Where Can Smart People Have The Greatest Impact?
A conversation with Andrew Yang, author of Smart People Should Build Things
Posted February 3, 2014
Andrew Yang is an extremely smart person. In fact, his brainpower is off the charts. He scored in the top 0.5% on the SAT at age 12, was admitted to Stanford and Brown, got a 178 LSAT, and a 780 GMAT. He personally felt unfulfilled by a legal career after graduating from Columbia Law, so he ended up paving his own path, eventually founding Venture For America. In Smart People Should Build Things he tells his personal story, explaining how the idea for VFA came when he noticed a lot of smart people felt unfulfilled in their corporate and finance jobs and wanted to make a difference in American communities.
It seems natural he has been interested in what he and his super smart classmates have chosen to do once they graduate from top schools. In the book, he compiled data showing what areas people from top schools have been going into for the last several years.
Andrew shows that a majority of people that graduate from these schools “will pursue one of these six paths after graduation, none of which leads directly to new business formation or growth.” He thinks the way the talent pathways have been structured limits people and this is why he believes smart people should build things. Although I do agree to some extent, I also think each person is responsible for their choices and we need to allow each person to choose their path.
JON: The people you talk about in your book (and those you went to school with) disproportionately end up in positions of the American elite, as my research has shown. How do you think Venture For America might help develop qualities such as character in these students who will likely rise to positions of leadership and power?
ANDREW:We’re already seeing it with our Fellows who have been in the field for 18 months now. If you spend two years living in Detroit or New Orleans trying to build a startup business, of course it’s going to have an impact on you. You’ll know that building things isn’t easy, that running a business has certain responsibilities and pressures, that in the real world sometimes you can be smart and work hard and not have things work out. You have to bring your best professionally each day because the business relies on you. You’re also part of a community that faces day-to-day issues, sometimes of basic infrastructure. It’s a very distinct set of experiences in an environment that can’t help but be formative. I’ve seen our first Fellows grow and mature and they’re often different versions of who they were coming in.
You mention that “current talent flows have a pronounced regional bias,” naming several large cities which the economist Enrico Moretti has called “innovation hubs.” In an interview, Moretti told me that: “The trend that we have observed in the last few decades of high human capital people congregating in a handful of selected group of cities is going to continue. So if we look across cities and metropolitan areas in the next ten or twenty years, I predict the differences are going to be even larger.” Do you think Venture For America will be able to change this innovation hub trend? If so, to what degree?
It’s clear that the talent flows to particular cities are set to get stronger in the coming years. The question is if we can make it so that there are exciting opportunities and communities in other regions as well. I would suggest that a young smart person may have greater impact and access to opportunities in a less dense environment where he or she can get more responsibility and visibility early on. There are tons of opportunities in New York and Silicon Valley, but also a lot of talented people in each of these cities, some of whom have familial connections or other advantages. Basically, we believe that a more diverse talent flow would help cities around the country while really not affecting the current innovation hubs.
To give an example of elite school students who are not fulfilled by traditional prestige pathways (e.g., law, medicine, finance), you describe a young professional earning $150,000 a year having trouble starting over from scratch in a different area, because: “A job is more than a job—it’s your car, how you dress, where you live, the relationships you have…It’s unrealistic to think that one can adopt a certain lifestyle for several years and then make an abrupt change without having to make significant other adjustments.” A phrase immediately came to mind: First World Elite Student Problems. How much of this is a problem with elite students themselves even before they reach college? For example, think about your classmates at Phillips Exeter Academy, Brown, and Columbia Law: Didn’t many of these people grow up in households where they were already used to a certain lifestyle and standard of living with parents who had $150,000 a year jobs? My point is perhaps the problem is not just with the pressure exerted by certain employers with money, but with the lifestyle expectations of people who end up in elite schools very early on in life.
This is a great question and applicable to many people. But a lot of the people who come from these elite schools didn’t necessarily grow up super-affluent. I’d describe them as expecting to be middle class or upper middle class. Their expectations will be shaped by those around them. There’s also the set that are indeed super-privileged that, frankly, could do anything under the sun and their salary wouldn’t make much of a difference to their lifestyle. There’s a fair amount of conditioning that takes place before college, but a lot of it still is based on what your peers are doing and what’s presented as high-value or prestigious at the college and grad school levels.
Right now Venture for America is new and not too many people have gone through it. However, you have clearly been very selective, as you describe in your book. Initially, Teach For America started this way, but today it has become a kind of a gold star on a resume, so a signal to future employers that this person might be worth hiring. To what extent do you think Venture For America will end up being a gold star on people’s resumes? In other words, how many of them will actually stay long-term in the communities in which they start? And if they don’t stay, what do you hope will be their impact? How will Venture For America have changed them?
We’re not naïve enough to think that a 24-year old is going to live in any city for the rest of his or her life necessarily. But I’m confident that Venture for America Fellows present and future will go on to create value and opportunities for themselves and others in a variety of contexts. First, building things and working in startups are addictive. When you’ve been a genuine part of one of these teams and environments, even if the company doesn’t achieve its goals, it’s hard to go back and do something with a much lower level of engagement. Second, our goal is to revitalize U.S. cities and communities through entrepreneurship more broadly. If a Fellow moves from New Orleans after a couple of years to another city and becomes part of the startup ecosystem there, that’s still a win. We want to encourage job creation and economic vitality throughout the U.S., not just in particular places. Third, living and working in these environments will change one’s perspective and values irrevocably, and most likely make you a better person. You’ll know at a bone-deep level what it means to be the entrepreneur, small-business owner and the person trying to innovate in a tough environment. You’ll know what leadership looks like when there isn’t much in the way of resources or a brand name behind it. Many of our Fellows are already opting in for a third year in their cities, and some are starting companies. We’re training people who will serve as high-character builders, and we have a very long time horizon.
© 2014 by Jonathan Wai