Can My Generation Make More Zuckerbergs?

Written by Galatea on Thursday December 8, 2011

Galatea’ is a columnist writing about her experience looking for work after her recent downsizing. Previous entries in her series can be strong>read here<.

This weekend I ran into a friend from high school with unmitigated amounts of professional success. He was president of the student government, studied at an elite liberal arts college, and now flew all over the world as part of a glamorous job working for an NGO.

“So what do you do?” Sam asked.

“Uhhhh I’m…between jobs…and uhh working on some, uh, projects….and uh so have you talked to anyone from high school?”

We ended up on the subject of what everyone else was doing. Somehow we began talking about the brightest kids we knew, the ones who ended up at Princeton and Harvard and Yale. And then Sam exploded.

“I can’t believe these guys!” He started ticking their names off his fingers. “Allie is at Goldman Sachs. William is working for a hedge fund. Jackson—he gave up an offer at Google to work on Wall Street. He should be at Google!” He slammed the table. “I don’t know why they’re on Wall Street making money when they should be innovating.


In that moment, where oh my god he has a point collided with what the hell, that’s such a ludicrous statement, three clear thoughts crystallized, mostly drawn from my own experiences in college.

Thought one: Duh, they’re on Wall Street because they don’t want to innovate.

Let’s assume that Sam was talking about innovation in the way that the United States has been thinking about the topic for the past decade: sexy Internet startups like Facebook and Google and Apple—or, to put it more generally, people creating value out of applying ideas in different and creative ways.

Having seen my fair share of startups, I’ve come to one conclusion, backed by lots of data: startups often fail. They fail for a number of reasons, but it usually boils down to this: you either have the potent combo of a world-class intellect prone to wandering, a billion dollar idea, and the tenacity to execute it, or you don’t.

When I enrolled in college, the myth of Mark Zuckerberg had become de rigeur for any hoodie-ensconced nerd with an ego, high SAT scores, and a blind eye to their lack of sexual attraction. Consequently, our campus became the laboratory for hundreds of startup ideas, many of them ridiculous: a car rental company, a textbook exchange, a company that reminded people when to get gifts for their loved ones’ special events, and the dumbest, a Fantasy Congress League.

A lot of those ideas failed. Some failed pretty badly. (Sorry, Fantasy Congress.) One of them managed to attract hundreds of thousands of dollars in startup capital and gobs of public attention, until the pressure to succeed caused one of their cofounders—an old friend of mine—to commit suicide.

Nevertheless, the few times that I do see a startup succeed—and I mean general success, not the near-impossible “reach an IPO” success—it’s due to a cosmic alignment of factors: the right investors, the right niche in the market being filled at the right time, and, most importantly, the right entrepreneur with the right vision.

There’s a lot to be said about the pressure put on elite college students to end up making bank on Wall Street, but it does take guts and opportunity to succeed. Given that those friends went onto the much less risky Wall Street instead of the start-up world, they clearly don’t have the desire or cojones to quote-unquote “innovate”—whatever that word meant to Sam. He’s a smart guy, but he swung the term around like a 99 percenter with a guilt-inducing cudgel.

Thought two: Why is Sam angry at these people in particular for not innovating?

The general talking points floating around Washington when it comes to capital-I INNOVATION, circle around the STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math). The common knowledge is that US companies are trying to hire people with these types of degrees, but face two conjoined problems. One, there aren’t enough people getting STEM-based degrees in the US. Two, the ones who are, tend to be poached by Wall Street recruiters.

The thing is, none of the people Sam listed received a STEM degree. They’d pursued degrees in government and international relations, studying everything from energy policy and comparative political theory to the growth of China. Some of them studied economics, to be sure, but I recall that they all were enormous news junkies in high school.

Sure, maybe they’re being selfish right now for not using their degrees in the public interest. But they’re not as obligated to innovate as the STEM kids on Wall Street are. I mean, what on earth could Allie “innovate” on using her IR degree right now? A brilliant new way to impose trade sanctions on North Korea? It’s probably better off for her to tuck away a tidy sum from Goldman, use that money to go to law school, and then become Hillary Clinton.

So yes, Sam, take your rage out on recruiters who target the best and brightest to work on Wall Street. God knows that many of them deserve it. But incentivizing people with STEM degrees to stay in the innovation economy should be your first priority, rather than targeting generally bright kids who chose to enter Wall Street and consulting as a way to build resources for further careers in public service. They’re gonna need it if they’re going to innovate in an organizational context, particularly in a public sector defined by its firm entrenchment in old ideas.

Thought three: I agree with you, Sam, we’re screwed.

While I know people who chose Wall Street, I also know plenty of smart people who ended up at Google or Facebook or other companies scattered around Silicon Valley. I even know people who strike out on their own, attempting to build their own companies and get the attention of Peter Thiel. The desire to build something of one’s own, to make the world better through either a game-changing industrial design or a tiny tweak to Google’s algorithm, does exist in our generation.

And yet, some of the smartest kids I know are figuring out how to repackage loans and disperse risk on Wall Street, or selling ad space at Google, or streamlining the supply chain at Amazon. They’re certainly pursuing incremental innovations within their organizations, but nothing truly disruptive is really going to result from it—despite the lucrative six figure salaries that my banker and consultant friends flaunt. Student debt doesn’t play into it—pretty much all of my friends graduated debt-free—but who would turn down six figures, a penthouse in New York City, alcohol every night? I can count on two fingers the number of people I know who have turned down those jobs to pursue ideas that are crazy and new.

It really only takes one innovative person to have a huge impact on the economy. But what exactly is the problem: that not enough people are trying or have the mental capacity to do so? That we as a generation are too risk-averse, a characteristic compounded by a faltering economy? That evil corporations are luring the would-be innovators into their organizations with the promise of money?

But at that café table, I realized that while “innovation” could mean anything, I had no idea what Sam was really so angry about. “Ok, Sam,” I asked, “what exactly do you mean by ‘innovation’?”

He looked taken aback. “You know…” he said, waving his hands impotently. “Innovation.”