The Slow Death of Stanford’s Startup Culture

The Slow Death of Stanford’s Startup Culture

At age 19, Steve Jobs moved to India, converted to Zen Buddhism and seriously considered becoming a monk. At Apple, he liked to wash his bare feet in the company toilets.

Steve Jobs was a genius. He was also a really weird guy.

Although Jobs himself did not attend Stanford, our university has built a global brand as an incubator of similarly “different thinking” and disruptive entrepreneurs. The results speak for themselves. From Hewlett and Packard to the contrarian Paypal Mafia, Stanford graduates turned Silicon Valley from a Wild West of rogue coders into an economic juggernaut.

But Stanford is a very different institution today than it was even five or ten years ago. For a school The New Yorker once called “a tech incubator with a football team,” our current crop of undergraduates is not incubating much.

Instead of app ideas, precocious freshmen now come to Stanford with carefully-researched lists of potential internships for the upcoming summer. They apply by the hundreds to an alphabet soup of pre-professional organizations like ASES, BASES, Stanford Consulting, Stanford Finance, SWIB, SWIF, SWIP and SWE, all promising exclusive access to recruiters and resume-enriching “professional development” events. Even truly gifted computer scientists, once an enterprising group of misfits and hackers, chase six figure starting salaries and carry around identical copies of Cracking the Coding Interview.

We can hardly be surprised that Stanford students are seeking prestige and stability. Stanford now pulls students from the exact same pool as other elite universities, retaining almost half of our cross admits with Harvard and 70% with Princeton and Yale. To be admitted is (with some notable exceptions) an exercise in sophisticated high school box-checking.

Why, then, do we expect these new admits to suddenly become status quo-destroying entrepreneurs the day they set foot on Palm Drive?

Thirty years ago, institution-smashers like Peter Thiel put Stanford on the map. I worry there is little room in our class of corporate operators for similar anti-establishment eccentrics.

To be clear, current Stanford students are plenty interested in startups and entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the sheer number of students with “Entrepreneur” as their LinkedIn header.

However, digging deeper into the profiles of these “Stanford Founders” reveals an ecosystem of dubious undergraduate ventures with little to no market potential. There is a proliferation of Instagram knockoffs targeted at such random subgroups as amateur athletes, art enthusiasts and (not kidding) people with airpods. Questionable world-changey concepts abound, promising “change” and “opportunity” while offering no apparent product. Many of the companies listed are, upon closer inspection, just newsletters or agglomerations of Google results.

And this doesn’t include the significant number of “startups” that are actually a single student doing a completely normal hobby, like volunteering or drawing, and then calling themselves the “Founder/CEO” of a “non-profit” or “local art collective.”

It is hard to imagine that any of these “companies” are making money. But that’s not really the point anymore. This hollow breed of startup exists largely as a resume padder, brought into existence to show Google or McKinsey that their student founder is “innovative” and a “self-starter.” Unsurprisingly, they’re usually abandoned once said founder gets a brand-name job.

For many Stanford students, a startup has become the first rung on a new kind of corporate ladder. A common life plan for business-oriented undergraduates now goes along the lines of “I want to go to business school, then start my own thing, then get into VC.” The content or success of the “own thing” is incidental.

Not exactly a recipe for innovation.

Stanford is still the place to be if you do want to start the next big thing. In terms of raw numbers, we produce the most startups of any university. Our graduate schools support the cutting edge research that can turn industries on their heads. And if you do happen upon a good idea, funding is literally right down the road.

Yet our increasingly pre-corporate startup culture discourages the disruptive thinking necessary to start a great company. We may have some true innovators in our midst, but they probably do not spend their time organizing events for BASES.

Six years ago, Stanford co-term and future Rhodes Scholar Miles Unterreiner published this widely read salute to the irreverent Stanford spirit. In it, he declares that Stanford would never allow the “encrusting tendrils of ivy” to “creep over our walls” and “ensnarl the engines of progress that hum eternally beneath the sandstone.”

But the conventionalism that pervades our East Coast counterparts has nevertheless found its way to campus. Sure, we still prepare more students to work at Facebook than Goldman Sachs. Many will even have a startup at some point. But these new-world status seekers are very different from the groundbreaking entrepreneurs who (actually) changed the world with their companies and built the Stanford we know today.

As Stanford continues its rise into the 21st century, it will do so as one of dozens of elite universities grooming smart kids for stable and lucrative employment. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But some of our spirit is being lost.

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