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OPINIONS

Stanford: The Business of Developing People

When talking about Silicon Valley businesses, a friend of mine categorizes tech entrepreneurship into three buckets: the products, the ideas that drive their production and those who fund them. On Sand Hill, we see this play out in a similar fashion: venture capitalists are in the business of developing and funding companies, while companies are in the business of developing products.

Of course, this naturally points to a gaping hole in the analogy: What about the people behind these ideas and investments? Who has stakes in their development?

We naturally find ourselves looking to Stanford, which has been variously lauded and derided for being a tech talent incubator of sorts.

Here, it can be difficult to discern where Silicon Valley ends and academia begins. Some faculty members help build and advise startups, while many professors, armed with years of experience in entrepreneurship and industry come to teach classes about startups and the processes involved in funding them. It isn’t exceptionally abnormal for a student to take a quarter’s leave to focus on a project or work part-time at a startup, the GSB or a venture firm.

We have Start-X on Page Mill Road fostering a community for student innovators to develop their entrepreneurial skills and products. Around the world, student entrepreneurial groups are looking to build organizations similar to BASES (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students), which puts on its annual BASES Challenge competition to provides mentorship and funding for Stanford startups. (Full disclosure: I work for BASES.)

We can even observe how more “traditional” business groups like Stanford Finance, Stanford Consulting and the Blyth Fund have partnered this year to sponsor an entrepreneurial speaker series – one that, for example, recently featured EventBrite CEO Kevin Hartz.

But you don’t even need to join a student organization to get that kind of exposure. You could be sitting in Old Union, minding your own business, when someone who could potentially help you secure your seed funding round takes a seat next to you.

What’s most exciting about Stanford being in the business of developing people is just how entrepreneurial the people have gotten in the process: Students have taken it in to their own hands to create unique, individualized values for themselves while at Stanford. Campus culture’s emphasis on experiential learning manifests itself in the numerous startups, business pitches and hackathons that take place all the time.

That’s not to say that success is guaranteed. Before writing this piece, I consulted with friends who launched startups (with varying degrees of success) on campus. They’ve taken the renowned design thinking and startup courses. They consulted with professors and mentors throughout the process, while some of them even went through the BASES Challenge or a student accelerator on Sand Hill. Yet at the end of the day, the overwhelming takeaway was this: none of the theoretical case studies and ideal practices discussed in class have much weight unless you go out, start something and, more likely than not, fail.

Stanford objectively does a solid job in terms of developing people through myriad channels – typically institutional – relating to faculty interaction and research. Stanford’s remarkable ability to develop people has less to do with its tangible resources and more to do with the people who came here with the intention to “join” this business and this world.

These people internalized the Valley’s “Move fast, break things,” mantra – they created a safe space, with an abundance of risk-takers and potential co-founders, where people can actually test out the principles learned in tech entrepreneurship classes, make mistakes and continue to iterate.

Stanford’s business is to develop people, and its most effective tactic is this exact self-improving mechanism: it brings people together, so that in the process of learning, listening, and doing, they develop each other.

Stephany Yong is the Vice President of Branding at BASES. Contact her at syong@stanford.edu.