I wrote this letter for the president of the university. I believe in this institution and the feedback culture it has. Ps - this was written in my lowercase phase.
i’m zayn; a returning freshman at babson.
we’re living in one of the most exciting times in human history. technological capability is increasing (ex: last week two more companies joined space x in committing to get to mars), smartphones are penetrating the developing world (ex: by 2025 rural families in india will have more internet access than urban areas related: elon musk is bringing internet to schools in brazil. that’s internet for 570,000 students), venture capital funding for entrepreneurs had a 47.55% YOY (year over year) is increasing, yet a fundamental issue still exists.
the human capital to solve these problems doesn’t exist. we don’t have enough smart, driven, curious, ambitious, serious people to solve hard problems like climate change, affordable housing, unequal access to healthcare. i’m excited by organizations like the knowledge society (i trained here for two years) who have developed an effective model to train students to solve big problems but we don’t have enough organizations with global reach working in this space.
the biggest resource we can develop is human potential. and, as the title of this memo states, i don’t think babson’s doing enough to develop it. i don’t think most institutions, elementary - university are.
in this memo, i have two big ideas for how babson becomes the best college in the world.
an implementation plan for the short, medium, and long term is included at the end of this memo. happy to help make this happen and create a culture of high standards at babson. ps - i enjoyed my first semester at babson but, brace yourself for the rest of the memo. i’m candid.
on february 23, fme’s expo day, i walked into babson’s recreational gym to scout the businesses students created. i’d seen flyers for companies focusing on destigmatizing mental health by raising awareness and selling sweatshirts with a logo and brain on it or seen students marketing their climate positive t-shirt whose donations were going to a non-profit organization not working on the root causes of the problem. as i made my way from the entrance around the gym, i saw a similar trend of students working on apparel or gadget businesses. no focus on hard problems. no code written or any technical solutions to problems. the event was low standards and what students had created, mediocre.
the same week of fme’s expo i had a webex call with cheryl kiser and dwight gertz, staff @babson’s graduate school. the call was scheduled for 15 minutes, a quick debrief confirming the money the institute of innovation was going to give me to fund the pilot of a mobile platform to help students in Africa learn how to read and write. i shared my screen and walked through my pre-mortem memo in an answer to dwight’s question about the seemingly omnipresent cultural and technological barriers involved in solutions to problems in developing countries. after i had finished answering the question and giving them a peek at the technical architecture for how this solution was going to work cheryl chimed in with her animated voice and expressed her excitement in seeing the project implemented. she mentioned that babson should have more people focused on these problems. it was at this moment when i asked her and dwight about the fme expo earlier that week.
“did you see any of the companies pitching on wednesday? i was surprised that most, if not all projects didn’t solve a real problem and probably didn’t need to exist.” dwight and cheryl shared my sentiment, to my surprise. the rest of the conversation centered around babson alumni who said the class was ‘a waste of their time’ or noted that they ‘barely got any value out of it.’
really? students sitting in a class for 8 months building a business and they don’t think the class has value. alumni data was interesting but they’d been disconnected for 1-2 years, the program could’ve evolved, new directors might’ve been added; there was some bias. so, i asked freshman in fme.
out of the 30 freshman i asked, i was surprised most by how many people thought the class was a joke or a nice place to hang around with friends. one group said we got into the class and sat there eating chips and playing games on our computer, we’d already sold 40 units of our product, now we’re waiting for it to ship. we didn’t even need to attend class but it’s fun, i guess.
fme’s standards are low. ‘freshman come in with little to no business experience and our goal is to teach them the steps to create a business.’ i’d heard some fme mentors cite this as a reason why the class was structured this way. but i disagree. the lack of experience isn’t an excuse for low standards. as an example, babson’s summer study students prototype more intersting ideas in a shorter timespan than the fme students.
additionally, i think the problems students are focusing on are wrong. the world doesn’t need a shirt to destigmatize mental health. that doesn’t help solve the root cause. nor does the world need another social media app that’s poorly prototyped for students to connect with others. what the world needs are smart, technical builders.
how do you do this?
the first step is redesigning the metric for success. the goal at the end of fme is completion. a student has a project that they can share in a cute, 8th grade science fair like booth and glean about the package that arrived with their product. completion constrains the ambition of students because they start asking questions about whether or not an idea can be ready in time. students should push for a deadline but mid-march or early april adds a month and a half to the prototyping cycle for students.
