6 LA entrepreneurs offer advice to their college-aged selves

February 16, 2017

College is the first time in most people's lives that they're truly on their own. Those formative years are as much about experimentation and failure as they are about achieving a degree, and the lessons stick with you wherever you go.

For these six entrepreneurs, college helped shape who they are today. After building successful businesses, here's what they wish they could go back and tell their 18-year-old selves.

 

PatientPop co-founder and co-CEO Luke Kervin entered college to study physics and nanotechnology, but his natural entrepreneurial skill eventually pulled him toward business. Kervin, like many successful entrepreneurs, said he believes strongly in the learning experience that failure brings.

What did you want to do professionally when you first went to college?

I initially enrolled in a Bachelor of Science program to pursue my high school fascination with physics and nanotechnology. At the same time, I had always been interested in being an entrepreneur, even starting a few side businesses as a teenager. After learning more about the life of a scientist, I decided to transfer into a business program with a focus on entrepreneurship.

If you could give a freshman advice on their first day of class, what would it be?

Never be comfortable. Continually put yourself in challenging, sink-or-swim situations. Set what seem to be really high, impossible-to-achieve goals. Try to align yourself —  and compete —  with really smart, ambitious people. 

Was there a specific moment in your college career that shaped the rest of your life?

In my final year of college, I enrolled in Economics of Entrepreneurship, a new special topics class with an ambiguous description. Honestly, I had only chosen the class because its name included the word “Entrepreneurship.” 

On the first day of class, I learned that the professor was an entrepreneur named Reza Satchu. He had co-founded SupplierMarket, which had recently exited for close to a billion dollars during the dot-com boom. Reza was very influential in changing the way I thought about personal goals, raising my bar for what was possible.

Graduation is terrifying for everyone. What advice would you give to yourself around that time?

Do whatever it takes to land great internships while in school, and graduation will not be terrifying. I thought I wanted to work for IBM when I graduated. So I did an 18-month internship with IBM, which helped me grow professionally and also helped me learn that I did not want to work for a big company. 

What advice would you give to college students in general?

Get started as an entrepreneur. Learn how to code. Find a business partner. Build something. 

If you want to pursue entrepreneurship after you graduate, I recommend first working for a larger company for at least two years. Don’t focus on compensation, but put yourself in the best possible learning environment. For me, that was working for a consulting company that supported media and technology businesses. There I had the privilege of gaining exposure to a variety of businesses in web, mobile and interactive television. 

Ultimately, there is no training for entrepreneurship; at some point, you just have to pull the ripcord and commit 100 percent of your time to your business. Be prepared to fail a lot and to learn very quickly that you aren’t very good at many of the things demanded of a CEO and/or Founder. 

And know that over time, and through much failure, you will get there.

 

Leura Fine, CEO of West Hollywood-based Laurel & Wolf said she believes strongly that her collegiate career shaped who she became as a professional. She also said the education process doesn't stop when you receive your diploma.

What did you want to do professionally when you first went to college? 

I wanted to be a lawyer.  

If you could give a freshman advice on their first day of class, what would it be?

You've got this under control. Stop worrying about if others are smarter than you, just focus on doing the best you can. Oh, and if you sign up for literally every activity, you will pretty much never sleep. 

Was there a specific moment in your college career that shaped the rest of your life? 

My entire college experience (both inside and outside the classroom) dramatically changed the course of my life. College is an opportunity to study what interests you, to be surrounded by smart and interesting people and to try new things! Make the most of having that opportunity and find ways to be inspired and challenged every day.

Graduation is terrifying for everyone. What advice would you give to yourself around that time? 

If you're willing to work hard then you don't have anything to worry about. Your first job isn't going to be the one you'll have forever so don't stress about knowing exactly what you want to do. All experience is good experience when you're fresh out of college. Keep your eyes and ears open as you never know what you'll learn along the way. 

What advice would you give to college students in general? 

College isn't just about preparing for a job or career, it's about preparing for life. This is where you begin the process of defining who you are and what you aspire to be. Make it your mission to understand what "finding joy in the journey and not what the "destination" really means.  

 

Momentfeed CEO Robert Blatt's route to graduating from Cornell isn't typical of what most college students go through, but it's something he said helped him get to where he is today.

What did you want to do professionally when you first went to college? 

I wanted to be a surgeon, but found my math and computer science classes to be effortless while my science classes required a lot of discipline and effort to excel in. So I gravitated to what I wanted to do, which was computer science, instead of who I thought I wanted to be, which had been a surgeon.

If you could give a freshman advice on their first day of class, what would it be?

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." — John Lennon, by way of Allen Saunders.

Was there a specific moment in your college career that shaped the rest of your life? 

I was unable to get into my first choice college — Cornell — from high school. So I went to SUNY Binghamton, which was at the time the top-ranked state university in New York. I did very well my freshman year, and half-way through my sophomore year I re-applied to Cornell. But instead of waiting for a response I hitchhiked to Cornell and arrived at the admissions office without an appointment. I sat there for the entire day. As the head of admissions was packing up to go home he asked who I was and why I had been sitting in his office waiting room all day. It earned me an in-person meeting which led to my acceptance and eventual transfer to Cornell.

Graduation is terrifying for everyone. What advice would you give to yourself around that time? 

Get used to it! Massive changes like this are going to happen throughout your life. If you think this is a hard one, wait until you become a parent for the first time. 

