Aswin Natarajan is an associate at TechStars, one of the worlds leading startup accelerators He is also the cofounder of Startup Exchange, an incubator at Georgia Tech.
You’re familiar with Georgia Tech in Atlanta. I had a conversation with Jon Birdsong about hiring in Atlanta a few weeks ago, and I thought it was odd how hard it is to find developers and designers, because Georgia Tech is one of the top Computer Science schools in the country.
He told me that “The entrepreneurial culture doesn’t run in their veins. I’ve worked for two years on Georgia Tech’s campus, and have been exposed to thousands of students.”
He then said that he didn’t think that tech students were willing to take a leap of faith like their counterparts at MIT and Stanford. Are you seeing something similar, or is there entrepreneurial momentum at Georgia Tech?
At the moment, I think he is correct.
Currently Georgia Tech students don’t have entrepreneurial blood, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the raw talent, or raw ability, or even the raw mindset that it requires.
What makes great entrepreneurs? Intelligence, gumption, an ability to corral people around your idea? Those things do exist at Georgia Tech. There are plenty of people that I have met that have all those qualities.
What is missing is aspiration. You aspire to be the highest thing you see. So if the most entrepreneurial students at Georgia Tech see consulting as the place where they get the most leverage they will aspire to that. If designers see that they can only go to Apple, then they will aspire to that.
This is the difference between schools like MIT and Stanford, and Georgia Tech — those students see the best from their classes are going to startups. They are developing for startups, they are designing for startups, and they are doing biz dev for startups. They don’t have to go to an agency, they don’t have to go to a consulting form, and they don’t have to go to a Fortune 500 company.
I think the biggest thing is managing aspirations. If you can manage aspirations, and create the right incentives in regards to aspirations, I think you can create an entrepreneurial culture at Georgia Tech.
Going deeper — What actionable steps can you take to build an entrepreneurial culture on a college campus?
Brad Feld is a VC at the Foundry Group, a very well-known venture capital firm. He has an interesting hypothesis called the Boulder Thesis. He says that the founders and the entrepreneurs of the community are what makes the university entrepreneurial, its not the university that makes entrepreneurs.
This is already happening in Atlanta, we’re seeing Hypepotamus, we’re seeing, the Atlanta Tech Village, we’re starting to see a bunch of little nodes of entrepreneurial awesomeness. Now they need to come into the universities, into our campuses.
The other day I was talking with a friend of mine here in Boulder, and he was talking about the University of Michigan. When they started, they had zero entrepreneurial culture. They were just like Georgia Tech, but they started busing people to hackathons all over the nation — they literally imported their entrepreneurial culture.
What is Startup Exchange? What were you guys trying to do?
In the Fall of 2012 we put together a program called Startup Semester, which was an accelerator program. After that we pitched the librarians and administrators about putting together a designated workspace — a place where we could centralize all the entrepreneurial activity that is happening at Georgia Tech.
They ended up giving us a room on the first floor of the Georgia Tech library. And with that we founded Startup Exchange.
How do you attract people to Startup Exchange?
Much of it is spread by word of mouth. We also have a very active Facebook page. We also collaborate, and do dual events with other organizations.
What else can be done to encourage a culture of entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech?
The biggest thing is to keep aiming high. The first year of Startup Semester was a big leap for Georgia Tech. When we opened Startup Exchange that was another big Leap for Georgia Tech.
We have to keep aspiring higher. We have to keep sending people to hackathons, and talking to VC’s. We have to be able to work with entrepreneurial alumni and give them free work space — especially young alumni. This type of work space is available at CU Boulder. I’m sure it exists at MIT and Stanford. It existed in Singapore, when I studied abroad. Things like that, they really matter.
I also think we should be doing hackathons. We should bring in programs that teach rails, and front-end dev, and UX design. Yes, Georgia Tech offers Lynda, but it isn’t enough for everyone to teach themselves, because not everyone learns that way.
Neal Sales-Griffin said the reason he created The Starter League was because the way colleges teach computer science sucks. There are people that don’t care how the circuitry works, they just want to go out and build stuff. But if they can go out and build stuff, then they will be hooked.
Colleges are teaching computer science the way you would teach a scientist. They are not teaching them to go out and build a functional website. As a matter of fact, most computer scientists probably can’t build a website. That’s sad. Colleges are teaching scientists, and not teaching people to be functional and go out there and build stuff.
That was my same experience in college. I took computer science classes in college, and I couldn’t do anything with it. I just wanted to build something and put it on the internet.
That is funny, because that is how they teach things in elementary school — they make learning fun.
What happens in college? The intent of why you are learning something is completely lost. You are learning something for the sake of getting a degree, and not necessarily learning for the sake of gaining a skill.
That is actually something I’ve written a good bit about. College is a game, and if you get the high score you get an A — but you are not actually learning. College becomes a game, and it negates any learning in the process.
Before we move on do you have any other thoughts about education?
I guess my biggest aspiration right now is for Georgia Tech is — there is a lot of momentum right now. We’re seeing this because people from Georgia Tech are going into Hypepotamus, they are networking now, and they are starting to learn to take on their own ideas — and I hope that can continue. But for that to continue we need to keep supporting, and we need the community to keep investing in Georgia Tech. Help someone shape their vision, or help someone learn something.
Colleges are teaching scientists, and not teaching people to be functional and go out there and build stuff.
Do you have someone that you look up to?
What type of things interest you outside of startups?
I’ve been climbing a mountain every week. I’m a really outdoorsy guy, so I love that.
I also really love tea. I’ve actually been contemplating starting a tea company.
Other than that I really love learning different things. I’ve always been a bit scatterbrained, but want to learn everything I can.
One book that I loved, that I think a lot of people will appreciate is Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. It s a great book. It is the type of book where you realize how much he struggled, and he still had this desire to do things that mattered.
If you were going to give advice to a young entrepreneur, what would that be?
Go find five to six people that you really trust, who will give you good advice, and ask them to destroy your idea. After that see if you are still excited about it — because that is was matters.
Where can people follow you? How can they throw money at you?
Throw money at me on the street. I will solicit your checks.