Opinion

The Best Time to Work on a Startup is While You're In School | Opinion

I spent my high school years carefully polishing my grades and extracurricular activities so I could prepare an impressive resume package to send to colleges. When the college application period ended, however, I realized that very few of my high school “achievements” stuck with me past graduation. My high school GPA and my long list of officer positions became irrelevant to me and the job market. I loved learning, but I hated that modern schooling was so shaped by test scores and resume building. When I arrived at the University of Michigan for college, I wanted to avoid focusing on grades, and, instead, make a lasting impact on the world.

As a pre-medical student, however, my obsession with my GPA and extracurricular activities only escalated. It was frustrating that I chose to sacrifice valuable learning opportunities to take “easy classes” that helped me maintain a high GPA. Conventional wisdom encourages risk-averse behaviors. No matter how many educators or recruiters downplay the importance of the GPA, the numbers are used to screen candidates for medical schools, graduate schools, scholarships, and jobs. It did not take long before I was reminded of my self-defeating obsession with test scores in high school, and I was ready to shut out the noise of the crowd to pursue my interests.

My desire to work on an impactful project drove me to pursue entrepreneurship. At school, I immediately noticed how difficult it was for students to get academic research opportunities. For many students, conducting research with academic faculty is a defining experience of their undergraduate years, and it is a requirement for those applying to graduate schools. Because most research positions are found through a haphazard process of searching for information on the internet and emailing professors, students face low success rates applying to research groups outside of their personal network and are often unaware of the entire scope of university research in their discipline. Conversely, this process also impedes academic employers trying to recruit the best talent to their labs.

I was frustrated with the academic recruitment process. I personally emailed over 50 research labs before landing my first research position. I was grateful for the research opportunity given to me, but I wanted to help others get the same experience. I found like-minded peers, Nolan Kataoka, Benjamin Bear, Akshay Rao, and Han Wang, to create Perch, which started as a student organization at the University of Michigan. After holding more than one hundred customer discovery interviews across 10 university campuses, we confirmed that the need for our service was universal. I realized that through Perch I could do the impactful work I was searching for. Working on an independent project would also be a liberation from the educational expectations placed upon me in school. After countless hours of hacking at our computers, pitching at university startup competitions, and writing up business plans, we have reached where we are today.

Perch is an online employment solution for academics looking for research opportunities and research labs looking to hire the best talent. With Perch, students who are passionate about research but struggle to overcome entry barriers to labs due to social, financial, or other factors will have more direct access to the world-class research opportunities offered at the University of Michigan. Recruiters will also be able to hire the best-suited candidates for their labs. In a sense, we “de-awkwardize” the academic recruitment process. To date, we have received over $60,000 in grants and have initiated partnerships with 16 universities nationwide.

Perch was created by dissatisfied college students who sought impactful learning opportunities outside of school. Concerns with higher education are not unique to us. Several famous millionaire college dropouts and education gurus have criticized the modern higher education landscape. Even more stunning is the outcome to an online poll posing the question “Does school teach useless things?” The question is no doubt biased (only someone who doubts the value of school would ask if school is “useless”), but it is still astonishing that 95% of responders said “Yes.”  Sitting in an engineering lecture hall, scribbling down fluid dynamics equations that cover entire sheets of paper, I often wonder whether calculating the exact amount of heat required to melt an ice cube contained in a Styrofoam cup will ever be of use to me.

Over the years, I have come to understand how well entrepreneurship and higher education can work together to aid a student’s learning and career progression. Working on a startup is like drinking from a firehose – my team was forced to learn everything at a breakneck pace, from UX design to learning legalese. At the university, seemingly impractical classes have taught me the intangible. I may never end up calculating the heat requirements for melting ice cubes, but the mathematical rigor of my Chemical Engineering classes has helped me make logical business decisions. Most importantly, the human connections I made in college are priceless. The fundamentals of higher education are critical for entrepreneurs to succeed, and the entrepreneurship experience complements university curricula. Recognizing this, the University of Michigan has committed to supporting student entrepreneurs, including me, with amazing financial and non-financial resources.

In fact, for those in fortunate enough circumstances to allow it, I think the best time to work on a startup is during school. My three years at the University of Michigan have been one of the most resource-rich times of my life. I encourage every student with sufficient resources to start a venture, not only to make the most of their collegiate career, but also to share their resources with those who need them most. The value of a startup depends not on the number of dollars it amasses but on the number of people it positively influences. And whether our ventures succeed or fail, we are students, and we learn how better to help people and make an impact.

I am not alone in this thinking. I am the product of a cultural shift we have experienced as a society over the past few decades. Prior to the 21st century, fresh college graduates started their careers off as junior staff members in companies, and it was not until they were in their forties and fifties that they were able to hold top executive positions. The repeated founding of immensely successful tech companies by college dropouts, including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison, over the past several decades was resounding proof to most students that it was possible for 20-year-olds to skip straight to the top of an incredibly influential company without taking the traditional route of gradually climbing up a corporate ladder.

I think my generation has taken it further. The rise of student startups has marked a shift in cultural expectations of what is meant by work. We value social impact over money. We want our 40-plus hours every week to be directed at more than just work. Running a startup offers us the opportunity to promote self-driven change. We understand that change doesn’t “just happen.” Change takes time, and the ball won’t start rolling until someone gives it a little push. 

Akira Nishii is a senior at the University of Michigan and Founder of Perch Connections, Inc.

Perch_team_photo Han Wang, Benjamin Bear, Nolan Kataoka, Akshay Rao, Akira Nishii, of Perch. Akira Nishii

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