Two months ago, I graduated from NYU Stern School of Business, and I was pleasantly surprised to receive the Academic Excellence in Entrepreneurship award. The pomp and circumstance of graduation and my receiving the Entrepreneurship award caused me to reflect deeply on my college experience and my personal definition of entrepreneurship, which I am just now getting around to putting down in writing.
To put it simply: entrepreneurship was not a voluntary pursuit for me. It was the only solution that I found to the deeply uncertain world around me.
I found out that I had successfully transferred into NYU Stern in April of 2020, a little over a month after I had unexpectedly moved back into my family’s home during the beginning of the pandemic. I would spend the next year and a half there, taking classes online and floating through the college journey much like a virtual, passive observer. I had no idea why I had transferred into the business school aside from my mild interest in the high-flying, turbulent world of startups, a world which I knew only through movies and television.
When I finally made it back to NYU for my junior year, I had basically completed all the classes I needed to graduate with a degree in marketing, but I had very little to show for it: no internships, no organizational experience. I didn’t realize that I would be re-entering a world that I knew very, very little about. That world was Stern. I had missed out on the big initiation into Stern culture, and I had no idea how important clubs, recruiting, networking, and internships were for students wanting to enter business.
By the time I became familiarized with the customs and traditions of this culture, I was nearly a senior, a time at which most of my peers had secured esteemed post-grad jobs at big companies. I decided I was going to put in the hard work necessary for me to find a great job after college in the startup and innovation world. I cold emailed, leveraged my connections, and did the uncomfortable work necessary to find a position at this late stage in the game. I threw my name in many hats, applying to nearly thirty jobs at various startups, accelerators, and other tech and innovation related organizations.
The job search was tedious, boring, and fruitless. Of the nearly thirty jobs I applied to, I heard back from basically none. I asked myself, “how is it that a qualified graduate of one of the best undergraduate business colleges in the world isn’t able to find an entry level job.” There were a lot of convenient answers. The economy. Bad job market. Maybe it was that typo on my resume?
The pain of these rejections and the discomfort of (for the first time in my life) having no idea what I was going to do next made me deeply examine what I wanted to do with my time.
Finding Fulfillment in Unexpected Places
While I was furiously (and futilely) trying to find somewhere to work after college, I was doing two other things that were panning out really well, and felt great to devote effort towards:
1. I was developing a community for student entrepreneurs called the Founder Challenge alongside professor Ashish Bhatia, where we were promoting student entrepreneurship in the NYU community. As the student director of the program, I tried my best to be a helping hand to student entrepreneurs who wanted to start companies, develop solutions to problems, and build a future for themselves, but weren’t sure where to start. I met with students every week, discussing their ideas and ventures and how to get them off the ground.
2. I was working on my own startup, called User Friendly, where my cofounder and I were trying to find a solution for the fentanyl overdose epidemic. We were working with a simple idea and testing its feasibility, viability, and desirability: a handheld testing device for ravers and festival-goers that can detect fentanyl in recreational substances.
Unlike the job hunt, my work on these two projects was actually working: I made progress, developed new skills such as community building, design thinking, and leadership, and I could see how these projects had the potential to (and were in real time) improving the lives of those around me. I felt fulfilled, passionate, and as if the work I was doing mattered.
While my future after college seemed uncertain, the effort I was putting into these projects was a cure to that uncertainty. As graduation got closer to the present, I became more intrigued by the prospect that I might be able to work on User Friendly full time, that I might be able to spend all of my available effort and energy trying to fix a problem that I deeply care about and learn how to build a company at the same time.
But there was something missing. I was reluctant to take that plunge, to pledge myself to that journey. Why? All my life, the steps I needed to take to get to the next phase of my life story were paved, which was not a great representation of the turbulent, unpredictable reality in which we live. Life is not a checklist, a fill in the blank, it is an empty piece of paper staring back at you, waiting for you to write your own story down on it.
I realized that I was waiting for someone to give me permission, for someone to call me a startup founder. Like in previous stages of my life, I was waiting for external validation before I felt qualified to do the thing I really wanted to do: a college acceptance letter, a certain score on the SAT, a definitive “yes” from a role model or mentor.
Entrepreneurship was totally different: no one was going to tell me that I could or even should do this (especially when working in a domain as taboo as drug safety and the fentanyl epidemic). Luckily, the unfortunate results of my job hunt made my ‘pledge’ towards entrepreneurship rather simple: when no clear post-college trajectory was presented to me, I had to choose to actively determine it. And that's a choice I have to make everyday when doubt resurfaces.
I decided to put my money (and my time, energy, and dedication) where my mouth was: I had spent the last year helping build a community of student entrepreneurs, encouraging others like myself to engage in entrepreneurial action, and when it came time for me to settle into a post-college commitment, I decided that I had to fully devote myself to the startup I had been working on.
To be clear, entrepreneurship or the startup life is not a cure-all for anxiety or uncertainty about the future. It is full of its own sort of uneasiness: will my company work? How will I make money? Is this idea worth pursuing? What happens if I fail?
However, the fruits of my labor as I continue to build User Friendly, can’t be overlooked. I’m building new skills and knowledge that I have always been curious about: web design, social media, venture capital and fundraising, team building, and community management, not because I want to, but because I have to in order for this business to succeed. I'm having conversations with interesting people including domain experts, entrepreneurs, and people who are interested in the problem we are trying to solve, and receiving validating and encouraging feedback from many.
The knowledge that, despite the unpredictability of the world, I am taking action and doing something to seize control of my small share of the universe is certainly the greatest reward of them all.
A New Generation of Entrepreneurs
It is a sort of alchemical act to spin opportunity from uncertainty, and with action transmute it into progress and fulfillment.
For many young people like myself, the journey of their life is right in front of them. They just don’t know how to see it yet. Entrepreneurship is the practice of turning uncertainty into opportunity; it is the essential tool for navigating the world, revealing fulfilling pathways, and actively creating your life.
My own journey, which is still in its earliest days, is just one case study for how students and young people can take the pledge towards entrepreneurship.
Perhaps I have a unique viewpoint on these things, that I see the world unlike others do, as a largely uncertain landscape that we can only make sense of through entrepreneurial action.
I don’t think so. I believe that the recent upheaval of the world, its institutions, economy, and social norms has created a generation of young entrepreneurs in touch with the uncertainty of the world. That this uncertainty does not create only panic and anxiety, but passion, and determination to capitalize on entrepreneurial ideas through action.
For young people, at NYU and abroad, students and non-students alike, who feel like there is a life of fulfillment, meaning, and great work ahead of them but aren’t quite sure how to seize it, entrepreneurship can be the answer. It's working for me.
To all the new students entering college, now is the best time to try your hand at starting a business. If you are interested in learning more about how you can do so, the Founder Challenge is the right place to be.
Don't miss the first Founder Challenge community meetup of the fall on Monday September 11 at 11:30 AM at the Leslie E-Lab.
You can check out my harm reduction and drug safety startup, User Friendly, here.