In the tech world, there’s likely no archetype more famous than the college dropout. From Steve Jobs to Bill Gates to WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, there are plenty of stories floating around about scrappy entrepreneurs who dropped out of college to strike out on their own.
It’s an important story that exemplifies the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirit that startups glorify. To succeed, the story says, you don’t need to go to a fancy college or even finish college. If you have the smarts and the willingness to put in the hard work, the world is yours for the taking.
But what often slips through the cracks in these stories is what comes before these people drop out. These business icons didn’t spring fully formed from the head of an entrepreneurial god. They were products of the education system that got them there.
I bring this up not to remind everyone that our idols were once human like us, but to highlight a way that New York is both helping and failing the next generation of Silicon Alley entrepreneurs. The New York public school system is teaching the next generation of entrepreneurs right now, and how well it does will shape the future of the city.
Early Education Made Me Hungry, but not Capable
For me, the heated debate surrounding New York schools hits close to home because I grew up in the Bronx. I was the son of immigrants who moved to this country only a few years before I was born. Life was a struggle, but they were always focused on trying to give me what they thought was the best life.
My parents were deeply religious and skeptical about the Bronx public school system. They thought Catholic school would provide the best educational experience. (Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case.)
If I had stayed in Catholic school, I might have never noticed that my education wasn’t up to snuff. I was a straight-A student, and the stern nuns who taught me told me that I was receiving a superior education.
But I was unhappy there, and I was even less happy that my parents — who were already struggling to make ends meet — were spending so much on tuition to keep me there. I looked at the magnet school system as an opportunity to expand my educational horizons, while saving my parents money.
But when I looked at the practice entrance exams for these schools, I received my first rude awakening: rather than having an advantage over my public school peers as my parents had intended, I found myself woefully unprepared.
I realized that I had been caught in some kind of positive feedback loop. I was getting A’s and being told that those A’s were worth something, but I wasn’t being challenged, and the educational gap was putting my future in jeopardy.
This was where I learned my first lesson in becoming an entrepreneur: you have to be hungry enough to strike out on your own when traditional paths lead you astray. Since my school wasn’t giving me what I needed, I studied in the library every weekday to catch up.
Eventually, all that studying paid off, and I managed to pass the exam and get into the Bronx High School of Science (though I suspect I passed by the skin of my teeth).
While the failures of my early education had taught me to be hungry, they hadn’t given me the capabilities to really act on that hunger. If I had failed the exam, I don’t know where I would be today, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be here.
Bronx Science Gave Me What a Traditional School Couldn’t
Despite what the name implies, the Bronx High School of Science consisted mainly of students from outside the Bronx. Most of my classmates came from other boroughs with better public school systems. I was one of the lucky few Bronx natives who’d made it in, but there should’ve been more. Given the recent debates about the magnet school system in New York City, it’s easy to see that the true problem — improving pre-high school education — is still being ignored.
For me, the education I received at Bronx Science was a revelation. While I excelled in Catholic school, I initially struggled at Bronx Science. I entered high school a year behind my peers in math and foreign language, and the teachers told me — often bluntly — the areas where I needed to improve and how to do so.
They gave me action plans to improve my writing. They called me out on my silence in class to help me get over my fear of public speaking. I learned to code — a skill that not only helped me land an internship in college, but also put me on a career path I didn’t even know I wanted.
And I met people who inspired me to challenge myself.
The school wasn’t a diploma mill; it was a place where the teachers really cared about students’ education and would do what it took to get them where they needed to be. Consequently, Bronx Science and schools like it enjoy nearly 100 percent graduation rates, and nearly all of their students are college-bound. What’s more, according to “The 2014 Best High Schools” rankings by U.S. News, charter and magnet schools account for 155 of the top 500 schools.
Catholic school told me that I was getting a good education, but Bronx Science actually put its money where its mouth was, and all my parents had to pay was their taxes.
If New York Wants to Change the Tech World, It Needs to Start at School
The failures of my early education taught me how to learn independently and showed me that I had the strength to achieve nearly anything. But it was the successes of the New York education system that showed me how to channel that strength and determination and turn it into something worthy of Silicon Alley.
In the tech world, we love to talk about disruption. The possibility that everything could be up-ended by the next tech wunderkind is what makes entrepreneurship so exciting. But it’s actually a good education that creates disruptors. That doesn’t mean simply telling kids they can do anything they put their minds to; it means giving them an educational foundation so they can do it.
Schools in Asia and Europe are producing some of the most talented people in tech because the top schools there are free. My company’s encryption development needs are quite complex, and in many cases, I’ve had to hire overseas to fill those gaps because I simply couldn’t find the talent locally. If we’re serious about being world leaders in innovation and technology, we need to learn from other countries that are consistently producing highly capable entrepreneurs.
There’s a reason why Mark Zuckerberg, one of the most famous dropouts, donated $100 million to the Newark school system. If we’re serious about creating the future of tech, it’s up to us to push an agenda of affordable, high-quality education in every borough so the next generation is given the best chance to surpass our achievements.
Image creditL: CC by Stefano Ravalli