Yesterday, I rode uptown to TAMID Tank hosted at Columbia. My chapter and I rooted for our fellow NYU student Seth Schlussel as he pitched his company Pyle, a tool to help students and grads efficiently manage their student loans. Though it was expected, the investor’s panel was unrelentingly tough. Seth’s team received the best award the panel offered: an invitation to pitch again with more data in six months. Neither the 17-year old, Stanford-bound, Forbes’ 30 Under 30 winner nor the company with a product developed by a Harvard professor got such an encouragement.
At first, I was blown away by the achievements from the other two teams. Had the judges been too, Seth, a junior at NYU without a Forbes award or a Harvard-developed product, wouldn’t have stood a chance. And yet, he left with the best outcome of the three.
This made me quickly realize that the value of degrees, awards, honors, professorships, and titles is highly contextual. In the context of applying to a job at a bank, for example, former titles on resumes are like a form of currency, bids to win your hirer’s trust that you’ll do your job well. They measure aptitude and, in the eyes of the company, your worth.
But on the stage of TAMID Tank and any other VC investment pitch, the value of the entrepreneurs’ titles is instantly negligible. It doesn’t matter how old the person pitching is, where they went to school, or how many competitions they’ve won. The only valuable aspect is the potential viability of the company itself. If an entrepreneur’s experience and past knowledge is valuable, it’s because it contributes to the potential of the company. The VCs aren’t buying into a reputation alone and they’re very careful to stay aware of that.
Perhaps it’s this renegotiation of what’s considered valuable and what isn’t that makes startup culture a “culture.” Though it is operating within the greater context of American business, booming startups and VCs demonstrate that challenging where we traditionally place value can also be extremely rewarding.
Several weeks ago, I interviewed Jared Lansky, the Chief Strategy Officer at an Israeli AdTech startup called Keywee. He believed that this disregard of titles, which I posit is a renegotiation of value, explains Israel’s incredible startup success. “There’s no politics,” he explained, and “that’s the expectation. There’s no one saying your voice isn’t worthy. There’s no junior person.” He believes that when hierarchical relationships between company employees are disregarded, an environment is formed that allows for the free flow of good ideas. Perhaps this is why the little nation of 8.2 million has 70 companies on Nasdaq and the highest number of startups per capita. It all starts with its culture and values.