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3 Reasons Why Northeastern Will Win in Start-up Education

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This post has been brewing with me for sometime, probably as long as 12 months, so bear with me as I try to pack a lot in. It’ll include a few different elements, my experience at Babson and what that taught me about entrepreneurship education, the on-going Silicon Valley vs Boston debate, and why students interested in entrepreneurship should take time off school. My point is to tie it together and conclude Northeastern University has got it right, and why it will be the winner out of this much-claimed Boston innovation renaissance.

1. What Babson taught me about entrepreneurship education.

I’ve dissed Babson a lot. Probably extremely unfairly. My history with Babson is I studied abroad for Spring and Fall semester 2009, I was offered a lot of opportunities there, and I took them. I know I’m not being grateful enough, but here’s what disappointed me. There is this claimed number 1 in the U.S. in entrepreneurship stuff. And to me, it just didn’t live up to the hype. Less than 10% of undergrad students were really passionate about start-ups. Of that, most of them identified entrepreneurship very closely with scalable start-up which they identified very closely to consumer internet start-up. Yet this was so far from the education on small business marketing or  Fortune 500 strategy cases. Dharmesh Shah once told me that you need two types of people in a start-up, someone who can build it and someone who can sell it. So for consumer internet that’s someone who can build web apps and someone who understands online marketing. This was not what I learnt at Babson. Maybe I’m wrong and it wasn’t their responsibility.

2. Silicon Valley vs Boston

For the three people who read this blog you’ll know that I’m deciding where to relocate myself and the company in the upcoming few months. So naturally I’ve been paying quite a bit of attention to this Silicon Valley vs Boston debate, on the merits of each entrepreneurial ecosystem. Silicon Valley is clearly king for consumer web, Boston is trying  a lot of things and has a ton of smart students. With all this stuff that Boston is doing, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of younger people starting companies, because it’ll be a part of the culture (I’ll do a later post on my theories on why young people found companies, and how to get more of them doing it). And hopefully many of them will stay in Boston rather than just going to Silicon Valley and New York. Boston is a good place to be if you’re young, especially if you’re still in school as there are probably more opportunities for you than ever before.

3. Why students interested in entrepreneurship need to take time off school

What I also discovered whilst I was at Babson was because I was on study-abroad, I was on something called pass-fail, i.e. it was a binary result, i.e. getting 51/100 was as good as 100/100. What this essentially meant was I had time to pursue a start-up idea which would eventually lead to Blank Label. My friends at Babson were jealous. Hey, how come you never turn up to class and work on your start-up all the time? Teachers got annoyed, how come you never turn up to class and work on your start-up all the time? The answer, I didn’t pay $50,000 for those classes and I just needed to pass (which I didn’t really have to do since I dropped out anyway). I’m not as extreme as Caterina Fake’s I’ll fund you if you’re dropping out of school argument, but I do believe that time away from the class is just as important, if not more so, than time in the class.

Why Northeastern will win

1. They are an actual university with multiple schools of training and if they can get the cross-polliation right, they’ll develop people who can make it and sell it hanging out in the one place.  And from my few friends at NEU, I agree with David Cancel in that NEU students are far from entitled (can’t be said for many of their Bostonian counterparts) and they have something to prove. Start-up founders always have something to prove.

2. A lot of the work is already being done for them. Boston is reinvigorated, and pissed off that Y-Combinator then Facebook and more recently WePay are heading over there. There is something brewing and it’s a good time to be a student in Boston. I’m thinking Dart Boston, Stay in MA, Innovation Open House.

3. They force students outside the classroom. It’s institutionalized in their co-op program, and now they’re letting students work on their own start-ups for a semester (plus potentially a summer) at a time. That’s huge.

And what’s more, they have the leader of the youth movement, Jason Evanish, as a recent alumni. I rest my case.

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Written by Fan Bi

August 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. Very insightful post Fan as per usual.

    Another factor to the Babson demise is a large percentage (not all) of the student body don’t value and respect the potential relationship with the builders at Olin College. The ingredients is there for the making, however the chefs in the kitchen don’t have the oven turned up enough. There was an example of some potential there, however the oven went from 50 degrees to 1000 degrees over night (babson olin cross dining) which overcooked and burnt the cake on attempt number 1. The word on the street is the oven will be turned down again to a moderate level. Let see if it works.

