(Photo credit: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/series/boston-student-entrepreneurship/)
BY MATT MEYER
For aspiring entrepreneurs, going to college doesn’t necessarily mean that business dreams be put on hold. Most continue to chip away at their passion projects—a business venture or nascent smartphone app—during the scant spare hours in their class and activity schedules. However, sometimes academics begin to conflict with entrepreneurial aspirations and students face a pivotal dilemma: commit to their budding business or their college education. Bill Gates, a role model for today’s start-up set, famously dropped out of Harvard in 1975 to start Microsoft, but most who drop out will not end up starting a billion-dollar business.
Thomas Wall, a 21-year-old NYU student, believes that his point of no return—drop out or degree—is fast approaching. For more than a year, he’s been working on his current project, a personal shopping app under the working title “MōD,”. His concern now is that some other developer will release a competing product before he can finish his. A few months of fully dedicated time would allow Wall to fine-tune and market his app. “First impressions are everything. Initial impact can’t be replaced,” he says.
Currently, Wall is hard at work juggling his math and computer science dual major,his app, and a part-time job at a data analysis firm. “Anyone can make good grades in school,” Wall says. “Creating something, having an idea, it pushes you ahead.” The utmost in résumé building, Wall feels, is proving he can create a new product. Under that pressure, he keeps late hours, taking midnight Skype conferences with programmers after finishing his homework.
Many experts, however, advise that although multitasking may become exhausting, students like Wall should prioritize school before dropping out to pursue a business. Steve Young, a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, is wary of the attitudes surrounding college entrepreneurship today. “College already requires focus and dedication. Your attention is pulled in every direction,” Young says. As a businessman, he’s glad to see passionate students at work, but as a professor, he feels otherwise. “In college, you can recover from a slip-up between exams,” he says. “Setbacks ‘out there’ will knock you down.” Despite his advice, he’s aware some student entrepreneurs will follow through with their enterprises. To those students, he emphasizes the importance of an economic safety net, either parents or another backup plan. What’s the best default? “A college degree,” he says.
Some other higher education experts are even more adamant. In a March 2013 op-ed published by The Atlantic, Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, condemns those who would encourage students at his university and others to follow the dropout dream. Zimmer’s piece illustrates the harmful effects of sensational media covering “outlier” dropouts as if they were today’s Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Contrasting those tall tales, Zimmer cites the many benefits of higher education, including analytical skills and established networks.
Many ambitious Gen Y-ers currently in school are also working under the assumption that it’s now or never; over 25 is too late. Yet, despite extraordinary cases like Nick D’Aloisio, the 17-year-old who sold his app Summly, which collects daily news stories, for $30 million, entrepreneurship in the U.S. is actually dominated by an older crowd.
A May 2008 study by the Kauffman Foundation charted a correlation between education and tech entrepreneurship. This study assessed the educational backgrounds and ages of 652 CEOs, all from recently established tech companies included in D&B’s Million Dollar Database. Its findings show that an overwhelming majority of successful tech entrepreneurs started their companies after the age of 25, defining an average age of 39 at the time of company founding. Startups established by founders with bachelor’s degrees (or higher) were found to earn greater revenues and employ more workers than companies with founders whose terminal education did not surpass a high school diploma. Lastly, the study concluded that startup founders who experienced long-term success waited—while working or pursuing a higher degree—more than 16 years on average before starting their businesses.
Following this reasoning , Grace Reed, a junior at NYU’s Stern School of Business, is happy to dedicate her time to her studies. Balancing a healthy social life with academics, Reed recognizes the plentiful opportunities to network and learn skills to build a foundation for a future in business. “What I’m learning will make me a valuable asset someday,” Reed says. Beyond practical studies, she’s gained experience in programs her school has arranged for students to apply what they’ve learned. One course she’s taking this semester, a seminar with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, has enabled her to consult with emerging designers. Ultimately, Reed is aware that education doesn’t end with her undergraduate degree. Her plan is to finish college and land an entry-level job, where she’ll work before pursuing an MBA. “I’m not in any rush. I’m here to learn what I can do,” Reed says. “That’s a full-time job right now.”
Some, like MōD-hopeful Thomas Wall, still won’t be satisfied to put dreams on hold; they’re looking to become the exception to the rule. Though four years may feel long for the itchy and ambitious, the decision to dropout is often compounded with parents. For Grace Reed, whose parents pay her NYU tuition, the traditional college track remains the only option. “My parents aren’t paying for me to be an actress with a one in a million shot,” Reed says. “I wouldn’t try the same thing in the business world.” Thomas Wall, however, is unafraid to trudge on, no matter the odds. He’s even got his parents encouragement. “My dad’s all for this sort of thing,” he says. “He wants to work for me someday.”