The New Yorker has been fretting about Stanford’s enthusiastic entrepreneurs for a while now. Last year, the magazine’s Ken Auletta proclaimed us “Get Rich U.” This April in the Daily, students and the editor of The New Yorker’s website Nicholas Thompson exchanged volleys when Thompson questioned whether Stanford was even “still a university?” after over a dozen students dropped out to work on the startup Clinkle. What would come next?
Well, on Sept. 5, Stanford announced that it was giving a three-year, $1,200,000 yearly grant to StartX, the non profit startup accelerator exclusively dedicated to “Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs.” Further, the University created a new investment vehicle known as the Stanford-StartX Fund, with the power to invest unlimited amounts of money to “support founders and technology emerging from the StartX programs.” In other words, after a long history of celebrated companies born from its hallowed halls, the University itself has finally decided to start funding– and likely directly profiting from– the startups created by its students.
Right on queue, The New Yorker released another piece titled “Stanford and Its Start-ups,” lamenting “the blurring of lines between the university and the tech industry.” Given the windfall for Stanford’s endowment should a startup become successful, how would that change how the University treated its students? As Thompson put it, brandishing his achingly concerned pen, “If the university is a farm, do the students become the cows?”
In comparing students to cows, pushed and prodded into dropping out and doing startups by a university hungry for cash, The New Yorker has demonstrated again that it fundamentally misunderstands the place of entrepreneurship on campus.
It sees student-created startups as attempts “to get rich fast,” yet that is hardly the primary motivator behind most founders I’ve met. Indeed, Thompson’s plaintive cry, “Shouldn’t [school] be a place to drift, to think, to read, to meet new people, and to work at whatever inspires you?” actually describes far more precisely the aspects of a culture that encourage so many to start companies.
People attend school for many different reasons, but undeniably prominent among them is the desire to build the skills and relationships necessary to affect change upon the world. Leland and Jane Stanford even established the University specifically for the purpose of producing “cultured and useful citizens.” The explosion of startups created by students is not a symptom of the subsuming of philosophical inquiry and intellectual curiosity by the desire to make a lot of money swiftly. Rather, it is the manifestation of people acting on the inspiration to leave a mark on the world through the most effective means at their disposal.
A liberal arts education teaches students to be much more than task-doers. It encourages students to ask “why?” and part of asking “why?” is to wonder why things are done the way they are. What are the problems we face, and why are they problems? How might they be rectified? How might things be done newer, differently, better? In The New Yorker’s ideal world, perhaps these might remain purely rhetorical inquiries, lest our youthful minds be constricted by the practicalities of actually doing something.
Amusingly, Thompson finds it worth pointing out that there might be a conflict of interest in how professors give grades to students whose company they’ve invested in. Mr. Thompson, starting a company is not like babysitting your professor’s kids. Startups exist in the real world rather than the rarified air of the classroom. Grades, especially a single grade in a single class, are irrelevant. Certainly nobody is going to a professor for investment just to score an A.
Perhaps The New Yorker’s fears of quick money tainting the student-University relationship derive from the prevalence of tech startups. Certainly, stories abound about fantastic payouts in the tech scene. Instead, consider the fact that many choose tech as emblematic of motivated students seizing upon the incredible power technology grants us to affect change, sometimes at a very low cost-of-entry.
Stanford’s decision to support StartX and its entrepreneurs is a bold and important step for the University. But it represents no great change in mindset or culture. It merely formalizes entrepreneurship as a virtue as worthy of support, complementing other, more traditional ones like the arts, community service and sport. Add “found a startup” to the extensive array of mechanisms by which Stanford empowers students to achieve their best.
Contact Rahul Gupta-Iwasaki at email@example.com