There is perhaps no topic I am presently more qualified to write or speak on than this.
As a bright and energetic youth, I found the doldrums of the educational system to be stifling and frustratingly indirect. It seemed to me senseless that we pupils ought to spend so much time reviewing information that was ultimately not obtained for any particular purpose, that so much time was spent learning essentially extraneous material. Now, older and barely wiser, I might say that one can’t judge the value of information before one intimately knows the connection said information has with practical reality, that practicality only reveals itself once a certain degree of deeper understanding is reached. Nonetheless, the inability (that I perceived, anyhow) of the American educational system to detail the practical applicability of information taught, every step of the way, was something that drove me to join several collegiate entrepreneurship groups, to which I dedicated much time over my four years at university.
Immediately I was intoxicated with the general spirit of ambition, with the idea that the future held near limitless potential for those who dedicated themselves to building it. Finally, I thought, a group of people who sought advancement in the same manner as myself.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before dissecting the flaws in the activities I participated in, let’s see if I can relay my experiences with anything resembling unbiased clarity.
Initially split across several slightly differing groups, my alma mater’s entrepreneurship scene consolidated quite a bit once I approached graduation. I joined up right at the beginning, one of a a dozen or so bright-eyed wannabe big-shots interested in climbing what we thought was an unconventional path to the top. The early days were filled with experienced and knowledgeable guest speakers (though for some that description is charitable), feverish planning out of our group goals, and the kind of passionate conversations that can only be had when aspirations outstrip cynicism. In the beginning, as is so often the case, the possibilities seemed limitless.
The first major bump in the road our nascent community experienced was one borne out of ego. I’m sad to admit that my own ego was one of the several that contributed to these early rifts, though in retrospect it taught a lesson best learned early, when the stakes are relatively low. As one with a bit more wisdom could have likely predicted, when you gather a bunch of adult/child hybrids who all suffer from the hubris required to think they’re destined to be the masters of their own destinies, discord and factionalism are sure to follow. Rather than focus on what could truly be done to facilitate student entrepreneurship, the self-appointed “top dogs” of this little corner of our college began to bicker over differences in vision, attack each other in an attempt to achieve primacy, and posture in order to appear more “powerful” to the few dozen people paying attention. To anyone who’d actually accomplished anything in life, we’d have surely looked like fools.
The big lesson from this chapter was build first, structure later. By concerning ourselves with irrelevances like social standing, we virtually abandoned (for a time) the actual goals we’d so excitedly established in our first semester in operation. Particularly in entrepreneurship, which is supposed to be driven by talented people who know what they’re doing “doing the shit” out of whatever they do, this politicking serves as nothing but a drain and should be immediately excised whenever it rears its ugly head. When there is something of value at stake, politicking is likely an inevitability, as it is an easier path to accessing that value than working to build it yourself. But as previously stated, such action is anathema to true entrepreneurs.
The turmoil of this time caused some internal rifts, and sadly some people chose to step away from the community as a result. But overall we kept on growing. We continued to put together interesting speaker events, developed a series of pitch competitions culminating in a partnership with an existing competition that granted some serious startup capital for the winners, networked with local entrepreneurship groups that featured actual honest-to-goodness revenue generating businesses, and more. We partnered up with the school’s tech scene, eventually working in a startup-focused angle to the rapidly-growing student-run hackathon. In short, we got some shit done.
Throughout the course of this experience, I met several venture capitalists, successful entrepreneurs, founders of incubators and accelerator programs, basically an entire network of Silicon Valley wannabes who were largely impressive in their presentation. But on the student side, things were a bit more bleak. For every skilled individual who maybe had a chance at actually growing a business, there were probably 40 or 50 chuckleheads who had no idea what they were doing aside from talking like a TED presenter. Entrepreneurship, it seemed, was a beacon for charlatans and pretenders of every stripe.
And here came the second, and probably most important, lesson. Inexperienced kids should not try to be entrepreneurs.
Obviously, there are rare outliers to this general rule. But in the age of Zuck and Evan Spiegel, in the era wherein one noteworthy VC said something to the effect of being a sucker for any Ivy League kid in a zip-up hoodie, its clear that the sector of the economy concerned with generating value out of whole cloth is and long has overly fetishized youth. This is not and original or even a new insight. It’s extremely well-documented. But when you’re on the inside of all of this SV worship culture, the criticism that seems so obvious to the world outside is so damn easy to shrug off. This is not to say that people around my age shouldn’t pursue self-driven activity, far from it. But it should be a widespread cultural value that young people still have a lot to learn, and encouraging said youth to try their hand at taking other people’s money to build something that other people (who are often more experienced) will come to depend on for their livelihood is just insane. What 22 year old do you know that you truly believe would be a responsible shepherd for 100 skilled people? What about even ten?
See, as I met people who’d actually been there and done that, once I realized that most people who got anywhere organically did so after a lifetime of trials and tribulations, once I saw for myself the depth of knowledge and wisdom that experience and experience alone teaches, the blinders started to come off. I started noticing how many of my peers would come up with ideas as simple and trite as “Tinder for X” or “Uber for Y” or “a new Craigslist.” I noticed how this culture, which drew me in because it made me feel like I could zoom to the top and be important and powerful, was doing the same to many others who also had no business aspiring to such heights just yet. I noticed how that very culture made those who most needed to shut up and listen way less likely to do so.
True, most people of any wits can tell a faker pretty quickly. But the messed up thing is that, within that cult-like atmosphere of trying to transform our corner of America into San Francisco, the fakers who were the best at talking real pretty would sneak right by. They’d pull actual investment. Real money was afforded to people who I knew damn well had no business running a business, people who served not some grand vision but their own self-aggrandizement. Meanwhile, in the nearby city that had fallen into a state of disrepair following the flight of manufacturing to the Southern and Eastern Hemispheres, people with decades of experience were struggling to string together a few grand to create real jobs for people who really needed it. It just wasn’t right.
Now, to be certain, not everyone in our community was a scam artist in the making. I have great respect and admiration for most of the people I got to know, and many of them have since gone on to start careers far more impressive than my own. But I’d like to think, to a certain extent, they came to the same realization I did. I mean, how can you now read about the tale of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes and come to the conclusion that this fetishization of the great young genius, the radical mastermind pulling us all into a new age, is an archetype that leaves the economic sector with the most potential for creating growth hopelessly hobbled, forever vulnerable to falling sway to a good story and honeyed words?
It seems in recent years that the fervor that gripped so many from 2008-2016 has cooled some, that the average person not plugged in to all of that madness has seen the rampant chicanery for what it is. But perhaps that, like the blind optimism that leads so many into the clutches of that aforementioned madness, is just wishful thinking.