Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Power of Context- Why we're not so different from the iPhone 4

“Iphone on Verizon is massively better than AT&T.”

To most people, that Chris Dixon tweet probably seemed irrelevant, nothing more than a random thought from the co-founder of Hunch. But to me, there was something more profound about what he had said.

Here was the same exact phone with identical settings, yet something had changed, externally, that completely altered the iPhone’s internal capabilities. In one moment, it went from an underachieving device to a super-phone. And all that changed was its network.

Lately, I’ve come to realize how important the concept of a ‘network’ truly is. You always hear about “networking” and “leveraging your network,” but how many people actually take those words to heart? There are many extremely bright people out there who have amazing GPAs to go along with triple majors, double minors, specializations, and a spot in the many ‘exclusive’ clubs that anyone can sign up for. Don’t get me wrong- those are all important and will definitely present students with some excellent job opportunities. But what most people don’t realize is how important their network is- for their present, near future and the long-term.

My gameplan before the semester was that of a quintessential business-school student: I would work hard, do well in school, get some solid internships for my resume, and then kill it when it came time for recruiting and interviews. More specifically, I wanted to be an investment banker. Why? Because I’m in NYU Stern, a school that surrounds me with students who are mostly interested in becoming investment bankers (surprise, surprise). It wasn’t even like I had a choice- it seemed to me like it was either i-banking or failure. But then something changed…

Over the course of winter break, a friend recommended that I take a class titled Entrepreneurship for the New Economy. At first I had no interest at all for a few reasons (it’s not towards my major, goes from 6-10pm, easier A’s out there, etc.). But after a lot of convincing, I decided to just do it.  And it has changed my life forever.

Why? The class material itself is great, but that’s not what makes it special. What makes it special are the people I’ve become surrounded by.

Each week I am fortunate enough to hear from one or two of the top entrepreneurs in the city. I’ve been given opportunities to interview at some amazing start-ups and VC firms. And on top of all that, the course itself is taught by two Managing Directors at two of the top VC firms in Manhattan, Larry Lenihan and Hilary Gosher.  Those are all incredible people to add to your network. But to me, what makes the class even more special is the caliber of students I am surrounded by.

How do you define “networking”? From what I’ve seen, most people think of networking as trying to build a relationship with only those people who are more accomplished than they are. For example, if you attend one of those career fairs, what do you see? Huge lines of students only looking to speak to employees from each firm. Is it important to know these people? Absolutely. But what I’ve discovered is that peer-to-peer networking is even more important.

The people I’ve met over the course of the past few months have taken me to another level. Two months ago, I had no idea what my future held. I had just turned down an internship for the summer because it was not for an investment banking position. I was so narrow-minded at that point that I had no idea what venture capital and entrepreneurship even meant. But today, I am actively seeking to participate in both of the aforementioned communities. And I have to credit that to the new network I’ve become a part of.

I learn more from the 3-4 hours I spend in my Entrepreneurship class on Wednesday nights than I learn the entire rest of the week. Just speaking to some of the students - including my teammates on a project called TripScore - I learn about what’s going on, what the new trends are, and what people are interested in. Furthermore, when you start to see the people around you passionately pursuing their dreams, don’t you think it will motivate you to take yourself to the next level? I know it has for me.

In the past few weeks alone, I have worked on TripScore with my classmates, met with multiple potential co-founders for another project, and spoken with Owen Davis of NYC Seed (one of the most insightful / enjoyable meetings I’ve ever had), all while working 20+ hours a week at PrivCo, a start-up I began working for about a month ago. Busy? Yea. But it’s probably the most fun I’ve had since starting NYU over a year and a half ago.

Speaking of NYU, I have to give credit where credit is due. Many people believe that their education (whether it be at NYU or another university) is not nearly worth the pricey tuition they pay. Do I think the education alone is worth it? I’m not sure. But I can definitely say that a classroom education shouldn’t be all you’re getting out of your university. Included in that tuition value is not only your education and the “brand name” of your institution, but it’s the whole experience that you have the ability to partake in.

What is included in that experience? The caliber of professors and guest speakers, the caliber of opportunities you are presented, the caliber of conversations you can have at any moment with anybody on the street, and last but not least, the caliber of your fellow students and the value that they add with their opinions, criticism and overall feedback. All of these external surroundings are what make up the true value of your college experience. You may think that you’re just paying for an education and a brand, but there’s a whole lot more value to school than that. All you need to do is look and you’ll find it.  

Fortunately, I have discovered this while I still have plenty of time to maximize the value of my experience. As a sophomore, I have just begun to take the initiative to expand my network and get more involved in the tech / entrepreneur / venture capital community. My only hope is that other students begin to realize this too, because the opportunities at hand while you are still in college are too great to let slip away.

If you place yourself in the right context, you’ll be surprised at the amount you can accomplish, and even more surprised at how much fun you’ll have doing it. Students, and people in general, must take advantage of their surroundings and networks, because they can take advantage of you and exponentially improve your capabilities.

Hey, it did wonders for the iPhone.