October 24, 2011

Building a ‘Startup City’ with Startup Thinkers

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By all accounts, this is an exciting time to be a Cornellian. Later this week, Cornell and The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology will submit a joint proposal to establish a new applied science and technology campus in New York City. And by doing so, Cornell, the “land grant university to the world,” will have teamed up with the leading technology university in Israel, the “Startup Nation,” to turn Manhattan into the “Startup City” of the East Coast. It’s a great tagline: Cornell and The Technion turning New York City into a tech hub akin to Israel. But it’s going to require far more than simply teaming up with The Technion to replicate Israel’s technological successes, because it isn’t education alone that has turned Israel into an intellectual and high tech powerhouse: It is an entire culture that encourages risk taking, assigns responsibility at a young age and embraces an anti-hierarchical ethos that prompts questioning and innovation nearly unmatched across the globe.

What is needed are “startup thinkers” to build a “start up city.”

In their best selling book, “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer attempt to explain how a nation of roughly 7 million people facing constant threats has managed to produce more startups per capita and venture capital per capita than any other country on earth — and how it has managed to produce more companies on the NASDAQ than all of India, China and Europe combined.

The authors point to a number of factors to explain the phenomena, and the strength of Israeli universities like The Technion is certainly one of them. But given that there are many countries in the world with better universities than Israel’s, the authors are hesitant to attribute too much of the country’s success to its educational system alone. Instead, they focus on factors unique to Israeli society, like the singular role of the military and its many implications.

Israel has a conscription army, which means that nearly every 18-year-old is drafted into the army or some other form of national service. And while in the army, young Israelis are tasked with more responsibility at a young age than many of their peers around the world. As Senor and Singer argue, Israel’s success is attributable in large part to its ability to translate the skills gained during army service into the business world, and its ability to harness that leadership and entrepreneurial experience and put it to good use.

The army forces young Israelis to make decisions based on imperfect information, deal with failure and take risks every day. And unlike many other armies, the Israeli army is one in which the challenging of authority is often viewed positively. Young Israelis are encouraged to question their commanders and constantly seek better solutions to stated problems. Rank is given far less importance than in many armies around the world, and this anti-hierarchical approach carries over into nearly every segment of Israeli society. Israeli chutzpah knows no bounds.

Which brings us to the question that Cornell, its students and Mayor Bloomberg should be asking: How can the NYC Tech Campus — and undergraduate colleges — take much of what has made Israel thrive and apply it in an educational setting?

Admittedly, it is difficult to simply extrapolate and apply certain elements of Israeli society to the university setting. Indeed, it’s impossible to replicate the weight of the threats that Israel faces and how that reality, in some way, prompts young people to succeed. But it is possible to work toward imbuing students with greater responsibility at a young age, encouraging a certain propensity for risk taking and bringing some of the Israeli chutzpah to Ithaca and Manhattan.

In order to achieve some of this “startup” thinking, perhaps we need to work toward smaller class sizes where argumentation and the exchange of ideas come more easily. And maybe we need to think about whether our current undergraduate system in some way encourages educational spoon-feeding: That is, are students simply going through the motions and completing the same types of assignments time and time again, or are we actively engaging with knowledge on our own terms and in ways that challenge preexisting ideas, forcing us to think innovatively and for ourselves?

Maybe it’s time to consider whether we students are taking on too much — whether we’re in too many clubs and majors, causing us to give each one of our courses a superficial effort instead of meaningful and contemplative engagement. Perhaps we feel we have no alternative but to continue our “spoon-fed” education because, quite frankly, we don’t have the time to explore, question ourselves and fail on our own.

And maybe part of the problem is that in the highly pressurized environment that is Cornell, failure is too often viewed in a negative light. With recruiters coming to campus and our GPAs on the line, it’s not easy to take risks, academic or otherwise. Do we feel comfortable confronting professors and challenging their beliefs when we place such high value on the grades that they distribute? Do we feel comfortable taking classes outside our comfort zones? For many, the answer to both questions is a definitive “no.”

To truly create “startup thinkers” and a “startup city,” the Cornell community is going to have to think about how it can empower students — at both the undergraduate and graduate levels — to take hold of their own academic experiences in ways that call for true thinking and meaningful engagement. It is going to have to find a way to prompt students to take increased responsibility for our academic careers and convince students that failing doesn’t necessarily constitute failure. To put it simply, it is going to have find ways to muster a bit more chutzpah — on the Hill and beyond.

Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nrosen@cornellsun.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.  ­­

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen