In today’s episode, Steli and Hiten talk about the value of going to an elite college as a prerequisite to becoming an entrepreneur. Tune in as Steli and Hiten weigh the pros and cons of going to an elite college, discuss their own personal experiences with school, and outline the kind of founders who may benefit from schooling, and those who may not. Steli and Hiten also stress the importance of taking action and applying what you’ve learned when it comes to becoming a successful founder and entrepreneur.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:05 – Today’s episode is about going to an elite college
  • 00:32 – Steli says he received an email from someone who felt conflicted about whether or not he should go to an elite college to succeed as an entrepreneur
    • 01:36 – Steli is also conflicted answering this question because he is biased—he does not have a high school degree
  • 02:27 – Hiten shares how he went to college because his dad said that a degree was a good fallback, but it didn’t excite him
    • 03:35 – Hiten loved his experience in college
  • 04:05 – Steli says he does not think there is one answer for everybody
  • 04:33 – Personally, school was challenging for Steli
  • 05:38 – Steli does not regret not going to school; he thinks education and learning is different from schooling
  • 06:10 – There are entrepreneurs who have gone to college and those that have not
  • 07:21 – Hiten says the top tier colleges have some of the best networks
    • 07:36 – The colleges are expensive, but you can take as much value from it if you choose to attend
  • 08:12 – Hiten shares a story of a friend who said she learns really well in a school environment and should just get her MBA, but Hiten challenged her by saying “How about applying [what you’ve learned]?”
  • 09:20 – There is value in everything but personally, Hiten says experience is more important than the lessons taught in class
  • 10:30 – Steli wrote a recent blog post about going through YC which was similar to the mindset that people have in college
    • 11:49 – There is a difference between the passive founders and those who are taking everything they can from the experience
  • 12:20 – What you learn in college depends on what you get out of it
  • 12:39 – Steli agrees with Hiten that there is value in colleges providing access to potential networks
  • 13:11 – If you want to be a founder, I don’t think it is required to go to college
  • 13:37 – In Episode 23, Steli and Hiten talk about heroes being human
  • 13:54 – An alumni network is very advantageous to have as you can help each other
  • 14:45 – The best founders learn by doing
    • 15:37 – The easiest way to learn by doing is to not go to college and just start a business
  • 15:52 – Entrepreneurship is an applied science and art
  • 16:43 – There are a lot of imperfections in running a business that cannot be replicated in school
  • 17:13 – Subscribe to the email list to get access to cool stuff
  • 17:32 – End of today’s episode

3 Key Points:

  1. There is no straight answer about whether or not you should go to an elite school, because it depends on the person.
  2. One key value of attending an elite college is joining their alumni network and other networking opportunities.
  3. Entrepreneurship is an applied science and art that is best learned by just doing it.

Steli: Hey everyone, this is Steli Efti.


Hiten: And this is Hiten Shah.


Steli: And in today’s episode of The Startup Chat, we’re gonna explore this question really briefly of should you go to an elite college if you want to be an entrepreneur or not. Is college or university, is that worth it or not? So here’s the context, Hiten. I got an email yesterday from a kid who basically- What he was asking me for was he said that he’s a fan of the podcast, he likes my content and watches my videos and all that stuff, and he’s in this situation now where he has to decide if he’s gonna go on to college, and what kind of college he’s gonna select. And he named some of his heroes and said some of these really successful entrepreneurs, and he named four or five of them and said all of them went to really elite universities and colleges. So he felt like he probably has to do the same thing, but the financial demands to be able for him to accomplish it, on him and his family, are really really high. So he’s kind of internally conflicted. Is it really worth it or not? Does he really have to do it or not? Will college really teach him as he needs as an entrepreneur? Why did all these other entrepreneurs go to college and all that stuff? So he just coming to me with this question. And honestly, I feel a little conflicted about answering this question, because I barely got through kindergarten. I don’t even have a high school degree, so I’m not sure. Like, I am very biased in my answer here. But to a certain degree I’d assume that he reached out to me because of that. He was like, here’s all the smart people with the college degrees that are killing it, and I also know about this kid Steli, maybe I should ask him what his opinion is. Because you know, I didn’t go to college, and I have opinions on how important or not important it is. But I wanted to chat with you briefly about this, because it’s a fascinating one. And I do feel a certain level of responsibility in terms of how to answer somebody young like that, with that kind of a question. So first of all, he has an interesting question for you. I don’t even know, did you go to college? I assume you did, right?


