In many ways, he was the typical involved college student. Then suddenly, just one year into his college career, he left to pursue his startup, Zinch.com.
With the recent uptick in campus interest in entrepreneurship, an increasing number of University students are pursuing their ideas formed on campus. Some, like Tony Xiao ’12 and Taylor Francis ’14, have remained on campus, taking courses while simultaneously engaging in entrepreneurship, while others, like Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin, formerly of the Class of 2012, chose to take leaves of absence to grow their ventures. A third group of students, like Hagen, have chosen to drop out entirely to pursue successful companies.
Student entrepreneurs face this choice. Either they can stay at the University and split their time between the classroom and the hubs of entrepreneurship, or they can leave campus to pursue their companies. If they do leave, they are faced with a second choice: Does it make sense to come back?
University administrators noted the concerted efforts they have made in recent years to provide students interested in entrepreneurship with the on-campus resources necessary to support their ideas. Many student entrepreneurs have applauded these changes, but others have said that it is still difficult to pursue startup ventures and a college degree at the same time.
Inventing while in class
Francis had been interested in entrepreneurship even before stepping foot on Princeton’s campus. Upon arriving, though, he said he was surprised that the entrepreneurship culture was not as strong as it was at his home in the Bay Area.
He said that he did not try to choose a school that was focused on entrepreneurship, but instead a college that would give him “four years to think about important questions and indulge the mind.”
In addition to being an active member of E-Club, Francis is also a fellow at the Keller Center, a program that designs entrepreneurship-based classes for engineers and sponsors the E-Lab program, a “launch pad for student startups,” according to its website.
Francis said that although the fellows program is young, he is excited about the Keller Center as a resource for budding entrepreneurs.
President Shirley Tilghman also named the Keller Center as a resource for students interested in pursuing entrepreneurship.
“The Keller Center has been developing multiple ways in which students can pursue entrepreneurial interests while remaining enrolled in college,” Tilghman said.
In his senior year, Xiao began working on a startup in Silicon Valley designing Mac applications for personal content management. He is an active member of E-Club and intends to receive his degree this spring despite his multiple commitments.
Although Xiao will graduate from the University next month, he noted, “If this [startup] had happened two years ago, I would have left. It wouldn’t have made sense to stay.”
Taking a leave
Indeed, for some students who begin work on entrepreneurial ventures earlier in their college careers, it makes more sense to them to take time off.
Eden Full, formerly a member of the Class of 2013, said she was attracted to Princeton not for its entrepreneurial community, but for its small engineering school and undergraduate focus. She thought this combination would give her access to resources that would help her develop the “SunSaluter,” a project she had begun working on in high school.
Last May, Full received $100,000 from the Thiel Fellowship, which encourages students to take time off from college to bring their invention to the marketplace. To receive the money, she had to leave the University for two years and will return as a student in the fall of 2013.
Full said her time off from Princeton has helped her grow, both as an entrepreneur and as an individual.
“By being away from college, I have learned to never take my education for granted, how to value it and how I will use my time at Princeton more effectively when I return,” Full said.
While she noted she had valued the time spent working on the SunSaluter, Full said since neither of her parents attended college, she considers her degree as a gift to them. She also said a college education is something that she feels is important to a person’s development.
“I spent two years at Princeton, then I will be gone for two years, then I get to spend two more years at Princeton,” Full said. “It’s like I get two opportunities to take it all in and live my Princeton experience to the fullest. I really love Princeton, and I am glad I am going to be back.”
Bellinger and Morin said they attempted to find a way to remain enrolled in the University while continuing work on their non-profit, Students for Education Reform. Morin said they parsed the student bulletin for opportunities that would allow them to gain experience outside the classroom and continue to work on SFER in New York City.
Brian O’Kelley ’99, who is currently the CEO for AppNexus in New York City and was involved in student entrepreneurship as an undergraduate, said that for student entrepreneurs, finishing a degree is a much better strategy than dropping out.
O’Kelley said he never considered the possibility of dropping out of school for a moment, noting, “That’s the dumbest, worst investment that I have ever heard in my entire life.”
He added that while he gained a strong academic foundation as a student at Princeton, he was not prepared to start a successful company immediately after receiving his degree.
“People who are graduating aren’t ready to start their own companies,” he said. “What makes a CEO successful is their leadership, network and experience in the industry.”
Gone for good
During their freshman year, Hagen and fellow BodyHype member Jeremy Johnson ’07 often discussed the flawed college admissions process. These primary discussions eventually led to their startup, Zinch.com.
Hagen said he was always interested in entrepreneurship but did not select Princeton because he thought he would learn about the business within the classroom. Instead, he chose Princeton because of people like Johnson, who would be “incredible and talented at whatever they are passionate about.”
After his freshman year, Hagen chose to take a leave of absence. He said that the classroom experiences were not satisfying his “itch to get out there and create cool stuff.” Because he and Johnson recognized the inefficiencies of the college admission process, they decided to pursue Zinch, a website that connects students and universities.
“At the time, it was just a leave of absence,” Hagen said. “I thought we would try and see what happens. If worst came to worst, I would come back.”
Six years later, Hagen has handed over the reins of Zinch, and is now pursuing another company. He has not returned to the University.
Even though Hagen was at the University for just a year, he said he still feels a connection to the school. He added that the University was instrumental to him coming up with the idea and meeting the people who would help him make it happen.