the second step is bringing in high standards mentors and directors for the fme program. i mean the best people in the world. students are limited by the standards of their mentors. people who bring high standards and the experience of building multi-million dollar companies that have an impact on the world raise the bar for the students and that bar pushes them to grow, making the experience valuable.
the third step is building a curriculum that focuses on exposure first, building second. fme is currently structured to be local, meaning students think about problems they face or the people around them face. but that’s a limited scope. one of the low hanging fruit for exposing people to problems is showing documentaries like this one about poverty or this one about *quality* airline companies outsourcing their work for a higher return on capital, sacrificing passenger safety. you can also bring in people like abhijit banerjee from mit’s poverty action lab or ramses alcaide who are from boston to talk about problems that are worth solving. the ecosystem of smart people in boston is highly underutilized at babson.
another step that can be perceived as small but shifts the thinking in students is changing the wording from business ideas to global problems (technical or non-technical). business ideas make students picture images of retail storefronts, e-commerce/dropshipping websites, or getting money through a transaction whereas global problems get students to think about mobile banking for unbanked citizens in Nigeria or education access for students in suriname who don’t have physical secondary schools to attend.
after students are exposed to problems, train them on frameworks to solve problems. babson has one of the best consulting programs in the country and teaches tools like mece, gap analysis, root cause analysis; bring these tools to students and help them accurately diagnose problems. then, train them to get real world validation by talking to smart people who are working in these areas or on similar problems. ex: a student working on education in India could meet with teaching fellow from Teach for India. hint, this is what i did when I was building Beru earlier this year.
then, give students access to resources like codecademy or mit ocw where they can learn to code and tools like figma where they can prototype an app. they key stays the same. students need high standards feedback to help them grow. is what they’ve coded function, is the code clean, can other developers read it? do the mockups follow design principles, is it simple for users in x market to use? as students go from exposure to problem solving frameworks to validation to building and piloting, they’ll get to test their hypothesis about what works and what doesn’t. for example, their user interface might not be understandable by students in India. they’ll need to rebuild the app again. that’s ok. it’s actually great. what’s also great is that the metric for success isn’t completion, failure or success of the pilot, if students build something they’re really proud of and grew through the high standards feedback, it’s a win.
and, as i’ll mention in my second big idea, babson can create opportunities for students to build these ideas outside of fme too.
the rebuilt version of fme maximizes the value out of the time students are dedicating to the class. in one year their skill stack has quadrupled at a minimum. students have evolved how they think about problems worth solving, the standard of work they produce, and are more lethal because they’re technical.
ps - how students are spending their time is more important than the quantity of time they’re putting into an activity. one proxy to see if students are spending their time in compounding areas is by comparing their ideas to the best in the world’s ideas. khosla ventures is one of the best venture capital firms in the world. let’s see if babson can produce at least one founder team that can receive funding from khosla. but, that matters less than my intention in showing this to you. students should be spending their time building in the areas khosla is investing in. that’s where the future is and it’s early; babson students could build the future.
this point is about the culture at babson, on the student side and the professor side.
students are overfocused on what grade they’re going to get or the $$ they’ll receive after they graduate instead of impact. in my accounting class, the most common question was ‘what formulas do we need to memorize for the exam.’ student after student would ask the question. after tests, they’d walk up to the professor and ask if he/she could check it so they could have peace of mind that they got 1 out of 30 questions correct, assuming they felt confident on the rest.
in my electronics class, students remarked ‘why the fuck do i need to learn coding. i came to babson to do business.’ not only is this thinking naïve and mono-disciplinary it’s antithetical to where the world is moving. you can’t live in the future without understanding or writing code. the fact that students don’t grasp that is a signal pointing to a larger cultural problem on campus.
i think one of the solutions is to change the admissions process to filter for passionate builders.
build a new admissions staff that has industry and startup experience (ex: yc former partners, techstars partners, etc.)
because if you want to build a formidable incubator that helps entrepreneurs (this will make sense as you read below), the right people need to be involved so they can select who fits this category. the current admissions staff was trained to identify students, based on their gpa, sat, and essays, would be a good fit for the school. it’s not about fit for the school anymore, it’s about who wants to make an impact, whose shown that they have built product at a high standard, and how are they going to intentionally use the resources babson has to make it happen. this should be a highly diverse staff cohort.
