It's OK to Major in Course 15

by Kamil Mafoud, MIT '16 Course 15

MIT is one of the greatest universities in the world. It’s hard to keep track of our many accolades and it feels like there’s a new report every other week ranking us #1. To nobody’s surprise, we consistently rank among the best for STEM departments. What sometimes goes unnoticed is that we also rank among the best for many other departments including Management (Science), Economics, and Urban Planning. This university’s success across a broad set of fields reflects its commitment to excelling in every aspect.

But within all of this, there is a fundamental problem - one that inhibits the potential of our great university.

When I started MIT, I was really interested in entrepreneurship. In my senior year of high school, a couple of friends and I started up a company called AppointmentStatus, a platform by which you could connect doctors and patients to facilitate scheduling. I knew that my interest in entrepreneurship would fit right in with MIT’s culture of innovation.

As a result, I came in interested in majoring in Course 15, but as soon as I arrived on campus I was quickly talked out of Course 15 by everyone I met. They told me that course 15 was a “joke” and that I would be better suited studying computer science at MIT. If I really wanted, I could take Course 15 classes on the side.

So I declared Course 6 as my major and started taking the standard classes (i.e. 6.01, 6.042, 6.006). After taking these classes, I realized I wasn’t really excited by the direction I was heading with Course 6. I also started to become more interested in finance. But again, instead of pursuing Management Science, I was convinced to switch to Course 18. I was told that math would provide me with a quantitative background, which would be beneficial to a career in finance. I ended up with quite a few Course 18 classes under my belt. In fact, I remained Course 18 up until the beginning of my senior year.

It was at that point, even though I only needed to take a few more classes in Course 18 to complete the major, that I realized how fed up I was. I never really looked forward to any of my math classes and I found myself looking for the easiest way to complete the major. I was essentially trying to game the system just to receive the degree.

But it was not what I was passionate about. It was too theoretical for me and not aligning with what I could see myself doing in the future. This was my identity crisis. Each day I remained Course 18, I was forcing myself to be someone that I was not.

The switch to Course 15 was a huge relief as it helped me realign who I was with what I was doing. Unfortunately, I still had to deal with the stigma of being an MIT student studying Course 15. Many of my friends and peers are studying something STEM-related and sometimes it feels as though you are looked down upon for taking an alternative path; but, what works for them might not work for you.

Be yourself and do what makes you happy. MIT is far too stressful of a place to do otherwise. I do not regret the decisions I have made throughout my four years as I have learned many valuable lessons from them; however, I hope others can learn from my mistakes and avoid some of the confusion I endured.

Though I am graduating in Course 15, I can still boast that I have taken classes across a broad range of departments including Course 6, Course 11, Course 14, and Course 18. In fact, I wish I had taken classes in more departments. My education goes beyond what is written on my degree and I don’t need the validation of declaring a double major on my resume.

Truthfully, the courses I have taken in Course 6 and 18 are not particularly relevant for what I ambition to do. So don’t pretend to be someone you are not. Just because you got into MIT does not mean you have to choose a STEM major, and the path that your friends take here should not dictate yours.

I have found more value in classes like International Capital Markets (15.447) and Options and Futures (15.437), for example, which were relevant to my sophomore internship in fixed income trading; or in Finance Theory II (15.402) and Accounting (15.501), which helped me smoothly navigate my investment banking internship.

Besides their usefulness, Course 15 classes have also been far more interesting to me. I loved learning the economics behind investing in commercial real estate in Real Estate Finance (15.426) and this semester (even as a senior counting down the days until graduation) I’ve jumped out of bed for my 8:30am class in Sloan to discuss the strategic rationale of mergers and acquisitions and the legal complexities in a hostile takeover battle.

Once you get to the real world, what your degree says doesn’t matter. It does help establish credibility but your success ultimately boils down to how hard you work and how well you apply your intelligence. Having a degree from MIT certainly helps, but it, alone, does not promise you a successful career.

I would say that I have been fairly successful at MIT. I have held leadership positions across different organizations at MIT, excelled in internships (mostly in finance), and upon graduation I will be starting my career at Morgan Stanley. I am not telling you all this to boast of my accomplishments, but to point out reality - that you will be happier chasing your dreams than chasing validation.

Kamil is a graduating senior in Course 15. He is a former director of the SBC Finance Focus Group and an incoming investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley.

