How the Ivies plan to keep the next Zuckerberg from dropping out

Students at Harvard’s i-lab.
Students at Harvard’s i-lab.
Image: Harvard Innovation Lab/Evgenia Eliseeva
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Jodi Goldstein, the managing director of Harvard’s Innovation Lab, brags that “when Zuckerberg came back to visit, he said ‘Maybe I wouldn’t have dropped out if the i-lab had existed.’”

Opened in 2011—five years after Zuckerberg left Harvard to focus on theFacebook.com, an early draft of Facebook—the i-lab is 30,000 square feet of flexibly outfitted space located on Harvard’s Allston, Massachusetts, campus, replete with resources such as grants, lectures, and accelerator programs. Like Stanford’s trendsetting d.school, it is open to faculty and students from every department on campus, and is meant to foster creativity and invention—code for entrepreneurship.

Francisco Aguilar, the founder of a venture that started in the i-lab and has since taken its product—a tactical throwable camera—to a demo day at the White House, was a year ahead of Zuckerberg as an undergraduate at Harvard.

“Entrepreneurship wasn’t really a thing in my time,” Aguilar said. “It’s a hot thing on campus now.”

The demand for support to pursue entrepreneurship among undergraduates is rising across the country, according to Goldstein. This is reflected in the recently expanded offerings at almost every school in the Ivy League. Princeton has the eLab, Cornell the eShip center, Yale the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute; the University of Pennsylvania has Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program (VIP); Columbia has an entrepreneurship program in the office of the president, and Dartmouth has just revamped the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, or DEN, to focus on students as well as alumni. These are just a few of the programs and offices launched since the d.school was founded at Stanford in 2005.

At the extreme end of this trend is the Thiel fellowship. Launched in 2010 by acclaimed investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel, the fellowship offers $100,000 to students to pursue their own ventures. The catch? Fellowship recipients are actually required to drop out of school. Last year, 2,800 applicants applied for 30 spots, making the Thiel fellowship far more prestigious than getting into an Ivy League school.

While 30 fewer students won’t put these schools out of business, the fellowship’s success certainly sends a message to educators: Experiential education is something even traditional schools need to embrace. Jamie Coughlin, the director of Dartmouth’s DEN, explained the dominant thinking behind this shift.

“I firmly believe that entrepreneurial thinking is the skill set of the future generation,” he said.

With an endowment as big as half the world’s economies, Harvard has been able to scale up quickly to compete in the emerging entrepreneurship education market that was once cornered by Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“They have vastly outpaced the resources MIT has by sheer force of will and budget,” said Aguilar, who started his company while in a joint graduate program at Harvard and MIT.

Goldstein says providing these resources has turned the tables in Harvard’s favor in more ways than one.

“Students don’t need to drop out now. We have so many resources it’s in their best interest to stay in school,” she said, adding that students are now picking Harvard over other Ivy League schools to pursue entrepreneurship.

Zach Schulman, director of entrepreneurship at Cornell, says his school is competitive with Harvard, while other schools are lagging behind.

“I think that the clear leaders are us and Harvard. Penn is actually pretty good as well. I know Princeton cares about it because I’ve talked to people who actually work at Princeton, but it’s still pretty young. I don’t hear much about Brown and Dartmouth. Yale is more academic,” he said.

Last year 3,500 students participated in some sort of entrepreneurship programming through the eShip center, Schulman said. That’s a sizable number at a school with 20,000 students. Now Cornell is building 14,000 square feet of incubator space that will serve this outsized student interest as “the epicenter” of entrepreneurship activity at the school, according to Schulman.

“We really need it to be competitive,” he said.

The impetus to establish name recognition as a leader in entrepreneurship education is a driving factor behind this expansion at Cornell. Likewise, the University of Pennsylvania is seeking to increase its visibility as an entrepreneurship mecca. With a strong business school, they are poised to compete with MIT, Stanford, Cornell and Harvard.

“Wharton is doing incredible work in this area, but we need to let the rest of the world know we’re doing that,” said Clare Leinweber, managing director of Wharton’s entrepreneurship program.

The Pennovation Center, a 58,000-square-foot business incubator and laboratory set to open in 2016, will raise Penn’s status as a leading school in the field.

Scaling up support for entrepreneurship is a natural step for Penn, Cornell, and Harvard, all of which have reputations for business and deep coffers to draw from. But at smaller Ivy League schools, which tend to be beholden to their liberal arts colleges, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“I think there is somewhere hidden an attitude that liberal arts schools shouldn’t be teaching practical stuff,” said Barrett Hazeltine, an engineering professor at Brown who has served as an unofficial advisor to student startups for the past two decades.

Notably, Brown hasn’t been able to resist the same forces driving the development of these programs at the larger Ivy League schools. Brown is currently in the process of hiring a director of entrepreneurship and building a space to house entrepreneurship on campus, according to Hazeltine, making it the final Ivy to dedicate significant support to entrepreneurship after Dartmouth did so last year.

At both schools, the forces of growing student demand and alumni support bore on administrators from above and below, creating enough pressure to bring these programs into existence.

In 2012, a student-run accelerator program caught the interest of future Dartmouth president Philip Hanlon, according to one of the program’s co-founders, Jonathan Kubert.

In 2013 Hanlon launched a fundraising campaign to fund the construction of a space for student entrepreneurship. The campaign surpassed its goal of $2.5 million by almost $2 million.

Undaunted by their late start, proponents of entrepreneurship at Dartmouth are excited about the future prospects of the school.

“I wouldn’t say we could compete with Stanford or MIT now, but at some point in the future we definitely could,” Kubert said.

At Brown, support for entrepreneurship has come from influential alumni donors, such as David Ebersman, the former CFO of Facebook.

“Students wanted an entrepreneurship program, and there were several alumni who realized this was important for Brown,” Hazeltine said, adding that the university president and provost are fully on board with the current efforts to expand support for entrepreneurship on campus.

“If we’re going to be a major university, then we need to offer choices,” he said, emphasizing the fact that—at the end of the day—a school is a business too.  

Like late-stage startups, Brown and the Ivies are paying attention to their users and pivoting their products to delight them. After all, if they didn’t, what kind of entrepreneurship educators would they be?