Hiten: Yeah. I went to college, and I mainly went to college because my dad said a good fallback is just having an undergrad degree. So that was the only reason I really went to college. If he wouldn’t have said that, I’m not sure if I really would have pushed myself to go to college. For me, when I put my mind to it, I guess, I could get good grades. When I didn’t, I could get away with like B’s. Good grades meaning A’s versus B’s.


Steli: I love the bell curve there, when I’m really horrible it’s a B. When I work a little, then it’s an A.


Hiten: Yeah, worst case is like a B minus, I might have had one C plus ever in a class. So I wouldn’t say I was a bad student or anything, but I just didn’t- It didn’t excite me, to be honest. And I just would cause a lot of trouble, because- I don’t know, it just didn’t excite me. And I didn’t cram for tests or do any of that. And I cheated as much as I could, to be honest. Cause that was more exciting to me, is figuring out how to cheat than actually getting an A without cheating. So that was my experience. But I went to college for that reason. I barely got into UC Berkeley. I don’t know if people know about SAT scores, I didn’t have the highest SAT score, I had a 1310, which is like not that high, not that low, and I just skirted right into college, and I happened to get in. And I loved my experience there. So that’s my story with college. I was never encouraged to go further than that, I was actually told not to.


Steli: That’s interesting, okay. So I’ll come right out, I’m not gonna bury the lede. I’ll come right out and say that first of all, I do believe that- And we’ve talked about this in so many ways so many times. I think this is one of those points that we are really truly fully aligned on. That’s one of the reasons why we get along so well. Which is that I don’t think there’s an answer for everybody. And I don’t think that because- Whoever your hero is, because that person went a certain route about their life that you have to follow that step by step in the exact same way to accomplish similar things, even better things in your life. I truly don’t believe that you have to go to college or that college is the worst thing ever. I don’t fucking know, it depends. It depends on you, it depends on your life, it depends on your circumstances and possible choices. For me, school was a very troubling and challenging situation growing up. And the moment where I realized that entrepreneurship would be a possible route for me, I was out of there. And I was like, “Fuck this shit, I know what I wanna do. And since I don’t need to get certification or permission from somebody, I don’t need a business degree to be able to start a business, I’m outta here. What am I wasting my time on?” And looking back, for me, for my personality, for my personal life, my background- and with the lack of context, I haven’t lived ten different lives, I haven’t lived a parallel life going to college to really be able to compare honestly, but almost every single person that I’ve interacted with and worked with or that has worked for me has gone to really good schools and colleges and has these degrees. Funny enough, now that I’m talking about it, I realize that a week ago I got invited to give a class on entrepreneurship in Princeton in a few months. So I didn’t get through kindergarten but I might go to college at least for a day. But for me, I don’t regret it. I’m happy that I parted ways with school when I did. And that didn’t mean I parted ways with educational learning, but school was just not the right setup for me, and I don’t regret it. I’ve never regretted it. Although, being in Silicon Valley, one of the funny things that I’ve experienced over the last ten years is that I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody that has not gone to college. Or maybe I have. I probably have. But most people that I’ve really interacted with have gone to college. But having said all that- And there’s plenty of entrepreneurs that have gone to college and plenty of them that haven’t, so I don’t think that you have to, even if your favorite entrepreneur or favorite personal hero has gone to through it. So that’s I think my overall opinion, and looking into the future, I do believe that college is probably gonna pay less and less of a return. But there are I think things about it that are really great. But let’s- I’m curious to hear your thoughts on elite colleges specifically. Like getting a business degree from Harvard or Stanford, these really top-tier elite schools. What do you think about that? Because in today’s world, if somebody wants to be an entrepreneur, and they tell you, “Hey, I got accepted to Harvard or Stanford, should I go? Or should I just start a business right now?” Do you have an answer to that? What’s your opinion on this?


