Arguments over who rules the startup roost aren’t new. The East Coast-West Coast rivalry will never lose its luster, no matter how many times we claim we’re tired of being beat over the head with it. At some point, however, the East Coast divided itself, at least here in the Hub. The newest “This vs. That?” Harvard vs. MIT.
When Boston magazine published the story, “How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World,” I knew what would happen. The incessant explanations would start pouring in, as each school puffed out its chest and started rattling off statistics like these:
- If MIT was a country, it would boast the 11th largest economy in the world.
- Five percent of Harvard Business School students launch a business before even finishing their MBA.
- At the end of 2006, living MIT alumni had created 25,800 still-active companies that employed 3.3 million people.
- Ninety-seven percent of Harvard Business School students have secured job offers within three months of graduation.
My three-word response? I don’t care.
At least when the two schools are pitted against each other.
When the Harvard innovation lab officially opened its doors last November, President Drew Faust toted the debut as a “promise for the future,” claiming they were “gathering great minds under a single roof, so that they [could] become greater together.”
She never said, “We are gathering great minds under a single roof because we feel inferior to MIT and need to surpass the over 10-year-old Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.”
No one can deny MIT’s accomplishments, but to say “Harvard copied MIT” because MIT has been “doing entrepreneurship for a long time” is ludicrous. Yes, MIT has an impressive record—just take a look at the 22-year history of the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Having a nearby school evolve and realize the university’s curriculum needs to be revitalized, however, can’t simply be countered with the statement: “Well, we did it first.”
MIT Sloan student Ash Martin, co-founder of Viztu Technologies—which was recently acquired by 3D Systems—was quoted by Boston magazine as saying that in his view, “Harvard spits out CEOs, bankers, lawyers and moneymen.” The thing is, I doubt Harvard would refute that claim, especially considering those same recently graduated “moneymen” are walking away with median base salaries of $125,000, and that’s without factoring in signing bonuses, profit sharing and stock options.
The whole East vs. West argument has always bothered me for one simple reason: entrepreneurs need to go where they can thrive. Take Filepicker.io, the most recent winner of the MIT $100K. After graduating, the team shipped from Cambridge to California. Although some tried to persuade the team not to move, one local investor said:
I think we’ve got plenty of that kind of raw material here though and our collective time is better spent nurturing the folks that want to take advantage of that, rather than trying to convince those with Silicon Valley sparkles in their eyes to stay here.
What was in their eyes weren’t some “Silicon Valley sparkles,” however—it was opportunity. When you’re trying to build a “desktop for the Internet,” and you’re building off public APIs, including Evernote, Flickr and Dropbox, you want to be where those companies are. As co-founder Anand Dass said, they wanted to go somewhere they would “have the best shot at doing a fast sprint toward hitting their milestones and getting to market.”
Had Filepicker.io been working in, say, the healthcare space, they likely would have been better off staying in Boston. But, they needed to go where the giants were—and those giants aren’t playing here. So, why keep arguing about East vs. West when the argument is akin to comparing apples to oranges?
The same goes for Harvard and MIT.
Harvard does have some catching up to do, but they’re not trying to catch up merely to beat MIT. They’re realizing the need and offering a better, more well-rounded program. Who cares if Harvard Business School is full of “moneymen?” If you don’t want to be one, cross the bridge and enroll at MIT.
MIT is great, and is a pioneer in many respects (to pick just one example, their OpenCourseWare initiative is wonderful, and MIT’s entrepreneurship drive is good too). It’s just that the difference isn’t as great as articles like this will claim, and it does a disservice to the people doing great work at other universities to say things like this.
Immediately, another commenter responded: “Totally agree, and I write that as an MIT alum.”
Now, I write all this because I’ve seen follow-up articles published and I’ve spent about a year and a half now interacting with both schools, watching students grow from each. Yet, wouldn’t it be better to see them grow together? To form more partnerships like the recently announced Rough Draft Ventures, comprised of students from Harvard, MIT, Babson, Tufts and Boston University? The more the schools claim one is copying or is better than the other, the less collaboration we’ll see. And, right now, that’s something we just can’t afford. We can’t let college pride ruin a city.
Photo Courtesy of Kris Snibbe/Harvard