The risks of doing nothing

I graduated from IIT Delhi at the peak of the original dot-com bubble, as an ambitious but naive computer science major. Every day we heard words that we romanticized without yet understanding — equity, IPO, startup culture, liquidity. We were within inches of living the silicon valley dream, and couldn’t wait to graduate and claim our share of that future. I had a job offer from a well-funded startup in the Bay Area, and from what I understood sitting in my hostel room in Delhi, the company was doing well on every front. Four weeks before graduating, my job offer was rescinded. The dot-com bubble had burst, and the company was cutting costs. Reality was starting to set in.

J.M.W Turner — Fishermen at sea

Yesterday we all heard the news about the IITs blacklisting startups that rescinded job offers. I understand where this comes from — the IITs care about their students, and want to protect them as much as possible from the shocks of a volatile startup market. In many ways it is the rationale of a protective parent, one that many of us have experienced first hand. Unfortunately, while well intentioned, this action will hurt students far more than it will help them.

One of my biggest learnings over the years has been a better appreciation of the tradeoff between risks and rewards, particularly when it comes to our careers. In 2009, I graduated from business school in the worst recession in the US in decades, and decided to start my own company rather than look for a job. In many ways, my experience in 2001 taught me that the “worst case scenario” isn’t so bad — I can always get a job if things don’t work out. Most founders share this appetite for risk and uncertainty, including the ones — many of them distinguished IIT alumni — whose companies were blacklisted yesterday. Having known some of them personally, I know how they agonize over these decisions, how much uncertainty they face in running their businesses, and how young people who work with them have an opportunity to learn and grow far more rapidly than in a traditional job. These founders should be role models to the recently graduating students, not villains.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said — “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” By protecting them from the risks and rewards of a career in startups, the IITs have inadvertently sent the wrong message to their students. We should instead encourage risk taking, and celebrate the people who are willing to go down an uncertain path in the hopes of finding something special.

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