 

Interview with Philippe Schwartz of Square Peg Capital

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Philippe Schwartz

Partner at Square Peg Capital; Former president of Withings, Inc. and Founder & CEO of ooVoo

Philippe is a partner at the Boston branch of Square Peg Capital who invests in internet-related businesses. He brings his 20+ years experience as a business executive to form collaborative relationships with startups and help them achieve greater value.

Q: Describe your job. What do you do as venture capitalist?

As a VC for Square Peg Capital, I invest in companies while working very closely with the CEO and founders. We have a collaborative relationship with companies to help them negotiate difficult contracts with customers, for instance. The last role before I became a venture capitalist was running an Internet of Things (IoT) company in global health and wellness.  I have knowledge in how to maintain relationships with retailers and manage supply chains, etc. I work closely with the entrepreneurs so that they avoid the mistake that we all made when we were executives, entrepreneurs, and operatives, so we share the experiences we’ve had and help them solve real life issues, not just the investment issue. It’s an ongoing engagement, not a report-back relationship.

We are financial partners. We align ourselves in the interest of the company. We’re just another player in the company’s ecosystem. That sounds nice in words, but at the end of the day, they have to happen in reality. Sometimes we don’t agree on everything. There are often different views between us and the executives, but we always have healthy debates that are based on mutual trust and a willingness to prioritize the interests of the company.

 

Q: How does Square Peg go about choosing which startups to invest in and maintaining relationships with them?

For companies that we are currently invested in, our job is to help them with a lot of operational and strategic decisions about which contracts should be signed, recruiting people, helping them maintain relationships with retailers. We help them with day-to-day issues, so it’s very granular and down-to-earth. With new companies, I’m looking for opportunities in areas not because it’s a great technology and a great team, but also because it’s a company that I can understand because I’ve been in that business. Therefore, I can contribute something to the company, and they see us providing real tangible value. The two work hand in hand, since when you start establishing a reputation with an existing relationship, the word goes around and it helps making the new deals.

At the end of the day, when we look at investment criteria, one is really about quality of teams. And the next priority is finding good market opportunities. Sometimes they don’t necessarily feel huge, but they’re real and they become huge as the market evolves. I think if you can find these two things, that’s the winner. Finding great people and solving real problems. We really never invest in one individual. A collaborative team is the essence of a successful company.

 

Q: What brings Square Peg Capital to Boston in particular?

It’s amazing how vibrant the ecosystem is here, especially with MIT. I have a feeling that it is one of the most vibrant entrepreneurial community you can find in the US. It’s great for us to be able to tap on that. It’s not about finding people who can do the job best, but more about finding the spirit, finding people who think in similar ways in helping companies, providing ideas, forming a network. We are eager to work closely with any organization at MIT that is promoting entrepreneurship.

The question was sometimes, “Why yet another VC in Boston? How are you going to able to source deals that are unique enough? Are you just getting the deals that the big VCs don’t want?" What has been really fascinating is to see that we’ve been able to source some very unique deals, because of that mantra of helping the company, building a brand of close collaboration. We've been creating a novel alignment with founders by helping them with operational decisions, and investing in themes that we believe we understand well.

 

Q: What was the hardest moment of your career?

There’s been a lot of them. Being an entrepreneur is like a roller coaster ride. I deal with the fact that you wake up, it’s sunny, and 5 hours later you get an email from a customer or supplier, and the sky is falling on you. It’s difficult to deal with the volatility of good and bad news. While there are other hard moments such as not receiving sufficient funding or unfavorable market conditions, the hardest moments involve anxiety around teams and people. Many issues arise not because of the money or the market, but of people not getting along. A person may have specific technological assets yet still be destructive to the goals of the company. [In such a case,] don’t be overwhelmed by losing him even if he has good knowledge. Never compromise the DNA of the people, and the alignment of the individual’s DNA to that of the company. While running a company is tough, having the right team significantly increases the chances of success.

 

Q: What advice would you give for MIT students looking start their own company?

First, don’t be afraid. If you have a dream or something you believe in, then go for it. As an MIT student, I think that a lack of fear would be the most important quality. MIT provides such an amazing, supporting platform between professors, clubs, and incubators that help you decreasing the risk, which may compensate even more for lack of experience. Second, don’t be too myopic about the technological features of a product. Yes, technology is critical for the success of a tech venture, but always think products, brand, and user experience. Don’t forget that eventually, someone needs to buy and use the product. Don’t lose track of the non-technology aspect of business—the brand and emotion associated with the product.