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The False Promise of Entrepreneurship

On Monday, The Daily published an opinion column about entrepreneurship that I felt captured much of what’s wrong about the way that Stanford and many of its students are currently thinking about undergraduate education. I reacted swiftly and angrily on Facebook, so I want to take some time here to discuss more extensively how Stanford’s intense focus on entrepreneurship and startup culture distracts from real problems and stifles real meaning.

Old folk like me will doubtless remember the ASSU Executive election of three years past, which gave us the audacious and ambitious Stanford 2.0 platform that advertised “student government as social entrepreneurship.” The campaign website was slickly designed and stuffed with promises that this new approach would revolutionize student life, and the voters said yes please. On August 26, 2011, nearly a month before fall quarter began, the new ASSU sent out an email proclaiming itself “The World’s Most Effective & Innovative Student Government.”

According to their so-called “Checklist 2.0,” this ragtag team of entrepreneurs accomplished no more or no less than your average, old-fashioned ASSU Executives. Premised on the prospect of future value, Stanford 2.0 perfectly encapsulated what entrepreneurial ventures so often come to: aggressive branding with little to no worthwhile substance.

We see that word, entrepreneurship, all the time, in the flyers lining our bathroom stalls and in the emails that StartX inexplicably has permission to send to the entire campus. We even had an entire dorm devoted to it last year, the eDorm in Suites. Yet the more e’s we add to building names and drop from app names, the more the word simply becomes shorthand for a fast track to a million dollars.

Or a billion dollars. Or three billion. Or 19 billion. It is no longer a secret that the primary goal of entrepreneurship and startup culture is not to build anything new but to catch the attention and cash flow of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, LinkedIn or any of those other companies that populate Silicon Valley.

As I said in my initial reaction on Facebook, there is nothing wrong with this kind of entrepreneurship, but there’s also nothing right about it. The startups that have arisen in recent years, from Snapchat to DoorDash to Shoutt to RacoonVille, are focused entirely on making money from previously untapped markets. They contribute essentially nothing to technological innovation: They may make our lives easier, but hardly in groundbreaking ways. I haven’t seen any evidence that the value that these startups do add to the world substantially benefits anybody other than their employees and shareholders.

Stanford invests in startups, provides many others with the initial technological resources necessary to get their businesses off the ground and celebrates startup culture as alumni donations start flowing in. Naturally, the path of entrepreneurship is understandably attractive to many Stanford students. Although it can be a high-risk path, Stanford provides so much support and backup that it almost seems foolish not to follow it.

This is the false promise of entrepreneurship — that through money we can find meaning. Entrepreneurship measures success in dollars earned, not in stomachs fed or lives enriched. It conflates life goals with business benchmarks and purposeful dialogue with focus-grouped branding. Money will perpetually dominate our conversations, but too often at Stanford we talk about those who already have money while ignoring those who do not have enough.

We should be better than that, and in many ways we are. During my time at Stanford, I have met scores of people who inspire and astound me. These are the people who take weekly Marguerite rides to volunteer in East Palo Alto, who fight to keep a homeless shelter open downtown and who commit to teaching in underserved communities. Beyond the realm of public service, I know artists who aspire to create and entertain, future doctors who aspire to research new drugs and vaccines and, yes, computer scientists who aspire to build technologies that make our government more efficient and our world more secure.

I have to believe that we all enter Stanford with the passionate search for greater meaning ablaze within us. But as the senior class approaches graduation, I can see that this flame has begun to flicker. For some, it’s already out. Personally, mine is burning dimly, suffocated by anxiety, self-doubt and resignation to the economic realities of the world outside the Stanford Bubble.

There must be a way for Stanford to help us hold on to that passion — the same passion that Stanford’s gatekeepers lauded when they let us in. If Stanford is to take seriously its majors in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, then it must actively combat that end-of-college feeling that choosing those majors was a mistake. Opportunities for a well-paid and relevant first job do exist, but they are fiercely competitive and woefully finite.

Otherwise, the next “best” option is money-driven entrepreneurship. The allure is intoxicating — that’s why I voted for Stanford 2.0 three years ago. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to live comfortably in Silicon Valley, pushing the limits of economic sanity. Maybe that’s the direction that Stanford wants to take into the future. But if that’s the case, then it’s not the Stanford I want to attend anymore. It’s certainly not the Stanford we were promised.

 

Matt Lopez is a senior majoring in political science. Contact him at [email protected]

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