At a time when the United States is slowly slipping behind other nations in technological innovation, students at Stanford and Harvard universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are buzzing around launching startups that will be the next big thing. Yale harnesses enormous potential to become a fertile incubator for the next generation of CEOs, founders and visionaries who use business as a vehicle for social, economic and technological progress, but the University has been uncharacteristically silent. We are a campus of leaders who reside within these Ivy gates because of our demonstrated capacity for ingenuity, ambition, and teamwork. We already dominate Capitol Hill and Wall Street — and it’s due time we also infiltrated Silicon Valley and the upper echelons of high-tech and social entrepreneurship.
My four years at Yale were transformative in that much introspection led me to forego pursuing academia, medical school and consulting jobs in favor of starting my own company. As a freshman, never once did I think that, upon graduation, I would be leading a revenue-generating business (especially one that publishes video games), with twelve full-time employees and a million-plus in raised venture capital. But when the opportunity fell into my lap junior year, I seized it and never looked back. In retrospect, I can assure you, based on my experience, that launching a venture in college is not only a realistic goal, but it’s also fraught with incredible rewards.
Running a startup is similar to raising a child; you develop a prideful attachment toward it, while being taken on a roller coaster of emotions. One moment you could be dreaming of becoming the next Google and buying private islands; the next moment, you’re pondering how to prepare your loved ones for impending failure. Caring for it may monopolize your life, but it never actually feels like work.
As a founder, you will possess a high degree of professional freedom, hire and fire employees, manage others’ livelihoods, negotiate term sheets with investors, and market products you built from scratch. You will learn how to bring nascent ideas to reality, cultivate a comfort with risk, and accept failure as a natural part of progress. At each step of the way, you will gain practical operational experience, and all of your actions will have measurable, real-world consequences. And it will be one of the most fulfilling endeavors of your life.
Granted, leaving the security of a job or school comes with considerable risk, the most significant of which is the possibility of unexpectedly becoming unemployed. In reality, though, the broad experience and extensive contacts that come with being the head of a company, even if it fails, differentiate you from your corporate counterparts and can help you land a prestigious job or admission to a top school, which effectively mitigates this risk.
And let’s not forget the argument of money. As an entrepreneur, the capital that you raise or generate may only go toward a modest salary, but you are essentially paid to receive an invaluable education, operate as your own boss and do something you truly love. Plus, you own a significant equity stake in an idea that you believe in. In the rare but possible chance that your company gets acquired or goes public, you walk away with wealth that your peers with predictable corporate salaries can only dream of (a private yacht on a private island suddenly becomes a reality).
It may seem like knowledge and experience are needed to build the next Microsoft, but I contest that every institution — Facebook, Apple, Google, Starbucks, etc. — was once just a handful of novices with big dreams and a lot of drive, who sat in a room and decided to start something. Their expertise was developed by getting their hands dirty.
And there’s nothing to say you must go about it alone. At Yale, groups like the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute work to help aspiring student entrepreneurs, whether they’re looking to join an existing startup, have a wacky idea of their own, or simply seek more information. I encourage you to pay them a visit (YEI’s office sits right on York Street), keep an eye out for entrepreneurship events on campus and learn more about fellowship programs designed to support students starting their own ventures (in the spirit of full disclosure, I helped found YEI). In addition, the past two years have seen a remarkable increase in entrepreneurial activity on campus, and a new wave of Yalies is launching ventures more frequently than ever before. Start having conversations with these fellow pioneers.
Whether you want to provide microloans to close economic opportunity gaps in third-world countries, create incentives for consumers to recycle electronics, develop the next online social phenomenon, or distribute a new line of bottled beverages — whatever your major, whatever your idea — feel empowered to pursue it. While your classmates are frantically competing for jobs, internships, and grad schools, you could be paving your own path and joining an impassioned group of young entrepreneurs who are leap-starting their careers to make a material impact on themselves, their fields and the world, right out of the college gates.
Sean Mehra is a 2008 graduate of Morse College. He is a co-founder of YEI and is the Chief Operating Officer of GXStudios.