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Bring the Valley to Harvard

Having spent the summer in Silicon Valley, I’ve come to see it as a unique community of innovators where there is a constant flow of communication and ideas, a culture of mentorship, and an acceptance of failure as a natural, and not immediately negative, process.

This last piece appeared over and over again, in a way that I have not encountered elsewhere. It is this aspect of the Valley that makes it interesting and unique.  This support for and belief in second chances and risk-taking seems to be the keystone to the rest of the growth and innovation that abounds in the Bay Area.  The Harvard community would benefit if we encouraged similar risk-taking, created support structures that offer resources for experimentation and provided a safety net when those experiments fail.

In San Francisco, I met many people who had failed, some after taking tens or hundreds of millions in venture capital funding, who were now successful entrepreneurs.  One entrepreneur who was fairly senior at, a tech company that took a huge amount of VC funding before going bust, stands out particularly.  Rather than causing his career to stall, his experiences at helped him build a reputation as a tough entrepreneur who was willing to keep trying to innovate and work hard at new ideas, a tenacity that was rewarded as he received VC funding for his latest startup.  In that environment, where failure can be an asset, it is no wonder that new startups appear and innovate at a rapid pace; many fail, but there is little stigma to that outcome.

That altered reward structure around risk also appeared very close to home this summer, at the tech startup where I was working.  I grabbed lunch with one of the co-founders, Eric, and discussed the challenges around picking a good founding partnership or team.  We talked about how he found his co-founder, James, and he said very simply, “It was because of Harvard.”  No, he did not have some particular attraction to the university; it may have been a negative for him as a Yalie.  Instead, it was the fact that James had dropped out of Harvard to try to pursue a different career path that made him a suitable partner; that willingness to take a risk set him apart for the myriad people who had ideas but could not commit, could not see it through properly.  Of course, dropping out is a somewhat extreme case, but having a similar approach to risk-taking and ideation could allow us to similarly create new, important innovations.

This openness to failure is indicative for people lower on the company food chain, also. A Stanford graduate I know was working for the data analytics company KISSmetrics, a job for which he had to complete many challenging coding assignments. On one of his first projects he messed up his code pretty badly, and the entire product was flawed. Instead of punishing him or firing him, his bosses acknowledged that coding is tough and explained the error; he went on to become a highly successful programmer at the company. Moreover, these same people who have seen him fail on a high level, are now some of his biggest advocates as he looks for new opportunities.


Harvard students in general are very smart and fantastically hard working, but the same focus and understanding of systems that helped us become a part of this community becomes a limitation in terms of our exploration.  Everyone here generally has met with much success and little failure; this pattern can be problematic because a lack of experience with failure creates an atmosphere where failure is stigmatized.  In an educational environment, that aversion to failure is disastrous, encouraging us to move along set routes that are known.

Harvard is seen as a leader around the world and takes in many top thinkers and future leaders.  Thus, it seems particularly important for our community to encourage members to take risks that have the potential to move our economy and country forward.  Harvard should aim to educate leaders, not skilled workers, and leadership requires a willingness to think in the big picture and take calculated chances, a willingness to try new things, learn from them, and incorporate them into one’s next endeavors.

Francis G. Thumpasery ’13, a Crimson video editor, is an economics concentrator in Adams House.


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