Several of my peers have asked me what draws me so strongly to entrepreneurship. Why am I so eager to see this enthusiasm shared by the student body? To answer this question is to investigate the very essence and scope of entrepreneurship in the modern era. Responding would require exploring the opportunities where entrepreneurship has manifested.
Here at Columbia, there have been several recent efforts to catch up to the burgeoning technology and startup scene in New York City. I couldn’t have been happier when Columbia announced in September the introduction of its first three courses with Coursera, an education technology company working to offer free higher education globally. However, we have much ground to make up if we wish to be a contender in this sector. Cornell University started to set up Cornell NYC Tech this past July, gaining access to five years of free space in Google’s Chelsea office while its full campus scheduled to open on Roosevelt Island in 2017.
A recent Eudemic report shows that the six schools whose entrepreneurs receive the most funding are Stanford, Harvard, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of California, Berkeley. Two-thirds of these schools are on the East Coast, which counters the argument that proximity to Silicon Valley is crucial for fostering a culture of entrepreneurship. A CB Insights report has even shown New York City to be the East Coast’s “Silicon Alley”—in 2011, for the first time in over a decade, the state of New York passed Massachusetts, previously second only to California, in venture capital deals.
So why should we care, and what can we do? I propose we examine our interests and how we can make a livelihood from them. In 2010, 34 percent of Columbia’s graduating class entered finance and management consulting positions. Now, these are very respectable fields, and I have nothing but respect for them, as they help drive our economy. But I begin to wonder: Does one-third of Columbia really feel that passionate about this line of work? Traditionally, many focus on attaining lucrative occupations in favor of funding their interests from a livelihood that may be less than lively. Many might argue that parlaying one’s passion for income might be overly simplistic and that not everyone’s interests can sell. There is no exact prescription for everyone on how to run a business, but one big takeaway from Chris Guillebeau’s book “The $100 Startup” is that “you usually don’t get paid for your hobby itself; you get paid for helping other people pursue the hobby.” In other words, entrepreneurship is an opportunity to produce an income by catering to people’s needs with one’s skills and interests.
Startups have the advantage of flexibility. They lack bureaucracy, a fact that allows them to pivot and change their product more quickly than corporations. By encouraging entrepreneurship, we are encouraging ingenuity and fostering diversity in ideation, creation, and knowledge. Take a few cues from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who realized the need for a stronger technology community. He is leading initiatives such as We Are Made in NY, which includes listings of various resources like free Internet access, relevant technology courses, and a map of “Made in NY” technology startups. With New York City stepping onto the scene, the time is ripe for Columbia to promote originality and innovation by cultivating entrepreneurship.
My own passion for entrepreneurship stems from my father—I was taught to pursue the concept before I grasped the word’s meaning. Fleeing Ethiopia’s former communist regime without a high school or university education might seem daunting, but my father saw his journey as a passage to a fresh start. He explained to me, “Work hard, work smart, and work for yourself.” He said that you should wait tables not for income but “to learn how to run your own restaurant one day.” His mantra, emphasizing entrepreneurial success as proportional to one’s work ethic and experiential learning, became my own.
I’ve come to think of entrepreneurship as a science of problem solving. Entrepreneurship examines unaddressed necessities in our world. It seeks to sew together various goods and services that respond to pre-existing problems in any imaginable market. Essentially, entrepreneurship aspires to fulfillment by delivering it to others. At least, that’s how I saw it at 12, and it’s how I see it now at 22.
The author is a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior majoring in applied mathematics. He is a board officer of the Columbia organisation of rising entrepreneurs.
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