Harry Lewis remembers what Gates and Zuckerberg were like in school
Xfund wereFaculty Advisor and Harvard Professor Harry Lewis. Photo credit: Kathy Pham.
Xfund’s close relationship with Harvard makes it uniquely fortunate to have an array of distinguished faculty advisors, including Harry Lewis. Harry is Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He served as Dean of Harvard College from 1995–2003 and has been on the faculty for more than four decades. Officially retired since mid-2020, he continues to teach a popular undergraduate computer science course at Harvard based on his latest book.
Besides authoring several books on computer science and higher education, Harry has taught thousands of undergraduate computer science students, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
Here, he shares his thoughts on student entrepreneurship, how universities can encourage students to be courageous, and how Xfund functions as a vital component of Harvard students’ education.
You were part of the creation of Xfund. Tell us that story.
Patrick and I have known each other for a long time. He was an undergraduate student when I was Dean of Harvard College. I first knew him as a reliable student office worker charged with carrying confidential materials. Years later, when the idea of founding this unique fund hatched, he came to see me to get my reaction and advice, not only about the purposes and direction of the fund, but the complexities of negotiating the sensitivities at Harvard.
It’s a complicated place. Although Harvard has a very fine business school, the arts and sciences half of it — including computer science and engineering — had historically not been friendly to entrepreneurship and students running businesses.
You played a role in changing that stance.
One of the things I did as Dean of the College was to lift a centuries-old prohibition on students running businesses out of their dorm rooms. The internet had changed what a business looked like, but the prohibition was probably put in place in the 19th century, if not the 18th century, when students were selling crates of oranges in their dorms and they had everybody in Cambridge traipsing in and out of their rooms.
Since I’d seen by that time one very successful student business — Microsoft — start under our very noses, with significant opprobrium from the university, I said, “Look, this is silly — If they are on a computer, you can’t tell whether students are working for themselves or someone else, so we should lift the rule.”
I’ve always been friendly to the idea that students are starting businesses, because it’s just something they do. Most of the students I’d known who had started businesses were not neglecting their studies in any way. So why should a student be prohibited from starting a business, or why shouldn’t they be encouraged to start one?
What did you see in the idea for Xfund that made you want to support it?
Well, you can always go to the website and see what makes this fund different from others. But in practice, the reason why I’m an admirer of the fund and why I feel so confident advocating for it in university circles and connecting interested students and faculty to Xfund, is because I sincerely believe Patrick is an honorable person who isn’t going to mislead anyone about his reactions to their ideas.
I’ve steered people with interesting ideas to Patrick for advice and counseling on starting a business as a student or recent graduate. These are students who are trying to figure out how to get their ideas off the ground, or decide whether to pursue them. I’ve never had any student return and say, “I couldn’t tell if he was being straight with me.” Everybody comes out of those conversations feeling positive about the interaction.
Venture capital is a tough world, and there are a lot of people who would love to take advantage of 19-year-olds. But in this case, even if Xfund does not make a direct investment, Patrick has never had any hesitation about listening to a student and giving them his best advice. I appreciate that. That’s a really important aspect for me, more than Xfund’s actual successes they’ve had over the years.
You’ve taught several famous entrepreneurs at Harvard, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, not to mention Stephen Kaufer of TripAdvisor. How have you seen student entrepreneurship change over the years?
It’s been normalized, certainly, in a way that it wasn’t in Bill Gates’ day. People at Harvard now worry that engineering and computer science students don’t really want a liberal arts education, they just want to make money or become the next Gates or Zuckerberg.
But what both Gates and Zuckerberg had was a really good idea, and you’ve got to start with a good idea. You’re starting at the wrong end if you imagine the dollar signs first and try to work toward that. You’ve got to keep your mind open and curious, to see when technological circumstances and social conditions have suddenly created a window you might be able to go through, when no one else seems to be doing so.
So, while it’s good to see student entrepreneurship normalized, it’s also good that most of the student entrepreneurs I’ve known are genuinely curious, interesting people. They’re well educated and that’s why they get good ideas — not because they drill down on the details of some very narrow subject.
For example, Zuckerberg was taking some of his courses in social sciences over in William James Hall, where the psychology department is located, and Maxwell Dworkin, with the computer scientists, is just a couple blocks away.