Nevertheless, he encouraged the University to increase the ways students could take advantage of the talented student body and strong alumni network entrepreneurship. He said if those resources do exist, they are not well publicized and need to made more accessible to students.
Dale Stephens dropped out of school to found UnCollege, which “challenges the notion that going to college is the only path to success.”
Stephens said he believes hands-on experiences foster better learning, adding that pursuing startups and nonprofits may be more valuable than earning a degree or spending time in the classroom.
“Self-directed learning is an entrepreneurial approach of education. Those who thrive outside of academic environments end up becoming entrepreneurs,” Stephens said.
Hagen shared Stephens’ viewpoint.
“I feel like when people drop out to start companies, it is just because life is moving too fast and they cannot fit into a classroom for four years,” Hagen said. “They cannot do that in a university structure. I do not fault Princeton, as entrepreneurship is not their goal as a liberal arts institution.”
Support from the top
Despite some students’ concerns, administrators said that the University accommodated student entrepreneurs’ off-campus projects.
Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler said the University is supportive of students who decide to take leaves of absence to work on startups.
“The leave of absence policy is very flexible,” Fowler said in an email. “It is very easy for a student in good standing to take a year off to pursue their own projects.”
Xiao noted that the level of University support for students who are pursuing startups “used to be a problem, but we’re getting there.”
“Entrepreneurship is certainly more student-driven so far,” Xiao said. “The University is moving in a supportive direction.”
Xiao cited the founding of E-Lab and the support students receive from entrepreneurship-focused faculty such as electrical engineering professor Ed Zschau and Keller Center professor Derek Lidow as positive steps in helping entrepreneurial students on campus.
Tilghman also stated that Princeton offers “a variety of classes that involve ‘hands-on’ study.” As examples, she noted the field courses that are taught in Kenya and Panama during the academic year and the Wilson School policy task forces.
While Tilghman said the University encourages students with a passion for entrepreneurship, this was not always the case, according to O’Kelley.
O’Kelley, the CEO for AppNexus, came to the University after selling Apple products out of his garage as a high school student. He planned to continue to pursue his entrepreneurial interests and constructed websites for major companies from his dorm room.
While working on a program to make email more secure with classmate Ed Peterlin ’99 the summer after his sophomore year, O’Kelley introduced himself to a Florida-based consultant as a Princeton student. After a dispute over compensation with the consultant ended in a lawsuit, O’Kelley said the University put him on probation for abuse of University resources.
“While my other friends were put on probation for peeing on trees, I was on probation for working on an entrepreneurial project that did not use University resources,” O’Kelley said. “It literally made no sense.”
O’Kelley said that he has seen many changes in the University’s attitude toward student entrepreneurs over the past 15 years.
“It’s great for the University to foster entrepreneurship,” he noted. “But they’re a little naive in how they’re doing it.”
According to O’Kelley, campus organizations such as the E-Club should be used to gauge students’ interest in the types of companies they would like to become involved with in the future, but he noted that members of this group should not attempt to start their own at this stage in their careers.
Not all entrepreneurial activities on campus are always productive, O’Kelley explained.
“Business planning contests are stupid and a waste of time, especially if you don’t have any good ideas,” he said.
Support from alumni
O’Kelley said the University should focus on promoting entrepreneurship through the classroom by offering more courses in the field. He also added that the University “hasn’t fostered alumni entrepreneurs.”
“Princeton has graduated some of the best entrepreneurs of our time,” he said. “Princeton alumni run the companies that Stanford kids invent.”
Tilghman said she was not worried about the quality of the alumni involved in entrepreneurship.
“All you have to do is look at the dot-com companies that actually survived the 2000 boom,” she said. “Three of the most successful were led by Jeff Bezos, Meg Whitman [and] Eric Schmidt — an amazing success story.”
Director of Career Services Beverly Hamilton-Chandler explained that many alumni are active in inviting students to their workplaces when classes are not in session. She noted that this past spring, several Princeternships were offered through alumni who are entrepreneurs, and that the IMAGINE Speaker Series was designed with the intention of inviting alumni with unexpected career paths to campus.
“Connecting with alumni is a great way for students to build their professional network and share their ideas,” Hamilton-Chandler said in an email. “Career Services helps students connect with alumni through panels, the Alumni Careers Network and many other career education and networking events.”
Some University entrepreneurs, such as Nikhil Trivedi ’11, argue that the school is not taking advantage of its alumni base or setting up enough on-site interviews for entrepreneurial jobs. Hamilton-Chandler attributed this concern to the nature of entrepreneurial work.
“Many organizations in a variety of industries do not interview on campus as a recruiting method,” she said. “Sometimes this is a matter of timing and recruiting budgets, as startups sometimes have to be at a stage in their development where they can support interns and/or new hires before they come to campus to recruit. Other times, it is a function of preferences to bring candidates on-site to see the organization first-hand,” she explained.
Hamilton-Chandler explained that startup companies including Carbonite, Yext, Knewton and Venture for America have held information sessions on campus for the first time this year and that many startups do recruit at the University’s Summer Internship Fair.
While Tilghman and Hamilton-Chandler noted several alumni that have the potential to be used as resources, Hagen noted that the relationship between alumni and student entrepreneurs does not appear to be explicit.
“The breakdown is that I don’t know where those tools are,” he said. “I’m sure that [the University] would argue that they’re doing their best. My only point is that I don’t know what those resources are and students don’t know what those resources are.”
This is the second in a set of two articles about the entrepreneurship movement on campus and its relationship with the University administration. The first installment was published on Monday, April 23.