What Higher Education Can Learn From Startups

Just one example of how startups blend education and culture. Photo courtesy HC Media.

The Context (& Questions to Ask)

A little while back, I did an interview with LA Weekly [1] about the educational expectations that startups have for their employees. Question #1: “For our readers who might be keen to work in the tech startup world, what sort of education should they pursue?”

The “correct” answer awakens a deeply rooted debate about the purpose of education – particularly higher education. It also requires the student or job seeker to answer a fundamental question: “What are your goals for pursuing this education?”

Is it vocational training for the next step in your career (i.e., getting a job), through which you’ll learn a specialized skill set in a presumably shorter (and less expensive) period of time? Or are you looking for a longer-term, more holistic experience, during which you’ll shape the way that you approach problems, analyze situations, think critically, and communicate (though likely at a premium)?

Back to School

I’ll pause here to lay out my own background and biases: I received a four-year, liberal arts education from a private higher ed institution. I studied religion, philosophy, and computer science, with a marketing minor. The experience wasn’t perfect, but my courses transformed the way that I view the world and – to poach from above – think, communicate, and tackle problems.

I currently oversee the university program at Uncubed [2], where our mission is to connect the world to the next generation of innovative companies and their careers. I am in constant contact with schools of all shapes, sizes, and locations, exploring the ways that they prepare their students and alumni for entrepreneurial career paths (including careers at startups), and discussing the next steps they can take to amplify their efforts.

So I preface all that follows with two points: 1) I believe there is tremendous value in the university experience, and 2) Universities have the potential to be unrivaled communities for innovation.


However, That Said, & Nevertheless…

Innovation will, by definition, always outpace the education and preparation required for the jobs that it produces. And curricular blindspots will exist as a result, unless the innovator is also the curriculum developer (rare). This creates skills gaps, and proves especially dangerous when institutional change is a glacial process.

For this reason, the students and job seekers best equipped for careers with industry-disrupting companies will always be those whose educational providers either…

  1. Discover early-stage companies; forecast their success; study the skills, techniques, tools, processes, hacks, and knowledge that they use; and distill them into ever-evolving curricula. Or…
  2. Offer access to the innovators and resources that do.

School vs. Skill: Tech

I speak here not only from personal experience, but – more valuably – from the thousands of conversations I’ve had along the way: most coursework is not directly aligned with the skills that students need to hit the ground running at startups. (This occurs for a number of reasons that will likely become its own post.)

If I’m a Computer Science or Engineering student (which I was), the code that I study and create for class is likely “too clean”: it follows a textbook, ideal practices, or has been worked on by only one person or group at one time. In the real world, however, code gets messy… time goes by, features are added, versions change, deadlines need to be met, and countless other cooks will contribute in the kitchen.

I’ll also learn the fundamentals of programming, and common languages like Python and C++. But I probably won’t be exposed to the quick and dirty hacks used by small teams with limited resources, which ultimately save their businesses time, money, and sanity. Nor will I learn many of the languages used at cutting-edge companies like the popular-at-startups Ruby on Rails, “Hack” from Facebook, “Go” from Google, etc.

Oh, and should I be using this GitHub thing? (Hint: YES.)


School vs. Skill: Business

If I’m a Marketing student (which I also was), then my college curriculum will address traditional media like magazines, direct mail, television, radio, billboards, etc. – channels that an early-stage company is unlikely to touch due to either budget limitations or audience mismatch.

I also probably won’t take the deep dive into social media, like how to most effectively advertise on Facebook and LinkedIn (note: I am still scouring the world for the definitive how-to here), or how to leverage platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine to build an audience and engage users. And we certainly won’t cover how to run multiple marketing campaigns that will scale my business exponentially… with $0.00 – a real marketing budget.


So What’s the Solution?

In July 2014, we (Uncubed) launched the Education Uncubed [3] conference series: a gathering of higher educators from 50 of the country’s top universities to discuss how their schools prepare students and alumni for startup and entrepreneurial careers, and the next steps they can take to improve and accelerate their efforts.

One of our speakers was David S. Rose – Founder and CEO of Gust, legendary angel investor, a “world-conquering entrepreneur” (BusinessWeek), and Founder of the Finance, Entrepreneurship & Economics track at Singularity University. In his talk, he touched upon the workforce of the future and how higher education can equip itself for the massive changes ahead (listen to our podcast with him here [4]).

He suggested that universities will move away from tenure-track professors and increasingly employ “entrepreneurial personal producers” – i.e., the people who are doing something beyond the walls of academia, and doing it exceptionally well.

I couldn’t agree more.

This is the reason that Uncubed has a university program – to connect schools, students, and alumni to the companies, founders, entrepreneurs, engineers, product managers, designers, content creators, recruiters, etc. who spend every day at the forefront of “work.” These folks may not be professors, but they have plenty to teach about what they’re building, why they’re building it, and how.

It is why we organize initiatives like the Startup Odyssey [5], which brings students from all around the country face-to-face with these cutting-edge companies that are changing the world. It is why we host conferences like Education Uncubed (above).

And it is why we launched Uncubed Edge [6] – online classes that go behind the scenes of the fastest-growing and most innovative companies around. You’ll learn how these businesses (yes, businesses… not just apps, services, and logos) are ideating, building their products, bringing them to market, selling, and growing their user bases – taught by the entrepreneurs and team members who are actually doing it.


Bringing It Full-Circle

So whether you want to work for a startup, build your own business, or work for a larger, more traditional firm, the challenges that startups are solving and the skills they’re using to do so offer an invaluable learning opportunity: the latest techniques and technologies.

Startups are businesses surpassing what’s possible and standard on account of restrictions (financial, time, team size, what currently exists, etc.). And whether you’re working for yourself or someone else, the ability to produce exponentially greater results than others while saving time, money, and resources is a skill set that requires constant fine-tuning and discovery.


For more information about the links and resources mentioned above, see below:

[1] The LA Weekly Interview
[2] Uncubed
[3] Education Uncubed
[4] The David S. Rose Podcast
[5] The Startup Odyssey
[6] Uncubed Edge

Questions? You can reach me at brian [at] uncubed [dot] com.