John Harvard's Journal
When Alex M. Rampell '03 started investigating college options, the young inventor's computer program--which sells for $15 and combats nuisances in America Online software--had already grossed more than $35,000 and garnered a write-up in Forbes. Being able to continue his programming business on campus was an important factor in his college decision-making. But at the time, Harvard wouldn't oblige. An admissions officer told Rampell that he'd have to leave his business behind--or look elsewhere. "He said flat out that you are not allowed to run a business out of your dorm room at Harvard--no ifs, ands, or buts," Rampell says. He chose Harvard anyway, and--using a virtual office to dodge official College regulations--has continued to develop Rampell Software into a six-figure enterprise that helps pay for his tuition and expenses.
Now, in an apparent turnaround, Harvard has revealed plans for two programmatic steps that actually support Rampell and other e-commerce-savvy students--and potential students--like him. Reversal of the College's long-standing ban on dorm-room businesses, together with plans for a new technology entrepreneurship program, indicate a major shift in Harvard's attitude toward the role of business in a liberal-arts education.
Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 took the first step on February 4 when he proposed rewording Harvard rules to ease the absolute prohibition on students running businesses from their dorm rooms. Undergraduates have always been allowed to start their own businesses off-campus, but many student entrepreneurs have complained that restrictions on dorm use made such ventures very difficult. Lewis's new proposal allows undergraduates to conduct "modest levels of business activities" in their dorms, but only on a limited basis. It requires them to register their ventures with the dean's office, which retains the right to regulate students' use of resources and ask them to move businesses entirely off-campus should they grow large enough to "compromise the educational environment."
Many of the regulations delineated in the current Handbook for Students were designed with traditional commerce in mind. The change--which has been approved by the College's Administrative Board and could be voted on by the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences in April or May--was spurred by the growth of the Internet. Last fall, for example, Johann M. Schleier-Smith '01 introduced flying-chickens.com, an on-line textbook-purchasing website that he cofounded to compete with the Harvard Coop. Working to avoid all conflict with University resources proved a bit awkward at first, he explains. "We used cell phones, got a post office box right away, and hosted our web service remotely on a commercial provider. But those are steps that any serious business would want to take." His office was completely virtual, linking his website's users to the lowest-priced books at other on-line merchants, never necessitating an inventory or large staff.
Now at work as many as 100 hours each week on his company's newest multicampus incarnation, limespot.com, Schleier-Smith says that the new rules are more appropriate: "They recognize that it is reasonable for somebody to be involved in business activities and that there are acceptable low-level uses of resources, like for surfing the Web."
Even under the old policies, students and administrators alike admit, the campus has long been filled with rule-breaking student entrepreneurs who in time may turn into University supporters, notably including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates '77. The change, Lewis says, reflects the reality that on-line ventures enable students to conduct a great deal of activity from their own computers, which can be less disruptive than brick-and-mortar businesses. And Lewis emphasizes that the policy shift is only "permissive," not designed to actively encourage students to run businesses.
Then, only three weeks later, the dean of engineering and applied sciences, Venkatesh Narayanamurti, announced that he was developing a program to teach undergraduates about high-tech entrepreneurship and help them start their own businesses while they are still in school. The incipient program--tentatively named the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH)--will likely bring speakers to the University and help teach students about venture-capital funding and other elements involved in business start-ups. Administrators say the project, to be run by the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS), is modeled on the Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics.
The idea for the center was first proposed by David Alpert '00, who brought the idea to Narayanamurti. "There is a need for an epicenter for technology, so that computer science (CS) concentrators can come together with students not in CS, and with people in the computer and technology industries, to interact and share ideas," Alpert says. "We want to give all students the opportunity to learn about technology as it relates to the real world, and about business and law, as well as academic computer science."
Narayanamurti says that Alpert's ideas expanded on the sorts of programs he had already been developing as dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "Harvard was ahead at liberal arts, but in the twenty-first century we really have to teach and educate the flexible and holistic engineer," Narayanamurti says. "One part of the program is entrepreneurship, and another part is teamwork. In the real world you have to deal with an accountant and an economist, so we need to weave that in as part of the educational process." In particular, he hopes the program will attract current and future students like Rampell--a programmer since age 11--and Schleier-Smith, who now leads a business staff that spans multiple college campuses.
"Right now you hear many stories about successes," Narayanamurti says. "But we need to learn from other people's successes and failures. I could just go into my room alone and produce a Micro-soft--but that's very rare. What about intellectual property, corporations, accounting, and a business plan? With this program, they will in fact have access to a much broader perspective."
Sean D. Carmody '01 learned some of those business lessons last academic year, as the cofounder of a dorm-room Internet start-up called ivypreps.com, which started in January and folded by April. "I don't think we would have pursued that business model, which was the wrong model at the wrong time," he says, "had a program like the one that Harvard currently proposes been in existence to make us aware of the potential pitfalls that awaited us."
Because TECH didn't exist, Carmody went off-campus to get the business training he needed to blend technology and entrepreneurship successfully. After a summer of experience working at a venture-capital firm, Carmody is giving the .com business a second try--and he has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the College to head the start-up why.com, headquartered on nearby Massachusetts Avenue.
Narayanamurti, for his part, doesn't intend TECH to serve as a direct link between students and venture capitalists. "This is not a trade school. I feel quite strongly that this is not just a way of reasoning that lets students run a business from their rooms," Narayanamurti says. But, he adds, "It's the wrong view of a liberal-arts education to think that this can't be incorporated into the College."
Alex Rampell agrees with Narayanamurti. He believes that learning about business adds to his education; it doesn't distract him from it. "I'm very interested in a wide array of fields--philosophy, music, and squash--and this is just one more thing tacked on," he says. "The purpose of a liberal-arts education is to train you in a lot of different fields, and you can learn a lot about people and how things work by being an entrepreneur. It's more than just money."
Administrators hope the fledgling TECH project will help Harvard surpass schools, such as Stanford, that have had similar programs for years. "There are other programs out there," Narayanamurti says. "But the opportunities for us are unique--to do this in a liberal-arts environment. I am not afraid to play a little bit of catch up. We can't say that MIT and Stanford are the only ones allowed to do this, because then their students will be the ones running all the best companies.
"If we don't do this, we won't continue to get the best students and faculty," he adds. "Especially in CS, you can't just say 'We're Harvard' and rely on that."
Most of the details for TECH are still under development, with initial funding to come from the dean's office. Narayanamurti hopes to have an initial series of high-profile speakers in place by the fall, and perhaps a full-fledged program running by the year after. That timetable, he admits, doesn't quite fit either the traditional "Harvard time" that pleases administrators or the speedy "Internet time" that pleases eager undergraduates.
"I'm doing this on my time scale, but that means it will be long-lasting," he says. "We don't want it to be like an Internet company that starts up and then dies."