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Should you drop out to become an entrepreneur?

I have previously mentioned Prof Prasad on my blog - last time he had thrown open a question on Entrepreneurship education - this time he referred to the famous Stanford Commencement address by Steve Jobs [text link] [video link]- and asked questions regarding whether students need to follow Steve and drop out of their courses - here are my answers to his questions:

1. How many students despite agreeing to Steve Jobs follow him and drop out of the colleges? Is it a full proof method ? If it is, why not at least hundreds of Steve admirers not toeing to this? Is Steve approach is BEST for everybody and anybody?

It's a question of Eco-system; we have to recognize that a successful entrepreneur is one out of several failed entrepreneurs. The probability of an aspiring entrepreneur succeeding depends on the ecosystem in which s/he comes out of. The Stanford of Steve Jobs years was built to generate professionals and academics - it was never designed to generate entrepreneurs - so the probability of an entrepreneur coming out of Stanford graduates was less than the probability of an entrepreneur coming out of Stanford dropouts - because Stanford graduates were being groomed to become academics and professional and NOT entrepreneurs (For Ex. they were not being taught computer science subjects extensively in those days because Comp Sc was a still emerging and not a widely employable field). Hence, in Steve's days dropping out was a surer way of making your way to become an entrepreneur.

Another aspect is the "ability to take chances" - as a Stanford graduate there is a significant amount of investment you (and may be your family) have made in time and money in pursuing one of the chosen fields of your study. Hence, to experiment (which you have to do to become an entrepreneur) has higher stakes than the stakes for a dropout who has anyway chosen to drop-out of the regular fields of professional or academic practices.

However, in today's world the scene is quite different - the whole educational and corporate ecosystem realizes the power of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs - colleges have courses, clubs and associations around entrepreneurship; companies have intrapreneur encouragement programs and innovation drives etc. In such as case, often graduates may find that keeping enrolled in the regular educational ecosystem has a higher probability to expose you to ideas, trends and tools to become an entrepreneur rather than dropping out.

That said, the second factor - which is of higher stakes for professionally qualified professionals to experiment remains and hence if you choose not to dropout; you also have to keep building a lot of courage within yourself to ensure that in spite of higher stakes, you do not shy away from biting the bullet of experimenting with ideas and risking your career with entrepreneurship. But, professional qualification definitely gives you tools to better evaluate risks in ventures you are planning to undertake and hence make a more informed decision regarding when to leap and when to wait.

2. How many students avoid to spend all of their working-class parents’ savings for their college tuition fee? Why they continue to spend ? Is it avoidable ?

As explained above, today's educational ecosystem has a better probability of generating entrepreneurs against yesteryear's. Also coming to the point of risking working class parents' savings - we should not be no naive to believe that by dropping out and taking the route of entrepreneurship we are doing anything different!
Steve Jobs did risk his parents' lifetime savings when he dropped out - because he completely gave up the option of settling down in a fulfilling career had his entrepreneurial plans failed. Suppose, Steve would have bet his entrepreneurial plans not on the PC/Mac but on a computer company which made software for supercomputers? What if his company did not succeed? He would then have had no second option of making a living, more importantly taking care of his ageing parents etc.

However, it is important to recognize that we should know when to give up the beaten path and start experimenting! Also, what is important is to continue to take chances - whether you are studying or working in a job - this should not stop you from spending time trying out new ideas - give your weekends and evenings to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is a pursuit of those who keep trying - and that's the only way to de-risk yourself from the possibility of you never making as an entrepreneur.

3. How many students despite not seeing any value in what they study try to continue with the same?

This is important - too many of us are like Peter Keating in Ayn's Rand's novel The Fountainhead, we evaluate our success through the standards set by others. We rigorously study subjects prescribed by our institute irrespective of whether we feel it shall provide us any knowhow to launch our entrepreneurial career. We strive to score the highest marks (or to pass) in subjects which have more importance in making a salaried professional out of us rather than an entrepreneur. We also spend time in participating in events which are designed by our peers who want to simply become salaried professionals. More importantly, in studying all this we ignore self-study, reading blogs, books, participating in entrepreneurship events, learning new skills (like programming in new languages or learning the cutting edge marketing skills).

We need to think like Howard Roark - be clear about our own vision, make sure to spend time in doing what we like, what will equip us better in starting up our business. Ignore - to the extent possible - what has been prescribed but you don't find useful for your life. Study it only enough to make sure you don't flunk the exam and get out of your course. Spend all the time available extra in doing things that lead to only one goal - starting your own company!

4. What is the surety that being Steve… ‘It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple’ successful like Steve Jobs?

This is a philosophical and recursive question! We know the qualities of Steve Jobs because he is successful. Had he failed, we would never have known his qualities - but would that have meant that he would then not had these qualities? I don't know. I don't have a definitive answer!

Take an analogy - if you are shown an ice-cube, you will be able to tell that within 1/2 hr it will convert into a pool of water. You may not predict the exact shape, but you can give an indication of the size of the pool of water also. But if you are shown a pool of water - would you be able to predict what was the shape of the Ice Cube it came from - it could have been round or square or conical or anything!

We must recognize that success depends not just on our qualities but also on several other factors like the environment where we grow up, work etc (Ex. imagine if Steve Jobs was born in India of the 60s with the same qualities - would he have made Apple?). Hence, we should not spend time and effort in contemplating or even learning the "exact" qualities that (supposedly) make successful entrepreneurs. I think the Gita puts it best - कर्मन्येवाधिकारास्ते माँ फलेषु कदाचन!


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