We Need A Career Path For College Students Who Want To Become Entrepreneurs Instead Of Bankers Or Lawyers

Photo: Ericka Clouther

We have a talent problem in this country, but we have an equally pressing talent allocation problem. We all would like to see the U.S. create more jobs. 

And we all are concerned that our country isn’t producing enough new businesses, research scientists, and innovation to retain a position of global leadership. 

Education is a big part of the solution – we need it to be more effective, practical, and accessible. 

But it’s equally important what people do with their education once they have it. 

What path do you take after college? 

If you are a smart college student and you want to become a lawyer and go to law school, it’s pretty easy.  You go to a good school, get good grades and take the LSAT. There is little anxiety in terms of divining the requirements, which are clearly spelled out and well-known to most college students.  The path-location costs are low.   

The same is true if you want to become a doctor. You have to complete a battery of life science college courses, study for the MCAT, and spend a summer or even a year caddying for a researcher or in a medical setting. 

For finance and consulting, it’s even easier.  If you attend a national university, legions of suit-wearing representatives from all of the big-name investment banks and consulting firms will show up at your campus and conduct interviews to fill their ranks each year, even in a bad year. 

These structured paths are the default options for students with access to them—and were pursued by approximately 50 per cent of Harvard grads in 2011 (65 per cent if you include med school).[1]  Perhaps this is somewhat surprising—one might think that Harvard and other top college grads would be well-positioned to blaze their own trails.  But the numbers are clear.   

The truth is, few college students arrive their freshman year dreaming about becoming investment bankers or management consultants or corporate lawyers.  Yet the institutional messages they receive throughout their college careers are that these are the “prestige” paths to follow.  These are the firms, industries, and schools that have the resources to recruit you and train you.[2]  That’s how they become the path for the literal majority. 

In contrast, let’s say that you’re a college grad who wants to start your own business or work at a small growth company.  You’re likely on your own.  You won’t be recruited.  Career services won’t have an interview scheduled for you. 

You’ll have to hustle or network your way to an opportunity of uncertain upside. You won’t have a group of peers around.  There are no guarantees of training, advancement or success.  Your parents might prefer that you go to law school, med school or a name-brand firm.   If it doesn’t work out, you won’t have a good bullet to put on your resume.  And your peers won’t recognise or value the path that you’re taking. 

It’s no wonder that so few of our top graduates decide to head down this road—it’s more than contrarian, it’s borderline irrational.  Yet if we want to build the next generation of business and job creators, this is exactly what we need them to do. 

It’s time to build a new path. 

I have spoken with hundreds of college seniors in the past year, and many of them are frustrated by the limited range of options presented to them upon graduation.  They want to do something they believe in, in an environment where they can achieve an impact.  They recognise that there is a universe of different industries and opportunities out there, but they don’t have the resources, network, time or experience to effectively access them. 

It’s the same situation on the growth-company side.  V-Charge is a renewable energy company in Providence, Rhode Island, led by Jessica Millar, a PhD in maths from MIT who is working to make our energy grid more efficient.  V-Charge is a new enterprise and doesn’t have the personnel, money, or time to go on campus and recruit alongside the large established firms.  Many other exciting young companies around the country are in the same position. 

There is a disconnect here that we must address. 

Teach for America illustrates how successful an organisation can be that sets up a concrete and clearly defined recruitment and application process.  In 2011, 48,000 college seniors applied for 5,200 spots in Teach for America, including 12 per cent of Ivy League seniors.[3]  There’s clearly a massive desire among our young people to both contribute and develop their skills in less traditional areas of impact.  Yet there are too few paths for them to take beyond those provided by high-resource industries and institutions. 

We need more organisations like Teach for America to create real choices for our young people.  We need to present them with a more complete set of alternatives, so they can advance and grow in ways that both they and we as a society would like to see. 

Imagine a country where the same proportion of talent that currently goes to finance, law, and consulting went instead to early-stage growth companies around the country, which generate 100 per cent of net new jobs each year.[4]  That would help address our unemployment issues as a country within a generation or two. Our young people want the same things—they see the problems our country is facing, and they want to do something about it.    

This goal is one we can readily achieve, but the issue is one of resources.  Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, BCG and their peer firms each spend millions of dollars a year on recruiting the best and brightest.  Their brand equity is high. Teach for America, to its credit, has developed a similarly robust recruitment infrastructure and brand.  There’s a war for talent, but only certain sides are fighting. 

For the growth companies like V-Charge that represent our next level of innovation and job creation, there is little way to compete.  The same is true for companies engaged in scientific research. For example, I met a woman who was completing her PhD in biology from Harvard who said that exactly two firms recruited her and her program mates: not drug companies or biotechs, but McKinsey and BCG. 

Leadership matters.  We need to recognise as a society that the market for our most important resource—our talented young people—requires active participation.  Asking them to ignore the enormous institutional forces brought to bear, or ignoring them ourselves, is unrealistic and destructive.  We have to build the paths we want them to walk and enable them to make genuine choices that will benefit both them and our country as a whole. 

Our young people desperately want the chance to participate in and lead our nation’s economic and cultural revival.  It only remains for us to present the opportunity. 

[1] http://www.ocs.fas.harvard.edu/students/jobs/seniorsurvey.htm



[2]  There is literally a ‘Goldman Sachs room’ in Columbia’s career services building.   

[3] http://www.teachforamerica.org/press-room/press-releases/2011/teach-america-announces-schools-contributing-most-graduates-its-201-0


[4] http://www.kauffman.org/uploadedfiles/firm_formation_importance_of_startups.pdf

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