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Are there any unicorn co-founders who didn't attend prep school and Ivies?
42 points by DGAP on Nov 30, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments
It seems like everyone from Gates to Blecharczyk went to private prep schools and then on to Harvard or Stanford. Is there anyone who DIDN'T have this advantage who made it in the world of startups and VC?

Cofounder of thumbtack here. I grew up in East Tennessee, attended public schools through high school and then got my bachelors at the University of Tennessee.

For the record, I never went to a better school because nobody ever told me that I could.

My high school graduation rate was somewhere around 50%, and when the guidance counselors found out that I got a scholarship to the University of Tennessee, they pretty much made a plaque to commemorate the success and then moved on to the other kids.

It's a problem I'd like to work on in the next couple of years.

However, while I'm opining, I might add that I could be the exception that proves the rule.

All three of my cofounders were Ivy educated, and a heavy proportion of our early investors and advisors were either connections from their social network or people who they met at the various Ivy networking functions.

I'm really not sure what to say about it. It's just how the world works. People like to help people that they know, and when you go to an Ivy League school it just so happens that the people you share a dorm room with are going to be in a much better position to help you than my freshman year roommates at UT.

The UT alumni Association, bless their hearts, can't seem to see any purpose for contacting alumni except for donations and to organize football watching parties.

My most successful friends from back home are lawyers, doctors, and small business owners. My cofounders' most successful friends from back home are venture capitalists, Stanford professors, and finance types.

If the guidance counselors had given you advice, it would likely have been wrong. After hearing a few friends in College complain about terrible advice from their counselors, I thought it might just be that people only tell the bad stories. So, I asked every single one of my college friends (mostly Seniors) at the time specifically if they had gotten advice from a guidance counselor, and whether they thought it was good. This turned up more stories of bad advice, but nothing positive.

This was at a state school in Indiana, so maybe just midwest guidance counselors are bad, but it's still troubling to me.

I thought the name of your business sounded familiar. I have a tab open right now for an accountant. Nice site!

There are a lot of founders: Wish Slack Credit Karma Uber (both founders) Xiaomi Minecraft Tumblr

There's a lot. I suspect question comes from status anxiety. I don't really think it matters.

> I suspect question comes from status anxiety. I don't really think it matters.

Depends on your perspective. If it's mere "status", then no it doesn't matter. Everyone has Buddha nature, etc., etc.

But from the perspective of "does privilege matter?" you'll get an entirely different answer, which is why people in tech are paying a lot more attention to questions like this. A very, very narrow slice of the population has any possibility of becoming a founder at all, much less of an ultra-high valuation tech startup. That slice is far from random, it encodes a lot of history we're not too proud of, and it is not just a star awarded for merit.

If you're reading this and this word "privilege" doesn't make sense in context, it's time to do some homework. There's a lot being written on the 'net about this now, but I'll throw this out as random current starting point:


The problem is that it's a false path and the logic doesn't quite make sense. If Ivy league really matters, then you can deduce it to high school, jr high, elementary school all the way to pre-school. Therefore if you're age 4, if you don't get to the most elite pre-school, your life is over, just over. If you make it an Ivy league, then your life is set. If you've been at one of these institutions, you'll know both of these things are false.

You are not really "getting it" re: the effects of privilege.

It's not that going to some particular school or even a set of them (Ivy or no) matters per se. The effects of privilege exist on a continuum, and tend to accumulate over time. In that article I linked, the filmmaker had fairly extraordinary privilege via a long accumulation of access, education, peer mindset, parental support, and resources. But that's perhaps an extreme example. A lesser example: just the fact that a university student was even able to consider college as a life path is also a manifestation of privilege. For the most part, it points to an accumulation of parental and peer support over the student's life. E.g. her parents valued school and encouraged schoolwork, maybe tried to get her into a better school. She had peer support for life-paths including notions of education, career, "bettering oneself", etc. Peer support is especially interesting, as it also subsumes a lot of class issues.

Memes matter, and speaking probabilistically, kids whose peers see no paths to "success" in life can expect to have a hard time finding it themselves. We've likely all seen tales of hugely successful people who rose from modest backgrounds. That's the old story. The new one, the one we're just starting to tell, is about the enormous waste of potential from all those who didn't make it.

