As I sit here and reflect on my journey during the Next 36 program — starting from National Selection weekend in December to Venture Day in August — I realize how transformative this experience has been for me. As an engineering graduate, I found the technical business & economics learnings highly valuable, allowing me to apply my evolving business acumen to my Next 36 venture. However, aside from exposure to these invaluable technical learnings in classes taught by top entrepreneurs and professors, I realized upon reflecting on my personal growth that my Next 36 experience has highlighted the importance of one big thing, namely, the importance of embracing vulnerability in entrepreneurship.
My first introduction to the concept of embracing vulnerability as a strength, rather than as a weakness, was at Reza Satchu’s welcome lecture at National Selection Weekend. “You will get the most out of the program if you are willing to be vulnerable,” he had said. Pondering over that statement now, I realized how powerful that mindset change was in my journey, namely on three big recurring themes this summer: community, alignment and decision-making.
Community & Alignment
Before National Selection Weekend, we were asked to read a Y Combinator article about what a startup needs to succeed: “You need a great idea, a great product, a great team, and great execution.” However, it was quite clear early on in my Next 36 experience that building a strong team plays a huge factor in my ability to execute well on iterated product ideas. This notion was reiterated several times during Selection Weekend, so much so, that Professor Ajay Agrawal warned the cohort that by the end of the program, most companies will fail simply because of team dynamics.
But how do we build a strong team?
The answer, I later realized, revolved heavily around having deeply honest conversations with your co-founding team, even when — especially when — the business is up in flames. The only way to have deeply honest conversations is to ground your team in vulnerability . You need to be open to listen, to challenge yourself and the team’s thoughts and you must be open to honest feedback, always. Opening yourself up for those kinds of conversations takes a lot of mental and emotional capacity, but will likely set your team up to build community rooted in trust. It will also help your team get a deep enough understanding of the true dynamic of your workplace habits, which will allow you to be able to find alignment at every stage of the start up journey.
Professor Satchu’s Economics of Entrepreneurship classes hugely reinforced the idea that trust is an invaluable currency in entrepreneurship. Case study after case study highlighted the importance of a solid business strategy, but most importantly, Professor Satchu highlighted in every case study the importance of being trustworthy as an entrepreneur, to both internal and external facing entities. This trait is a requirement in building your community as an entrepreneur. To rally people behind your idea, people need to be able to trust you and need to be aligned with your team’s vision.
To me, Professor Satchu’s class was a study of the intersection between human dynamics and business strategy, but the most important learning was Professor Satchu’s repeated declaration that, as entrepreneurs, we will always have to make decisions with a limited amount of information.
Decision-making, hence, becomes a skill that entrepreneurs will have to lean on daily. Professor Mara Lederman’s Data-Driven decision-making class was incredibly helpful in teaching us how to build decision-making metrics for our business strategies based on testing for measurable data points that would develop a feedback loop for your decision-making.
Professor Agrawal’s Economics of AI class delved deeper on this topic of decision-making, specifically in the context of how to make decisions to progress your business in the lens of incorporating data-driven decisions and artificial intelligence into your business’ long-term strategy. Reflecting on my experiences in class, building feedback loops within your business then becomes of huge importance: feedback loops for team performance, for technological development and for business strategy.
Furthermore, Prof. Agrawal’s last class was instrumental in helping me personally make decisions about my life moving forward post-program. Cognisant that not all of us would be continuing with our Next 36 ventures, he left us with this golden nugget to reflect upon:
“Some of you won’t be continuing your ventures post-program, and that’s okay. The biggest advantage of building your own start-up, whether it fails or succeeds, is that it develops your decision-making skills, because you are forced to make decisions on the daily, even with very limited information. The more decisions you make, the more refined your decision-making metric becomes!
However, if you decide to go work at an already established company, the advantages would be mentorship. Already established companies usually have the experience and knowledge that you can learn from, which is still incredibly valuable.
However, as much as you possibly can, stay away from experiences that do not help you develop as a person. While you’re still in school, you are developing yourself. However, most people think that post-graduation, they need to start harvesting that development, without continuing to invest in themselves.
It’s easier to make decisions based on quantitative measures, like salary, but it isn’t the only factor; Every decision you make moving forward should optimally have an investment back into yourself.”
This invaluable piece of advice was pivotal in shifting my thinking about making decisions about my future. Needless to say, my Next 36 experience has been pivotal in my development, teaching me more than just business strategy and economics. It helped me realize that the premise of developing yourself as a trustworthy, capable person is: to build community through honest conversations with mostly myself and my peers; to prioritize alignment in building relationships; and to make decisions, even with very little information.
After Next 36, Mariam stayed in Toronto to work at Clearbanc’s Data and Diligence department!