSU Executive. This is not to say The Startup Kid is a real person or that he is part of the ASSU — but the attitude is real, and present.

The Project Management and Implementation team aims to make the ASSU “an omnipresent, ultra-efficient powerhouse,” according to its official “blueprint.” Everyone from the Health and Wellness team to the Asian and Pacific Islander community team wants to use or build a new kind of app, as stated in their blueprints. The Food team is holding a hackathon. The Co-Chairs of Entrepreneurship want to identify qualifying student entrepreneurs and treat them like athletes — giving them “excused absences when travelling to business-related events,” as quoted in the Chair of Entrepreneurship “E 2.0” outline.

According to the Chair of Technology’s outline, the team wants to “gamify” your Stanford experience, giving you, say, “turn in homework +10.”

Design thinking is given its own chair and seems to be a slice of everyone’s plan, as does hyper-aggressive marketing (question: does good government need to be marketed?). Several teams mention using the ASSU’s email capabilities to send out mass event promotions. The ASSU hopes to establish a strategy that sends “targeted” emails to, say, “Nebraskan athletes,” according to the Project Management and Implementation blueprint.

But this is not just about the sanctity of my inbox. This is about the fact that in response to complaints about the length of his emails, the VP created the position Director of Internal Review, according to Co-Chair of Entrepreneurship Dan Thompson in a previous interview with The Daily. This sounds to me like creating a sound-pollution task force because your neighbor asked you to use headphones.

But what bothers me most about the ASSU is the vagueness of everything it wants to accomplish. I know “vagueness” doesn’t sound very nefarious, but the more vague the goal, the fewer limits an organization has upon it. Take the war on poverty for instance — never going to end, so can justify anything. Might not the ASSU declare a war on apathy? Loneliness? Non-entrepreneurialism?

Entrepreneurship is a word so vague that it alternates between being totally meaningless and the meaning of life. It encompasses an activity, a methodology, a mindset and even a lifestyle — wide-ranging in the problems it can solve and, for many, completely absorbing. But it’s worth remembering that this world of whiteboards, sticky notes, jeans and blazers, arrogant hashtags, crowdsourced-design-thinking-in-Ikea-chairs-of-scalable-minimum-fundable-awesome 2.0 projects is very, very small and very, very specific. We need perspective and humility.

You can’t really make mistakes living off of a to-do list. You can’t really get your hands dirty experiencing life through a computer screen. You cannot hack life. You cannot conjure community. And you can’t fake selflessness.

TIFFANY LI ’13

  • Will It Scale?

    This articulates a lot of the nebulous unease I feel when I read about Stanford new 2.everything initiatives. It’s all about entrepreneurship and openness so it can’t be bad, right? Yet there’s a sort of disturbing sort of hunger to this vision, a desire to enfold all of what makes Stanford innovation and ‘scale it’, cutting off the bits that can’t be neatly defined in metrics. 

    On a side note, while all this open governance talk is just lovely, it’s so unlikely to be implemented in any meaningful way once classes really start up in earnest. 

  • Med School Biosciences Grad

    Just to provide a viewpoint that I haven’t seen discussed regarding Stanford 2.0:  What if the whole concept was never intended to primarily do something extraordinary for the student body/Stanford as a whole?  What if it was created primarily as something that would look extremely good on a resume?  Under this viewpoint, Stanford 2.0 does not necessarily have to benefit the student body.  In fact, it could be a colossal failure and still achieve its primary goal under this framework.  Any positive effect would then be just gravy.  (I’ll grant that this is a cynical viewpoint.  Disclaimer: I am a graduate student in the Medical School, so I have an extremely hard time seeing how the ideas presented by the ASSU executive team as discussed in this publication will have any impact on my activities at Stanford.)

