Revisiting Stanford and Silicon Valley by

My thanks to Laura Stampler for writing a better rebuttal than I ever could have, to the New Yorker’s hit-piece entitled “The End of Stanford“.   The opening line “Is Stanford still a university” is laughable.

As a 1994 grad, of course, I wondered if maybe Stanford had changed more than I thought, in the intervening nearly 20(!) years… But Laura’s experience, and the experience of neighbors of mine (who sent two kids to Stanford that graduated in the last couple of years) reassure me that this is not the case.

While having professors invest in student startups, perhaps even before they graduate, constitutes some kind of conflict of interest, this is a conflict that is (a) hardly new, and (b) one that Stanford has managed surprisingly well over the years.  Perhaps Stanford should tighten up its rules a bit – to make sure that professors, while good angel investors, aren’t actively encouraging students to drop out (it isn’t clear from either piece whether the encouragement ever happens, by the way).

But the rebuttal reminds us that journalists and bloggers focus on the true outliers:

A disgruntled student on The Unofficial Stanford Blog rebuts that with “6,999 undergraduates and  8,871 graduate students, 12 students dropping out to form a company is hardly statistically significant.”
Stanford’s retention rate is at a whopping 98 percent.
Sometimes students do choose to leave, or perhaps defer, but it isn’t only start-up folks. Tiger Woods and Reese Witherspoon left Stanford for careers that had nothing to do with the tech industry.
A handful of students, most notably Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, dropped out of Harvard to start a couple of little known tech companies, but the school is still going strong. And I suspect Stanford will live on as a university, too.

Yes, I suspect Stanford will live on, as well. In fact, I used to work for a company that was founded by Stanford dropouts.  It grew to 1500 employees or so at its peak, and drew more than a hundred Stanford grads (and hundreds of graduates from other top schools) to Austin, TX.  The folks that dropped out valued Stanford, donate money to Stanford, and hired its graduates in great numbers.  Clearly these few drop-outs weren’t harmed by the process.

Thompson wonders, “Shouldn’t Stanford be a place to drift, to think, to read, to meet new people, and to work at whatever inspires you?” He notes that “the center of gravity at the university appears to have shifted.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I missed this shift, and it’s hard to believe anything so drastic has happened in the two and a half years since I graduated.

It still is.  When you’re a student, and you still have time on your hands, you lay out on the grassy fields and look up at the sky and dream your big dreams.  Look around on campus – these students haven’t stopped dreaming big.  And some of us entered campus fully expecting to major in Political Science or Economics, and ended up in Computer Science or Electrical Engineering – precisely because you can explore both at Stanford.

The hype around the New Yorker article reminds me of the equally shrill At Stanford, If You Haven’t Started A Company By Graduation, You’re A Failure.  Feross writes:

“You feel like if you haven’t started a company by age 20 and you’re not a millionaire, you’re kind of a failure. I know that’s kind of exaggeration, but there are so many people starting companies at 20 and 21, it’s not that much of a stretch to feel that way at times.”

The pressures you feel at Stanford say more about yourself than about the school or your fellow students there.  Feross felt that pressure upon himself.  That isn’t how most Stanford students feel.  Many of us were just struggling to make ends meet to pay for books and food while we were in school – being a millionaire at an early age is only one of many ways to succeed at a place like Stanford – and there isn’t a single dominating value system for “success”. Even in my day in school there was a lot of focus on startups.  A good friend of mine and I thought seriously about starting up a company.  But he decided to go to law school and I took a job with a little upstart company in Texas.  Maybe that was Plan B, but it sure wasn’t a bad plan. And from reading Laura’s article, and talking to young alumni, this is clearly not the prevailing view of Stanford students- that it is startup or bust.

However, one thing has changed:  it is much more acceptable to join a startup as a Stanford student than it probably ever has in the past.  If, as a graduate in 2013, you picked a startup to join in Austin, Texas, the only surprise back on The Farm would be that you picked a startup in Texas instead of Silicon Valley.  Back in ’94, people wondered why I didn’t pursue Microsoft or an I-bank or a consulting firm.

The interesting trend is that many schools are trying to learn from Stanford’s example (and from other successful universities like CMU) to create programs at home – a la UT and the 1st Semester Startup, and other programs that Josh Baer and Bob Metcalfe have fostered.  So I’m looking forward to a few authors writing stories about “the end of UT” and “the end of Carnegie Mellon” any day now…