Harvard’s Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Culture: A Roundtable Discussion with Axios Business Editor Dan Primack

On the evening of Wednesday, April 10th, the Harvard Technology Review hosted a roundtable discussion with Axios business editor Dan Primack about the undergraduate entrepreneurship scene on campus. Harvard Business School Professor Tom Eisenmann, who chairs the Undergraduate Technology Innovation Fellows Program, was also there to share his reflections. We curated a group of 20 students representing all walks of the startup scene, from makers to entrepreneurs to investors.

There are a couple of key takeaways that we drew from the discussion.

  1. There is an incredible amount of potential in Harvard’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, from its labs to its incubators to its access to capital — but Harvard as an institution will need to do a far better job of connecting all of those fronts and making them more accessible to undergraduates.
  2. Harvard and its students need to realize the potential of the surrounding entrepreneurial ecosystem in Boston and fostering connections that can translate into solid enterprise facing ventures.
  3. Harvard needs to do significantly more work in encouraging a less institutionally driven mindset among its students, ranging from fostering a greater culture of building to leveraging alumni entrepreneur narratives to inspire students to break out of traditional career narratives.

The Harvard Technology Review will be doing work on each of these fronts, in the form of both events and articles, so make sure to subscribe to stay tuned.

On the highest level, the discussion focused on whether or not Harvard today is a school known for and suited towards student entrepreneurship. When we think of student entrepreneurship at Harvard, the names that immediately come to mind are Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who built Microsoft and Facebook, respectively, into two of the largest technology companies in history. But if we push beyond that and take a pulse among students, Harvard really isn’t known for its entrepreneurship culture. The nearly unequivocal sense that we got from the event was that Harvard is much more favoring of well-defined institutional trajectories, which culminate in secure positions in consulting, finance, and big technology that Harvard students have gravitated towards for generations. The statistics support this: from a recent 2018 Pitchbook survey, Harvard ranks fourth among 4-year universities in producing undergraduate entrepreneurs: Stanford has produced 1,178 undergrad founders, followed by Berkeley at 1,137, then MIT at 941, and finally Harvard at 900. We really wanted to dig into why this was the case, and what we can do to change Harvard’s culture to better promote entrepreneurship.

From the students present at the event, it was clear that there is a growing entrepreneurial presence and drive on campus. Athena Kan, a senior who has spent time at 8VC, Greylock, and Dorm Room Fund, said, “For me, the smartest, weirdest, and most interesting people are the ones who are building companies. For intellectual curiosity and being around exciting people, it’s great.” For junior Brendan Falk, who founded the financial service startup GoPay and has spent a lot of time immersed in the financial technology space, “I just find it more interesting building things myself, solving problems myself than working for someone else where I’m some sort of mindless computer.” Aashay Sanghvi, a senior who formerly co-founded Bureau and was an intern at Notation and Haystack, made the point that “When you look at starting a company at Harvard, it’s actually a rather non-risky thing to do: You’ll probably get funded because you’re a Harvard undergrad, you don’t have to pay mortgage, you don’t have kids,” also quipping that, “the worst case is that it fails, and you’ll get acqui-hired by Facebook.”

For me, the smartest, weirdest, and most interesting people are the ones who are building companies. For intellectual curiosity and being around exciting people, it’s great.

– Athena Kan, Harvard College Class of 2019

So that naturally leads to the question of how undergraduate entrepreneurship is being supported on campus. Harvard does have an Innovation Lab for startups to incubate, maker spaces for engineers to experiment with ideas, and a handful of classes in which students can work to convert ideas into initial products. But according to Dhruv Gupta, who was a former engineering intern at Microsoft and is now working on an urban technology startup on campus, “One of the hardest things as an undergraduate is to be able to say, ‘This is an idea that I have, these are the resources that I have to implement that idea into a product, and this is how I turn that product into a business.’ Those first few steps are very unsupported at Harvard in my opinion.” Professor Eisenmann completely agreed that it’s crucial to guide undergrad entrepreneurs through those early stages. “In terms of the early stage stuff, there’s a toolkit for taking an idea and running through a process for discovering if anyone in the world really has that problem, and whether there’s a solution that is going to solve the problem in a way that’s different from all the other solutions that are available. But the vast majority of entrepreneurs and student entrepreneurs skip a bunch of steps and fail: they lock in prematurely into a solution by building something too fast and getting emotionally attached, while the world wanted something else.”