Hiten: It’s really fascinating. You could look up studies on founders and college and what college they went to and all that. I put very little weight on what college someone went to, personally. Whether it’s in hiring or in investing or any of that. And the reason is I like to really look at the person as a person, not based on credentials or anything like that. It’s just something in my mind. But in general, when it comes to the top-tier colleges, they have some of the best networks, I’ll give you that. So if you’re going there cause you want to build up your network and that’s the best way for you to do that, in your opinion, and that’s what you think you’ll get out of it, then that’s one really great reason to go to some of these top-tier colleges. If you get into them. They are expensive. And just like any other colleges, all those places are just like what you put in, you get out. So if you go put in there, get into a bunch of clubs, really take the entrepreneurship classes and things like that, if that’s your goal, you’ll get a ton of value out of it. I can’t say you won’t. That being said, it’ll cost you and arm and a leg, unless you go get a scholarship or something, or your parents have the money, and they want to pay for you, or something like that. Student loans are also low-interest, so I get that too. So to me, I just love that you said- It really depends. There are some people that learn the best by going to school. I mean in fact, quick story- This morning, the meeting right before this, my friend, she works at a company on growth, very small startup, and I was meeting with her, and she just came out and said at some point, cause we were talking about learning and things like that, “You know? If I wasn’t doing this job, I’d just go to MBA school.” I’m like, “Why?” And she’s like, “Just to learn. Cause I really learn really well in an environment that’s like that.” And I’m like, “Really? Oh that’s cool. What about applying the stuff?” And then she was like, “Oh.” And then, that’s exactly she said, I’m like, “That’s why, if I can help it, I’m gonna make sure you never go to MBA school, considering you’re already in a job applying your skills.” Right?


Steli: Yeah.


Hiten: She might not be in an environment where she’s getting the most learnings, but that’s a different problem than her thinking she needs to sit in a classroom. Anyways, to me it really depends. She believes she learns really well that way, she’s probably right, I know her pretty well. That being said, she can get that at the job she’s at. She might not be getting it from the team and the founders and things like that, but she can still get that if she’s self-taught and wants to learn. She can watch courses online and spend the money on those kind of things, etc. So my opinion of this is just like, there’s value in everything. There’s value in not going to school, there’s value in the school of hard knocks, if you want to call it that. I would say that I’m more aligned, for myself personally, in the school of hard knocks, kind of like you’ve been through, than probably going to any kind of college. But that’s just because what I learned in school had very little to do with my classes, when I was in school.


Steli: Yeah, I love what you just said. It reminded me, I remember being at an event recently, and a friend of mine met a woman that was I think interning at a startup, and we were chatting with her, and she seemed very bright, and then she said, “Yeah, I’m gonna finish this internship.” And my friend was asking, “What are you gonna do afterwards? Are you planning on staying at the company working or doing something else? Or starting something of your own?” She’s like, “No no, I’m pretty set on going back to school and getting my PhD in entrepreneurship.” My friend was like, “Is entrepreneurship not more of an applied science? Do you want to be a teacher long-term? What’s the end goal of getting a PhD?” And she couldn’t really answer it. I just think that she liked- To me, it appeared that she liked school. And she was really good at it, so she was like, “Let’s continue it and get more credentials. Can’t hurt.” So I think that- I wrote an article recently, and this is gonna be part of my tip for this episode, and you can go to blog dot close dot io and then slash, this is actually a really long URL, mindset y c waste of time- This is gonna be too long. So just type in “Y Combinator is a waste of time Steli Efti” in Google, and you’ll find it. And the title is, “Y Combinator is a waste of time—unless you do THIS.” And I talk about my experience of going through YC and seeing all these startups that came in with kind of a similar mindset that they had from college, which was they’re gonna be an overachiever in this class and in this kind of setup, but they were very passive in the way that they were waiting to get instructions on what to do, and then they would go and really do it well. But they were more reactive and more looking at what is the structure of this thing and how can I play it to win, to be one of the best. Versus I came in to that, and so did a lot of others, came into the experience a lot more raw, and thinking not what are they gonna give me, but how can I take as much as possible from this. So I would break the rules, and I would ask for things that were ridiculous, and I would not just come for Tuesday dinners but be there almost daily, and I would just hustle the shit out of the program, to get as much value out of it that I could. And I saw that there was a real difference between the brilliant founders that were much more passive and just following quote unquote the curriculum, showing up at the nights where events were, and booking the once every three week office hour that they were supposed to do, just kind of following what advice was given to them on a high level. Versus the founders that were just really milking it for all it’s worth, and really taking as much as they could out of the experience, not waiting for things to be given to them or anybody to tell them how to get something really valuable out of the program. So I think a lot of this applies to university as well. I think you’ll get as much out of it as you’ll get out of it. And I do think the one thing that I’ve written up in the draft to my response to him, I wanted to talk to you first, before I email him, and see if I change or shift or broaden my perspective on this. But the one thing that I think still these elite schools offer, and I totally agree with you on this, Hiten, is the potential network. And it seems like a fairly quick way to build a very good network. Or maybe a straightforward way to do that. Because the people that got into these elite programs at these elite schools, they’re a certain type of person. And a lot of them potentially will go on to have great careers in their lives. So being able to spend time with them and build friendships and then a strong network down the line is probably valuable, but it’s not the only way to do it. But yeah, I think that that’s kind of- My take on it is, I think it can be a great time. I think for some people it might be the right thing to do, but if you want to be a founder, I don’t think it’s required, and if you look at a few founders and see that they went to elite schools, for every founder that went to an elite school, I can show you a hundred founders that didn’t, and had amazing success. Or founders that went and then dropped out of it and had amazing success. So it’s definitely not required. And I’ll end up on my end with this. There’s an episode Hiten and I recorded, which is Episode 23, Episode 23 is “Your Heroes Are Human.” You should listen to that one as well, to kind of put in perspective how to create heroes and role models, and what to do and not do around that.


