Mark Zuckerberg returned to Harvard this week as commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2017, despite never graduating from Harvard himself. Once class of 2006, Zuckerberg dropped out his sophomore year to launch Facebook. By the time his peers received diplomas, Zuckerberg was on the verge of becoming the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.
Largely thanks to his influence, the graduates Zuckerberg will address next week have different ambitions than his former classmates. Whereas the Harvard class of 2006 made a beeline for Wall Street, a quarter of this year’s working graduates will start their professional lives in Silicon Valley as coders, engineers, or entrepreneurs.
Whenever I mention my friend is taking a semester off, people ask if it’s because he or she is starting a company.
My freshman year in 2014 marked the first time Harvard’s flagship computer science course, CS50, surpassed the Wall Street feeder Economics 10a as the class with the highest enrollment. This is partly because six-figure starting salaries at Google and Microsoft now compete with those at Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank. It’s also because many students dream of founding a company like Facebook and see computer science as the way to get there.
“The image of Zuck is what Harvard computer science students interested in starting their own company rally around,” said Tomas Reimers, a senior who will start a job at Facebook as a software engineer after graduation. “There are many founders who came out of Harvard, but no discussion is complete without Facebook.”
In the aftermath of Zuckerberg’s meteoric rise, Harvard invested heavily in student entrepreneurship. The Harvard Innovation Lab, or i-Lab, has launched dozens of student startups since its founding in 2011, the year Facebook broke one trillion page views per month.
“Now there’s this whole culture of people who know the same kind of thing is possible,” said rising junior Athena Kan, a computer science major interning this summer as a software engineer at Uber. “The i-Lab started, at least in part, because of Zuckerberg; the Thiel fellowship started up, in part, because of him,” she explained, referring to the program begun by early Facebook investor Peter Thiel that gives student entrepreneurs $100,000 to drop out of college to focus on their startups.
“Whenever I mention my friend is taking a semester off, people ask if it’s because he or she is starting a company,” Kan added.
Thiel is not the only venture capitalist chasing the potential of student entrepreneurs. First Round Capital, an early Uber investor, created the Dorm Room Fund as a student-run venture group to invest in student startups. They were soon followed by General Catalyst, which finances a similar fund called Rough Draft Ventures. (Full disclosure: Kan and I are investment partners at DRF; Reimers is the outgoing managing partner of RDV.)
“DRF and RDV started up because it became a possibility that the best founders can come from college," Kan said. “Bill Gates was no longer as much of an anomaly.”
Rising junior Jenny Wang, also a computer science major, agreed. Wang is working this summer as an engineering fellow at the food delivery startup DoorDash, through a program organized by the venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers.
Of my seven roommates, four of us have started companies.
“Post-Zuckerberg Harvard aims to build one of the largest communities of university entrepreneurs by funneling significant resources to support the growing ecosystem of student founders,” she said. “It's an ecosystem of young innovators who do not set out to explicitly unseat the incumbents, but rather seek to solve a difficult problem in their own way, much like Zuckerberg built Facebook to suit his own millennial needs.”
My own housing group embodies the broader proliferation of student entrepreneurship: out of seven roommates, four of us have started companies.
One roommate, Sam Koppelman, founded the education startup Quixaro our freshman year. That summer, he teamed up with six coders to work out of an office in Manhattan and scored funding from three collegiate startup accelerators.
“Mark Zuckerberg has caused almost as many Harvard students to launch startups as he has encouraged them to hit up Pinocchio's Pizza,” Koppelman said, referencing Zuckerberg’s favorite college dining spot. “And Harvard kids eat a lot of fucking pizza.”
After signing up several hundred users, Koppelman stopped work on Quixaro and left Harvard to become the youngest digital strategist on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He returned to school this semester, taking extra classes to graduate on time.
Another roommate, Joe Kahn, founded Slide our freshman year to make it easier for people to transfer personal data to organizations like banks, schools, and hospitals. He incorporated and received funding from Dorm Room Fund before running into insurmountable operational hurdles. After returning the money to DRF, he joined the group as an investor and became managing partner last fall.
There’s a lot of pressure for students in tech to start their own company.
“There’s a lot of pressure for students in tech to start their own company,” he said, which he feels is a mixed blessing. His advice? “In and amongst the noise it’s easy to end up starting a company for the sake of starting a company. Don’t do that. Work on problems that you’re passionate about and seek out ways to make a meaningful impact. That may or may not be through a startup of your own.”
