Doctor, engineer, and businessman. These were the top three career choices for the children of middle-class families in India when I was young. Doctors earned the most respect; engineers were second-best; business was something you got into if you didn’t have the chops to complete a degree.
I chose the engineering route or the closest thing to it that I liked: computer science. My family had moved to the United States, and I started my career working for big companies such as Xerox and Credit Suisse First Boston. I was pretty good at what I did, and my career advanced to a point at which I could become an entrepreneur. A revolutionary technology that I had built with the help of my team at First Boston was so successful that IBM funded the creation of a start-up company to market it. I took the role of executive vice president and chief technology officer.
Yes, I know that by the old Indian standards, in moving from a big company to a tiny little one, my career had seemingly moved backwards. But by the 90s, when I co-founded Seer Technologies, things had changed everywhere, even in India. Entrepreneurship had become a respectable career option.
A lot more has changed since then.
The advice I give to today’s graduates is to decline the job offers from big companies and to instead join promising start-ups. Better still, if they have the ideas and ability, I encourage graduates to start their own companies and to be masters of their own destiny.
I warn the graduates that they will be earning a lot less than if they worked for big companies; will be taking huge risks and will likely fail; and need to be ready for extremely hard work and endless runs of sleepless nights. But they will learn much more than if they completed an MBA, and most importantly, will have a far greater sense of accomplishment; position themselves for long-term success; and gain a much more realistic view of the world. If they start the right company, they may well make the world a better place. And you never know: the start-up could get really lucky and be worth a fortune.
It is also possible to be part of a start-up later in life, as was the case for me. But it gets harder, because you have family obligations and feel hesitant to take the crazy risks. The graduates of today can try their hands at entrepreneurship and join a big company a year or two later if things don’t work out. The really smart employers—the companies that are worthy of working for — will value a failed entrepreneur more than someone who took the easy corporate route.
I didn’t have such options when I graduated in the mid-70s. You needed big money to start a technology company, and there was no easy path back to the corporate world if you failed.
Seer Technologies needed $20 million in venture capital to get off the ground. It was building software tools. To start any company, in those days, you needed to have equipment that cost millions of dollars, including desktop computers, server farms, racks of hard disks, and enterprise software. And you needed to hire many people to maintain these. Today, you have on-demand computing and cloud storage—and they’re practically free in the start-up stage. A laptop, which is many times more powerful than the Cray supercomputers of yesteryear, costs only a few hundred dollars. All you need with this is a fast Internet connection, and maybe some sensors and robotics equipment, and you’re off to the races. Of course, you also need a place to stay in and some food. But family or friends can usually provide a couch and some leftovers.
The big advantage that entrepreneurs today have is that the world has become connected. They can crowdsource funding, crowd-create products, and market globally. They can collaborate with people anywhere in the world.
Entrepreneurs can bootstrap hardware companies such as Nest, which Google acquired for $3.2 billion; or Oculus, which Facebook bought for a cool two billion. The sensors needed in order to build these technologies, which would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the days of my youth, cost practically nothing today. Entrepreneurs on shoestring budgets can build smartphone apps that act as medical assistants to detect disease; body sensors that monitor heart, brain, and body activity; and technologies to measure soil humidity and improve agriculture. They can also design new types of organisms that cure disease; digital tutors that teach almost any subject; artificial-intelligence–based apps that analyze information and improve business processes. In other words, they can do the stuff that only the big companies could do before.
Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are revolutionizing the automotive industry, making private space travel possible, and building revolutionary energy storage technologies. They are doing the work that previously only governments could have done.
So if I was traveling back in time and speaking to my younger self, I would not have had much to offer in the way of career advice. But I do know what to say to the youth of today: use your intellect and energy to make the world a better place; you surely can.