Cultural Fit and the Growth of Entrepreneurship at MIT
Why did the strong interest in entrepreneurship develop so early and so spontaneously among members of the MIT community, particularly at a time when there was scant interest in entrepreneurship in most U.S. universities and in the wider society? To answer that question, we must turn to the Institute’s distinctive culture.
As Lawrence S. Bacow (’72), former MIT professor and current president of Harvard University, suggests:
“MIT is more than just a collection of buildings on the Charles River populated by brilliant students, faculty, and staff. MIT represents a particularly unique and often poorly understood culture. Anyone who seeks to replicate or simply understand MIT must first try to understand and appreciate a culture that celebrates quirkiness, choice, independence, entrepreneurship, focus, creativity, and intensity.”
[Let’s] explore how entrepreneurship, in its essence, has grown out of—and been supported by—a number of features of the unique culture of MIT. By this, I mean more specifically its organizational culture, as defined by Professor Emeritus Edgard Schein of the MIT Sloan School of Management, which can be seen as an internal conventional wisdom that unconsciously guides the responses of members of an organization and informs how they solve everyday challenges. It signals implicitly what works and what does not, what is acceptable and unacceptable, what things mean, and what to pay attention to.
In the case of MIT, for instance, the values represented in its motto, Mens et Manus (mind and hand) are still strong after more than 150 years of history and continue to inspire the MIT community at all levels. The argument that MIT’s culture is important to entrepreneurship is not new and is part of a common narrative at the Institute. For instance, MIT president Susan Hockfield said in 2011:
“I wish I had the recipe for what makes MIT such a fountain of innovation and entrepreneurship. But I think the simple answer is it is in our DNA. The 2013–2014 annual report of the Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship mentions that “MIT’s motto … is an integral part of MIT’s entrepreneurial culture.”
But what is it about this culture that has been supportive of entrepreneurship? The argument of this book is that entrepreneurship is particularly congruent with at least six elements of MIT’s culture:
- a well-ingrained, bottom-up organizational dynamic;
- excellence in all things that one studies or attempts to do, as well as a belief in hard work and fortitude;
- an interest in problem-solving and having a positive impact on the world;
- a belief in experimenting and a tolerance of failure;
- the pride of being viewed as rebels, sometimes eccentric and even a bit geeky, pursuing unconventional solutions;
- and the tradition of a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving.
This fit made MIT fertile ground for entrepreneurship to flourish largely spontaneously, from local initiatives and outside of centralized policy guidance, in a bottom-up dynamic involving various stakeholders of the community, as detailed in the previous chapters. This cultural fit also explains how entrepreneurial projects could emerge so frequently from informal initiatives and serendipitous encounters outside of structures devoted to promoting entrepreneurship.
To illustrate the fit between MIT’s culture and entrepreneurship, we can explore the example of the Institute’s respect for experimentation and tolerance for failure and the role of these features in entrepreneurship.
Related to problem-solving is the value that MIT places on experimentation. It involves an element of fortitude, a tolerance of failure, a stick-to-it ethos, and patience toward the process, as well as a sense of belief in oneself, or at least in one’s ideas. Of course, experimentation lies at the core of all scientific endeavors, but it is also central to how the Institute operates. In addition, it is central to its pedagogy.
At the outset, William Barton Rogers’s new type of polytechnic university was an experiment. It was embodied in the central role that laboratories have played in MIT’s pedagogy, which was originally a radical departure from traditional teaching methods. This approach has been carried out to this day. For instance, Eugene (“Doc”) Edgerton (’26), a legendary professor and pioneering engineer, inventor, mentor, and entrepreneur best known for his work on high-speed imaging, sonar, and deep sea photography, told his students that you have to try your ideas for yourself, and expect that you will never get it right the first time.
MIT experimented and innovated in many ways, such as with its relationship to industry, its early patent policy, its invention of engineering science, and the launch of American Research and Development (ARD), to name just a few companies. The sanitary engineering department evolved into MIT’s Department of Biology, which conducted basic research on the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying cancer. Professors Tyler Jacks and Phillip Sharp built a major cancer research lab at MIT, where they were able to bring together engineers and biologists without the benefit of an associated medical school or a hospital. Professors Nicolas Negroponte (’66) and Jerome Wiesner (’37) built the Media Lab within the School of Architecture and Planning.