Classroom support from Harvard is essential, but as broached earlier, there’s also a cultural issue of entrepreneurship on campus. If we go down the Charles River to MIT, we find incredible workplaces like CSAIL, MIT Media Labs, and MIT Sandbox. Beyond spinning out a staggering number of startups, they are also really welcoming and quirky places where people can just go to build stuff. For Eshan Tewari, a sophomore who has spent time in deep technology venture capital at Romulus, “CSAIL really just lets their students and researchers go: it is really only after about a few months or a year that they find out that one of their students has created a company. We need a more centralized hub and impetus for driving that mindset.” Andrew Zuckerman, a sophomore who has software engineering experience at several startups, brought up how, “It’s a cultural thing too: People here don’t get social approval for hacking and building stuff, but they do get social approval for getting a job at Goldman.” Ryan Jiang, actively engaged in the startup community alongside helping run international conferences (HPAIR), also brought up a good point around the team dynamics that exist when forming a venture. Referring to the Facebook meme page “I can handle the business side”, Ryan said, “You have someone with no technical skills and a lot of soft skills team up with someone with strong technical skills, and I think those teams tend to be very successful…those business people are looked down upon though.” Hannah Cole, a freshman who had previously worked with the Scratch team at the MIT Media Lab and wrote a piece for the Harvard Technology Review about maker culture, brought up how a builder mentality fails to reach the majority of students on campus, a mentality that is so crucial to a sense of entrepreneurship later on: “The conversation thus far has been about people coming in knowing that they wanted to start a company, but for the vast majority of students, that’s not at all the case. They don’t have an interest in starting a company, so they don’t look into a lot of the things we’ve been talking about, whether it be early stage ideation or making.”

“It’s a cultural thing too: People here don’t get social approval for hacking and building stuff, but they do get social approval for getting a job at Goldman.”

– Andrew Zuckerman, Harvard College Class of 2021

Another key element of fostering a strong entrepreneurship scene on campus is talent retention. When Dan asked how many people in the room were planning to leave Boston post graduation, north of half the room raised their hand. Many students mentioned that they were headed to Silicon Valley, but to dive into why, Dan inquired about how Silicon Valley is retaining its appeal in spite of it getting hammered on ethical fronts. Eshan furthered that point, bringing up Theranos: “That point is really epitomized by Theranos, which we’ve seen blown up in media coverage in the past year. That’s an example of what happens when an undergrad startup culture goes so far such that a student feels so pressured to drop and build a company that she abuses and institutionalizes every relationship that she’s built to the end of building a company for the sake of it.” However, Aashay responded, “Just spending the last year talking to a bunch of people in Silicon Valley, I kind of hate SF. But for what I want to do, there’s no replacement for just being in the density of all the people who want to do tech and entrepreneurship and venture.” Athena also brought up how, “When you think about starting a company, the problem with Boston is that there aren’t that many engineers here, there aren’t that many areas for fundraising. San Francisco is a centralized knowledge hub that continually compounds, and you have to be in one of those hubs.”

If Silicon Valley is such an idealized hotbed for entrepreneurship, where does that leave Boston? As Eshan brought up, “Boston has an amazing confluence of very deep tech and a lot of enterprise facing venture experience, sales, early stage capital.” Dan built on that point: “When I came to Boston [in 2001], there was truly nothing, everybody worked out in Waltham and went back to their houses at night. But that has changed.” Dhruv brought up how culturally, Boston is far more oriented towards building enterprise facing ventures than perhaps a more consumer oriented culture in Silicon Valley:  “If you go down to Seaport, it’s just tech companies and lawyers and cranes. And it’s an incredible place, you walk into any restaurant, it kinds of feels like SF…In seaport, people are talking about how they’re going to change BlueCross BlueShield’s life. And I think there’s a much more B2B culture than a B2C culture that in itself brings different things.” Ankit Gupta, who graduated from Harvard in 2017 and subsequently founded Reverie Labs, brought up how strong Boston is as a biotech hub: “One thing we haven’t talked about is the biotech scene here, I guess it’s the space I’m in but if you look at Biotech, there’s been an explosion in the past few years. Take LabCentral, a planning move by a city, a very large accelerator/shared lab space in Kendall, that is home to however many startups. That’s given rise to dozens of life sciences companies in the past few years.”

