Inside Startup U.



Thomas Byers helped start the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, which fills 3,000 seats a year. The professor has helped create two companies himself. One succeeded, the other didn’t, and he tells students about both of them. The co-founder of Slack. A senior executive at Twitter. The head of Google X.

It’s the first day of class, and Thomas Byers is rattling off the names of local luminaries who have studied here at Stanford, been guest lecturers, or done both. “Oh, Reid Hoffman,” he adds, as he flips through Vanity Fair’s “New Establishment List.” LinkedIn’s co-founder, he tells the 50 undergraduates squeezed into his course on technology entrepreneurship, is teaching a class this quarter.

Silicon Valley not only surrounds the campus but has become entwined with it. This is just one way in which Stanford University has set itself apart from its peers. Startup U., as it’s often dubbed, welcomes tech giants and venture capitalists to teach and mentor students. Graduate and undergraduate students can choose from dozens of classes, clubs, and contests that focus on innovation, from the technical to the conceptual. Professors move in and out of industry. Thanks to a leave policy that allows professors to take two years away from campus, a quarter of them have started their own firms; others come and go from visiting-researcher posts at places including Google, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Entrepreneurship — the teaching of risk-taking, the emphasis on problem-solving, the creation of on-campus incubators and so-called maker spaces — is in vogue in higher education. Hundreds of colleges have embraced education programs with the goal of cultivating a generation of innovators. But no one does it like Stanford. Here, usefulness is a point of pride. That, combined with a fast metabolism, wide and deep ties to industry, and an ambitious student body, sets Stanford apart.

How does that change the student experience? The role of a professor? And does Stanford provide a model for the rest of higher education, particularly as, more and more often, colleges are being asked to prove their worth?

Computer science is the top major here. Courses in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program — the engineering school’s entrepreneurship arm, which Mr. Byers helped create two decades ago — fill 3,000 seats a year on a campus with 16,000 students.

About 39,900 active companies, including 5,500 started by students or recent graduates, have Stanford roots, according to a 2012 study by Charles E. Eesley, an assistant professor in the department of management science and engineering, and William F. Miller, a former provost and a professor of computer science emeritus. They also found that one in four tenure-track faculty respondents had founded or incorporated a firm at some point in their careers. Collectively, companies with Stanford connections have created the equivalent of the world’s 10th-largest economy, with $2.7 trillion in revenue. Google, Netflix, Instagram, Yahoo, Tesla, and LinkedIn are all Stanford-connected enterprises born in the past two decades.

For all of its benefits, Stanford seems conflicted about its Startup U. reputation. While proud of its role in fueling Silicon Valley, professors and administrators prefer to talk about success in another way. What they want the lesson from Stanford to be, they say, is that liberal arts and technical education don’t have to work against each other. More than a start-up culture, they say, the university immerses faculty and students in interdisciplinary work and learning through problem-solving. The study by Mr. Eesley and Mr. Miller, in fact, highlights Stanford’s “robust liberal-arts environment” and collaboration across schools and disciplines as keys to its success.

“It’s really quite frustrating that people conflate entrepreneurship with starting companies and making money,” says Tina Seelig, a faculty director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. “The way it’s taught at Stanford, at least, is not like that.”

Stanford has never been an institution that walled itself off from the rest of the world. A commitment to “usefulness” was part of its foundation, and the university’s role in helping educate and support the creators of Hewlett-Packard and other Silicon Valley success stories is well known. Stanford’s president, John L. Hennessy, an electrical-engineering professor-turned-entrepreneur who is worth millions, nurtured and amplified those connections, which have benefited the university’s bottom line and heightened the belief that tech innovation is both fueling and being fueled by Stanford.

“No university that I’ve seen is nearly as entrepreneurial and nearly as woven into the fabric of the business community as Stanford is,” says Bill Coleman, a partner at Alsop Louie Partners, a venture-capital firm. “I know of at least a dozen or two dozen people like me, people who have been in industry, been successful, and teach part time at Stanford.” Like them, Mr. Coleman is active on a number of levels: as instructor, donor, and mentor to students.

Beth McMurtrie writes about campus culture, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie, or email her at