  • Tiffany Li

    The ASSU executive is a branch, not a single person; the piece was not an ad hominem attack but a reflection on the stated plans of a public group. I do not deny the piece is about the ASSU exec and I think it’s pretty clear that I’m not “running away” from the critical thesis of the piece. This piece is openly critical and if you asked me in person I’d say the same thing. In order to make as clear as possible my objections to the mindset & attitude I hear coming from this year’s exec, I described a persona, or archetype–the line to which you refer, “This is not the say the Startup Kid is a real person…” is merely clarifying that I am not secretly alluding to one person in particular. Indeed the whole point is that while I don’t know The Startup Kid I think many people at Stanford know someone who reminds them of that archetype. Please rest assured, Let’s Think, that the Startup Kid is not a code name for anyone, and thus not an ad hominem attack. 

    Your observation that I am unqualified to attack the ASSU’s vague goals because I do not have a consistent platform however, is in my opinion ad hominem. I may have had varying academic interests over the years but I’m confident that I have approached all of them with a consistent perspective, one that I think my piece makes clear. Thank you for pointing out that I’ve worked at a start-up, though! I loved it, loved the team, and it’s only because I am so well-acquainted with the positive potential for the start-up mindset that I chose to express my concern over its more negative incarnations as well. 

    Lastly, I’m not criticizing the ASSU for being too efficient–I’m criticizing the direction they’re headed in. The Startup Kid’s obsession with “efficiency” is after all paired with an inability to look up from the laptop and see the big picture. Perhaps you are reading into the quote I pulled that contains the phrase “ultra-efficient powerhouse.” I chose that quote for the first word: omnipresent. I don’t want the ASSU to be omnipresent. Any action taken in that direction, taken however quickly and transparently and in a well-documented manner, is in my mind not efficient. Is mis-directed efficiency truly efficient? If you’re walking very quickly in the wrong direction, does that mean you’re travelling efficiently? 

  • A Concerned Student

    While I remain guardedly optimistic with regards to this new Stanford 2.0, I regard many of the points of Ms. Li as accurate.  As someone who is not techie, cluelessly looks at a line of code, and has no desire to create or work for a start-up, I feel very disconnected from this government.  Its rhetoric is littered with comments to vague entrepreneur references that mean nothing to me, nor are its goals the ones I would choose to have my student government address.  I don’t really care about further digitalizing Stanford (isn’t Coursework and Courserank and ExploreCourses enough?!), but I would like to be able to have 24-hour dining halls for all students.  I take offense to the fact that student entrepreneurs will become a “privileged” class at Stanford; what about pre-med students, who frequently are taking large class loads, spending hours on research, and frequently hold community health positions on top of that?  What if they want to achieve medical conferences at UC schools?  Or students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and find themselves working 20, 30, 40 hour weeks to put themselves through school?  Should they be awarded special privileges?  Isn’t it a part of college to figure out how to manage your time effectively and prioritize your commitments?  It feels like this student government is driven by a desire to support the life of the “Startup Kid”, as Ms. Li describes, rather than the average Stanford student.  Let’s go back to basics, drastically reduce the size of this administration’s ASSU, and address the issues that concern the Stanford community as a whole.

  • AntiSlice

    Somehow 2011 grads are still on the undergrad mailing list, so I’ve seen the current Exec’s propaganda.  I even voted for them.  But I’m still eyeing this upcoming year with a little trepidation.  Ms. Li pointed out the size of their organization – I already feel that the ASSU Exec is too large and unwieldy to create any sort of meaningful change.  At this point it’s probably about as large as the ASSU itself.  Who are all these people being appointed to positions (if they even have any power) who probably have better-than-your-average-student-group’s access to funds?

    They have a vision and I respect that.  We’ll see where this goes.

  • An Embarrassed Student

    Just imagine that in a strange but unsurprising turn of events, Let’s Think is revealed to be a member of the ASSU Executive… who wants to bet?

    Thanks for supplying another calm and refined voice against this embarrassing executive team, Tiffany. I sometimes wonder if it’s not too unrealistic to imagine these guys turning the ASSU into some kind of self-loving, circle-jerking, Big-Brother-esque catastrophe in their mistaken sense of virtue. You know what’s another way to say Design Thinking? Forced creativity.

