Is Stanford the Epicenter for Startups?

  • June 3, 2014
  • Scott

Question:  Is Stanford the Epicenter for Startups?

Signs point to yes.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t great startup hubs all over the US and in other countries.  There are.  But the level of startup insanity is most prevalent near Stanford.  An article last year asked “Are Stanford Grads Good Investments?” It addresses as best it can, a data-oriented approach to answering that question.

Aileen Lee’s popular article on “unicorns”—startups with billion-dollar or more valuations—uncovered a number of potential signals for identifying successful founders. Based on her findings, founder age, experience, and prior working relationships all could be indicators of future success. One of the strongest and most concrete potential signals is where founders were educated, and particularly, whether or not they went to Stanford—a third of the 39 unicorns were founded by Stanford graduates.

A third of 39 sounds like a lot – but we’re still only talking about 39 data points…

The more interesting question that this article does a good job of putting to rest is this:  Is Stanford the epicenter for Startups?  It quite clearly is.  When I see articles claiming another school as the best environment for startups, you really have to wonder if they are plugged into reality.

And in that context, is it any wonder that Stanford is getting the kind of recognition schools dream of?

  • lowest acceptance rate the last two years
  • topped the Princeton Review’s survey of seniors 5 of the last 6 years for their “dream college”
  • amazingly successful donor culture

One opinion:

“There’s no question that right now, Stanford is seen as the place to be,” said Robert Franek, who oversees the Princeton Review’s college and university guidebooks and student surveys. Of course, that is more a measure of popularity than of quality, he said, and whether it will last is anyone’s guess.

 Of course, he has this backward. The popularity is a trailing indicator of quality, not a leading indicator.  It takes years, or decades, or longer – of sustained excellence – to achieve what Stanford is achieving.  If Stanford’s rankings drop to 2 or 3, will that mark passing of a fad?  Hardly.  And no one dreams that Stanford will drop out of the top 20.

This is really interesting:

About 5 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate degrees are awarded in computer science or engineering, compared with about 27 percent at Stanford. At Stanford, about 90 percent of undergraduate students take at least one computer programming class, compared with about half at Harvard.

There’s always been this pragmatic side of Stanford. I don’t know precisely what drives it, but you could almost predict that those of modest means would be very focused on engineering, law, and medicine as disciplines at Stanford.  And there wasn’t a stigma for or against those pursuits. The increase in interest in Computer Science reflects a recognition of career opportunities – but also a recognition of the increasing role software plays in our lives: on our phones, our TV’s, our cars.  It isn’t hard to imagine that you, too, could build something amazing with software.

There’s also something really powerful about a liberal arts education when it has the core of an engineering-focused computer science degree.  I think that has a lot to do with Silicon Valley’s (and Stanford’s) strength in startups – marrying creative and artistic disciplines with engineering disciplines.

Contrasting with the pragmatic aspect of Stanford is this nugget:

 Students interviewed here said they considered the sink-or-swim image overblown. The norm at Harvard, they said, is to tell everyone how hard you work and how intense the place is. Students at Stanford say the prevailing ethos there is the opposite: work hard, but in public, appear utterly laid-back.

This was absolutely true 20 years ago when I was at Stanford.  The ideal student got great grades, played a competitive sport, had time for a movie, or a late-night food run, or a game of Frisbee or basketball – and yet still made time to work hard.  The ideal was “balance” or making that juggling act look effortless. Easier said than done.



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