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Thoughts on 20 Under 20

When I graduated from college, nearly 20 years ago, startups and big companies alike cared a great deal about where you went to school. Countless employers asked me about GPA. Later VCs asked me where I went to school. That was my perception at the time and that perception remained for many years after I graduated.

Thankfully time is changing all of that. Since we started Spark, I’m pretty sure I’ve never asked a founder if they graduated from college. (funny enough, lots of other VCs asked me where I got my MBA? Answer: i didn’t).

And now, the pendulum has swung and there are legitimate critcs about a traditional college education. 

Peter Thiel recently announced a new fellowship that gives $100k grants to twenty entrepreneurs that are under 20 years old.

Here’s a link to the announcement in case you missed it

Based on my observations of the many founders in our portfolio that never went to college it’s clear to me that college isn’t for everyone. There a several reasons for this, which include. 

-It’s very expensive.

Graduating college with big debt is intimidating to say the least.

-Limited choices.

Some entrepreneurs I know didnt have great grades or test well. So their college choices were limited. Or the financial burden is too high.

-A burning desire to do something they couldnt accomplish while in college.

This is the most obvious case. I don’t encourage people to drop out of undergrad unless they simply cannot shake their idea out of their head.

Ideally they will have launched their product or company before considering dropping out so they will have a better sense of things. In my case I finished undergrad but had zero interest in grad school because I was dying to do a startup so get the itch that keeps you awake all night. Not pursuing graduate school vs ditching undergrad are different but I do understand that itch…

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But with all of these reasons in mind I absolutely support the meaningful benefits of a college experience. I’m not going to force my kids but I will encourage it for sure. 

At 18 years old, most have not lived on their own in a self sufficient way. That alone is a huge adjustment , never mind building a company. College is a unique time before you have any meaningful responsibliities where can be a tireless sponge without regard or mindfulness about the career you want to pursue or the company you want to build. 

Beyond a fantastic education, college is also time for extreme self awareness and personal growth. I went into college as a fairly conservative person with a limited world view. I graduated as a deeply liberal/progressive person with a lot more care about our world. I thought for a moment I was going to be a math major or accounting major. Thankfully I had the time and perspective to make a switch. Lauren was able to study in France for her junior year. That experience brought her tremendous personal growth and something that she still talks about. 

Once you raise money, the clock goes off and all you can do is focus on your company. It becomes all consuming and frankly addicting. I haven’t seen too many people get on the startup train and then leave it. It’s a lifelong series of sprints. 

I’ll bring this long post home by saying that I agree that college isn’t for everyone. My thoughts about are clearly based on my own experience and those that I’m close to. I believe trying to force someone to go to college when they want to do something else is a waste of time and money. But I would hate to see us then conclude college is a negative place. Because it isn’t.

It can be an extraordinary place to live and learn and I’m grateful that I had that experience.