I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted anything; I’ve been insanely busy reading thousands of applications – probably many of yours, in fact! But I did want to write briefly about something really cool that I just heard about recently…
One of my very good friends, Justin ’08, is actually being featured on inc.com (along with his co-founder, Chris ’09, and one of my other friends, Scot ’08). They founded a start-up to help make learning foreign languages easier in foreign-language classrooms.
I asked Justin to write a little guest entry too, so he wrote a really nice piece for y’all about his journey here at MIT. Enjoy!
When I applied to MIT, I wanted to build robots. My heroes were Rodney Brooks and Marvin Minsky, and my future image of myself was in a white coat tinkering with the wired brain of some android. So, of course, I did what any MIT freshman hopped up on idealism and tech-romanticism does: I got a UROP. In Brooks’ Humanoid Robotics Lab, no less. I was going to publish fifteen papers, file three patents, and invent machine consciousness in my four years at MIT, I was sure of it. I just needed to learn Linux first.
Building robots turned out to be harder than I had anticipated. I had built a little line-follower from tupperware, a comparator, and two photosensors in high school, but this was nothing like that. Instead of soldering together the guts of a robot, anticipating the moment when a dozen blinking LEDs would declare it alive, I was researching communications protocols and circuit compatibilities. When my grad student finally gave me an interesting project – to build a sound localization device (ears) for her robot – my initial burst of energy quickly fizzled when I found myself knee-deep in MATLAB dealing with microphone noise and trying to figure out what the hell a cross correlation was supposed to do. The whole thing was immensely educational, but I slowly discovered that I simply didn’t have that white-coated future-self in me.
It wasn’t much of an identity crisis since I had three years of MIT left to figure out what I wanted to do. I was a Course 6 major from the start, fairly confident that I wanted to work with computers. About two years in, though, I started missing my old pals in the Liberal Arts: namely language, literature, and politics – so much so that I skipped out on engineering altogether one semester and took Chinese, World Music, and two political science courses. I enjoyed this so much that I nearly dropped Course 6 for 17, before my adviser gave me some very good (and probably debatable) advice: an adeptness in technology would be more precious after graduation than a liberal arts education. I could read a lot and think hard to maintain an engaged interest in writing and analyzing world events, but I was unlikely to ever will myself to learn a programming language or systems architecture if I hadn’t developed an intuition for technology in undergrad.
So graduation finally rolled around and I was thrust into the job market, delaying the inevitable by spending that summer setting up a computer lab for a primary school in Malawi. I hadn’t applied and been accepted to any software firms or investment banks like most of my friends had five months ago, remembering well the misery of pounding out code in a cubicle during a sophomore internship. I had decided instead to apply to a handful of web start-up companies in Boston and the Bay area. Two of my earliest friends at MIT had dropped out to start companies and were doing quite well – the pace and challenge of start-ups seemed tantalizing, technically and creatively. When I got back from Africa, I flew straight to San Francisco, where I crashed on the couch of an MIT dropout and spent my days solving programming puzzles and interviewing with founders no older than myself. The passion and drive of all these entrepreneurial faces was deeply inspiring – I suddenly felt that overwhelming charisma that I had worn when applying for that first UROP at the robotics lab. In the same way that I had wanted to solder wires and create intelligence, I wanted to start my own venture that would consume my energy, combine my interests, and grow to be something bigger than cubicled code.
And so Lingt, a start-up focusing on building online technologies for foreign language classrooms, was born. I spent two summers in China during my MIT career – and it took all six of those months in addition to MIT’s language classes to reach a point where I could really speak Mandarin. I saw an opportunity to leverage web technologies to help language students pick up the spoken language more rapidly in the setting that I thought learning occurred best – the classroom.
Contrary to the fleeting half-life of my interest in robotics, my passion for entrepreneurship is proving more sticky. Making sure you find your job interesting is good, but combining your interests (in my case technology and foreign language) to create your job is heaven. Business meetings, marketing strategy, and even the occasional art design keep the right side of my brain very much alive, which is perhaps the greatest benefit of choosing entrepreneurship over grad school or a “real job.” Whether my co-founder Chris and I succeed or fail is besides the point (so far so good); by putting together a business that was able to secure a few partners and make technology that people wanted to use, we have escaped our destiny of being pigeon-holed as the “tech guys” for the rest of our lives. So, don’t ride college like an assembly line conveyor belt. Abandon those things that don’t interest you and figure out a way to combine those things that do. You’ll be much happier and better for it on the other side.