VC, entrepreneurism, startup economy

Why isn’t Columbia part of the entrepreneurial community?

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I was at a conference about a year ago and listened to the head of tech transfer of one of New York’s major universities say “We’re doing a great job. I don’t think there’s anything we could possibly be doing better.” And he actually seemed to believe it.

I had a bit of culture shock. The last time I had heard that sort of complacency, it was when I worked at IBM in the late ’80s (see how that turned out!) Since then I have worked at professional services companies and in start-ups. That sort of attitude at either would be quickly fatal.

Stowe Boyd notices that Columbia and NYU do not have the sort of relationship with the New York entrepreneurial environment that Stanford does with Silicon Valley or MIT does with Cambridge. I couldn’t agree more.

Stanford (and Berkeley, I was reminded yesterday by an alum) has birthed companies all over Silicon Valley, from HP to Google. They are key drivers of the community there. And it’s no accident that the global hub of biotech is in the few blocks surrounding MIT.

I have degrees from both Columbia and NYU, and have a soft spot for both. But when I approached Columbia back in 1998, backed by a seriously large corporation, hoping to create a funnel for potential entrepreneurs into Silicon Alley, I was stymied by disinterest. I probably could have made it work without the university’s cooperation, but, really, I had better things to do with my time. I tried again in 2003/2004 with similar results. Maybe I was just talking to the wrong people. But, then, no one else seems to have made much progress either, at least as far as I can see.

Columbia* then and now, it seems, is more interested in the money coming from a patent than in providing an enhanced community for its alumni and a better economic environment for its host city. NYU is not nearly so bad, hiring people like Clay Shirky and backing places like NYCSeed. But even they are nowhere near as engaged with life outside the academy as Stanford or MIT. It’s a frustrating thing, and I wish I knew what I could do about it.
* The institution, that is, not necessarily the people in it. I hear tell of individual professors trying to steer bright students into entrepreneurial endeavours.


  1. Taking a lame socio-anthropologic guess, I think that part of what is required is a cultural shift. Silicon Valley drew upon the natural propensities of Stanford and Berkeley to experiment as renegades. They didn’t have the burden of the East-Coast establishment. To create the same petri dish in NY goes against their grain. I suppose the divide between East vs. West Coast is deeper than we think.

  2. Call me cynical, but isn’t this all about fundraising? NYC is the financial services capital of the world, and these are its top schools. Their #1 money maker is attracting big donations from finance companies and churning out armies of finance alums who give steadily throughout their careers. From this perspective, it’s easy to see why entrepreneurship has been on their back burner for so many years.

    That said, in the wake of the financial crisis (and given what’s happening to NY’s media industry), they have a responsibility to the students and the community to help the city diversify. I’ve no doubt they know this and are acting on it—but to your point they have a long way to go.

    One thing we can do is to continue to apply PR pressure (as you’ve started with this post). There’s little worse for a university of this caliber than to be perceived as behind the times on issues like this, and with the right exposure we can push them to do more.

  3. 100% agree. I wrote an article in The Age of Conversation 2 on this topic “The Educational Paradox in Paradigm Shifts”. Education is taught on a linear line to teach you what has been to prepare you for the future, but when there are large shifts what is being taught is not only irrelevant, but it is also detrimental to the assimilation of new ideas. The proposed solution was far more interaction with industry. I went to NYU Stern and I honestly will say the focus is on the financial programs and the marketing depts are sorely lacking in innovative thinking… and we live in the heart of media/advertising of the universe. I’ve personally been very frustrated and attempted to start a ad tech/innovation conference at NYU, but kept getting blocked by red tape and faculty. This was 3 years ago. If you want to give it another shot, I’m game. The biggest issue the complacency of many student that blindly follow prescribed curriculum. I just wanted a soapbox to scare the hell out of them and catalyze more conversation.

  4. Carmen– Not sure it’s east coast vs. west coast, since MIT is in Massachusetts, and you can’t get much more “east coast” than that.

    DH– You are cynical. But, yeah, probably right. I always have this utopian idea that university is about more than just helping a bunch of academics do research. I’ve always thought that a good uni would be a true community, because otherwise it’s just a diploma mill, no?

    Seni– Will see you Thursday. Let’s talk about that.

  5. Jerry — There are a lot of diploma mills out there, but I personally wouldn’t count Columbia and NYU among them. I think these ARE true communities, they’re just not the kinds of communities that place a premium on entrepreneurship. In fairness, they’ve indirectly helped create thousands of startup jobs over the decades simply by doing what they do: developing minds and helping to support the financial services infrastructure on which most entrepreneurs and their customers, employees, and families depend (flawed as it is).

    That aside, I agree that they need to start putting more resources into direct support. Anything less would be a disservice to their students, the community, and ultimately a huge missed opportunity for them. Would love to discuss this further with you. Thanks for sparking the conversation.

  6. @dh Hmm…if only Columbia’s career development approach was that strategic.

    As a somewhat recent Columbia grad, I’ll agree that it is difficult to find your way into startup from Columbia — its not like startups are recruiting on campus. Beyond that, its not like there is a standard preparatory path for a startup job or a standard set of selection criteria that startups use in hiring. I think this uncertainty presents a disincentive for students to invest time in researching start up jobs.

    In addition, its much easier to justify the financial expense and time of paying Columbia to do a recruiting presentation if you’re a huge firm.

    A lot of my friends in college were interested in startups, and those people are now founding and working at startups, but we weren’t tied into a larger community.

    My first startup internship at was referred to me by a Columbia finance guy who was passing through VC on his way to private equity.

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