higher education

If Not Snapchat, What? A Guide to Stanford’s Non-Tech Fiefdoms

Photo: Jack Fields/Getty Images

Stanford (as we explored earlier this week) has become as much a tech incubator as a university — a four-year finishing school for the elite of Silicon Valley. But, of course, there are more worlds than the tech industry, and more reasons than “tech wealth” that the university is consistently named the No. 1 “dream college” for both parents and students. Many paths to fame, fortune, and power run through Stanford — here are just a few.


Herbert Hoover matriculated into Stanford’s first-ever class, and his, um, august legacy is honored today through a set of interlocking majors and programs. These include the massive student organization Stanford in Government, which offers fellowships and stipends to help students afford to take unpaid policy and politics internships; the Stanford in Washington program, which provides students with an academic quarter in D.C.; and honors programs. Stanford is also home to the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank that has hosted a good portion of Bush-administration alumni, including Condoleezza Rice, who teaches a well-reviewed seminar on American foreign policy.

Capitol Hill offers poor pay and recruits all the way into the spring, so politics kids are more likely to go into law school, grad programs, or policy jobs. If you’re a true Frank Underwood, the move is to find the faculty members “who are academics but then will do stints in politics,” says a history alum. “For instance, Dr. Jeremy Weinstein was Samantha Power’s chief of staff for a number of years, and Mike McFaul, the director of [the Freeman Spogli Institute], was the Russian ambassador under Obama. This is very, very common.” There’s also (keep this on the DL) recruitment into intelligence agencies, especially the CIA.

Biosciences: The Next CS

Stanford achieved its dominant position in academia today by being ahead of the curve on computer science. Now it’s going for a repeat by betting big on bio — from the recent appointment of neuroscientist and former biotech executive Marc Tessier-Lavigne to Stanford’s presidency to “building up the medical school in very particular ways, especially, and in the representation of professionals and industry leaders in biomedical sciences on Stanford’s boards,” says Jackson Beard, class of ’17, who observed the beginnings of Stanford’s pivot when she was student-body president.

But how to bring about this next wave on a campus that already has a medical school, a hospital, and a population of premeds? For starters, a new bioengineering building and a pair of grant initiatives for research and biotech entrepreneurship, which is a lot more capital-intensive (think a lab) than software start-ups (think a dorm room) are. Bio-X, an interdisciplinary biology-and-medicine program, offers seed grants to researchers who can turn their projects into companies, and ChEM-H (Chemistry, Engineering, and Medicine for Human Health) is Bio-X’s “spiritual successor,” says a recent engineering grad who founded a biotech company using a ChEM-H grant.

Wall Street Classic: Finance and Consulting

A substantial number of students each year join their counterparts from the Ivy League on the finance-and-consulting recruitment stage. Future Masters of the Universe often hit the ground running in a world where one internship often leads to another and getting into the right clubs can be key. “I would say for finance, what matters is networking,” says one economics major. “Consulting groups also have a sense of what the organizations on campus do and if they’re important or not, so if you were the head of SIG [Stanford in Government], for example, you’d get the first-round interview, assuming there’s no other red flags on your résumé.”

One important organization, especially on a campus where men are disproportionately represented in the business community, is Stanford Women in Business (SWIB). “We try to really focus on education, so that’s different sorts of skill workshops, interview boot camps, résumé boot camps, LinkedIn boot camps, through mentorship and community and through networking,” says Grace Isford, ’19, a former SWIB co-president. “Several of the internships I got while at Stanford came through SWIB in some way, through our mailing list that sends out weekly internships to anyone who wants to sign up, or just through a colleague in SWIB referring me or mentioning that I might be interested.”

And, of course, there is Greek life, a “ready-made mentorship network, especially around elite, professional opportunities, that exists alongside the social thing,” says Jake Dow, ’19, a political-science major and member of Kappa Sigma. “For example, there’s a lot of sorority members in Stanford Women in Business, there’s a lot of fraternity members in Stanford Consulting and Stanford Finance, and there’s sorority members there too. So, right, if you are in a fraternity and you’re applying for Stanford Consulting, and a lot of your friends, either from your organization or from Greek life broadly, are also in Stanford Consulting, you have a better chance of getting in. People look out for their own.”