MIT also experimented with entrepreneurship by allowing extracurricular activities or experimental classes related to entrepreneurship to develop into formal classes and sometimes full-fledged programs. This highlights a key institutional capability that has helped interest in entrepreneurship grow at MIT: a tolerance of local, informal experiments and initiatives, some of which, when they succeeded, were incorporated as intrinsic parts of the Institute.
This was the case, for instance, when Amy Smith (’84) started the Haiti Project, the precursor of D-Lab; and when a few students launched the Entrepreneurship Club (E-Club) and later the $10K Business Plan Competition. It was also the case when Professor David Staelin (’60) and Alec Dingee (’52) convinced Provost Bob Brown of the need for a mentoring service for aspiring entrepreneurs belonging to the MIT community, which led to the foundation of the VMS. When some needs are unmet by the Institute, students and other stakeholders tend to take the initiative to fulfill them.
Romi Kadri (’14) is a perfect example of this uniquely MIT trait. Kadri noticed that students come to MIT with a desire to make a positive impact on the world and recognized that entrepreneurship is a key factor to make their ideas real. However, he noticed that undergraduate students in the School of Engineering were not aware of most of the entrepreneurship-related resources available on campus and did not have access to entrepreneurship courses that gave them credits. Kadri managed to navigate the system and to have the undergraduate program in mechanical engineering introduce a concentration in entrepreneurship. He did this with the help of entrepreneurship champions like Trust Center founder Edward Roberts and managing director Bill Aulet, as well as professors Sanjay Sarma and Peko Hosoi.
Not all experiments are successful, of course, but valuing experimentation implies a tolerance of failure. Entrepreneurship perfectly fits into such a worldview because it relies on iterative experimentations and risk-taking. One of the first principles taught in entrepreneurship classes at MIT is the early incorporation of customer feedback to improve the venture’s product iteratively. As Lita Nelsen of the Technology Licensing Office (TLO) wrote,
“Our culture at MIT stresses that risk taking is necessary for achievement. We assume that our students are good enough to take risks and succeed. They have sufficient talent, energy, and self-confidence to recover rapidly from failure and to learn from failure to become more effective in their next endeavor.”
Vinnie Ramesh (’12), who cofounded the health data science start-up Wellframe when he was a senior at MIT, exemplifies this view.
“If I fail, I’m probably going to try again and start another company,” he laughs. “And if it doesn’t work, you’ve still learned a lot, and you’ll come out a stronger person.”
Several testimonials collected in this book about initiatives supporting entrepreneurship refer to the value of the safe space that MIT provides for everyone to experiment and (sometimes) to fail. The student-led E-Club is such a space, according to Josh Siegel (’11), who was one of its organizers in 2011.
“The emphasis is on hearing from people in the midst of grappling with the financial, organizational, interpersonal, and legal issues involved in getting a company up and running,” he says. “We give you the nitty-gritty. It’s a club for people who are very hands-on, who want to do it themselves, make mistakes, and keep struggling until they succeed. We turn away people who are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme.”
A willingness to take risks and the ability to learn from failure are critical for entrepreneurship. Early initiatives by members of the community to pursue entrepreneurship were made possible by MIT’s tolerance of failure in experimentation. [One such example was] in 1969, when a group of alumni organized a weekend seminar titled, “Starting and Building Your Own Company,” which eventually led to the founding of the Cambridge MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF). It was also the case when Amy Smith (’84) started D-Lab in 2000 out of an experimental seminar. Professor Sandy Pentland followed the same process when an experimental seminar held in 2001 led a few years later to the launch of the Media Lab Developmental Entrepreneurship Program.
A more radical form of experimentation that has a strong tradition at MIT is called “hacking.” It is generally assumed that the term “hack” originates from the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), which builds railroads and train models. Founded during the 1946–1947 school year, the TMRC is one of MIT’s oldest student clubs. In the 1950s, members of the club began to understand the potential of computers to model their increasingly complex railroad models. The railroaders used the computer in the Department of Electrical Engineering during off-hours to explore the possibilities. While pursuing their hobby, they also programmed system tools, music programs, games, and even a time-sharing program.