  • Jonathan Manzi

    Reformatted comment below:

    By way of introduction, I am one of the two Co-Chairs of Entrepreneurship within this year’s ASSU Executive cabinet. In light of Tiffany’s article and the tenor resulting comments, I feel it is critical to respond to concerns posed and hopefully work to offer explanation of the goals of this year’s government. 
    Firstly — I want to offer a position on the commentary that took place following her article. The ASSU Executive is committed to supporting candid dialogue between stakeholders within the Stanford community with an eye toward serving the student. The op ed, then, serves as a great platform for feedback to be provided and conversation to be facilitated. I am a supporter of these types of exchanges. I think, though, we also may have witnessed some of the shortcomings of this medium here — people can often butt heads, hide behind monikers, and, in an effort to defend their integrity, quickly become diverted from purpose. 

    I know Tiffany personally. She speaks from an informed position — mostly due to her divergent pursuits; she is neither technie nor fuzzy; she is open-minded — and is someone who roots opinion in reason. I think deconstructing her original post and working to address some of her concerns would be advantageous. They are certainly real, and, for anyone who has been following the press that has surrounded the ASSU over the summer — both the good and the not so good — would know that her critique wasn’t nearly as harsh as some. It would be our job, then, as the ASSU Executive, to address these concerns.

    The ASSU released blueprints in the beginning of the year to solicit feedback form students on the work the cabinet did over the summer on behalf of them. Trust be told, the way in which the blueprints were communicated — a mass email that must have spanned 300+ lines of content — wasn’t the most aesthetically-pleasing way to detail progress. Perhaps, a better format would have been a series of youtube videos or, maybe, an interactive phone call with interested parties. Nonetheless, the blueprints largely went unread and feedback was scarce. I can confidently say, though, that of the feedback received from students — with the exception of concern with the current size of the ASSU — action was taken (The ASSU is actively working to address the concerns regarding size — although I can’t speak officially on behalf of Michael and Stewart and other cabinet members, I can say that we feel confident that all pieces are necessary to best serve the student body — but, the second one is deemed ineffective, Michael will give his best Ari Gold impression and kick someone to the curb)

    To comment specifically on the the ASSU’s entrepreneurial arm, E2.0 — we have received one actionable critique since inception: do not focus on special status for student entrepreneurs (Tiffany and an anonymous commenter also shared this sentiment). As of a month ago, we’ve abandoned this initiative and focused on others that will serve to benefit the entrepreneurial student at Stanford far more — examples:     
         –   An e-Dorm    
         –   Undergraduate / GSB collaboration (ever wanted to take a class at the GSB?)
         –   Start-up bus (a bus that will take students to SXSW)
         –   Creating a dedicated office space / hangout for entrepreneurs
         –   Mapping out entrepreneurship resources at Stanford with the new e-concierge
         –   Mapping out the process by which students interested can start a company on campus
         –   Creating a Stanford entrepreneurship blog to provide resources and expert insight to the world  Providing free legal advice to entrepreneurs
         –   Tracking Stanford start-ups to see what resources may better serve their founders

    As my Co-Chair Dan Thompson has pointed out in several articles — we’re desperate for feedback. We’re a new program and dependent on you to guide us so we can best serve you. 

    To address concern about ASSU’s greater focus on entrepreneurship — albeit, my view couldn’t be more biased, but, to ground it in objective detail as much as possible: Demand for entrepreneurial education is growing exponentially on campuses throughout the country — in just under a decade, the number of accredited colleges offering courses in entrepreneurship has risen from a feeble five percent to eighty percent to meet burgeoning student demand. More revealing though — seven out of ten students rated entrepreneurship as a top three career choice in a sample of 500 American undergraduate students last year. Due to Stanford’s proximity to the de facto global hub of entrepreneurship (and, it’s important to note that the University was instrumental in the creation of such), it’s fair to say that entrepreneurial sentiment at our school is even more pronounced than at others. I think we’ve all had the opportunity to witness this phenomena — how many of your freshmen dormmates worked for a start-ups (or created one themselves) within their first two years at the University?

