Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Entrepreneur: They can Learn Better on Their Own!

I was reading an Esther Dyson piece this morning as I awaited the preparation of the turkey. It is the one day on which I am not permitted near the kitchen and I suspect it is some remnant of the Pilgrims and their way of dealing with large birds.

Back to Dyson. She states:

All over the world, little boys study math and science in the hope of becoming the next Bill Gates. But having your own local Gates is much more compelling. I'll always remember what a Russian friend said to me back in 1991 at a conference I organized in Hungary: “Of course we all know about Bill Gates in Russia. But he’s not relevant to us: he lives in the US; he went to Harvard. But seeing what the Hungarians have done – that means something to us. It lets us dream of what we could do ourselves.”

Frankly many times they start out wanting to be Feynmanns or Baltimores or Watsons and Cricks, and the last thing in their minds is another Bill Gates.

She then continues:

Both in the US and elsewhere, most education systems aren’t churning out the kinds of people start-ups need to hire. The problem is not just a lack of engineers, but also of people with the necessary business, financial, and communication skills.

Here is where I truly differ. I once had a student who as an engineer took a semester at Sloan and studied accounting. He then took the CPA exam and passed. I remember reading my first finance book over a weekend, there is not much there. Accounting is another weekend. The rules of accounting can be acquired readily. What Dyson fails to see is that any intelligent and well educated Engineer, say from MIT not Harvard, can pick up the business, financial, and communications skills on weekend, and just a few of them. Yet it is this type of misguided talk which often weighs down on the young engineer before they even start.

I am reminded that after one of my dinners with my students at MIT, the dinner was with a MIT PhD entrepreneur, that one of the students in the group said to me as we walked back to campus:

"I did not know that engineers could start and run their own company, I thought we needed to get a Harvard MBA to do that."

I turned to them, all Chinese, and said:

"What do I look like, chopped liver?"

Well my New York upbringing met Shanghai. I guess we are still more aggressive than them but it did raise a point. It is people like Dyson, who apparently never herself started a real company, I think, that make statements like this, that result in just the opposite. You do not need to "take a course" or "be trained" in finance. You can really rad a book! Really. It works. Discounted cash flow is junior high school stuff and Black Scholes is freshman calculus!

Thus Dyson misses several points:

First, we oftentimes start wanting to be original contributors and then become the entrepreneur. HP (the original one) and Qualcomm were engineer driven. Those companies has true innovative technology. Compare them to say Cisco which is a sales company which buys technology and you can see the difference.

Second, the assumption that you can only learn something by being taught by someone else is absurd! There are books, there are resources everywhere today. You can learns in a variety of ways. When doing a PhD one has to create, and that is learning for the first time when there is no path! How stupid to assume one must be taught. The logic would thus seem to state that all knowledge is fixed and just conveyed. Nonsense!

I believe that the comments by my students were chilling and that in many ways they were reflective of the types of remarks I have just referred to. I'd rather listen to an engineer.