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I had an awesome day on Saturday. I spent the weekend with my fraternity at MIT (the Lambda Phi Chapter of Alpha Delta Phi) on an undergraduate retreat called ADPrentice (be patient, you’ll get it in a minute). I co-sponsored this with two of my frat brothers – Sameer Gandhi (a partner at Sequioa Capital) and Mark Siegel (a partner at Menlo Ventures).
As I look back 20 years later, our fraternity generated a number of very significant entrepreneurs in a short period of time (the graduating classes from 1984 to 1990). Several companies that effectively started in the house (at 351 Mass Ave in Cambridge) included my first company (Feld Technologies – co-founded by me ‘87 and Dave Jilk ‘84), Art Technology Group (started by Joe Chung and Jeet Singh ‘85), iRobot (started by Colin Angle ‘89). Sameer Gandhi ‘87 and Mark Siegel ‘90 are prominent VCs. Ross Ortega ‘87 has started several companies. And – while the 1984 to 1990 period was rich with entrepreneurship, it didn’t stop there – Pehr Anderson (I think originally ‘96) dropped out to start NBX which was acquired by 3Com in 1999 (Pehr eventually got his degree).
This activity all happened well before the Internet bubble. MIT has always been a huge generator of entrepreneurial activity and the fraternity system / independent living groups (FSILG) at MIT – which used to be critical to the Institute as there wasn’t enough dorm space to house all the students – was a uniquely vibrant source of entrepreneurial activity. In recent years, MIT has shifted emphasis away from FSILG as they’ve built more dorm capacity, been concerned about liability issues associated with the FSILG system, and generally wanted more control over the behavior and experience of the undergraduate community.
Last year, Sameer, Mark, and I decided to contribute a modest amount of money to the chapter. Since Lambda Phi is chartered as a “literary society”, we were determined to do something intellectual as part of our gift. We wanted to impact the house in a meaningful way, especially since all three of us had been disengaged for some time. It took a while before several of the alumni and undergraduates engaged and during this process we started to learn about the challenge that our fraternity – and others at MIT – are having with the new rules and constraints that MIT has imposed on FSILG. I won’t go into them here, but we were surprised and as a result more motivated to try something different to get the undergraduates excited and reconnected to several of us.
A team of folks – led by Manish, Ruben, and Zach – put together an incredible event. We spent Saturday at MIT’s Endicott House – MIT’s fantastic off campus retreat facility – and had an Apprentice-like day (now you get it: ADP + Apprentice = ADPrentice). This acted as the “fall retreat” – most fraternities have something similar where all the undergraduates go away for a weekend and do something together. Usually (at least 20 years ago when I was in college), the retreat devolved into a drunken bash that – while it included some “activities” – was primarily social, often a lot of fun, but rarely intellectual.
ADPrentice had three discrete challenges:
- Marketing Challenge: Present teams with a product or service. Their task will be to market or sell this product/service to a group of investors. They will need to focus on the product’s features, realizing its full potential, and communicate that effectively. This challenge will culminate in a power-point presentation to the VC panel to be judged. A/V equipment will be available.
- Hiring / Interview Challenge: Teams will be given a ‘resume book’ of possible candidates to hire for a pre-described position. They will be asked to consult and pick 3 resumes they’d like to interview. Short mock interviews will be conducted with organizers role-playing as the candidates. After the interviews teams will pick a candidate to hire. They will have to defend their choice to the VC Panel.
- 5-Year Plan & Budget Challenge: Teams will be presented with a business concept and 5-year budget. They will have to come up with what they perceive as the best course of action for a 5-year plan, and budget accordingly. Plans will be critiqued and judged. (Since teams aren’t expected to have much previous knowledge in creating business plans, perhaps this event should come after a seminar.)
In between challenges, Mark, Sameer, and I gave the following lectures.
- Mark: How Does Venture Capital Work
- Sameer: Business Plan 101
- Brad: Do You Have The Balls To Start A Company?
During the day, Mark, Sameer, and I observed the teams and scored them on each challenge. At the end of the day, we totaled up the scores and picked the winner. We awarded the first place team with $1,000 – second and third received $500 each.
I was completely blown away by the quality of work these guys did. Remember – we are talking about undergraduates with no real work experience (albeit they are MIT undergrads). The quality of what they did was unbelievable and reminded me how incredible MIT is at teaching people to think.
As the day wore on, we were worried that the energy level would start to wane. The opposite happened – folks became more engaged, the competition became more intense, and the level of conversation increased. Now – this is a Saturday – these guys didn’t go to sleep early Friday night (well – some of them didn’t bother going to sleep since they had to be ready to leave at 8am) – but they just powered through. Awesome.
Sameer, Mark, and I had plenty of time to talk about entrepreneurship. One of the things this day reminded us of was the incredible raw material that exists in the US. While there is endless talk about China and India – and undoubtably the US is no longer undeniably at the top of the heap in the innovation game – we shouldn’t forget the quality and potential of the kids currently in our top tier schools in the US. In addition, as a guy approaching 40, it’s just a blast to hang out with 20 year olds, remember what it was like to be 20, and participate in influencing these guys’ lives, even if only a little bit.