Hiten: Yeah. I guess we’re gonna end soon. So I think this whole thing to me- One thing I want to add real quick is actually you want to think about the alumni network at some of those schools too, cause they’re really strong, and there’s a lot affinity for alumni helping each other. For example, my business partner, she’s a Babson alumnae, and the amount of Babson alumni that I’ve met as a result of her, in the last year, is actually pretty high. And that is a very special business school, cause everyone is there for business, it’s a smaller school, etc. They’re all in startups, there’s a bunch of them around here. And it’s just been fascinating to see how that alumni network works. And even how they help each other, but also how they help new students from Babson and stuff like that. So that’s something I should mention that I’m firsthand seeing, cause I don’t really believe the alumni network at UC Berkeley’s very entrepreneurial. I might be wrong, I haven’t really felt it. But anyways. But I have at Babson, as I’ve looked into it, and seen the founders and the impact and all that. All that being said, the best founders learn by doing. That’s just what it is. There’s not a single founder I can name that’s great, that’s built meaningful businesses, that hasn’t learned by just doing things. And in a lot of ways, college is the antithesis of doing things. Cause you’re sitting there doing things that don’t actually lead to business and more money and growth and building a team. They lead to homework and case studies and lectures and knowledge. But not necessarily what I would call applied knowledge. So when you want to really think about your life, you want to think about- And you want to be an entrepreneur, learning by doing is really important. So even if you go to college, I would employ anybody listening that’s thinking about going to any of these colleges but wants to be a founder, to make sure you’re always doing something, and learning by doing, regardless of whether you’re going to college or not. And the easiest way, the hack, is don’t go to college, and just go start a business. Cause that’s when you’re gonna get the furthest, and have the more massive amounts of learning. Cause you’re actually just thrown in there, and you have to figure it out.


Steli: I love it. Entrepreneurship is an applied science and art, after all, so make sure that you apply. And it’s so different also, when you play- Like college a lot of times to me seems like it’s a game. A complicated game, but there’s rules and there’s setups and there’s borders and there’s boundaries, and there’s a way to succeed in it and a way to excel, and once you figure these things out, you can become a really good player and get your way to the top. And business just isn’t- It’s a much messier thing, and it’s not an easy game with certain rules. In many businesses, especially with technology startups, you’re inventing games, you’re not just playing somebody else’s game. So it requires a different skillset oftentimes than school. It requires a much higher level of ability to step into action, apply things, mess things up, create mistakes, and then iterate and course-correct and deal with a lot of things that are- a lot of imperfections. And I feel like in school a lot of times that’s not the environment that is set up for you. So make sure, even if you go to school, that you are applying things. Maybe start a side business, maybe do something online, build an audience. Do something, instead of just passively, reactively learning and reading about things. So I think that’s it from us for this episode. By the way, are you guys who are listening, are you on the email list already? Because if you’re not, you should go to the startup chat dot com, and make sure to subscribe to our email list. I know that in the past we’ve not sent that many emails, just a few secret ones here and there, maybe, a while ago. But we started to use the email list a lot more, we’re gonna do some cool stuff with it. So if you’re not already on our email list, make sure to get on it. And that’s it from us for this episode.


Hiten: Bye!