I understand your points. What you're talking about is middle class and upper middle class privilege. That privilege is different than upper class, which is implied by the original poster's comments on ivy league and boarding schools like Andover. There's different granularities and levels of privilege.

+1 to this... on the effects existing on a continuum.

There was a great cartoon that the farnam street brain food blog sent out which illustrates this quite well.


The more important thing is that if you live your life like this, it will lead to vast unhappiness, and you wouldn't have been able to have any impact in your life because you think your life is done at 18 and pre-determined, which is not only a horrible way to live, but also completely not true.

Agreed, in that the intent of this perspective is not to constrain oneself. But it's very useful as a lens to understand certain social phenomena at large.

>If you're reading this and this word "privilege" doesn't make sense in context, it's time to do some homework.

I think 99% of people on HN understand exactly what you mean by privilege here, even if they don't agree with its implications. But I would ask you to consider that telling people to "do some homework" reflects a certain privilege that liberals have in certain circles. In particular, the privilege that goes with not having one's views challenged (again, in certain circles), and therefore assuming that it is your job to educate everyone else. I certainly don't go around telling people to "do some homework" if they haven't heard of the welfare theorems of economics, even if it would be very useful for them to know it.

I think he was just saying that a lot of times "privilege" as jargon is a little different than the word's common usage. So, if you were making a point where the welfare theorem of economics made sense to bring up, you might post a link and say something like "it's important to understand this if you want to continue the conversation."

In my opinion, what he did was completely appropriate, not condescending, and helpful and I wish you wouldn't have just blindly classified the action as a liberal tendency.

You mention Bill Gates to Blecharczyk, what about Steve Jobs and Woz (Woz went to Berkley, though I'm not sure that is considered in the same league as Stanford, I could be wrong).

How about Stuart Butterfield (Slack), he went to University of Victoria in Canada.

Here is the unicorn list according to Crunchbase http://techcrunch.com/unicorn-leaderboard/

go through the co-founders, I think you'll find only a small percentage went to prep schools or Ivy Leagues.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkeley_Software_Distribution...

"[...] Also in 1975, Ken Thompson took a sabbatical from Bell Labs and came to Berkeley as a visiting professor. He helped to install Version 6 Unix and started working on a Pascal implementation for the system. Graduate students Chuck Haley and Bill Joy improved Thompson's Pascal and implemented an improved text editor, ex.[2] Other universities became interested in the software at Berkeley, and so in 1977 Joy started compiling the first Berkeley Software Distribution (1BSD), which was released on March 9, 1978. BSD was an add-on to Version 6 Unix rather than a complete operating system in its own right. Some thirty copies were sent out."

I don't think that in 1975 Berkeley was all that bad for future computer scientists. Seemed like a pretty good place to be actually.

I didn't mean to suggest that great things don't come out of Berkeley, but it isn't normally talked about in the same list as Harvard, Stanford, etc.

Same with University of Illinois, where Marc Andreesen helped create Mosaic and launch the consumer internet.

I suspect most universities can tie themselves to some modern massive success.

Woz dropped out of Berkeley in 1971. Perhaps we should use the past tense when comparing the two schools?

This seems like a silly thing to spend five minutes of your time researching, as that is five minutes that isn't building a company (unicorn trajectory or otherwise), but be that as it may the answer is "Yes, of course there are founders of companies at all levels of success who didn't go to private prep schools and then Harvard/Stanford/etc."

I had five pegged off the top of my head, plus the obvious answer of "Run down the list of foreign-born founders you know." I'll elide naming them to avoid even the appearance of suggesting there is something magic about particular universities: all of their companies speak for themselves.

> This seems like a silly thing to spend five minutes of your time researching, as that is five minutes that isn't building a company

Is learning for the sake of curiosity now a complete waste of time? I've never spent a single minute building a company, so how many of those minutes are a waste of time?

It doesn't seem to silly to research aspects of the startup ecosystem that one is part of.

Only if that is a factor contributing to or reducing the likelihood of success.

If it's completely orthogonal, it is a waste of time because that's time you could use doing/learning something that does contribute.

If you know of any way to conclusively test whether or not something will eventually be useful I'd love to hear more about it.

