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The privilege of problem-solving

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SEPTEMBER 27, 2019

“Is your dream to be a founder too?”

Such a seemingly innocuous question was the springboard for so many of my relationships as a kid. And there was no denying it: I craved the undying exuberance that I imagined starting a company under my own vision would engender, so much so that my career goal of becoming a CEO hinged on my audacious creation of a company to manage. Even more astounding was that I was rarely unique in my ambitions. I bonded with other Silicon Valley hopefuls over loving technology, taking risks and dreaming big. That’s what successful future founders do, right?

Somewhere between the swarm of venture capital firms and the umpteen startup accelerators in the Bay; sometime between the weekly initial public offerings and many, many, many funding rounds; somewhere, sometime, somehow I fell in love with solvability over complexity. It was a facile way to make sense of the world around me, one that characterized it as an imperfect sphere of existence, with problems only I and other so-called entrepreneurs were destined to solve.

I truly believed startup founders created a great world as a result — thousands of successful companies have led incredible breakthroughs in the sciences, arts and education and have paved our path to posterity. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I realized the very same world we’ve hand-sculpted with our individualistic agendas is also one that has expropriated the rights of a few unlucky socioeconomic groups and induced suffering, violence and ignorance with the blade of our automated sword. But at the time, the redundancy of fruitless organizations selflessly dedicating their lives to solving problems that don’t even exist seemed nothing more than a rich entrepreneurial ecosystem. And back then, I felt invincible. I was a future founder. A superhero who hadn’t yet found her golden moment (and product) to save the world with.

I still vividly remember the entrepreneurship camps that I spent summers attending. They seemed like everything at the time. The lessons more often than not began with rapid ideation — basically, an ostentatious contest in which we were provoked to output hundreds of perceived problems in the world, most of which we could barely imagine, let alone understand at the age of 16. Conceiving possibilities was exciting, but “innovating” in spaces I had no previous knowledge or experience of felt unnatural and, frankly, futile. From there we’d make a technical prototype, conduct user research with individuals with similar opinions who came from similar backgrounds, think about a hypothetical business plan to execute assuming access to financial capital, and done — a new startup was created! It was all too simple.

When I came to UC Berkeley, I found no shortage of serial entrepreneurs with the same overeager mentality and instructors who introduced entrepreneurship as a discipline, one that supposedly could be learned within the confines of a classroom by students barely two decades old. I quickly got involved in a startup consulting group and a startup incubator, where I observed companies succeed. For every success, I saw many more companies fail due to the lack of a sizable market need since founders who desired to start something for the sake of starting something lacked deep connection to and recognition of the issue they were supposedly addressing. It appeared that in this world, where time is the sole inhibitor for those at the highest echelons of society, innovation must be accelerated to be disruptive. Entrepreneurship must be a quest for quantity, where the only thing that’s iterative is the repeated mistake of fabricating problems to satisfy the desire to solve and oversimplifying ones that already exist.

From the One Laptop per Child initiative to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, case studies in my global poverty and practice classes have reframed what “solving a problem” even entails to me. I wish I had known that engaging in the world entrepreneurially isn’t just about starting a company and being a “founder” — it’s about learning as much as you can, cultivating a deep and constantly evolving understanding of markets, people, interactions and issues. It’s not just about iteratively innovating, but being able to recurrently critique yourself. It’s developing empathy, which is derived from shared experience, getting proximate to the happenings (not problems) in areas you don’t routinely visit, in the lives of people you infrequently interact with, in thoughts that may differ from your own. It’s encouraging curiosity, complexity and courage. Curiosity to explore the unknown, complexity as a motivating reason to pursue, not avoid, and courage to empathize and internalize the multifaceted realities of those that differ, that disagree. And then, after personally or proximately experiencing a pain point with others and gaining clarity about the landscape in its entirety, if a startup is a practical approach, then by all means, go for it.

So, a note to my younger self: Never forget the responsibility you have to represent more than just yourself — the lives of others are delicate and not open to your self-centered, privileged experimentation.

Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

SEPTEMBER 27, 2019


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