TTLG: The Eight Year Degree
At the beginning of 2010, just before the start of my first spring term at Dartmouth, I left school and embarked on what would turn out to be a rather unorthodox path to the world of technology startups and venture capital firms. I had just finished winter finals and was on the verge of a mental breakdown. For anyone who has lived the majority of their life in the Bay Area, winter in New Hampshire is a living hell, especially if you hate snow and have little interest in skiing. To make matters worse, I was head-over-heels for a woman back in California and was much too romantic of a 19 year old to not become depressed by our separation. My grades were horrible, I had no idea what I wanted to major in and the crippling perfectionism in the back of my head made it difficult to even attempt my class assignments. Ultimately, the decision to take time off was an easy one. I needed time to figure out what I wanted for my life. So, I packed my bags and headed West, returning to Santa Cruz, Calif. and a job making milkshakes at Betty Burgers. It was difficult to know what the future would hold, but I’ve always thrived off uncertainty. Growing up with an adventurous single mother (D’91), who had me her senior year at Dartmouth, prepared me for the precariousness of a life lived on my own terms. Though I relied heavily on friends and family for advice, couches to crash on and introductions that would advance my career, I always supported myself financially, which, in my experience, is the only way one can truly be independent as a young adult. After an eight-month internship at the Diversity Center in Santa Cruz, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the local LGBTQ community, my girlfriend and I broke up and I moved north to Berkeley, taking classes at the University of California, Berkeley. For a few months, I took classes and interacted with student groups. One organization in particular, The Berkeley Group (TBG), provided me with a sense of what I might want to do for a career. I was introduced to TBG, a prestigious pro bono non-profit consulting group run by Berkeley undergraduates, through Jeremy Au, the TBG president at the time. We met through mutual friends and I mentioned I was interested in starting something similar at Dartmouth. My time spent at the Diversity Center made me realize that what I really cared about was helping disadvantaged communities. However, as someone who has straddled the line between privilege and poverty, I knew I needed to remain practical and gain skills that might be applied toward more lucrative future job opportunities. Non-profit consulting would allow me to both help people and advance my career. Win! A year after leaving school, I returned to Dartmouth with a newfound sense of purpose and a desire to build something of my own — it was not long after that the Seeds Consulting Group was born. SCG was a collaboration between myself, Dexter Zhuang ’13, and a handful of other undergraduates. With the help of Jeremy Au and TBG, we developed a curriculum to train student consultants and scope consulting projects. At the same time, before Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network was really a thing, Dexter and I decided to form a local chapter of the Kairos Society, a global undergraduate entrepreneurial society, in order to foster a spirit of innovation and risk-taking on campus. It was through the Kairos Society that I was first immersed in the world of tech startups and entrepreneurship. Though semi-exclusive (students were required to submit an application if they wanted to become Kairos “fellows”), we cultivated a diverse group of young women and men and while each had their own interests, the general consensus was that entrepreneurship provided a path toward the realization of our individual goals. By now a couple terms had past since I returned to school, and SCG and Kairos were taking up more and more of my time. In addition to classes, I was working more than 40 hours a week for these two organizations and had a part-time job at the library circulation desk. I had also just been awarded the Tucker Foundation’s Class of 1982 Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship to work with the Upper Valley Haven homeless shelter. As winter term approached, I became increasingly aware of my inability to juggle school and my growing extracurricular responsibilities. I again decided to withdraw from Dartmouth, but remained in Hanover in order to continue working with SCG and the Upper Valley Haven. For the entirety of 2012, I lived just outside of Hanover, working 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. managing Umpleby’s Café and Bakery and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. as Berry’s circulation desk night manager, finding time to sleep in between jobs and on weekends. During my free time I founded my first business making all-natural cashew cream ice cream with my best friend Austin Pogue ’13. We resolved to buy a food truck and grow our business on the streets of San Francisco. Unfortunately, our food truck empire never materialized beyond the conception phase. Austin decided to accept a position at LinkedIn and I packed my bags for Israel and an eight-month ulpan program at Ma’agan Michael, one of the largest kibbutzim, a collective community based on the principal of joint ownership, in the country. As a precursor to the program, I went on Birthright with a long-time crush of mine — it took only a few days for us to fall in love. The only problem: she lived in New York and I was to remain in Israel for the better part of the year. What happened next I can only describe as kismet. Just before moving to the kibbutz, I contracted an extremely painful stomach virus and ended up hospitalized for nearly a week. With all my money lost to medical bills, eight months in Israel was no longer an option, so two weeks later I left, and a month after our trip, Birthright woman and I were living together in a small studio apartment in Brooklyn. As it turned out, my old fraternity brother Teghvir Sethi ’12 was in the beginning stages of starting .Bk, an online-based company producing high-quality, limited edition menswear. With my previous experience advising non-profits and startups through Kairos and time spent running my own business, I was finally in a position for someone to actually pay me for my time. Following five months of non-stop work, however, it became clear that although we were and continue to be good friends, our professional relationship wouldn’t be able to endure the long hours. My relationship with Birthright woman was also in trouble and I found myself floundering as I considered my options. Though I had always planned on finishing my degree, it never quite felt like the right time until that winter in New York. Once again, I would return to Dartmouth, this time for good. I came back in the spring of 2014 and after so much time living in the “real world,” the idea of studying full-time seemed like a vacation. That entrepreneurial itch would always be there, but my long-term plans (which include graduate school) depended and still depend on getting my degree. A funny thing happened, though. As I was searching for winter off-term opportunities, three terms after returning to school for a second time, my experiences outside of Dartmouth were opening doors that would normally require a 3.8 GPA and family connections to gain access to. I accepted two offers: one from Base Ventures, a small venture capital firm in Berkeley, Calif. and the other from Connect, a mobile technology startup based in San Francisco. After returning from my off-term, I remained employed by Connect, working remotely and flying out between terms for company retreats. A year has gone by and I’m still at Connect, back in San Francisco for the winter, working long hours and enjoying every minute of it. Next week, I have a second interview at one of the most prestigious venture capital firms in the world. I’m 25 years old and I don’t have a degree, but I’ve been able to achieve and experience more than most Dartmouth undergraduates do following the more traditional route through school and corporate recruiting. I’m not an economics or computer science major, I’m not going to graduate summa cum laude, and, by the time I finally do graduate, it will be almost 10 years since I first started my degree. But over the past seven years, I’ve worked a total of 21 jobs and internships, including full-time roles at three startups, four non-profits and five restaurants; started and run two non-profits and one business; lived in seven cities, in three states and two countries; and financially supported both myself and my family. I was able to do so much because I refused to accept that my life would be determined by others. Let me be clear: I’m not advocating anyone drop out of school. Attending Dartmouth is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and at no other time in your life will it be your job to learn for the sake of learning. My only request is that you acknowledge how capable you are and what a blessing it is to be alive. Don’t waste your life chasing societal ideals of success. Make your own path. Be an outlier. Do some cool shit. Whatever you end up doing though, do it of your own free will and when you look back on your life, have no regrets.