The Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College welcomed the scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa to campus on Friday, February 25th. The lecture, co-hosted by the Columbia Venture Community, addressed how to make the tech entrepreneurial world more inclusive and how to get more young people involved. Wadhwa’s larger research interests focus on American competitive advantages—entrepreneurship, skilled immigration, and university research commercialization. The event was well attended by Athena Scholars, Columbia Business School students, and followers of Wadhwa’s blog.
Wadhwa started off his talk with the fact that 52% of all start-ups in Silicon Valley are built by immigrants. This situation has led him to conduct research on the inclusivity and exclusivity of the tech world. His interest in the tech gender divide increased recently after he attended a technology awards ceremony and noticed there were no women on the stage. “There is a problem with stereotypes,” he said, and then broke down the problems behind getting women up on that stage – including getting more women in start-ups and having more mentoring opportunities available to women. Athena Scholar Caroline Casey (‘12) opined that westernized competitiveness causes women to turn on their own sex. Wadhwa somewhat agreed, stating, “They don’t help the girls behind them and they complain about each other. But for every one girl you have doing that you will find ten other good people.” He then related a story regarding Indian immigrant entrepreneurs and how they had to overcome the religious and ethnic tensions promoted by the British, during the British Indian Empire (1858-1947). These entrepreneurs realized that it was better to unite together in the United States, as it would mean better success in the long term.
Wadhwa also spoke at length regarding the seeming over-reliance on venture capital funds to make a start-up successful. He encouraged students not to worry about venture capital funds, rather he said that the majority of successful start-ups were “boot-strapped,” or originated without external capital. Of course, as the business grows, bringing in angel investors or venture capital would be necessary. But because anyone can boot-strap, students can be at an advantage in starting their own ventures. Wadhwa also argued that boot-strap companies are more likely to hire students or recent graduates as “this is a young person’s market, why hire someone older when they aren’t as familiar with progressive technology?”
Wadhwa is currently a senior research associate at Harvard Law School; an executive in residence at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and a visiting scholar at the School of Information at University of California, Berkeley. He advises several start-up companies, is a columnist for BusinessWeek.com and a contributor at TechCrunch.com.