4 Unlikely Ways University Prepares Students for Entrepreneurship

I recently gave a talk at my alma mater to a group of students eager to learn about entrepreneurship after university. I always relish the chance to engage with students, who are so full of nacent potential and paths not yet traveled. 

I decided to share some of the uncommon lessons of university that I have uncovered over time, thinking back on my experience as an Electrical & Computer Engineering student, and later, as an Internet entrepreneur. Here are a few of my favourite ones, told with some personal stories.

1. Demystifying complexity and learning anything.

I remember a few courses during my degree that had me particularly baffled. For the electrical engineers (like me), it was Signals and Systems. (I recall that for my actuary friends it was Financial Maths and for my accountant friends it was Tax). Faced with the upcoming exam, upon opening the textbook (I wasn’t a big attender of lectures) and seeing what looked like gibberish, a special sense of panic would set in.

Like so many students, I was faced with two choices: accept failure or push through the wall of confusion and learn this subjet. Do whatever it takes. I chose the latter path, forcing myself to read, test, re-read and re-test the textbook material until the subject started to make sense, no matter how alien it seemed to me.

Challenges like this teach students (science students at least) that they have the ability to learn anything; to never shy away from a new subject citing the excuses “it’s too complicated for me” or “I am not familiar with this stuff”. Give a former science student a financial statement, software system model or set of performance data metrics that they have never seen before, and instead of avoiding it, they will know how to invest the energy required to learn, understand, and possibly even master it.

2. Rapid fire document output.

Faced with a never ending torrent of assignments and tutorials, as students we were forced to prioritize our workload. What this resulted in was a high degree of copying going on for the less important items for submission. The method was simple: each person from the group did the tutorial for a different subject, and all of the others creatively copied it (making appropriate adjustments so the crime wasn’t obvious), usually right before submission was required.

The ability to quickly review another piece of work from somewhere else, make appropriate adjustments, and then create something new for their own company is something that entrepreneurs need to do all the time. It isn’t copying so much as respectfully imitating (e.g. a design, report, contract, presentation), and in business it’s considered a skill.

3. Talking the talk (while understanding it).

In my case, I am no longer a software engineer or a formal practitioner of the general field in which I studied (engineering) or subject that I majored in (telecoms). However, I do still work in the business and product side of the tech industry, and interact on a daily basis with technical people within and outside my own company. Without the solid grounding in technical principles of software, networks and systems theory that I got at University, I would undoubtedly be less equipped to not only understand my company’s technical development process, but also earn the respect of my team and peers.

4. Open-minded acceptance of people.

University is great at throwing a diverse set of people together into one big heterogenous melting pot. Unlike school, where popularity rankings and “in” vs “out” groups are quickly established, varsity tends to create an ecosystem where different types of people coexist side by side. In class, we were forced to work with people we normally wouldn’t have interacted with, and this was a powerful force helping to instill a sense of meritocracy among the students, i.e. it doesn’t matter who they are, as long as they can get the work done. 

Giving people a chance and evaluating them purely on their merits is a huge factor in entrepreneurship. With the randomness and ups and downs of life that entrepreneurs are hyper-exposed to, I think that they also realize that anybody can become extremely successful one day. I will always remember a particular fellow from my residence at university who was very quiet, odd looking and generally a loner. I spoke to him a few times about casual topics and one day he emailed me something. I have long forgotten the subject matter, but I still recall the quote he appended to the bottom of his email:

"The more of a loser someone thinks you are, the more surprised they’ll be when you kill them" (Nida Tahir)

Now, I’m sure he was being metaphorical but let’s just say that since seeing that I never once underestimated him or brushed him off… and try to never let myself do that with anybody else- ever.

Such unexpected lessons are part of the magic of university.

Life Lessons from “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch

All achievement in life begins with the spark of inspiration. If motivation keeps the internal fire burning while pursuing a goal, inspiration is the matchstick. And as the old saying goes, “You can’t light a fire with a wet match”.
Last night while doing a little reflecting, I remembered the incredibly moving talk by Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University in September 2007 titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. The lecture was part of a tradition at Carnegie Mellon for retiring professors who were to give a lecture on whatever they wished to share with students as the last lecture they gave before they died—metaphorically speaking of course. The cosmic irony in this case is that Prof. Pausch had terminal pancreatic cancer at the time of his lecture (he passed away several months later).

The cancer did not stop him that day. His lecture was so profound that it ended up being watched by millions, converted into a book, and for a two hour presentation—it changed the world. 
Here’s the video which I highly recommend:

To me, some of the most memorable life lessons that he shared were (my favourites in bold):
  • Always have something to bring to the table- it helps (i.e. be good at something).
  • Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.
  • Leadership is a highly valuable skill. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk was far from the smartest officer- but he had the skill of leadership.
  • When you want something from someone, try to ask them at a time when they can’t say no.
  • If you wait long enough, people will surprise you (i.e. if you’re pissed with someone now, eventually they will show you their good side).
  • When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it.
  • Don’t complain. Just work harder.
  • When you do the right thing, good stuff has a way of happening.
  • Be prepared, because luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
  • Brick walls are there for a reason. They help us to prove how badly we want something. They are there to separate us from the people who don’t really want to achieve their goal badly enough.
Randy Pausch’s last lecture will always be special to me, as a source of valuable lessons, and a personal inspiration.