Being someone who's against the obsession with pedigree in SV. I've noted a few that came up outside of the Ivies:

Jan Koum, CEO/Founder of Whatsapp - San Jose State

Aaron Levie, CEO/Founder of Box - USC

Suhail Doshi, CEO/Founder of Mixpanel (almost a unicorn) - Arizona State

Logan Green, CEO of Lyft - UC Santa Barbara

Travis Kalanick went to a public high school and dropped out of UCLA.

But really, this is the wrong question. Even if there were 0 examples of what you asked for, it doesn't mean one can't come along.

You're correct, if you look at founders from Gates to Blecharczyk, this is what you'll generally find. A few exceptions have been mentioned in the thread.

It's something to bear in mind. I mean, of essays written and so forth - if you're say, black - they don't apply to you. This is obvious - how many black unicorn co-founders are there? I mean you rarely see a black programmer in the Bay area, never mind a unicorn co-founder. Most essays about joining startups, starting startups etc. are for the class, age group etc. of people who already joined or started startups. There's no warning labels that these things are not possible for certain people, but those people should understand that.

I mean it goes to all kinds of things, even what languages to program in. People ask why things like Lisp never made it big - well, most people don't have the time to devote to it. I mean even the idea of making something original a few people love, and putting making money off - it's a wealthy person's prerogative. People not born to the manor have to make money now, no matter how smart or hard working they are, and the amount of time they can devote to long-term or even medium-term goals is limited. This is how those who control the forces of production have set things up, and it's important for you to know it. People born on third base like to pat themselves on the back about how brilliant they are. They used to say they were put into their position by God, but in the modern world they have changed that to saying they have better DNA.

Unicorn = lucky white or south asian man.

YC alums (majority) & Founders with VC = Ivy Leaguers

I have a dozen or so friends who have done YC who aren't even American, let alone from the Ivies. Don't make things up.

Notch made Minecraft, I don't think he went to any fancy schools, though I'm only speculating.


David Karp is another great example I suppose. He made Tumblr, and doesn't even have a high school diploma.

I've been reading Hacker News for a long time, and until now I've resisted creating an account. It used to be that this forum was a collection of scrappy founders, talking about building out their companies or particular engineering techniques, or the latest front-end library. A lot of posts revolved around helping each other out, either emotionally or technically.

This post represents its slide into a vapid gossip rag. Another reddit. Why does it matter if a founder comes from an Ivy League school? Does that prevent you from founding a company? People who end up going to Ivy League schools represents a self-selecting bunch of go-getters, that's it. Successful founders don't ask these sorts of questions, they just build.

Let me ask you a question instead; what do you hope to learn from this? What do you want to be true?

I get where you're going with this. My interest in entrepreneurship exists independently of the current "startup" scene, so the fact that it's dominated by the upper class doesn't dissuade me from my current goals and interests. My goal isn't to blame any lack of success on the unfairness of our quasi-meritocracy.

It is interesting though to see a group of people who convinced that they are on the progressive side of history admit that much of their success has been achieved through the connections they made at their elite schools and through their parents, which seems like the way business has always been done. But what do I know, I'm just a middle class guy who went to a state school.

Both Larry Page and Sergey Brin went to public high school and then to public universities for undergrad (University of Michigan and University of Maryland). They went to Stanford for grad, but they still fit your query of not going to private prep schools.

Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square dropped out of NYU and went to Catholic school.

Brian Chesky (Airbnb) attended Rhode Island School of Design.

Airbnb was founded by RISD grads.

It's from the last tech go-round, but Rackspace co-founders Pat Condon and Dirk Elmendorff went to Trinity University in San Antonio.

Look at Flipkart from India. Valued at over $15Bn USD. They attended the IITs in India yet build a world class company :) So to answer your question, there are people who still make it big despite not having attended the Ivies!!

FWIW, IIT is an extremely prestigious school system in India that has historically been geared toward the upper echelon of Indian society like private and ivy league schools have been in the United States.

There have been some efforts to rectify that through quotas, though from anecdotes of colleagues it sounds like it hasn't really been solved (e.g. no proper support system leads to disproportionate dropout rates)


Don't rely too much on quora on the caste question. It is dominated by the privileged. Please read other material that like http://ambedkar.org/ and http://roundtableindia.co.in/ . There a lot more sources as well. The problem of our country is that how hounded we will be if we talk in support of the caste system where the majority are from the upper caste. See the recent trouble with starting a ambedkar-periyar study circle at IITM for an example. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/services/educat...