“The modelers sometimes called themselves ‘hackers,’ which they meant in the traditional sense of pranksters or jesters, people who didn’t take life or work too seriously. Soon, the rest of the computing world was using the term as well,”
 according to Fred Hagwood, the author of Up the Infinite Corridor. In his book Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Stephen Levy credited the TMRC students with developing the “hackerism” movement that influenced the development of the personal computer. The hacking culture, according to Levy, is based on access to computers and any other resource useful in helping people understand how the world works; freedom of information; mistrust of authority; decentralization; and personal recognition based on individuals’ hacking.
Ever since then, the hacking culture has been strong at MIT, permeating the circles of people interested in entrepreneurship. It involves similar values: possessing the ingenuity to access resources that one does not control, stretching the rules, and pushing limits. Appreciation for the hacker spirit can be found in the logo of the Trust Center, showing a pirate ship. The Trust Center’s website stresses that it is important to “embrace the hacking mentality of MIT … the pride in being different and embracing what we call ‘the spirit of a pirate.’” Aulet adds that what is needed to be an entrepreneur is the spirit of a pirate combined with the discipline of a SEAL:
“It is this dichotomy that makes for great entrepreneurs. … It is not just this craziness. It is actually that they execute like hell when they get down to it.”
The hacker spirit is also illustrated by the enthusiastic adoption of hackathons in the late 2000s and early 2010s by students interested in entrepreneurship. “Hackathon” is a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon.” It is thus a race to solve challenges against time. “Students participating in Hacking Medicine, for instance, try to disrupt the silos in the healthcare sector to create innovations.” Steven Leckart of Wired magazine suggests that hackathons fit MIT so well because they are a variation of the “marathon bursts” that took place in the 1960s there, when students programmed in twenty-four-hour stretches to demonstrate stamina, as well as their skill in building software. Aulet noted, “There’s no other place where the president of the university will urge students at graduation to go out and ‘hack the world,’ to rewire society’s circuits.”
 MechE Undergrad, “Choosing a 2-A Concentration,” https://meundergrad.mit.edu/2A-degree/choosing-2A-concentration (accessed December 10, 2020); interview with Romi Kadri on October 26, 2018.
 Lita Nelsen, “The Activities and Roles of M.I.T. in Forming Clusters and Strengthening Entrepreneurship,” in Intellectual Property Management in Health and Agricultural Innovation: A Handbook of Best Practices (Oxford, U.K.: MIHR, 2007), http://www.iphandbook.org (accessed March 5, 2018), 309–316.
 Deborah Chen, “Startups: A Hidden Lifestyle at MIT,” The Tech, March 12, 2012 (accessed October 7, 2019).
 David Chandler, “Outside the Classroom, Students Create Future Businesses,” MIT News, September 28, 2011, http://news.mit.edu/2011/entrepreneurship-extracurricular-0928 (accessed January 5, 2018).
 Fred Hapgood, Up the Infinite Corridor: MIT and the Technical Imagination (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1993), 89–107.
 Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York: Anchor Press, 1984).
 Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, “Guiding Concepts and Initiatives,” http://entrepreneurship.mit.edu/ecosystem/ (accessed October 7, 2019).
 “Entrepreneurs Are Like Pirates Crossed with Navy SEALs,” MIT Spectrum, August 13, 2013, https://spectrum.mit.edu/continuum/entrepreneurs-are-like-pirates-crossed-with-navy-seals/ (accessed February 7, 2019).
 Jay London, “How Do You Hack Health Care?,” Institute for Medical Engineering & Science (blog), July 20, 2015, http://imes.mit.edu/how-do-you-hack-health-care/ (accessed February 21, 2019).
 Leckart, Steven. “The Hackathon Is On: Pitching and Programming the Next Killer App.” Wired, February 17, 2012. https://www.wired.com/2012/02/ff_hackathons/all/1/ (accessed July 21, 2018).
 Kara Baskin, “Evolution of the Hack,” MIT Sloan (alumni magazine) 12, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 20–27 https://mitsloan.mit.edu/sites/default/files/inline-files/MITSloan_Winter18_HR.pdf (accessed April 8, 2018).