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moscovitz as Harvard undergraduates in September 2004.
Claudia Laurie, who founded the collegiate fashion company Bell Apparel, leveraged fluent Mandarin to score favorable terms with Chinese suppliers. “I had always been interested in the fashion industry but wanted real hands-on experience with building a brand and shipping a product from beginning to end,” she said. “Only in college does one get complete access and understanding of the student market, so I thought that it was the right place to start.”
“I also saw a need for more fashionable college apparel,” says with a laugh.
Her first product, a charcoal gray jacket emblazoned with a Harvard-esque insignia, did well on campus and quickly grew to more than a thousand monthly sales in China. “Internships didn’t fulfill the experience and learning I wanted the same way starting from scratch would,” she said. During the launch, boxes of Bell Jackets filled her room and overflowed into our corridor.
Inspired by my roommates and Zuckerberg’s lasting legacy, I set out last year to start my own company, General Biotechnologies, which now has a novel cancer therapy in preclinical trials.
Working with partners at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, our team joined the i-Lab’s startup incubator and a series of competitions to fund R&D and patent filings. Meanwhile, my girlfriend Emilia Gonzalez—who also works out of the i-Lab incubator—began building Checkmate, a gamified glucose monitor for people with diabetes.
All of our projects, in biotech, education, personal data, fashion, and healthcare, were inspired and enabled by the trailblazing success of past student entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg.
“Mark showed us that if you think you can solve a problem and you’re excited about it, the wrong thing to do is wait,” said Rohan Pavuluri, my freshman-year roommate and founder of Upsolve, which he describes as “Turbotax for bankruptcy.”
Like Koppelman, Pavuluri dropped out of Harvard our junior fall having won money to work on Upsolve. He returned this semester, wagering that Harvard’s on-campus support for student entrepreneurship would accelerate his progress. The bet paid off: earlier this month he won $75,000 in the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge.
“If a 20-year old can create one of the most valuable companies in the world, getting an entry-level job at a prestigious Wall Street firm is an accomplishment that pales in comparison,” he said, having just cancelled a backup internship in venture capital to pursue Upsolve full-time.
Before Zuckerberg, you needed to have years and years of experience to start a company. His biggest influence is how it’s become looked on favorably to be young in this industry.
Not that any of this is easy. Many student entrepreneurs experience initial success—a bug-free launch, user acquisition, angel investment—and envision stepping out of Harvard directly into their own venture-backed company. Then they run into technical challenges, stagnant growth, co-founder drama, or any number of other roadblocks that lie between aspiration and Fortune 500. It’s impossible to pin down an exact statistic, but everyone agrees the vast majority of student startups fail.
Jared Pochtar, who graduates this week, is intent on not seeing that happen to his startup PageDraw, which makes tools for software engineers. Pochtar and his co-founder Gabriel Guimaraes raised $1.2 million last year from a group of venture capitalists, the co-founder of Quora, and the football legend Joe Montana. Unlike Zuckerberg, Pochtar and Guimaraes decided to finish college while they used the funding to build out their product and recruit a team.
“At Harvard, the legacy of Zuckerberg is something we all look to as an example of what students here can do,” said Pochtar. “Starting a company is a very risky venture, and the way that VCs think is that you have to have a shot at being a billion-dollar company or they won’t invest. The system is set-up so that if you’re not a billion-dollar company, you’re a failure.”
“I believe my company is a billion-dollar company,” he added.
Pochtar thinks that despite the risk, now is actually the safest time to start a company. “It’s more de-risked than ever; it feels like a safer career choice than before. That’s because there’s a higher expectation of failure—even if the company as a whole isn’t successful, there’s a million reasons why it might not work out. But if you do great technical work, you’ll have other opportunities and be in a more advanced role than if you had just gone to one of the big companies.”
Pochtar gives credit for his ability to launch PageDraw to a combination of mentors and the resources that have become available to student entrepreneurs. The summer before senior year, while peers flocked to internships at tech firms or more conventional gigs in finance or consulting, Pochtar and Guimaraes joined a startup fellowship hosted by Lightspeed Venture Partners, which became one of PageDraw’s first investors.
He attributes these opportunities to Zuckerberg. “It’s hard to overstate the impact of such a young entrepreneur succeeding. Before Zuckerberg, you needed to have years and years of experience to start a company. His biggest influence is how it’s become looked on favorably to be young in this industry. Young tech people are now expected to start companies.”
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.