Oh, for sure. I picked a source that had a lot of opinions that differed from mine as to consciously oppose my bias :) Thanks for the other links!

Also Flipkart is yet to be profitable, in the world of startups you can be perceived to be successful, but of late the Indian bubble is deflating. As far as ecommerce is concerned one has to follow Peter Theil's concept of not starting a commodity business, ecommerce right now is a commodity business where flipkart can't distinguish from snapdeal and the many other ecommerce sites, the only way to do that is by offering discounts which come at the cost of losses! These days everyone gives discounts offers at crazy rates, but that means they are doing customer acquisition but they can't retain these customers unless they give heavy discounts!

The debate of profitability/sustainability vs. quick growth is a never ending one. You are right about Flipkart. but taht still doesn't take anything away from what the Bansals have built...

> The debate of profitability/sustainability vs. quick growth is a never ending one.

tbh it is not never ending. From a non wary eye one can celebrate the bansals for building a pvt business valued over 10billion $ but seriously, there is no way they can match that when they become public, there is something called as revenue that they need to generate regularly! Just by offering crazy discounts they might be able to boast that they sold 100000000 MotoG's in one day, but what they don't tell is that they are solely functioning on the money investors are throwing at them also they have around 2Rs loss per 1Re revenue

So just because they built a seemingly large enterprise doesn't build their legacy, there are many many such examples of the so called unicorns who collapsed just because they couldn't gain traction after they hype they generated, take a look at homejoy, they were earning some real heat in their market until they realized they were solving the wrong problem or solving them in the wrong way, so it folded, it won't be long until paytm/flipkart/snapdeal etc etc who have a huge customer acquisition cost fold because their CA >>>> CR customer retention. The sole reason people buy from Flipkart is because it is cheap on flipkart, if the same item is cheaper somewhere else, they buy it from somewhere else, I really don't understand how this is any indication of being in the right business or a measure of being a strong business?

Amazon is the sole major ecommerce provider in US and for 30 long years they didn't become profitable despite being the sole provider, only now did they become profitable, compare that with the complicated scene of Indian ecommerce where there are way more providers and the CoD woes plus marketing costs and the ridiculous "coupons". Some people I know actually think paytm makes money, it is silly, they don't! They are just making people habituated to using and spending their hard earned money on paytm in hopes that they will be regular customers which they won't because the sole premise that people buy from these companies is because of the discounts they provide and nothing else, so when the dust settles down and they can't provide any more discounts, they'll fold.

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates may be considered good for founding a fledgling enterprise because they earn money.

That being said when this bubble will burst a new age will dawn upon their ashes, I think we really need this lesson to make more prudent investors for the better future India!

Kik, Ted Livingston, University of Waterloo

Do the founders of Intel and Alibaba count?

The founders of Intel went to prestigious graduate schools. Gordon Moore went to Berkeley for undergrad and Caltech for his PhD. Robert Noyce got his PhD from MIT. Andy Grove got his PhD from Berkeley.

Prestigious graduate school is far from a private high school.

Wikipedia on Andy Grove: "He escaped from Communist-controlled Hungary at the age of 20 and moved to the United States where he finished his education."

Yes, there are many, many examples.

Marc Andreessen grew up in Wisconsin and went to the University of Illinois.

I co-founded Open Market (a unicorn in tech Bubble 1.0). I grew up in West Virginia in a trailer with no indoor plumbing & wood heat. Our high school graduated 99 and about 10 of us went on to college. (I did go to an ivy league school, but I strongly suspect it was on quota because WV was so underrepresented.)

UIUC is one of preeminent comp sci schools in the country. It is where mosiac was founded. It kind of shows that it helps to go to a good school even if not an IVY.

Stanford isn't an Ivy...

Drew Houston - MIT (not Ivy)

Technically Ivy League is just a sports conference, it has nothing to do with academics. But most people conflate it with the cluster of top, elite schools on the East Coast, including MIT. So OP probably did mean MIT.

I've seen made this sort of public/private university distinction before, for the purpose of generalizing (humorously) what kind of person you are, and engineering schools were declared to be honorary public schools. So, not necessarily, in fact, I'd wager probably not.

I'm not quite sure this gets to the heart of what OP meant. In tech, MIT is probably better than (or at least as good as) most Ivies.

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