“Boston has an amazing confluence of very deep tech and a lot of enterprise facing venture experience, sales, early stage capital. Why hasn’t been brought together the same way that Silicon Valley has?”

– Eshan Tewari, Harvard College Class of 2021

Given that Boston is becoming a more favorable place to launch a new venture, how do we bring that back to promoting more innovative ventures on Harvard’s campus? For Amol Punjabi, a sophomore who has worked with Dorm Room Fund and Bridgewater, the core issues are twofold: “One, the recruiting from Harvard and who comes to Harvard [the likes of McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley]. Second, what Harvard stands for and how that affects people’s decisions on campus. Everyone knows Stanford is more entrepreneurial, MIT is more technical, and that Harvard is a liberal arts school that is known for being the best at humanities for the past 200 years and really building up that knowledge base in the hard sciences. We have to see how Harvard marries entrepreneurship in with the liberal arts core at Harvard.” There is also a lack of institutional promotion of entrepreneurship from the university itself. When Professor Eisenman brought up that Mike Smith, the former Dean of the College, was himself an entrepreneur, many students didn’t know that. One attendee brought up, “That speaks to it even more, we have these incredible professors and I didn’t even know this side of their story, it wasn’t elevated as part of their achievements. And perhaps that’s where some of the institutionalization comes into it.” Dhruv furthered that institutional lacking on two additional fronts: “The first is that both Microsoft and Facebook left Boston, and then moved to Seattle and San Francisco. That’s a big factor, because we could have had a Microsoft next door that’s fostering innovation next door. The second thing is that a lot of alumni then go back to the business school and donate there, but won’t donate to the College. Harvard has the number one most startups out of any university, but Harvard College does not, and that makes a big difference.”

We did, however, want to close the discussion on a more optimistic note and discuss what we can do to drive Harvard’s entrepreneurship scene further. Ryan Jiang brought up the startup that he has been working on:  “The company I’m currently working on is in geopolitics, and I’m working with a team at the Kennedy School, out of one of the few classes geared towards that. Working with a professor who has the connections with Brazilian companies or Indian Companies or Chinese companies, it’s way more efficient in the geopolitics space to be here than in New York or San Fransisco.” Ryan Kim, a Harvard sophomore well-versed in biotech and edtech research at both MIT and Harvard, continued this optimism in noting that “in other engineering disciplines, like bioengineering, electrical engineering, or mechanical engineering, I feel like the intersection of MIT and Harvard lends itself to amazing connections. Whether it be the research connections or projects that you work on, in my time here, I’ve had so many opportunities to hone my skills in engineering disciplines that making me want to stay here to further immerse myself in this rich community. Those labs additionally constantly generate a different companies.” Eshan furthered that point, reiterating that, “The strength of how much B2B enterprise capital is in this city, really allows for many of these ideas to go from labs into companies that serve businesses.”

“Boston is amazing. Life sciences, Robots, AVs, cryptography, storage, materials science, right down the list, there are centers of excellence. The professors here are brilliant: If you look at the fraction that are a part of the academy of science or engineering, the most elite honor that you can get as an engineer, it’s the same fraction of our SEAS faculty as at MIT. There are tons of undergraduates I’ve seen over the years come up with incredible things. What a spectacular place to be an aspiring entrepreneur.”

– Professor Eisenmann, Harvard Business School

Eshan Tewari is an undergraduate at Harvard and the EIC of HTR.
Ryan Kim is the Publisher of HTR and also an undergraduate at Harvard.

About The Author

Co-President, Harvard Tech Review

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