Replacing My Kid’s College Fund with a “Start Something” Fund

If you like this article, check out another by Robbie: The Future Proof Job

Landis Allen, future entrepreneur?

Recently, I wrote about how the future job prospects for my two-year-old son may not be the rosiest. Also, I don’t have the best opinion about the future of our higher education system even though I decided to go back to get my third post-undergraduate degree. That’s led me to rethink how to position the future, post-high school world to my kids.

Entrepre-what?

The first time I heard the word entrepreneur was after I left college. My father worked in manufacturing at AT&T (and Lucent) for thirty years. My mom worked at a hosiery plant. Needless to say, we didn’t have a very entrepreneurial family. I was the first person in my family to go to a four-year college. In my family, you graduated high school (or not — my father made it to 10th grade), get a job at the local plant down, and wait for retirement.

Even though I went to college, I left without my degree when Cisco made me a full-time offer in 1997. They moved me to Silicon Valley right as the dot-com boom was getting in gear. My manager promised he’d give me time to finish my degree. It took me ten years, but I finally completed my BS in computer science. Turns out, when you are working 70+ hour weeks, it doesn’t leave much time for going to class.

Fortunately, being in Silicon Valley during the greatest startup boom of my lifetime exposed me to a new career option.

First, I started advising startups. I wrote a few books and was invited to speak at conferences where I met interesting entrepreneurs. But it wasn’t until my late 20’s that I realized being an entrepreneur was an option for me. Only rich people start companies, right? Or crazy people that liked crazy amounts of risk, right?

A police officer, a fireman, and an entrepreneur walk into a classroom

No, that shouldn’t be an opening line of a joke, but it kind of is.

My first child, a daughter, was born the same month that I started my first company (2007). It was like having two startups at the same time. By the time she was school age, I was in the thick of running a venture-backed company. When she started going to school and I got to see the standard elementary curriculum first hand, it became obvious why I never learned about starting companies prior to college.

Most public schools don’t even pay lip service to the entrepreneurial career path. They’ll bring in police officers, fire/rescue personnel, and doctors, but never the local business owners. Maybe the more progressive schools will bring in a middle manager from a high tech company, but not a founder of a small company. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to show off a variety of professions, but why is startup founder not on the list?

Not only did my parents not expose me to the possibility of starting a company, the education system didn’t either.

I hear some high schools offer entrepreneurial programs either through clubs or classes. That’s great. I suppose I’ll learn more about that as my kids get older. However, it still feels underrepresented. It might be because being an entrepreneur in our society is still a niche career path due to the public perception of how risky it is (yep, I wrote about that too).

As an entrepreneur, I like optionality, so I’m giving it to my kids too

My experience as an entrepreneur has led me to become a huge advocate for that career path. I find it strange that as a society we love to be cynical about starting a company and talk about how hard it is. I also find it strange that the general sentiment is you are so much more secure working at a large company. I imagine the big companies have had a hand in crafting that perception because it is flat out wrong.

Ultimately, I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion that all kids should go straight from high school to college. It makes sense for many people, maybe even the majority, but it should in no way be seen as the only option.

I believe other options exist. While it isn’t for everyone, many more people could be successful entrepreneurs if they just had the courage (maybe some feel they need the permission) to start a company. No, it’s not “easy” but if you are optimizing for “easy” in your career, you’ll have limited success anyway. If you believe in yourself and have an idea you are passionate about, you have the basic ingredients to be an entrepreneur — I don’t care what kind of educational background you have.

Since I feel so strongly about this, it didn’t make sense to limit my kids’ options to paying for their college when they graduate high school. Several years ago I decided to scrap the idea of a college fund and turn it into something else.

It goes like this:

If after high school my kids are eager to enter a college and start a path of learning and/or self-discovery, I’ll cover four years of tuition. However, if they have an idea for a company that they are passionate about and want to start working on that, I’ll be the first investor in their “seed round.” College will always be there (until it goes away entirely, ha) so he/she can always do that if the company doesn’t work out. I’m calling it their Start Something Fund. Either start a company or start college. If they want to start something else entirely, I’ll listen to that too.

I’m not an American Idol parent

You may wonder if I’m trying to push my kids to be an entrepreneur just because I’m one. It’s not that at all. I’ve been very open to both of my kids that the ONLY thing that I will push on them is being a UNC Tar Heel fan. 🙂

I will not force a choice of sport, career, etc. I’ve never understood those parents you see on American Idol that push their kid to perform when the child has no demonstrable singing ability. Clearly, the parents are just forcing it on their kids.

What I’m doing is providing options. The future of the workforce is very uncertain as I’ve written about and I think the up-and-coming generation will need to be flexible and opportunistic about their career. I’d love it if my kids want to go down the entrepreneurial path, but if not, I’ll be there for them until they figure out they are ready to start a company 🤑


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