Business School: Sand Hill Road Edition

The Graduate School of Business has world-class tenured academics and links to industries all over, but particularly in entrepreneurship through lecturers who have other jobs as VCs or angel investors. For a case study, take Rightfoot, a social-impact start-up that partners with employers to help facilitate paying down their employees’ student debt. It was founded by Danielle Pensack and Deirdre Clute, both M.B.A. ’19. They refined their start-up in such classes as:

“Start-up Garage”: Study with lecturers (VCs, serial entrepreneurs, etc.), work on your company’s problems and build your pitch deck, and culminate in pitching to real VCs.

“Managing Growing Enterprises”: Do case studies with teachers who started a highly successful search fund (with those CEO case-study subjects in the room).

“Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital”: Learn — and have your pitch to VCs critiqued — from main instructors Eric Schmidt, Google’s ex-CEO; Raymond Nasr, Google’s ex-comms director; and Peter Wendell, Sierra Ventures’ founder.

“Lean Launchpad”: In serial entrepreneur Steve Blank’s famous hands-on class, you can hit the road and interview dozens — or hundreds — of potential clients to see if your business fills their needs. Blank has also mentored founders beyond the course’s end.

Investors in Rightfoot include two of the founders’ professors as well as GSB classmates; a CEO the team met in Eric Schmidt’s class, and pitched to afterward, is an early adopter; and alumni like the CEO of Hot Topic and the CFO of a multibillion-dollar tech company have given advice. Be bold, and the “supportive and amazing” network will rally.

Wait — What About the Humanities?

Humanities students, relatively few in number but relatively good of heart, might enroll in programs like SLE (Structured Liberal Education, a great-books program) or ITALIC (Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture, an arts program), or they might live in Ng House, a humanities-themed dorm. And, look, thinking about it cynically: In scandal-wracked tech and elsewhere, signs are starting to show of a recognition that the liberal arts might be good for anyone, no matter who they are or what their career is.

Vibhav Mariwala, ’20, a history major and co-president of BASES (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students), says it is “refreshing” to not “get siloed off into ‘either/or,’” and tech types in Silicon Valley have been “excited” to talk to people outside traditional tech fields to hear a “different perspective.” Alina Utrata, ’17, a history major and Marshall Scholar, says when she arrived on campus in 2013, the student “derision” felt toward the humanities was “shocking,” but now “there’s this realization that just because you have amazing technical skills, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have the philosophical, political, or public-policy backgrounds to understand the ramifications of what you’ve done.”

Building a New Elite

An anecdote about the university that is positioning itself to take charge of the 21st century: Jackson Beard ’17, the former student body president, told me a story about how a cabinet member of hers tried to schedule a meeting with the head of the student health center to discuss school policy on involuntary psychiatric holds of students. After many delays, a meeting occurred where the administrator “just asked, straight up, ‘When do you two graduate?’ He said, ‘I want to know when you’ll stop caring about this issue.’”

This attitude, where the little things like well-being are sacrificed to the breakneck pace of the institution, is ever present. Students know this, and they respond. Jake Dow ’19 describes “what is considered a classic Stanford person” as someone who is “dispositionally lighthearted but very professionally and academically ruthless.” On a campus in Silicon Valley full of such people, “the network effect generates a lot of corruption,” says Jonathon Yu ’17. “But the network effect is also precisely what creates the engine of growth.” Even someone like Zavain Dar ’10 M.S. CS ’12, who is a VC at Lux Capital and might therefore be expected to be all in, actually seemed a bit wistful about the situation, cautioning that “students being allowed to be students” was being “overshadowed” by start-up culture.

Students and alumni told us about life-changing opportunities that they embraced after learning about them offhandedly from professors, friends, and, in one case, a girlfriend who happened to be the daughter of a partner at a VC firm. But gaining this knowledge often required students to be in the know with the right people or have connections before they walked in the door. Brianna Brown ’17, who was raised by a single mom and knew little about the university before stepping onto campus, noticed that many students who went to feeder schools “were already trying to email professors, trying to email sorority or fraternity people. They already knew where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do, and I was trying to figure out what the options were.”

In interviews, many people, including technology enthusiasts, seemed torn: They were surrounded by opportunity, and it would be such a waste, almost ungrateful, to not seize on it when they had the chance. But they were sometimes frustrated at the expectation that their careers should be unicorns or Wall Street, though they sometimes found those careers thrilling, or at least liked that they were in a place where it was a real option. And it also could sometimes feel unseemly, or downright unethical, to give in to being as rawly ambitious and as willing to instrumentalize their education as their turbocharged college-application processes had trained them to be.

If Not Snapchat, What? Stanford’s Non-Tech Fiefdoms