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Innovation and the Silicon Valley

September 22, 2011

Dave Meyer
Innovation and the Silicon Valley

Crescit cum commercio civitas. Civilization prospers with commerce: indeed, it does. And our college strikes out to prepare our students to be leaders in commerce and in the great institution that facilitates it: government. There is no doubt in my mind that graduating Stags and Athenas--perhaps more than any other graduates in the country--leave our school with a stronger background in civics, economics, and the theories and frameworks that drive and guide these fields. CMC aims to go beyond merely producing great businessmen and women--we seek to produce leaders in society.

With that excessively grandiose first paragraph out of the way, I’d like to discuss my concern that the great education CMC gives us tends to point a large number of our best students towards these career paths: law, consulting, and finance. To the individual graduate, these are very attractive options--they offer high pay, prestige, interesting and challenging work, and opportunities for upward movement. With that in mind, let me explain what draws me to technology while I surround myself at CMC with future lawyers, consultants, and bankers. I believe that technology offers a real opportunity for innovation where other sectors do not. This is not to say that service industries do not offer value--far from it. But where would all these CMC grads be if not for the people out there building business that need legal advice, management consulting, and capital investments? Building a world-changing business--that is to say, being a business leader--is all about innovation. CMCers are more than capable of innovating--Henry Kravis and George Roberts brought about one of the greatest innovations in the world of finance over the last few decades. That said, innovations in finance lack the kind of society-changing impact that technology companies have brought about over the same time period. So with that in mind, I think what I find attractive about technology companies--and about product-based, as opposed to service-based, companies in general--is the opportunity to truly innovate and be responsible for building a product that has the potential to change the world. Or at least make it a better place.

I’m not claiming to have some brilliant insight or wisdom to recommend that all my peers change career paths. I haven’t achieved some fantastic success in the technology industry that justifies my claim. I’ve had a pair of internships and those were pretty cool, but mostly I’m just trying to lay out my reasoning for why I’m attracted to tech and rather put off by service businesses. The idea of building something resonates with me. To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic:

"But above all, it's the feeling of having done something original, of developing a thought derived from World Book and Childcraft, of making that thought manifest, rings down through the years. This was the exhilaration of having made something. And in search of that original high, I am still making things."

The success of CMC’s ITAB Silicon Valley Networking Trip speaks to the idea that this desire to build is becoming increasingly popular. The trip exposes current CMC students to some of the most innovative graduates of our school--people like Jonathan Rosenberg, who managed Google’s products from 2002 until April of this year. Spending a week visiting several companies each day in the Bay Area leaves you with a sense of excitement that’s difficult to explain. Going to company after company that is doing something cool and new and fascinating with technology instills a desire to join in and build something yourself. The networking trip is a fantastic crash course in the technology sector and its potential, and many of the students that attend end up taking internships or jobs at technology companies.

For this reason, I’m excited that CMC has chosen to offer an entirely new program to further promote these careers: the Silicon Valley Program. Modeled after the Washington D.C. Semester Program, the Claremont Colleges Silicon Valley program will be a semester-long off-campus study experience that combines an internship at a Silicon Valley tech companies with relevant coursework. Jointly sponsored by the Robert Day School and the Off-Campus Study Office, the program will place students at companies like Apple, Atlassian, Cisco, Electronic Arts, Google, HP, Infosys, Intuit, and Oracle for a full-time internship. The seminars will be economics classes (just like the seminars in D.C. are government classes) covering topics like industrial organization and entrepreneurship.

The introduction of this program is an extraordinary leap forward in promoting technology to the same tier CMC currently reserves for law, consulting, and finance. By offering students interested in software engineering, entrepreneurship, and the business of technology the same type of immersion we currently provide to those interested in government and law, CMC is positioning itself to achieve the critical mass of alumni in the industry necessary to encourage a wider range of tech companies to recruit our graduates. Furthermore, it will increase the visibility of technology careers on campus. (How many CMCers know what product management is?)

Let me be clear: the dream isn’t to drive away our graduates from traditional careers in law, consulting, and finance. Rather, my hope is that there will be CMCers innovating and starting companies and building products to the point where they can hire their fellow CMC graduates as lawyers when they need legal services, as consultants when they need corporate advice, and as investors when they need to raise capital. CMCers are brilliantly creative, smart, and hardworking--innovative tech businesses are built on these traits. With the emergence of the Silicon Valley Program, the potential for our graduates to create world-changing technology products has never shone brighter in Claremont.

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