    Over the past three years, I have had the great fortune of representing the United States in the field of youth entrepreneurship in seven countries and at four global conferences, including the G20 Summit and the St. Petersberg Economic Forum. Everywhere I go the sentiment is the same — Stanford sets the standard for entrepreneurship. That having been said, as a practitioner and advocate within the space, and a Stanford student who found it challenging to find resources on campus that supported my and other classmates entrepreneurial pursuits, I set out to create the change I thought should be made on campus. After meeting with President Hennessy and other key stakeholders, it has become apparent — we have the opportunity to do something that’s never been done before on a college campus — both the scope and quantity of our undertakings make our pursuit unique — while honoring the roots of the University, and positively effecting the lives of many. 

    When it comes to entrepreneurial advocacy / E2.0, I am a shameless promoter. For better or for worse, I am confident that over the next couple of weeks, you’ll learn much more about our initiative and it will become a lot less nebulous. As always, we welcome your thoughts. 

    The ASSU executive will continue to function as usual while E2.0 makes strides to execute upon its bold initiatives. All the resources that you have enjoyed in the past outside of the realm of entrepreneurship remain intact, and, are, in mind, even more robust within this year’s executive than at any other point over the past three years (the time I’ve been at Stanford). Students with interest and demands for support in other areas will not be ignored — my colleagues are truly committed to doing good work. I’ve seen some work 200+ hours this summer planning / executing upon novel initiatives to cater to students’ needs this year. We appreciate all feedback — no matter how scathing some criticism can be at times, we recognize that we need it. It makes us better.

    Please do not hesitate to contact me directly with any questions or concerns. I have provided my contact info and relevant affiliations below.

    Jonathan M. Manzi
    P.O. Box 16038                           D: 650 924-1125  
    Stanford, CA 94309                  W: 800-757-5168 ext. 727                             
                                                          F: 978-997-0368

    Academic Affiliations
    Co-Chair, Entrepreneurship             Founder, E2.0
    Stanford University                            ASSU                                                 
     
    Industry Affiliations
    Chairman, CEO                                   Chairman
    SX7 Corp                                               Vintage Network, LLC
    Palo Alto, CA                                         Boston, MA

    Owner, Managing Director                 Owner, President
    J. Manzi Realty                                      J. Manzi Investments, LLC
    Boston, MA                                            Boston, MA

    Advocacy Affiliations
    Delegate                                                 Expert Delegate
    SPIEF                                                     G20 SummitYouth Entrepreneurship                     Youth Innovation/Entrepreneurship

  • Guest

    Perhaps you, and the rest of this ASSU, are missing a key point raised by critics.  Yes, entrepreneurship is on the rise, and I don’t think anyone can deny that.

    But why is this ASSU – a student government, supposedly ran for the benefit of the ENTIRE Stanford community, not an entrepreneurship organization – so focused on building that community solely, and starting new programs that will benefit a small sector of the student population?  If everything else at Stanford was perfect, and all that was left to develop was this niche, then fine, concentrate on it.  But I think that’s far from the case… Stanford has horrible study abroad programs, for example, compared to its competitors.  I’d rather see money and resources devoted to developing this, since more students use this resource.  And I know students have been begging for years for “little” things like 24-hour food and more on-campus delivery services, as well as the crappy Webmail we use, and the inability to keep our stanford.edu email addresses after graduation.  Can’t we use this government’s creativity to focus on these tasks first?

    Also, I think you would be hard pressed to identify entrepreneurship as the aspiration for the majority of students on campus.  Given this, why should this group have two chairs devoted solely to it?

  • ConnorL

    Good article and op-ed. Suggesting that someone get in touch with Professor Tom Byers. Great guy and can help you define entrepreneurship. 

  • One quick thought

    Just to be radically simple:  Tiffany says “The Startup Kid’s obsession with “efficiency” is after all paired with an inability to look up from the laptop and see the big picture.”

