After I returned from the Gulf Coast in the spring of 2006, I was inspired by what I felt was the most important issue in our country at the time— how to rebuild an American City in a more equitable way.
Ok, I wanted to go to New Orleans, help in some way, but how could I find a job opportunity? I searched craiglist, but the only opportunity seemed to be to join Americorps and live in volunteer housing and make $12K for the year (which I did).
There were no fancy recruitment dinners at Umass-Amherst. I didn’t have the opportunity to turn down a six figure job at a management consulting company. I couldn’t tell my friends that I could learn skills from the business world in a fast pace environment, while I slaved away over spreadsheets and power point decks for abstract deals happening.
By the time I was fourteen I was just starting to catch up, but was still a few grade levels behind in English, and especially in Math. The SAT classes I took didn’t move the needle much and my scores were well below my friends. I didn’t have a choice on what school to go. When I told my guidance counselor I was applying to Umass-Amherst, they told me to apply to some safety schools. For most of the other kids at Lexington High School, Umass-Amherst was the safety school.
While I did well at Umass, majoring in history, there was nobody banging through my door in high pressure recruitment sessions. The college degree was a mandatory process, everyone said, a pre-requisite to achieve success post school, but by April 2006, with less than two months to graduate, it didn’t seem like I was going to get any job that required a college degree. And I did not. I spent a year mostly gutting houses, and remediating mold- a job the army should have done in a few months, but they were fighting two wars overseas.
For someone coming from Lexington High School- where more than 90% of the class goes to a four year college, I hadn’t met any of the qualifications that allows an 18 year old to get on the pathway to a successful career with a lot of upward mobility. Everything we were supposed to do- study hard, get good grades, get into a top 50 school, and then work in consulting, and then apply to business/law school and then get a great job, was not an option for me. I did not have a choice.
But because of these lack of choices, I had to build my own career on my own terms. And now at 30, when I pick up a book by Andrew Yang— Smart People Should Build Things, I feel like by default, I made the right choice- That maybe those who don’t excel at high school, and don’t get into the top school, have some advantages.
To make his argument, Andrew Yang discusses his own trajectory. It started with a successful high school career that led to being accepted to Brown University, and then he went to law school, and then to a traditional NYC firm. He obviously had to work very hard, but as he discusses, he didn’t have to think much about his choices.
While the traditional path works well for many, others are miserable, and don’t know any alternative. Yang writes: “many apply to law school, grad school or even medical school because of a vague notion of status and progress rather than genuine desire or natural fit.” If they decide to venture from the traditional path, and fail, instead of trying again, they go back to the default. While there is a surplus of the professional class, there’s a huge gap in other sectors that are not being met.
But as many successful entrepreneurs know, there are many roadblocks, failures, and learning opportunities that hopefully lead to new problems to solve that find better market fit. Yang writes-
Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIN, and others have pointed out, remarkable careers are unlikely to advance in a straightforward, linear fashion.”
There’s an unwinding road, but those many different experiences lead to a different path.
What makes someone take a winding path? There’s usually something that makes them different. They don’t fit into the normal construct of what society deems successful, and when they are cast aside, they have to figure something else out. It’s not a choice, but a survival technique.
As Yang points out, the professional class provides an incredibly safe opportunity for the upper middle class to stay up middle class. “What’s interesting is that many of the people I meet who are young, highly educated, and from good families are among the most risk averse.” These are the people that should be taking the most risk, and leaving opportunities for those who grew up in poverty to fit into those positions. Yang argues that the children of the professional classes should be taking business risks, which will free up more space for a segment of the population to see upward mobility.
Our higher education system is supposed to support, for example, a student from a lower income class, and help them get into the middle or wealth class. But only 10% of people born into poverty, get into a higher income class than their parents. If a student who grew up poor, and wants to take a management consulting job after graduating from Harvard, there should be no argument against that. The problem is when the people who need to be taking the risk, to grow the economy, refuse to risk a few years of low salaries, to ‘build’ a business that will create a lot more jobs.
Marina Keegan, at 22, in 2012, and a senior at Yale noticed this same trend. She asked, why was 25% of employed Yale graduates entering the consulting and finance industries?
In her essay that spread around the internet two springs ago, and has now seen a revival, as it was published in a book of her writings (she was killed in a car accident a few weeks after she graduated in 2012,) she wonders why students who join as a freshmen with a passion, end up going into industries they don’t really understand. They didn’t grow up saying they wanted to be a consultant.
So what happens? The hedge funds and management consultants come into school early and often, and offer a lost 21 year old an easy route post-graduation. They say, this a great thing to do for a few years. And for the millennial generation afraid of any commitment, we justify it, and say, we are only going to do this for a few years. One student says in original Keegan article that was published in Yale Daily News:
“Of course I don’t want to be a consultant— it’s just scary to watch as many of your friends have already secured six-figure salaries and are going to be living luxury next year.”
But that’s the trap. Those big paychecks start buying expensive things, and then the kids come. If it’s tough to make a leap of faith at 22 , it’s even harder with children and a mortgage.
Andrew Yang saw this problem and created an outlet for motivated, idealistic young students (at prestigious colleges) to find a way to learn from entrepreneurs while moving out of the innovation capitals. In Venture for America, students are recruited to move to Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, Baltimore, etc to join a growth company. Instead of consulting, they are on the ground floor of an emerging company, in a city where they have more leadership opportunities.
At 22, Venture for America would have been a great option, that would have probably been out of my reach. It’s another door that was probably closed for me since I didn’t excel at 16 and 17. To help Ivy league graduates seek an alternative path is important, but what about the hundreds of thousands of other college students who are graduating from state schools or private schools out of the top 50, and don’t have the networks to find meaningful work? In the same way that the children of the professional classes need to seek other work, there need to be more programs to help a majority of our college graduates find opportunities to build things.