There were people studying social networks in the psychology department, but they didn’t have any real data. They were just trying to figure out who was friends with whom. Then there were people in computer science who were heavily involved in computer networking, but not social networking.
I have this vision — I have no reason to think it’s true — that somewhere on a pathway halfway between Maxwell Dworkin and William James Halls, Zuckerberg thought, “Hey, I can put together one of these social networks. Let me just try it and see what happens.”
That’s the curiosity and adventuresomeness I’m glad to see. There are not many grinds who have turned out to be great student entrepreneurs, in my experience. All the people I’ve taught who’ve been successful at it are curious, fun, impish, and sometimes transgressive.
What is the link between higher education and entrepreneurship?
Sometimes people take the wrong lesson from my famous dropouts. They say Gates’ and Zuckerberg’s success proves that college education is pointless, since they did perfectly well without the benefit of more than a couple years of college.
But I point out that, if you extrapolate from Gates and Zuckerberg, the real conclusion you can draw is that you absolutely do not need a college education to be a successful entrepreneur — as long as you went to one of the two best secondary schools in the nation and have a solidly upper middle class family background.
I always try to twist that skepticism around in defense of a college education, to point out that both Gates and Zuckerberg were extremely well educated before they ever arrived at Harvard — and they learned a thing or two at Harvard as well, even if they didn’t graduate. And by the way, Gates knew Steve Ballmer and Zuckerberg knew “Boz” — Andrew Bosworth, now Facebook’s CTO — from their college days. It’s amazing how important those chance on-campus connections can turn out to be in later life! It’s fun to be in a college full of interesting people, but some of the most important benefits are utterly unpredictable.
That ties back to Xfund and its work with students: Xfund does not undercut students’ educational experience; it’s in concert with it. And education is still your primary business when you’re a student.
Do you think higher education can do more to support entrepreneurs?
Anybody who gets to hang around Harvard, even four years, is in a rarely privileged position. And one of the rare privileges of being here is that students graduate with no debt. It’s hard to convince students of this sometimes, but that means they have huge opportunities to take risks and fail.
That’s a privilege. For a first-generation college student whose parents have sacrificed everything so they can go to college, it’s tough to say, “Mom, I’m only a sophomore, but I had this really cool idea and I’m going off to start a business.” Grandma will take your head off if you do that!
One of the things universities need to do is not so much train people in how to start a business, but reassure them that, if they’re getting a college degree and really learning stuff in a field like computer science or engineering, they’ll be fine — as long as they don’t graduate owing half a million dollars, which they’re not going to do at places like Harvard.
If these students spend a year trying to start a business and it fails, the worst it could mean is that they’ll get to do at age 65 what they otherwise would have done at 64. That failure won’t slow them down. It’s just part of their education.
So I would hope that universities can make students courageous — and realize that the level of courage required to start a business is not real courage in the world’s terms.
Yes, maybe you’re giving up an offer to start somewhere at a $100k salary, and you’ll have to live with your parents for another year if you try to launch a business. It’s going to be OK. In the long run, you’re not going to suffer because you chose to take a risk on an idea with your college roommate instead.
People who graduate from schools like Harvard really are extremely fortunate. I encourage students to recognize that they’re going to be fine, even though it might seem crazy to spend a year trying to start a business. It’s not crazy in any significant way.
What advice do you have for students?
The wonderful thing about being at a place like Harvard is that there are so many interesting people who have so many interesting things to tell you about. Some of them are people who stand up in front of classrooms, but a lot of them are your roommate, your boyfriend’s mother — other people you happen to come into contact with.
Good ideas ultimately come from people doing things they thought were interesting. Maybe some have a vision and see some far-out possibility, but a lot of it is just putting interesting ideas together. So the more interesting ideas you can accumulate by being open to them and taking advantage of the extremely fertile ground in a place like Harvard, the better.
You don’t even have to be very skilled at it. For example, Zuckerberg was probably not the most talented social science student ever. He was probably just over in the psychology department, listening to people who didn’t know anything about computers talk about social networks.
You can pick up ideas that other people may be experts in, but don’t see the promise or real possibilities. You can be the person who sees the real possibilities in an idea you pick up somewhere else. That’s how creativity happens.
Originally published at https://blog.xfund.com on January 9, 2022.