    That’s sort of the crux of the piece, but I really don’t think b follows from a.  I know some really efficient people who also look at the big picture.  I know some really inefficient people who see the big picture.  I know some really efficient people…..  You get the point.  Efficiency and seeing the big picture are two distinct qualities IMO.

  • A Concerned Student

    Thank you!  This clarifies EXACTLY what I’ve been trying to say.  While it may be true, as Johnathan Marzi has said, that things like email, or study abroad programs, or prevention of sexual assault, are compiled onto their blueprints, they are buried so deep as to be inconsequential.  It’s clear that it’s not a priority, as compared to supporting a techie and entrepreneurial Stanford.  That’s great, but only for some of us.

  • Great Piece!

    Great piece.  As a student who never caught on to the entrepreneurship culture here, this piece perfectly reflects my sentiments. It’s a two-fold problem.  This exec team has an unprecedented amount of focus on  improving entrepreneurship on campus, which necessarily detracts from its other, broader pursuits.  And the exec’s solution to fix diverse problems, such as late night dining, is entrepreneurship.  I’m glad they have faith in something, but they should realize that not everyone subscribes to the same “Startup Kid” mentality.  A majority of students do not. 

    Should Stanford improve its entrepreneurial culture?  Sure.  But it’s important to remember that Stanford is not a start-up.  It’s not a business school.  It’s a University dedicated to educating scholars in fields ranging from studio art to materials science.  The more Stanford focuses on Silicon Valley, or building a CS-oriented campus in New York, the less attractive it becomes for everyone else not interested in working at Google or the next random start-up. 

    I also applaud your willingness to critique a segment of the Stanford population that has so far been largely put on a pedestal.  It’s nice to hear that there are others out there who share my perspectives.  Keep it up!

  • Med School Biosciences Grad

    While all this seems well and good, to me (in particular coming from an area of study where the majority of students are prone to delusions of grandeur), this focus on entrepreneurship seems troubling at best.  In particular, the “seven out of ten students rated entrepreneurship as a top three career choice” stands out as a major issue to me.  Who benefits from this focus on entrepreneurship?  How are these resources going to benefit the students who use them?  Are these resources going to make them more viable to venture capitalists?  Will those who use the resources benefit more than non-Stanford students (who presumably will not have access to these resources generated by the ASSU)? 

    Additionally, one other question that comes to my mind (particularly for grad students), does the entrepreneurship arm of the ASSU exec intend to do an end-run around the Stanford OTL? 

  • we thought.

    and on top of what the last two defenders of ms li pointed out, you basically criticized her of being nothing but rhetoric and then consistently dismissed her very valid points in a manner pretty reminiscent of Romney’s “try again”‘s in the recent debates.  An editorial isnt always going to be pure numbers, it is going to make an argument.  I think this message rung true with a good number of people (web 2.0 thinks so, saw lots of links to it pasted on FB), so dont be so dismissive just because you disagree with her.

  • zack

    +10.  And even if you do give them the benefit of the doubt on the intentions, it seems like a big chunk of what ms li is discussing as the problem of the ASSU is that then they DO want to fix things–constantly.  Every incoming administration wants to completely revolutionize how we interact with the ASSU, with our school, with our education, etc etc.  And they change every year–am I the only one with whiplash?  Honestly all I (and I think a majority of the student body) wants out of the ASSU is to make life on campus a little bit easier/more enjoyable.  I dont need them to be fundamentally changing the way I think about my life, revealing existential truths, redefining my relationship with the world, etc etc.  If that was what I was looking for, I would either go to a psychiatrist or a cult, depending on my inclinations.  

    ASSU, I do think you’re well intentioned.  But honestly, you arent that important.  There is obviously some low hanging fruit (the rape  numbers previously sited in this comment stream seem like a promising candidate, 24 hr fitness center could be another, open, non lap swim pool time, etc etc) but other than that I think the whole “government which governs least” thing applies to you in full force.