A look inside Silicon Valley’s startup culture at Stanford

March 28, 2018, 2:07 p.m.

Stanford’s close ties with Silicon Valley have had a unique effect on students’ relationships with professors and their overall Stanford experience through engagement in the local startup culture.

Montse Medina is a former student who left Stanford while pursuing her PhD to found Jetlore, a company that uses artificial intelligence to model consumer behavior in retail. She credited the campus atmosphere at Stanford for having inspired her to create a startup.

“When I came in 2007, everybody wanted to start a startup. That was really the spirit around,” said Medina.

According to management science and engineering professor Tina Seelig, the University provides support for students interested in startups through professional mentors, entrepreneurship classes and partnerships with local firms that help fund Stanford-sponsored programs. She added that many students choose to come to Stanford to take advantage of these resources and the University’s proximity to Silicon Valley.

“The walls between Stanford and Silicon Valley have always been very permeable. This is a really good thing for everyone,” said Seelig, who also directs the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, the School of Engineering’s entrepreneurship center. “The secret sauce of the Stanford community is the incredible entrepreneurial spirit.”

Bioengineering associate professor Jennifer Cochran, who has taken leaves of absence to form two startups,  said she has seen a recent rise in the number of students interested in startup culture.

“In the past, students developed an interest in pursuing entrepreneurship during their time at Stanford,” she said. “Now, when we interview graduate students, they are asking about these opportunities and wanting to know about them before they come. It seems to be much more of a focal point than it was a few years ago.”

Cochran also believes that startup culture presents students with opportunities to exercise their creativity and ownership over something they build.

Several students, including Medina, said they benefited from the mentorship of University faculty members as they ventured into the field.

Current MBA candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) and founder of ClimateAI Himanshu Gupta said he sees professors as some of the most helpful advisors to student startups.

According to Gupta, professors can make good business advisors because they provide credibility, a sounding board for ideas and access to funding avenues and connections. Gupta said that, since many GSB professors have experience themselves as venture capitalists and former entrepreneurs, he believes their input is especially valuable. Currently, one of his professors is an investor in his company and another is on its advisory board.

“My overall experience has been very positive,” Gupta said. “I can call [my professors] and say, ‘This is what is happening. I’m feeling very demotivated. Tell me what to do.’ And [professors will] tell you.”

Cochran added that she often shares business connections with students to help them in the startup-building process.

Gupta said that a professor’s involvement in a student startup may alter the relationship between the two, but not necessarily in a negative way. In particular, he mentioned professors who take on the pragmatic and results-oriented expectations of investors.

“[Some professors] want results,” said Gupta. “They are very up front about it, and very transparent about it. ‘Yes, we have a professor student relationship. Now, we want results.’ And to me, it’s very fair.”

The benefits can be mutual – electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith said she believes her past startup experience informs her teaching today. Goldsmith helped build the startup Quantenna, a WiFi solutions provider.

“In terms of teaching, I had this huge amount of experience from building up a company and all the practical aspects of building a product,” said Goldsmith. “I teach wireless communications, so now I [can say,] ‘Okay, when we built the chip, this is what the theory says, but the theory is leaving out some of these important considerations in energy consumption.’”

However, Seelig said she believes that professors, despite their advisory role, should maintain a certain distance from student startups.

“I would never invest in a student’s project,” Seelig said.

As a professor, Seelig added that she sees the importance of being transparent and ethical in business ventures that involve both faculty and students.

In exercising caution over potential conflicts of interest, Cochran said that she follows strict guidelines. Personally, Cochran does not involve students she supervises or mentors in her start-ups unless they are on leave or have graduated. She added that faculty have to submit annual disclosures outlining activities they are involved in and the people they are working with in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

According to Goldsmith, a potential downside of Stanford’s startup culture is that it can influence how undergraduate students choose to spend their time. Particularly, she said students may be incentivized to choose majors like computer science or engineering, given the plethora of technology startups in the area. Goldsmith believes that, by taking a startup career-orientated approach, some students might miss out on other aspects of Stanford’s liberal education.

“I think that they’re missing out on a really unique opportunity to take advantage of Stanford because it’s an amazing place to get a broad education,” Goldsmith said.

Cochran added that it can be difficult for students to juggle academics and startup responsibilities.

“We encourage students to wait until after graduation to start a company, unless their participation in the new company will be minimal and not interfere with their progress,” said Cochran.

To balance his workload, Gupta said that he took the minimum required amount of units so that he could focus more on his startup ventures. However, he said he did not feel limited by his time constraints.

“It allowed me to become more focused on my course selections,” said Gupta. “I only took courses that were very applicable to my aspirations.”

Medina said she also believes that a strong focus on startups does not necessarily have a negative impact on one’s academics.

“[Startup founders] are brilliant and are very competitive,” she said. “They like to have A’s. We’re not going to work on something at the expense of our grades. We may just end up working sixteen hours a day instead of working twelve. But, we are not going to compromise academics.”


Contact Tyler Johnson at tjohn21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Tyler Johnson '21 is a writer in for the University beat. He intends to major in Computer Science. Contact him at tyler.johnson “at” stanford.edu.

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