One Conversation Changed This Engineer’s Life

Today I caught up with an aspiring founder. He’s been working as an engineer for a growth-stage start-up for the last four years. He’s fully vested and thinking about starting his own company. I always like to understand people’s journey, so I asked about his—specifically, about choosing to get his master’s in computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon.

He told me he didn’t even know what Carnegie Mellon was and ended up at the school by chance. He joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) as an undergrad and attended their conference. During the conference, he got what he thought was a spam email about Carnegie Mellon and its master’s program. Having never heard of the school, he asked an advisor about it. He learned it was one of the top engineering schools in the country. He decided to stop by the Carnegie Mellon booth to learn more. Talking with the admissions staff, he learned that he perfectly matched the profile they were looking for and that the master’s program was a perfect match for what he was looking for. He was basically admitted on the spot. He accepted and excelled in that program . . . and the rest is history.

Matching is critical at the earliest stages of entrepreneurship and your career. The right conversation can literally change your life trajectory. You must be in the right networks for matching with the right people and resources to occur. This engineer was under-networked and didn’t know what he didn’t know. He didn’t even know that Carnegie Mellon existed, let alone that he should apply. Carnegie Mellon didn’t know he existed, so it couldn’t recruit him. The NSBE was the conduit that allowed him to be matched to Carnegie Mellon. The NSBE played the critical role of finding this engineer by meeting him in his existing network/community. It then connected him with people, companies, and schools in other networks he wasn’t aware of.

This engineer is smart and scrappy, and he has a chip on his shoulder. He’s what I call a high-potential, nonobvious founder (or he will be, when he starts his company). These are the kind of founders I like to bet on. Nothing was handed to them. They earned everything they have by climbing mountains. They’re a little different, so people can’t relate to them, but they’re going to win because they want to prove everyone wrong.

These nonobvious, talented people will drive the next wave of entrepreneurship. Sadly, the current seed-stage venture capital model isn’t set up to find and support these types of founders. I think there’s a massive opportunity to support more nonobvious founders outside the traditional venture capital network, and it’s an area I’d like to focus on.