Something is amiss. Last Thursday, Barnard announced that Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg will be its 2011 Commencement speaker. A couple of days later, the Application Development Initiative, the only undergraduate organization at Columbia that aims to create a community for web developers, kicked off DevFest 2011, an application development "experience" that provides participants with resources to build something "cool." A recent SEAS alumnus present at the DevFest opening asked rhetorically, "Why wasn't this here when I was around?" Both events are breaths of fresh air that address one of Columbia's most chronic problems: the lack of a strong culture of innovation. We all like to complain about how there is too much red tape, how CourseWorks is awful, or how heaters don't work. Yes, all those things suck. It is also the case that the University does not do enough to foster innovation, often too tangled in its own bureaucracy. In 2009, a particularly enlightening story in the Blue and White addressed the challenges of being a tech entrepreneur at Columbia. One phrase in particular stuck in my memory: "Within Columbia's ivory walls, enterprising students are more likely to start a protest than start a business." Whether one is profit-driven or not, it's hard to think big around here. But it may also be that we just don't know how to. At Columbia, there are traditional avenues of achievement in leadership. The typical, highly driven first-year joins a club, attends all board meetings, becomes best friends with the folks in Lerner who distribute club space, and, before he or she even knows it, starts running the club in exchange for a title. The cycle continues as new leaders follow the path of leaders before them. We're not always making new things, but we all get very good at navigating the infamous "Columbia bureaucracy." And we barely have time to look at the bigger picture. What if, instead, we got together with a few of our computer science friends and made something—not necessarily the next Facebook, but maybe a small tool that helps clubs coordinate their space requests? Or a mobile app that helps us keep track of all the events that we are too busy to attend? There are many ways to improve life at Columbia while creating a community and coming up with sustainable ideas that might find wider applications. And in a specializing economy, we have more transferable skills to gain from leveraging technology and teamwork to create something new than from putting in space requests. Another obstacle in making Columbia more innovation-friendly is the misconception that only geeks can master technology. In a post announcing DevFest, Spectrum voiced that attitude, remarking that computer enthusiasts being socially active represents "an ironic twist of fate." But companies like Facebook are not successful because they employ a bunch of geeks who do not see the light of day. They are successful because they build around their tech core and draw talent from a ripe, new labor market of the future, one that bridges the gap between tech-savvy developers and people who add value to an enterprise by bringing emerging niche technologies to the rest of the world. Columbia doesn't quite prepare us for that dynamic. Moreover, organizations like ADI reflect some widespread stereotypes that prevent innovation in general. There were 60 people present in the room when DevFest started. Only about six of them were girls. For this reason alone, Barnard seniors should take pride in Sandberg's addressing them at graduation, and Columbia students should be sure to watch the webcast. Technology is an empowering phenomenon that offers something to everyone seeking an alternative way to navigate and change the hierarchy they are engaged in. Whether you want to create or manage the next big thing or you are motivated and financially secure enough to work for the greater good, there are a wealth of success stories to inspire you. Popular coupon platform Tenka is the brainchild of a Columbia alum. Or if, instead of running a hedge fund, you choose to lock yourself in a closet and create an online academy used by thousands of teachers, like Salman Khan did, you might even get a shout-out from Bill Gates. New York is becoming a hotbed for innovation; unlike Silicon Valley, it is in close proximity to financial powerhouses and big media companies which will continually turn to small forward-thinking tech firms for much-needed makeovers. These exchanges need versatile intermediaries who have the vision to manage new opportunities to innovate. At Columbia, we are perfectly placed to take those opportunities. We just need to start practicing a different kind of thinking. Angela Radulescu is a Columbia College senior majoring in neuroscience and behavior. She is a former Spectator photo editor. The Rookie Brain runs alternate Thursdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff