NYC’s Top Talent is Being Squandered
Bubble or not, the NYC tech industry is blowing up. It seems every day there is a new NYC tech startup being talked about. Foursquare, Hunch, Gilt Group, Boxee, Square – they are reshaping and creating entire industries. The energy and excitement is incredible. If you have any finger on the pulse of NYC tech, it’s impossible to avoid the impression that there is a major sea change going on. Naturally, there is also a growing awareness among college students of tech startups in NYC. Yet despite all of the attention, the mindshare of top college students is still overwhelmingly owned by the giants of Wall Street and corporate consulting. Let’s examine why.
I believe the biggest obstacle in NYC tech’s battle for students’ hearts and minds is a combination of the prestige factor and the common uncertainty among students of what to do with their lives. For many people, but especially for students at top schools, respect and admiration from peers rank very highly. This isn’t surprising at all – most of these kids have spent their lives performing better than their classmates and being praised for it. When you’re constantly receiving approval for being at the top, that sort of attention takes a lot of priority in your career aspirations. Prestige becomes a prime motivator. This effect is amplified when students find themselves unsure of what careers they should pursue. In the absence of a calling, so to speak, chasing prestige is an easy default.
In New York, money is the most direct proxy for prestige and one of the surest paths to riches is working on Wall Street or in consulting. The convenient thing about both is that you don’t need to be a business major or an Excel jockey to get a job in those fields. Often times, sufficient academic pedigree and sharp interview skills are all you need. For directionless students, the allure is undeniable. As a result, droves of fresh graduates from top schools move into their shoebox Manhattan apartments every summer with starry-eyes and the expectation of making it big in the concrete jungle. There is a certain sense of pride in many of their voices when they say, “I work for Goldman Sachs/McKinsey.” At schools like Penn, one is often left with the impression that obtaining a job in finance/consulting is the ultimate goal. The indoctrination and herd mentality there is overwhelming and sadly, I too fell prey to it for quite some time.
But with jobs that are commonly described as soul-crushing, what are the costs involved? I’ve spoken to managing directors and partners that are at the top of their totem polls, but still wonder what their true callings are. Sure, they are well respected and have built materially comfortable lives, but there is a palpable sense of emptiness in their careers. I don’t think this is a rare occurrence. It’s not hard to imagine that many graduates are on that path today. We have a population that is high on material wealth but low on fulfillment. I’m convinced that this is not what these people really envisioned their lives to be.
It doesn’t have to be this way. During my time at Penn, I met tons of people with boundless talent and creativity. These are people with the raw ability to change the world in huge ways. Yet when they see their peers interviewing with Goldman Sachs and notice the sea of navy blue suits shuffling across campus every year, it’s hard to resist the herd mentality. Worse yet, they are simply not aware that they have far more options in their careers! As a result, there is a huge funnel for value extractors but what we really need are builders. As Charlie O’Donnell points out, the startup world has to increase visibility and awareness, especially in the face of the NYC corporate recruiting machine.
My message to college students and those currently on Wall St/Big Name Consulting: take some time and seriously consider your options. A career in finance/consulting is highly lucrative and will open many doors for you, but be honest with yourself and ponder if it will lead to an ultimately fulfilling life. How you define “fulfilling” is up to you, but if it overlaps at all with using your talent to build something valuable, on your own terms, then consider founding or joining a startup. You have so much potential to do something great; Goldman Sachs can live without you.
Note: I’m friends with many people in finance and consulting and spent some time in the latter as well. Yes, I make sweeping generalizations here. Yes, there are plenty of people that genuinely enjoy these fields. And yes, there is some value generated by them, though arguably more in consulting than finance. But all else being equal, I believe startups provide greater net-net benefits for both the founders/employees as well as society.