    With regard to North Eastern: On my first visit to Boston (3 days in Nov 2008) I spent one day attending their Global Entrepreneurship Week events, which they invest a lot of time and money into. The events were not mind blowing, however the conversation was happening and there were some interesting attendees. The conversation is definitely going on and there is work in the pipeline. Correct about Jason leading the charge around here.

    So you have chosen a location, where will Blank Label call home?

    Great post!

    Samuel Johns

    August 2, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    • I was at Dogpatch Labs. Two Olin students were working at a startup, founded by non-technical recent college grads. I asked them what made them team up with their founders as opposed to a Babson student.

      Their answer suprised me. Babson students didn’t appreciate Olin students’ range of talents. They just wanted Oliners to code or build – no input on design, business direction, or anything. Not about to do anyone’s grunt work, rarely was a partnership realistic.

      From someone who transferred to Babson, I am surprised and a bit disappointed to the apathy among the student body.


      August 3, 2010 at 10:34 pm

      • Who are the Oliners working at DPL, what is the company? And what did you think of DPL?

        That’s very true that Babson students probably don’t really appreciate Oliners outside of being builders. Design is a broad area, some are talented at system design, some in web architecture, others in interface and interactive but this should be expected at a top-grade engineering school.

        I’m a massive supporter of the aptitude and acumen of Oliners but I’m still yet to meet more than a few that are really business savvy. I don’t think it’s in their culture to think about market size, financing risk, cash flow analysis, etc.

        If you need some introductions into the Olin community, am definitely happy to provide them.

        Fan Bi

        August 4, 2010 at 7:48 am

      • The olin students are Charlie Offenbacher, a junior, and Dahlia (sp?), a sophomore. They’re working on MyHometownLink, a social network built around town residents looking to complete errands.

        I like the Lab. It’s a collegial place, good to build a prototype and hammer out initial business phases. And, in contrast to typical coworking spaces, like betahouse and workbar, dogpatch (in my opinion) is a more favorable association to have in order to better attract investors, exposure and, all-around, credibility.

        You’re probably right around Oliners’ business sense. But, if Olin students are like typical engineering students, they’ll probably say that business sense is common sense, something to learn along the way. Oh well.

        Thanks for offering introductions, Fan.

        Cynthia Andre

        August 6, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    • The relationship with Olin was probably one of my biggest disappointments when I got to Babson. But frankly I was in the minority. I was in the 10% that really cared about start-ups, but for most, the other 90%, Babson is an undergraduate business school.

      As Punit Shah recently reminded me, NEU has recently launched Husky Innovation Challenge and having a strong central organization will really galvanize any start-up ecosystem NEU can develop. Like Boston, a few young success stories would also really help.

      I think we’re deferring the BL home question until 2011. Shanghai is good for bootstrapping for now.

      Fan Bi

      August 4, 2010 at 7:44 am

  2. Fan,

    Awesome post. I totally agree. The experiential, co-op education I received was invaluable in understanding how companies work and really helped me understand that I loved startups (big companies just weren’t for me).

    The IDEA program created by my cofounder at Greenhorn, Ashkan Afkhami, is also stepping up to break down barriers across the schools and funding real startups; they are about to close a fund which will allow them to seed student startups for many years to come while also providing many more in kind services and mentorship across many schools. Exciting times. (

    Finally, there’s my Master’s degree from NU’s school of Technological Entrepreneurship. I learned a lot but much of that was because of the effort I put in (I asked profs for extra reading constantly, managed to get to do my own startup as a project, and pushed professors to have beefier curriculums).

    Unfortunately, the program has zero visibility in the Boston scene and it saddens me greatly as I have not seen a single classmate from my year and only 2 from the previous years in the local startup ecosystem. IF they could increase their visibility locally and show aspiring young entrepreneurs that this 1 year program can arm them with tools they need at a startup, the program could be something special for the local scene as the program could totally fit into the vein of the education called for by Eric Ries and Steve Blank at their Lean Startups Conference a few months ago (

    So in close…yes, 100 Times Yes. Northeastern is the best school to attend if you want to be an entrepreneur (assuming Stanford and MIT are out of reach).


    Jason Evanish

    August 3, 2010 at 1:54 am

    • Something that NEU students, and most young Bostonians interested in start-ups, could use is high visibility of success stories that are Boston bred and Boston based. I really hope that Matt Lauzon and Seth Priebatsch get the opportunity to visit schools and really tell the in-depth dorm-room story. Students need to hear the dream, how it was made possible, and how much they’re kicking-ass today.

      Fan Bi

      August 4, 2010 at 7:54 am

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