Attending a brand-name college can offer a major boost to your entrepreneurial career, but degrees don’t determine your destiny. Make the right moves, and it won’t even matter where you got your degree.
Leading Universities and the Startup World
From the time we’re young, we’re told that where we go to college is one of the most important choices in our lives. There’s an entire multi-billion dollar industry devoted to helping you get into your dream college. I’d love to tell you that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Unfortunately, the data says the conventional wisdom is right.
Crunchbase used its startup database to measure which schools produced the most founders. Stanford led the way, followed by Harvard and UC Berkeley and MIT. In fact, the dropoff in the number of founders between Stanford and Harvard was larger than the number of founders from any schools outside those anointed four.
PayScale analyzed the value of college degrees and found that the single most valuable college degree in America is a Stanford Computer Science degree (followed by a Columbia CS degree, and then by a UC Berkeley CS degree). The expected 20-year return on a Stanford CS degree is over $1.7 million.
A report called “Investigating the World’s Rich and Powerful” found that 44.8% of billionaires, 85.2% of powerful men, 55.9% of powerful women, and 63.7% of Davos attendees went to elite schools (the researcher estimates that elite schools represent about 2-5% of US undergraduates).
Since almost all of you reading this article have already chosen a college, and most of you have already completed your degree, does this mean that that you’re screwed? Spoiler alert: As you may have guessed from the title, the answer is no.
Buried in all those scary statistics is the fact that entrepreneurship is the great equalizer. Despite its powerful brand, Stanford grads made up less than 5% of the company founders in the Crunchbase database. Sure, the Stanford name helps, but it’s certainly not a requirement.
While the Stanford CS degree was incredibly valuable, the best return on investment came from lower-priced state schools like the University of Virginia and Georgia Tech. Other top values included little known schools like the University of Texas Dallas (not the famed UT Austin), and New Mexico Tech.
And while elite graduates made up a disproportionate number of the world’s billionaires, the majority of those moguls didn’t earn a fancy degree.
A brand-name degree is a powerful booster rocket, but as you progress in your professional life, it becomes less and less important. I graduated college in 1994. How much would the skills I had then be worth today? I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t make a living programming in Pascal and building HyperCard apps. Your value doesn’t come from what you learn in college—it comes from your ability to learn new things as the world remorselessly and inexorably changes.
I won’t lie to you; a brand-name degree still helps. Even today, I probably get some benefit of the doubt because of my expensive Stanford and Harvard Business School degrees. But people are far more interested in what I can do for them in the future than what I did during the last century.
When I’m evaluating young, inexperienced entrepreneurs without much track record, I rely heavily on their educational background simply because I have no other evidence to consider! That leads to the obvious conclusion that the best way to deal with a lack of a brand-name college degree is to build a great track record.
Once your startup has traction, no one will remember where you went to school.
Uber might be the world’s most valuable startup; founders Travis Kalanick (UCLA dropout) and Garrett Camp (University of Calgary) don’t seem to have suffered much due to their lack of brand-name degrees. Nor did it keep WhatsApp founder and CEO, Jan Koum, (San Jose State) from selling his company to Facebook for $19 billion (to be fair, his co-founder Brian Acton is a Stanford classmate of mine).
Look, if you get the chance to go to Stanford, Harvard, or MIT, you should go. Your degree will almost certainly be wildly profitable, and you’ll also get a world-class education to boot. But if you don’t get that chance, take heart from Kalanick, Camp, and Koum’s example. Keep learning and building that track record; once your startup has traction, no one will remember where you went to school.
So once you’re out of school, you’re the one who needs to be responsible for your own learning. Establish a plan for how you’re going to make life-long learning a part of your daily routine