The Best Way to Inspire College Students Interested in Tech and Startups

Recap of Sprout 2018 — the most immersive Bay Area trip run by STUDENTS for STUDENTS.

We came out of the building buzzing with inspiration and excitement after spending 45 minutes with Lyft’s COO Jon McNeill. His experience and knowledge in the industry, which included working directly with Elon Musk at Tesla, was astounding.

We were starstruck. Nothing could come close to this experience. Right?

But little did we know, later we would be riding electric scooters behind AT&T Park with the Chief Business Officer of Spin, a dockless electric scooter company bought by Ford for $100 million, and listening to a Google X employee talk about moonshot ideas that aimed to revolutionize the world at billions of dollars in scale.

We were overwhelmed with thoughts and ideas — our minds stretched to their limits.

Sprout is a trip designed to immerse Northwestern students interested in tech and entrepreneurship into the Silicon Valley lifestyle through conversations and events with incredible startup founders, VCs and tech executives.

Let’s dive right into the recap.

#SproutFam 🌱

Alumni Dinner #GoCats 😻

After exploring San Francisco (Golden Gate, Chinatown, Palace of Fine Arts) we headed out to Northwestern’s SF Campus to grab dinner and hear from three alumni about their experiences in SF. Our panelists worked in fields spanning across VC, healthcare UX and hardware engineering.

They were three of our youngest alums (shout out to Suzee Han, Ahren Alexander and Sarah Ahmad!) so we got the chance to really understand their beginning career journeys and get advice on how to make the most of our time at Northwestern. It was the perfect opportunity to ask any initial questions we had about tech, startups and the Bay Area.

Partying with Li 🎉

Earlier that day I got a text from NU alum and adjunct professor Li Jiang to come to his house for a hangout after the dinner. So the 15 other students on the trip and I went over to Li’s to experience what it was really like to live in the Bay.

Although shy at first, we eventually started talking to people at the party who had already done amazing things at tech companies like Google and Amazon or were on the forefront of blockchain technology research. I even met the person who coined the term “Stanford Bitcoin Mafia.”

Suddenly, we felt part of the buzzing Silicon Valley ecosystem — it’s energy, generated by people all interested in advancing technology and finding novel solutions to the world’s biggest problems, was palpable and exciting.

Dropbox ☁️

The next day we visited Dropbox’s HQ in SF. For many students this was the first time they had ever visited a company in tech. We quickly understood how culture and a great office space can be as important to a company’s success as its people and work

After a tour of the place we had the opportunity to ask a panel of six employees some questions. Many of the students had preconceived notions that tech is all engineering and coding. But, the people on the panel opened our eyes to the wide range of jobs in tech. They all shared common interest in tech/startups, but worked in diverse functions like sales, marketing and product.

Lyft 🚙

We rushed over to Lyft to speak with the COO Jon McNeill. The first consultant hired by Bain from Northwestern, Jon managed to impress Mitt Romney. He later went on to start/lead three successful companies. Most recently, before Lyft he worked directly with Elon Musk. We were all incredibly impressed and grateful that Jon was willing to take time out of his busy schedule to give college students (many freshmen) advice.

His thoughts on management and work:

  • Go to the front lines of your company. Spend time talking to the employees you normally wouldn’t talk to. After meeting with us he had to catch a flight to Tennessee to do just that.
  • Success is 10% from what you work on and 90% from who you work with.
  • Luck is a combination of massive preparation and serendipity.

Twitter 📱

At Twitter we met with the Director of IT, an NU alum, and three other alumni. It was interesting to see the differences among Twitter versus the smaller Dropbox and Lyft. Since Twitter is much bigger and more global, we soon appreciated the value of collaborative and supportive environments.

We also took a deep dive into the lives of engineers and researchers, learning about agile development and how workers support Twitter’s two-sided business model. On one hand there’s Blue Bird, the Twitter app we see. On the other, is Gold Bird, which businesses interact with to promote their ads. Twitter makes most of their revenue off Gold Bird…hence the “Gold.”

Spin 🛴

Spin’s offices are housed in two condos with windows facing AT&T Park, home of the Giants MLB team. In nearby condos, Y Combinator teams build their next big thing. This was our first taste of what a smaller sized startup feels like. Yet at the same time Spin is not as small as their offices convey. They were bought by Ford for $100 million in November and have over a million rides on their scooters.

We spoke with Ben Bear, NU alum and Chief Business Officer, who candidly answered all the questions we threw at him. He talked business strategy, life in SF and startup compensation (salary vs. equity).

As a piece of advice for those interested in startups out of college he recommended finding Series A or B companies to work at on AngelList or Breakout List.

The reason?

You get the experience of a startup that has proven itself to be potentially capable of future success, without the risk of starting your own. A perfect happy medium.

WorkSpan 🏢

We visited WorkSpan last year on Sprout when it was a 20-person team in Redwood Shores. Now it’s a company boasting around 50 employees working out of the tallest building in Foster City. Again, we were incredibly thankful that all three co-founders of the company and NU alum Chip Rodgers showed up to field our questions.

Some lessons from them:

  • Product/market fit happens when you “pull, not push.” Your customers should be reaching out to you for your product, not the other way around.
  • Make your product simple. Solve the essential problems first.
  • The pipeline for scaling your business: Engineering -> Sales -> Customer Support.

Google X 🤖

We met with an incredible NU alum in charge of a team at X. A subsidiary of Alphabet, X is a research lab that aims to turn ideas into revolutionary businesses — “moonshots.” If the ideas are deemed to not have enough impact on the world then they are scrapped.

His words of wisdom:

  • Build/Create something you are interested in.
  • “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” — Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  • Success takes luck. But successful people put themselves in positions to be lucky.
  • Everything becomes normalized. He’s at X, which seems like a dream job from out viewpoint as college students…but it’s not a perfect place.
X: The Moonshot Factory 🚀

Some final words…

Around two years ago I thought it would be really cool to create a trip for students to learn about entrepreneurship and technology directly from the source in SF. Last December we made this idea a reality with the first ever Sprout trip to SF. This year I handed off the reigns to Ben Hool to plan another amazing trip. He did an incredible job.

Big props to all the student members of the team that helped plan Sprout this year and last.

Thank you to all the alumni and companies we visited while on the trip.

I also want to thank the Farley Center, Kristin Rodeno and the NU SF Campus staff for their time and resources. Thanks to all the alumni donors who were huge in supporting this trip.

It’s been amazing to see students so curious about startups and tech, and even more rewarding to watch them go on to do big things. I will be graduating Northwestern next spring, but I look forward to seeing Sprout grow in the future and empower the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders.

#SproutInTelAviv? #SproutInShenzhen? #SproutInBerlin?

Learn more about EPIC and Sprout.