Stanford’s ties to Silicon Valley have made it synonymous with entrepreneurship. The university carefully cultivates its image as an estuary for new companies. The names of some of our most notable alumni — Yang, Hewlett, Packard — are fixtures on both our campus and in the entrepreneurial world. Stanford’s reputation as a center of innovation affords the university enormous prestige, as well as high quality applicants and faculty. Yet, despite the obvious benefit the University receives from successful and entrepreneurial alumni, Stanford gives very little practical support to the students who wish to follow in the footsteps of our most famous graduates.
Founding a company is a process that is arguably far more involved than any typical job search. A prospective founder requires a competent and diversely talented team, financing, mentorship, extensive legal support and, of course, an innovative idea. To secure financing and mentorship, the founder should be practiced at networking, making a pitch and developing a feasible business model. Compared with a typical job search, in which one practices how to interview for 1-2 different industries, a would-be-entrepreneur must master the science of his or her chosen business, as well as learn how to speak with venture capitalists, academics, future employees, boards of directors and lawyers. In addition to these hurdles, there are significant legal fees and bureaucratic obstacles associated with incorporation that the typical Stanford student is not prepared to handle.
Given that our Career Development Center employs 14 career counselors, as well as four peer counselors and six student business advisors, one would expect to find staff dedicated to students pursuing much-championed careers as entrepreneurs. Their functions, however, focus on general business, management consulting, banking, public service and positions specific to various constituencies like engineers and Ph.D.s.
Students who are interesting in developing and marketing proprietary technology using Stanford resources must deal with the notoriously difficult Office of Technology Licensing and querulous engineering departments that often refuse access to “academic-use-only” labs. In return for helping students with patenting and copyrighting material, OTL requires that two-thirds of future revenues go to the school, while only one-third is split among inventors. The effect of these policies is to drive away top researchers and inventors to other labs or cause them to abandon private sector work.
Stanford students who wish to pursue entrepreneurship gain from the university only peripherally, by engaging with like-minded faculty and peers, by proximity to Silicon Valley, or by working with student groups like BASES, the GSB Entrepreneur Club, Stanford Venture Capital Club, or Stanford Women in Business. Groups like these help sponsor events and seminars like Entrepreneurship Week and Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders. Though valuable, these resources do not compare to the support offered to students pursuing typical career paths. University-funded entrepreneurial education through the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (or STVP) is limited to programs like the Mayfield Fellowship, which teaches fellows the practical requirements of running a company and places them at a startup for the summer. Programs like this, while admirable, are exclusive and competitive, only helping 12-15 students per year.
In light of the University’s failure to adequately support its entrepreneurs, Stanford Student Enterprises, the business arm of the ASSU, has taken upon itself to develop SSE Labs, a startup accelerator for Stanford students. In just a few years, SSE Labs has provided legal assistance, mentorship, office space and other resources to over 20 student companies, without taking any fees or equity. This is a step in the right direction, but SSE alone does not have the resources to make these services widely available. Without university support for entrepreneurship on the scale of the CDC and career fairs, many prospective founders either stop pursuing business ideas or fail to nurture their ideas into viable businesses.
The Stanford would-be-entrepreneur suffers much like Tantalus from Greek mythology, who was surrounded by water and fruit that was perpetually out of arms reach. Similarly, our campus is surrounded by notable startups such as Google and Facebook, our new engineering quad was funded by the founder of NVIDIA, and within walking distance are some of the most famous venture capital firms in the country. Nevertheless, our university, which benefits so clearly from the startup community, has not taken sufficient steps to ensure that its students are prepared for that career path. Given this, our editorial board recommends that full-time career counseling staff be dedicated to advising and mentoring potential founders on topics such as financing, incorporation, team building and developing business models. Furthermore, given the enormous benefit given to the University by entrepreneurial students, we urge the university to follow in the footsteps of SSE Labs and offer free legal services to eligible students, in order to facilitate the formation of more Stanford-student-backed ventures. Much like the University offers grants and fellowships to deserving students to pursue research, we believe that University funding for private sector initiatives is equally deserving of university funding. After all, we’re only a Google away from replacing Meyer Library.