What Were Tech Founders Like In College?

The founders of technology companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Airbnb, and Netflix have succeeded in reshaping entire industries and changing the lives of billions of people around the world. I was curious to understand what tech founders were like during an experience that significantly shapes many people: college. 

Below, I have compiled excerpts that describe how 10 founders of major tech companies experienced college. They come from the founders’ themselves, classmates, or faculty members. They describe how the founders spent their time in college  to how college influenced what they would do after, and how college shaped their view of the world. The schools represented are all over the higher educational spectrum: liberal arts, research university, public, private, and so on.  

Some highlights: 

  • Bill Gates’ freshman year roommate describes Gates as working for 48 hours straight and then crashing for 18 hours until restarting the cycle
  • Steve Jobs thought his college humanities lectures were meaningless at the time but with time has realized that they have helped him in “everything” he’s done
  • Elon Musk ran a nightclub in a ten-bedroom house on the weekend while at the University of Pennsylvania – he and his friend charged $5 for unlimited drinks (including Jello-O shots)
  • Brian Chesky of Airbnb eased the anxiety of giving his class’s commencement speech by watching the staff set up 6,000 chairs in the auditorium the night before
  • Reed Hastings of Netflix was a dedicated peer tutor who offered a detailed plan to revamp Bowdoin’s self-paced calculus course

While some of the above may have been exaggerated through the passing of time, they offer a fascinating look into how the founders of enormous companies went through college. Take a look at the excerpts below to learn about other founders experienced college including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Marc Benioff (Salesforce), and others.

Many of the recollections show that these founders felt many of the same feelings in college that college students everywhere have likely felt at one point or another. Some founders recount their stories of anxiety, confusion, or even inadequacy. Others describe the gratitude that college enabled them to try new things, positively shaped their worldview, and inspired them to more clearly see their future profession. It seems that college is the same whether or not you go on to start a billion dollar technology business: a time of self-discovery with plenty of ups and downs.

Bill Gates (Microsoft) – Harvard, dropped out

“‘[Since the first day] he was always a very intense, focused individual,’ says Samuel Znaimer ’77, Gates’ first-year roommate in Wigglesworth A-11. ‘From the very beggining he had a certain high-energy attitude and style. He’d work for 48 hours in a row. Then he’d crash for 18 hours, and when he woke up, he’d go straight back in.’ ” 1

“In the wee hours of the morning, Gates would sometimes fall asleep at the terminal. ‘He’d be in the middle of a line of code when he’d gradually tilt forward until his nose touched the keyboard,’ Allen said. ‘After dozing an hour or two, he’d open his eyes, squint at the screen, blink twice, and resume precisely where he’d left off—a prodigious feat of concentration.’ ” 2

Jeff Bezos (Amazon) – Princeton

“I just remember there was a point in this where I realized I’m never going to be a great physicist. There were three or four people in the class whose brains were so clearly wired differently to process these highly abstract concepts, so much more. I was doing well in terms of the grades I was getting, but for me it was laborious, hard work. And, for some of these truly gifted folks — it was awe-inspiring for me to watch them because in a very easy, almost casual way, they could absorb concepts and solve problems that I would work 12 hours on, and it was a wonderful thing to behold. At the same time, I had been studying computer science, and was really finding that that was something I was drawn toward. I was drawn to that more and more and that turned out to be a great thing. So I found — one of the great things Princeton taught me is that I’m not smart enough to be a physicist.” 3

Steve Jobs (Apple) – Reed College, dropped out

“But a few things stick in my mind that I wanted to pass on that maybe could be of some value. The first was that, as you will be shortly, I was forced to go to humanities lectures, it seemed like every day. I studied Shakespeare with Professor Svitavsky. And at the time I thought these were meaningless and even somewhat cruel endeavors to be put through. I can assure you that as the patina of time takes its toll, I thank God that I had these experiences here. It has helped me in everything I’ve ever done, although I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time.” 4

Michael Dell (Dell) – UT Austin

‘To please his parents Dell enrolled as a premed at the University of Texas in 1983, but by then he was really only interested in tinkering with computers. That first semester found him buying up remaindered, outmoded IBM PCs from local retailers, then upgrading them in his dorm room and selling them–not just around campus, but literally hawking door to door to local law firms and small businesses. One day his roommate piled his ever-growing inventory up against the door. “He was kind of frustrated, I guess,” says Dell. “So I moved.”

