As We See It

Risky business: Do entrepreneurs need college?

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Steve Jobs dropped out. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out. Belkin founder Chet Pipkin, described by Forbes as “the wealthiest tech entrepreneur you’ve never heard of,” dropped out. And the Thiel Fellowship pays teenage tech whizzes $100,000 to forgo college altogether to focus on “self education.”

In tech, is traditional college going the way of the tube television? At last week’s two-day Collision Conference at World Market Center, a lack of degree at times seemed to be a badge of honor, an indicator of a higher career calling.

Reached after the conference, Collision presenters and Las Vegas-based Skyworks Aerial Systems founders Jinger Zeng and Greg Friesmuth said there’s value in attending college, but the gold isn’t in the degree.

Both Friesmuth and Zeng decided not to finish their mechanical engineering degrees when their consumer drone company took off last year. “You sit in a classroom and you think, ‘I should be at work’ or ‘I should be in a meeting,” Friesmuth says. Just a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree, he says he feels qualified as an engineer, and doesn’t intend to return to school. “It’s not the piece of paper you’re going there for; it’s more the resources and interactions,” he says. Labs, professor expertise and socializing are invaluable experiences, he adds, and are hard to obtain outside a campus setting.

“Everybody should go to college to get that experience,” Zeng says. “My best experiences in college were running student organizations and doing the Solar Decathlon [multi-disciplinary] project.”

Heather Wilde, chief technology officer at roceteer.com, a Vegas-based entrepreneurial coaching website, says it’s all about the end goal. Although she always wanted to become an engineer, Wilde studied mathematics and literature at St. John’s College and medieval British literature at the University of Cambridge.

“Had I gotten a degree in engineering, I’d already be irrelevant,” Wilde says. “In most tech jobs, it’s much more relevant to have a background in liberal arts, which teaches critical-thinking skills.”

An engineering-curriculum adviser at UNLV, Wilde says the problem with studying computer science at a university is the pace at which technology advances. Curriculum is often planned two years ahead to receive credentialing, and that often means it’s outdated.

“Universities have trouble keeping up with nimble online education startups, which is likely why those companies are doing so well right now,” says George Moncrief, entrepreneur-in-residence at VegasTechFund. “Technology usually moves faster than curriculum can be developed, so it’s a career choice which requires constant learning beyond graduation in order to stay relevant in the marketplace.”

Collision speaker Mike McGee earned film and political science degrees from Northwestern before deciding to go into tech. Because there wasn’t a computer coding boot camp near him, he and a college friend founded the Starter League coding school in Chicago. McGee sees both sides of the college question. On one hand, university is a low-stakes learning environment where students can make errors without serious consequences, and it’s where he met his co-founder. On the other, if someone wants to learn a specific skill like coding, boot camps suffice. For many of his students, the weeks-long crash courses don’t replace college, but augment it, allowing professionals from different industries to solve unique problems.

But a common criticism of boot camps is that the narrow skill set they teach becomes as outdated as curriculum at some point, unlike broader university experiences. “The problem is they’re not learning the baseline for business management, the critical-thinking skills they need, the background in theory and just general stuff that ... will help them grow their business,” Wilde says.

In discussing the relevance of college in tech, both Wilde and Friesmuth point to Steve Jobs. “While he didn’t have a degree, he really did go to college,” Wilde says. “He went to Reed and went to almost every class they had there. He was more educated than people gave him credit for.” Though he dropped out after six months, Jobs audited several creative classes that enhanced his eye for design, later evident in Apple aesthetics.

Whether or not they finish college, major in a non-tech field or pursue higher-learning alternatives, techies agree that networking and experience—not core requirements—are key to a successful future. Friesmuth adds, “If you’re only going to college for the classes you’re taking, you’re doing it wrong.”

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