Entrepreneurs Should Stay in School

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on October 4, 2012

From The News Desk

Last night, as part of New York University Startup Week, I moderated a public discussion between early seed investors Charlie O'Donnell of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures and Dave Tisch, an angel investor through the BoxGroup and co-founder of TechStars NYC. The event was sponsored by [email protected], and the topic was “Hacking the Future.” The idea was to apply the hacker mentality to startup investment, although in all honesty that was merely a jumping off point.

Both O’Donnell and Tisch have a lot to say and neither are shrinking violets. (Tisch, in particular, is fond of saying “fuck.”) They offered perspectives on what they look for in a founder (“Amaze me,” Tisch said), talked about the kinds of involvement they bring to the companies they invest in (O’Donnell sees himself as a matchmaker of sorts, a guy who helps startups find quality personnel as they ramp up hiring), and how an entrepreneur should go about getting a meeting with either of them (Hint: Don’t just email them or rush up to the stage after the event to give your elevator pitch. It’s all about networking.)

I knew the evening must have gone well when free food arrived an hour and fifteen minutes into our rambling discussion, yet not one person out of the 100 or so in attendance got up. Instead they expressed a strong preference to continue with the Q&A.

As good as O’Donnell and Tisch were — blunt, smart, informative, and entertaining, which is everything you want in panelists — what made the greatest impression on me was a question posed by a young woman, who asked if she should leave school to pursue her startup. Now, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, and with all due respect to Peter Thiel, who awarded two dozen young entrepreneurs $100,000 each to skip college and pursue their dreams, I think dropping out of school is probably a bad idea. (Disclosure: Thiel invested in PandoDaily.)

Yes, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates all famously left school to start billion-dollar companies, so you might think why shouldn’t I? Well, first of all, they are outliers. Odds are you couldn’t even land a job at Apple, Microsoft, or Facebook without a college degree (or mad coding skills), and of the Fortune 500, how many corporations are led by people without college degrees? One study found that college grads out-earn those with just a high school diploma by as much as 84 percent over a lifetime, up from a premium of 75 percent in 1999.

Really, though, the best argument for getting a college degree is that you learn how to learn. This process alone will serve you well in life; it can help adapt to whatever changes occur in the workplace and beyond over the next decades. The 19th century philosopher John Dewey, who was cited in an excellent New York Times op-ed on "learning as freedom," promoted the idea of “plasticity,” which would allow each of us to be shaped by our experiences: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”

I wasn’t the only on the panel who believes in the value of a college education. Both O’Donnell and Tisch talked about the maturity one gains in school and how that helps the entrepreneurial mind set. Besides, studying at a university can help advance your career, if that’s what you want to do.

Now, it’s true that there are those who criticize colleges for not being vocational enough. Let’s take journalism. Almost every week I come across yet another critique of j-schools. They have headlines like “Journalism schools aren’t changing fast enough,” “Rebooting journalism education means constant state of change,” “Can journalism schools adapt to new media landscape?” “Where is journalism school going?” and the standard arguments go something like this: J-schools aren’t keeping up with the times and don’t adequately prepare students to succeed in this creatively destructive era. We should teach blogging, live blogging and live Tweeting, coding, curation, social media, multimedia, and Photoshop. We should expose students to new storytelling platforms like Storify and help them create their own media businesses. Sometimes it seems these pundits urge us to do everything but teach actual reporting, writing, and ethics.

I wish those who are writing about the role of journalism schools would visit us at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute,  or at least email me for a comment before they hit publish, because we do all of the above and more.

I’m the assistant director of the graduate level Business & Economic Reporting program. Students take half of their classes in journalism and the other half at the Stern School of business, where they are thrown in with the MBAs. In my classes, in addition to all the reporting and news writing we do, students create content strings on Storify, host their own blog, live blog, and live Tweet events, and many have been blogging for Later, I’ll have students participate in an interactive treasure hunt in the library and create a Xtranormal explainer. We offer HTML and CSS coding, and a seminar on data journalism. Multimedia is required and during their time here, students learn to shoot and edit video and create photo slideshows. In another class I teach, Entrepreneurial Journalism, students create their own media businesses that they ultimately pitch it to a panel of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. If that's not learning by doing, I don't know what is.

I’m not the only one experimenting with different storytelling platforms and social media, of course. Other NYU professors — Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen in particular — are famous for pushing boundaries, questioning the very foundation of journalism. Plenty of other colleagues of mine have layered social media and blogging into their courses, too. In the end, we all want our students to be fluent in several platforms yet also to have a strong foundation in reporting and writing — that we will never skimp on.  It can be a difficult balancing act.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty to do in school, and I don’t think in most cases it behooves a student to drop out to pursue a business idea. We all know the stats, that the vast majority of startups fail. And something O’Donnell, Tisch, and I all agreed on is that being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart.

“If you don’t know what you want to do with your life,” Tisch said, “the last thing you should do is to start a company.”

Indeed, it’s like a couple having children in the hopes it will save their marriage.

[Image courtesy wikimedia]