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Catching Up to the New Economy

For much of the past decade, Harvard University has seemed reluctant to acknowledge the new economy. But a few ambitious graduates are trying to change that.
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Harvard University has seemed reluctant to acknowledge the new economy. But a few ambitious graduates are trying to change that

In 1985, in the fall of my junior year at Harvard, six enterprising freshmen decided to start their own business. It was a late-night condom-delivery service called Sperm Busters. "Guaranteed to come before you do!" was the memorable slogan. The students withdrew the service after a one-night stand. The reason? Questions of good taste aside, Sperm Busters violated the long-standing Harvard rule against students running businesses from their dorm rooms.

Michael Dell, for one, should thank his lucky stars he didn't go to Harvard. Sure, it's full of bright people itching to make their mark on the world. But it hasn't always been the most supportive place for budding entrepreneurs. Bill Gates? He had to drop out of Harvard to start Microsoft.

Or take Jeff Behrens, class of 1989, who became an entrepreneur almost by accident. He left Harvard's Graduate School of Education after three months, somewhat less than excited by his classes but still "having a great time and keeping very busy with the computer stuff," he says. Soon he started supporting himself as a freelance computer consultant. Gradually, Behrens worked up to starting an information-technology company, the Telluride Group Inc., which he incorporated in 1995. He picked up some business pointers by auditing a class at Harvard Business School. But when it came to meeting other entrepreneurs, Behrens headed over to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Stanford University has its Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, and MIT its professionally run MIT Enterprise Forum. So when the dot-com revolution hit, Behrens and two friends -- also Harvard alums turned entrepreneurs -- knew that Harvard was a little behind the curve. "We felt there wasn't enough happening around Harvard in encouraging start-ups, compared with Stanford and MIT," Behrens says. "We knew anecdotally about lots of Harvard alumni and affiliates who were doing cool things, but there was no way for them to get together."

Better late than never. Two years ago Behrens and his friends organized Harvard Startups, an organization for Harvard affiliates and college students who have started a company or would like to. They spread the word by sending E-mail to former classmates and developed a list of 200 to 300 potential members. Although the group didn't have the university's official backing, the Office of Career Services (OCS) agreed to lend them space for monthly meetings. Those meetings and the E-mail list and bulletin board are half networking opportunity, half support group. "Being an entrepreneur or working for a start-up can be very isolating," says Harvard Startups cofounder and Smarter Living Inc. founder Daniel Saul.

Harvard Startups' counterpart down the river, the MIT Enterprise Forum, gets some of its funding from the MIT Alumni Association, collects dues, issues name tags, and beams lectures by satellite to 22 chapters around the world. By contrast, the Harvard group has a casual, grassroots air. If you walked into a meeting -- and the group, despite the Harvard in its name, is not terribly exclusive -- you might have a hard time distinguishing it from any other student club. At one meeting, most of the attendees are well under 30 and are wearing sweaters and jeans. There's pizza on a table in a side room: just leave $5 in the glass jar to help pay for it. "So far it's a zero-budget organization, which we're very proud of," says Behrens.

On the other hand, the tall Rupert Everett look-alike in the big sweater who announces disarmingly, "My name is Giles, and I am a French guy," in accented English -- some gorgeous, entrepreneurial-minded exchange student? -- turns out to be a lawyer working in the Boston office of Bingham Dana LLP. He's here with two colleagues, hoping to blend in with the local entrepreneur scene and maybe pick up some clients.

Among the other attendees is Stuart Schechter, a grad student in computer science who has just launched Actifunds Corp., a company that will provide a Web application for investment clubs. "We meet only once a month, so it's almost like an escape from your own company to see what other companies are doing," he says. Sean Carmody, a Harvard junior on leave, and Connor Schell, who graduated in January, are here from search-engine start-up Why.com to pick up tips. "I'm attending to get some viral marketing done for us, and it's just really helpful to raise my hand and ask someone who has done viral marketing at his own company and get some advice," says Schell.

When I was an undergraduate here, it seemed as though there were only a few possible careers open to Harvard graduates. Law and medicine were perennial favorites, of course. Then there were consulting and investment banking, which seemed to vacuum up two-thirds of the seniors who didn't head right off to graduate school. Sometimes I felt a little daring to be going into journalism.

Harvard still feeds most of its graduates into the kinds of jobs that make parents happy and help pay off those student loans, but there is a decided, if late, transition to the so-called new economy under way. Sam Yagan, class of '99, is sort of a transition case. He was all set to take a job in consulting. But after he and two friends started a clever Internet dating service that happened to be an even more clever viral-marketing device, Yagan decided -- after some agonizing -- to put the job on hold and start a company. It was a tough decision, and Harvard's OCS didn't have much information for him on dot-com careers, he says. Most of his friends contributed jeers, telling him, "Don't quit your day job."

There's a happy ending, though -- iTurf Inc. just bought Yagan's year-old company, TheSpark.com, for more than $12 million in stock. His friends aren't jeering anymore. And when Yagan offered OCS assistant director Nancy Saunders constructive criticism about Harvard's career services, she listened. In February, partly as a result of talking to Yagan, Saunders organized the first-ever Startups Job Fair for undergraduates. She invited 30 companies, many of them from Harvard Startups, naturally. More than 300 students showed up at the job fair brandishing rÉsumÉs.

As for the ban on dormitory-based businesses, that's under reconsideration. In February, Harvard College dean Harry R. Lewis proposed relaxing the rule a bit, provided that student entrepreneurs don't tie up university resources or annoy their roommates too much. Meanwhile, the dean of Harvard's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Venkatesh Narayanamurti, is setting up a new center for entrepreneurial education aimed at undergraduates -- not just techies, but liberal-arts majors, too.

"Anyone who says Harvard is anti-entrepreneurial isn't really giving it a fair chance to prove itself, because I think the culture here is one of seizing new opportunities," says Why.com's Carmody. After all, Harvard hasn't lasted 364 years by ignoring major economic trends. "Slow-moving but shows a lot of momentum," is how Behrens puts it.

Call me biased, but I'm not betting against Harvard on this one, even if it has gotten a late start, especially after speaking with Schechter about fund-raising. There's a lot of capital, intellectual and otherwise, waiting to be tapped within the Harvard community. "It really is amazing how well the Harvard Business School network has worked for us," says Schechter. The chairman of his board, Robert Brooker, is a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Business School. "He can have a commitment of $100,000 in one phone call," says Schechter, who earned his undergraduate degree from Ohio State University. "I think of myself as coming from a state-school background, and when I think of the privileges that come from an Ivy League background, I am just amazed."

Emily Barker is a senior staff writer at Inc.


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