As a lowly high school freshman trying to budget his time, I often sought advice from upperclassmen on how worthwhile it was to participate in a certain activity such as a sport or club. Yet, although I would ask students with widely different interests, I would almost always receive the same answer: “Do it for the college app.”
To many students, this answer suffices; for them, expending effort on the activity even if you don’t enjoy it is worthwhile if it can give you an edge in college admissions. But I have never felt quite settled by this response. Yes, it is an easy way to justify a hard class or a strenuous extracurricular, but it doesn’t address what I feel is most important in making the decision to participate in the activity: the passion the activity inspires within you. “Do it for the college app” feels like the easy way out —it’s the answer you’ll find in the back of the textbook, not the explanation you get in the solutions guide.
Yet if you were to ask me now, as a high school senior, about whether or not you should apply to Leangap, a summer entrepreneurship program for high school students, my answer would be precisely that: “Do it for the college app.”
June 24, 2017: As I anxiously waited to board my flight to Boston for Leangap, questions swarmed in my head. What kind of people would I meet? Would I find people I liked enough to actually start a company with? What if no one wanted me to be on their team? And perhaps the most frightening question of all to a California native: “How would I go six weeks without In-N-Out?” Questions like these tormented me the entire plane ride and doubts slowly creeped in. And while I hoped they would evaporate once I arrived at campus, I’ll be honest: that uncertainty lasted for a while. Even after I arrived and met all the mentors and other students, I still felt worried and anxious.
It’s never easy to meet an entirely new group of people and know you’ll have to work closely and even live with them. For a shy, self-conscious person like me, that’s pretty much a worst-case scenario. But I found myself surprised at how smooth Leangap made the process of getting comfortable with each other. In the first two days, a former NASA engineer led a seminar with us in which he invited us to mold our passions and fears into our purpose. Sharing our purposes with each other allowed us to empathize with one another, immediately forging bonds through our emotions and values, not superficiality. And this forming of relationships only continued; later in the week, as we pitched our own business ideas and gave each other feedback, our friendships and appreciation for each other grew stronger.
For me, this organic connection with the other students is what made my experience at Leangap so amazing. Through constant hard work, dinner breaks, and late nights, I grew closer than I thought was possible to my team with whom I created Resonex. And the bonds extended beyond just my team. As we worked late nights in the Student Center, we found time to spend with the other teams, occasionally stopping for hilariously intense games of ping pong, embarrassingly revealing truth-or-dare rounds, or just wholesome, down-to-earth conversation. The mutual hardships we faced in starting our companies only strengthened these friendships, and we started to hang out outside of company work, such as Uber-ing to Chinatown for karaoke or walking into town for a haircut. I had so much fun with the other students, and they became, without a doubt, some of the best friends I’ll ever have.
I experienced that organic connection with the mentors as well. Each mentor had a different specialty, such as in management, software, or design, and they all made significant efforts to help us in whatever way they could. The coolest part is that they didn’t just tell us what we should do; rather, they did it with us. For example, one of the mentors, Nick, stayed up with me until 2am guiding me through my business idea and pitch. Another mentor, Sadok, took me from not knowing what UX (User Experience) stood for to fully designing our company website. The mentors were invested in us, not just technically, but emotionally and wholeheartedly.
The amazing relationships I had with the people at Leangap laid a strong foundation for the program’s educational focus: entrepreneurship. From working at an office space in the heart of Boston, to listening to multiple fascinating guest speakers, to being taught daily lessons by the mentors, the other students and I lived and breathed entrepreneurship every day. And I quickly understood that experience, not theory, was the best way to learn it. We had to talk to strangers to get customer validation and cold-call businesses to see if they were interested in our product. We bought our own programming boards and developed our own software. We auditioned for Shark Tank. We pitched our companies to a panel of 7 people, each with extensive business experience, who gave us feedback as if we were at a real pitching competition. Leangap’s focus on execution was definitely intimidating, but with the supportive environment of the other students and mentors, failure didn’t seem so scary; indeed, failure is part of the authentic entrepreneurship experience Leangap created.
That experience, coupled with the indelible relationships I formed, made Leangap the best summer of my life.
So, with full awareness of the irony, I say to you, “Do it for the college app.” Because college apps are your opportunity to showcase all the great things about you — not just the impressive-sounding things you’ve done, but the things that matter to you. Yes, I won’t lie — it feels pretty awesome writing “Started a company” on my application. But underneath that label lies the real value of Leangap: it helps you realize what is most meaningful to you. For me, those things are friendship, mentorship, and problem-solving, and those are the things I will write about in my college applications, not the AP class I didn’t really care about or the extracurricular I dreaded going to everyday. Leangap will make your summer, not the school year, the time during which you learn the most, because knowledge and fulfillment are acquired through explanation and experience, not definition. Leangap is the solution guide to college apps that you’ve been waiting for.