What’s the value of a “brand-name” education for a startup? An analysis last year from First Round Capital found that of the companies it had funded, those with a founder from an elite school — the Ivy League, Stanford or MIT — beat other companies’ performances by about 220 percent.
Obviously, then, a superbly educated leader is an important boost for startups. But whether his or her increased value is singularly due to a degree from a particular school is another matter.
Elite alumni differ from other college graduates in two key ways: First, they benefit from the “network effect.” This takes nto account those mentors, investors and co-founders who can increase a startup’s chances of success and are easily accessible through the built-in network of other highly successful alumni.
Second, a larger proportion of these elite-school alumni come from affluent backgrounds, and that fact creates a stronger launchpad of potential “friends and family” funders than occurs from a pool of state university attendees.
Despite advantages like these that founders who graduated from top schools may contribute, a startup without elite alumni certainly isn’t doomed. Reason: It’s far more important to invest in the people you have (or plan to have) than to search for someone simply because of the school listed on his or her resume.
And, just as important: Any startup can potentially increase its effectiveness by focusing on a continuous and strategized education program.
Graduating doesn’t mean that people stop learning.
For the same reasons that people choose to attend college in the first place — skill diversification, personal satisfaction and higher worth — leaders should include education programs in the workplace. These programs can help retain employees by giving them a sense of long-term value and eliminating the stresses of job security. Continuing education also allows for more skill overlap and redundancy, which can help mitigate sudden challenges, such as occur when a valued employee moves to another company or falls ill.
The ultimate goal of education, of course, is to engage your team and improve its members’ interpersonal relationships, because the more valuable your employees are, the more valuable and dynamic your company is. While leaders can choose to enact these programs in either an individual or collaborative approach, such as workshops, my experience is that the collaborative approach works best.
For one thing, it promotes communication and interaction: After a workshop, team members can easily ask one another follow-up questions, which they tend to feel more comfortable doing rather than reaching out to their bosses.
For another thing, this approach can lend to discovery: When someone in another department shares how she managed a particular achievement, the rest of the team’s members may learn something they never thought to ask.
How to bring the classroom into the office
Once leaders understand the importance of workplace education, they can use these three strategies to implement it:
1. Let your team choose (with guidance). Fortune 100 companies can spend big on employee-training programs, such as GE’s corporate audit staff, which is known internally as the Green Beret program. This extensive five-year program is geared toward developing the next crop of executives through a series of real-world initiatives and 100-hour workweeks, and it’s completed by only 2 percent of the hundreds who enter it each year.
Comprehensive programs like this are excellent strategies for building a business internally, but startups often don’t have that kind of capital to invest in training. Instead, they can foster company growth by encouraging employees to learn on their own.
Handing employees control over what they learn allows them to feel more empowered and devoted to their education. Such initiatives have given people 10 percent of their paid time to work on hobbies or personal projects that involve new skill sets, and paying for them to take inexpensive continuing education courses, e.g., a new programming language at Udemy.
At my own company, I dedicate one day a week to self-education: Team members share or discuss their side projects or hobbies through various forums that can resemble TED talks. These sessions broaden employees’ horizons and unite us as contributors.
What’s important here is that leaders not be totally hands-off. Guidance is crucial, as is understanding what each team member values, where each wants to be and where the market might be in five years. Employees shouldn’t be forced to learn something they see no value in, so invest the time to know their passions and their vision for the future.
2. Make use of paid interns. Interns not only bring fresh thinking to your startup, they also help senior employees test the competence and robustness of their own ideas during the training process. As teachers no doubt understand, we never know how well we comprehend a subject until we are forced to explain it to someone else.
In this context, the offer of paid internships at a startup promotes it in the community as a place that celebrates young workers’ efforts and accelerates their careers. According to a study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 72 percent of students surveyed from the class of 2016 who completed paid internships found jobs before graduating, versus about 44 percent of those with unpaid internships.
This statistic differential is likely due to a number of factors; but, on a basic level, paid internships increase the investment interns have in the companies they work for, and vice versa.
3. Keep workplace education engaging. Workplace education is one of the best opportunities to foster enthusiasm at your business and reach across the generational divide. With only 11 percent of companies in 2017 providing cross-generational programs, according to a study by Deloitte University Press, this strategy seems particularly important for increasing engagement.
One simple way to boost engagement is to implement contests and prizes. It doesn’t matter what kind of contest, so long as it incorporates a challenge, some rules and a prize. If your company, like mine, is a software shop, host an annual or semiannual internal “hackathon,” with prizes for the winners. Or else sponsor employees who want to attend a hackathon.
Hackathons are great ways for programmers to push their limits: The reason is that these events have been shown to increase productivity and promote effective working relationships within a company by allowing developers to collaborate in a hyperfocused and uninterrupted block of time — a natural approach to how coders solve problems.
In sum, a startup doesn’t need elite alums to stay competitive, but it does need to budget for and encourage a spirit of continual reinvention through education and training. Ultimately, what the company will get out of this expense, for both employees and the company alike, is much more than it would ever put in.