ask different questions in the application. instead of asking students why babson ask students to pitch a project they have built and see the traction and curiosity they used while building it. the new criteria for bringing students in is:
this early criteria is a preliminary list of values to screen for vs. the existing values which seem more generalized. We do the right thing, practice social and ethical responsibility don’t help babson become the best in the world. the type of people you bring in should have a want to win too. multiple michael jordan types; people who care about high standards and make the people around them better.
on the professor and future of babson side, i think babson should convert from a specialized entrepreneurship school to a 4 year incubator for future founders. instead of coming to college to learn about a field like finance and graduating with a degree which grants you access to work on wall street, babson graduates take the updated fme course in their first year and spend the following three years building more projects, increasing their exposure to world problems, networking with the smartest people in the world, build their technical skillset, and in their fourth year, as a capstone they build a company that focuses on solving a hard problem.
babson gives $500,000 ($130,000 less than the tuition students pay you for four years) to entrepreneurs in exchange for 25% equity as a seed investor) now, you as the college have an economic incentive to ensure the success of your students vs. the prior way where students would give you $$$ and regardless of the outcome you got paid. the students you produce are multidisciplinary, driven builders who have been trained, not taught, on the methods to solve big problems & they’re leaving with a company that focuses in this area.
to be clear, i’m proposing babson transforms into a 4 year incubator for future founders to help them launch socially impactful companies that can provide high capital returns to you, the lead investor, and level the playing field or produce a world-positive result. and, i’m proposing a new economic model where you pay students to work on a company and if the company exits successfully, you get a return. if not, students pay you $77,298 maximum, which is the total cost for one year of attendance.
babson has the #1 ranking for entrepreneurship for 25 years in a row from us news & world report. it ranks as the top business school by us news & world report. alumni make an average of $72,000 a year after they leave school.
all of the rankings say babson is doing exceptional, why shift this model?
because sticking with the status quo for the purpose of rankings versus improving the model to recruit the smartest students in the world is a hedonic move that prioritizes near trivial rankings while giving up the opportunity to build a hub for founders.
babson has leverage as one of the most diverse universities in the world. babson has a culture of startups; this is how the future of the world is going to be built. babson has partnerships with wellesley and olin college, two of the best schools in the world.
when you combine the above factors with the fact that most incubators or accelerators (yc) are 3 months long and babson is 4 years long. the time you have with students gives you more slices or paths to break up the four years into. ex: you could have students concentrate on problem statements instead of majors, while giving them milestones to hit and build skills. using the $701.5m of endowment you can give $100m to 2000 students and they’ll travel to countries they’d like to solve problems in and be on the ground.
babson’s current structure: fme (year 1), concentration declaration (year 3), graduate (end of year 4).
my new, recommended structure: updated fme (year 1), trip to a developing country or community where students are piloting and building their solution. while they’re here, they have specialized mentors which help them learn accounting, economics, modeling skills while building their company (year 1/2). now students aren’t learning skills isolably but in connection with their project. in the middle of year 2, students can decide if they’d like to continue their current project or pick a new problem statement and begin their journey of solving a problem again. in year 4, after 1-2 failures, successes or a hybrid, students pitch to the best venture capitalists in the world (khosla ventures, social capital, a16z, etc) when they fly to babson to attend demo day. in concurrence with babson, these founders raise 500,000 and graduate from the college with transferable technical and business skills with enough breadth and depth they could build any company in the world in any category.
the innovation i’m proposing is transformational. i want to flip a traditional university with a track record of success upside down and create a hacker type environment with passionate builders who want to show the world their impact vs. tell the world about their ambition.
mit, harvard, stanford can’t replicate this strategy. they are too risk averse for a project like this. their school isn’t concentrated and obsessed with entrepreneurship the way babson is. babson is oriented around entrepreneurship; other schools have multiple majors which clutter the one-dimensional focus to building an incubator for the best founders in the world. babson’s innovative, the professors and teachers preach the words entrepreneurial thought and action. this move is what babson’s about; transforming the world with radical ideas that most people wouldn’t dare to try.
in the interim, while this innovation plan develops, here’s what you can do:
i’d love to hear your thoughts on this proposal to turn babson into the best college in the world and work alongside you to make it happen.
babson has the people, culture, diversity, infrastructure, and courage to innovate. most colleges don’t.
the world needs more training for smart people, i think babson can be the first to do it at a university level.