When he told his parents that he wanted to drop out at the end of his freshman year, they were furious. He agreed to go back if the summer’s sales proved disappointing, but instead the business took off–he sold $180,000 worth of PCs his first month–and Dell never returned for his sophomore year. He quickly realized that instead of upgrading older machines, he could buy components and assemble the whole PC himself more cheaply. Then he could sell the machine with his name on it directly to customers at a 15% discount to established brands.” ’ 5

Marc Benioff (Salesforce) – USC

‘In 1984, future billionaire Marc Benioff spent the summer writing code at Apple in Cupertino and marveling at the company co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs had created – there were shiatsu massages at the office, fruit smoothies in the refrigerators and a pirate flag on the roof.

“That summer, I discovered it was possible for an entrepreneur to encourage revolutionary ideas,” Benioff would later write in his book, Beyond the Cloud.’ 6

Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) – Stanford

‘ “I had this aspiration to participate in society as a public intellectual,” he said. His thesis explored the limitations of thought experiments. By his winter term, he realized that life as a professor would, in many ways, feel confining. Again, the issue was one of scale.

“When you write a scholarly work, it tends to be understood by very few people, and has one publication point over time,” he said. “But when you build a service, you can touch millions, to hundreds of millions of people directly.” ’ 7

Brian Chesky (Airbnb) – Rhode Island School of Design

‘His natural leadership potential surfaced at RISD, where he served as the captain of the hockey team and was eventually selected to be the commencement speaker at his graduation. Chesky threw himself into the task, studying every commencement speech he could find; to make the experience less intimidating, the night before his address he stood at the podium and watched as the staff set up 6,000 chairs one by one. “Who does that?” muses Deb Chesky.’8

Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) – Harvard, dropped out

“When Zuckerberg starts a programming project, all else takes a backseat. He doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t talk to friends. When he buried himself in his room to work on thefacebook.com late last January, his roommates almost forgot he was there.” 9

Elon Musk (X.com, Tesla, SpaceX) – Queen’s University and University of Pennsylvania

‘Recalling his two student years in Canada, Musk notes, “In the first two years at university, you learn a lot about a great many things. One particular thing that I learned at Queen’s – both from faculty and students – was how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose.”’ 10

‘They got the ten-bedroom home relatively cheap, since it was a frat house that had gone unrented. During the week, Musk and Ressi would study, but as the weekend approached, Ressi, in particular, would transform the house into a nightclub. He covered the windows with trash bags to make it pitch black inside and decorated the walls with bright paints and whatever objects he could find. “It was a full-out, unlicensed speakeasy,” Ressi said. “We would have as many as five hundred people. We would charge five dollars, and it would be pretty much all you could drink—beer and Jell-O shots and other things.”’ 11

Reed Hastings (Netflix) – Bowdoin College

‘In the early ’80s, the math department ran a self-paced calculus program that stressed learning at the student’s own rate. Instead of attending a traditional lecture style class, students would meet one-on-one with professors and peer tutors to complete the course load. Hastings was deeply invested in the program. He was a committed peer tutor who took care, according to Barker, to “explain basic concepts to the average student in ways they could understand.” After a year “he wrote up this detailed scheme on how we should revamp self-paced calculus,” recalled Barker. “We ran the program for well over 10 years and no student had ever turned in anything like that. He was already in the mode of planning and doing things.”’ 12

  1. June, 2002 – The Harvard Crimson
  2. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson retelling Gates’ time in college and the beginning of Microsoft
  3. April, 2008 – Interview with Achievement.org
  4. August, 1991 – Jobs’ Convocation speech at Reed titled Staying Hungry (the title is quite literal)
  5. September, 1997 – Fortune 
  6. August, 2011 – SF Gate 
  7. November, 2011 – New York Times 
  8. June, 2015 – Fortune
  9. June, 2004 – The Harvard Crimson
  10. 2013 – Queen’s Alumni Review
  11. 2015 – Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, excerpt on his college years here
  12. 2013 – The Bowdoin Orient 

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