What advice would you give to college students in general? 

Learn to love learning. With the ever accelerating rate of technology advancement, continuous learning is the new norm. So, never stop being a student.  

 

Pledgeling CEO James Citron's family home was damaged by the Northridge earthquake in 1994. This event inspired what he wanted to major in when he enrolled at Princeton, but that changed once he started to experience what college life was like.

What did you want to do professionally when you first went to college?

I was inspired by two life events — the Northridge Earthquake that damaged my family’s home and my subsequent reading of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead — and I went to Princeton with plans to become an architect and build unconventional, earthquake-proof buildings. 

If you could give a freshman advice on their first day of class, what would it be?

Get uncomfortably active and participate in everything. Say hello to everyone. Sign-up or audition for an organization that you thought you never would. Answer a question in class and become friends with the smartest professors that you meet. The experiences that you collect and the relationships that you build will fundamentally shape the rest of your life. There’s little downside to trying and failing in college, so go for it! 

Was there a specific moment in your college career that shaped the rest of your life?

In 1999, a few classmates and I found it crazy that there was no website that connected students on each college campus to one another and served as the central “portal” for communication, events, commerce and campus content. We started a company called VarsityPlanet a few years before a company called TheFacebook created something similar. The process of raising a $1MM at 21 years old, trying to scale a startup from my dorm room, and then, ultimately, having the market crash of 2000 kill our ability to close our Series A round was the greatest and most humbling experience of my life. I learned that I could think of no greater career than becoming an entrepreneur and building startups that could connect and engage millions of people.

Graduation is terrifying for everyone. What advice would you give to yourself around that time?

Find and connect with the people who inspire you, embrace the experience and live in the moment. If you’re scared about what’s next, remember that opportunities often appear in places you would least expect them. This should be an exciting milestone in your life — it’s the time that you get to take the next major step and celebrate the culmination of the greatest few years of your life yet! 

What advice would you give to college students in general?

Get out of your comfort zone. Take risks. Don’t sleep in (every day). Study abroad. Start a movement. Co-found a startup. Don’t sign-up for more than one credit card. Invest a little money in something. Find a real job/mentor during your junior year that can become your career. Take a coding class or several. Call, text and thank your parent(s) often. Embrace life — the good, the bad, the joyful and the painful; the successes, the failures, the relationships, the times alone. Experience life fully every day.

 

MyLücke founder Emily Webb said becoming a big part of campus life will lead to lasting relationships down the road.

What did you want to do professionally when you first went to college

The President of the United States. 

If you could give a freshman you advice on your first day of class, what would it be?

It seems like a long road, but make certain to embrace every day, because college is a rare experience that would never typically be replicated later in life. Sports, clubs and education as a lifestyle should be taken as a privilege and honor because the real world entails many more responsibilities and challenges. 

Was there a specific moment in your college career that shaped the rest of your life? 

Yes, when I received a scholarship. Without financial support, my education would not have been as fruitful. 

Graduation is terrifying for everyone. What advice would you give to yourself around that time? 

Mentally prepare for what comes next and don’t be intimated by the unknown. Life will unfold exactly how it’s supposed to. Trust the path you have created for yourself and don’t be afraid to change directions after you’ve graduated. 

What advice would you give to college students in general? 

College is an extremely unique experience for people in general, so take advantage of the creativity and opportunities that are offered on campus. Learn to play the piano, play a new sport, get engaged in theater, take challenging classes, make new friends, absorb the knowledge from professors and never forget that everything you do, you are making a difference — so make it count!

 

Tom Bilyeu founded LA unicorn Quest Nutrition, an e-commerce brand that offers a collection of nutritional supplements. Recently, the USC grad started Impact Theory, a podcast that discusses business and professional growth. According to Bilyeu, learning the value of hard work early is something that impacted the way he approached college, and later, business.

What did you want to do professionally when you first went to college?

I wanted to be a film director and producer.

If you could give a freshman you advice on your first day of class, what would it be?

Have a growth mindset. Your talents and intelligence are not set in stone. They can be grown and developed. 

Was there a specific moment in your college career that shaped the rest of your life?

Yes. By working my ass off, I was able to get into USC film school. I was told by the school counselor that I would never get in, but I ignored them and took one of the people on the admissions committee out to lunch. I asked them what I needed to do to get in, even though I had poor SAT scores. They told me to work hard and get amazing grades. If I got good grades, they wouldn’t even look at my SAT scores. So I locked myself in my room for two years and studied hard. I got good grades and thus got into film school. That proved to me that hard work wins every time.

Graduation is terrifying for everyone. What advice would you give to yourself around that time?

I was too naive to be afraid, but what I wish I had known was to get where I wanted to go, I should immediately go to the person who is living the life that I want to lead and offer to work for them for free in exchange for knowledge and connections. The knowledge and connections will be worth way more than the money. I’d sleep in a studio apartment with six other people to make that a reality. You can get your expenses down farther than you think if you’re willing to suffer for what you most want.

What advice would you give to college students in general?

Have very clear goals. Without a target you will miss every time. Hard work, discipline and focus over time are the keys to achieving your goals. Go all in on what you love. Hold yourself to metrics to ensure that you’re moving towards your goals. Get control of your mind — namely, only do and believe that which moves you towards your goals.

 

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via participating companies and Facebook.

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