Zuckerberg returns to Harvard, and Boston wishes he never left

2017-05-25 21:17 - Brendan Coffey, Bloomberg News
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Boston - Mark Zuckerberg, one of Harvard University’s most famous dropouts, is returning to campus on Thursday to deliver a commencement address and finally get a degree – if only an honorary one.

As the Facebook co-founder shares his wisdom, the Boston area is also trying to learn its own lesson from the Zuckerberg saga: how to get tech-minded students to stay put in the first place.

Zuckerberg’s much-anticipated visit demonstrates a harsh reality for the region. Boston may call itself the Hub (of the universe, that is). But it’s more of a tongue-in-cheek moniker because everyone knows it isn’t so – certainly not in the tech world.

The young, as ever, head West. Zuckerberg, who grew up in New York’s suburban Westchester County, left Harvard after two years in 2004. He moved to Silicon Valley to launch Facebook, based on a venture he started as an undergraduate. 

Zuckerberg is now the world’s fifth-richest person, with a $64.2bn fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The world’s richest human, Bill Gates, dropped out of Harvard in 1975, the same year he co-founded Microsoft. (He got his own Harvard honorary degree in 2007.)

Harvard attracts students from all over the world, and it’s no easy feat to keep the tech-minded nearby, according to Jeffrey Bussgang, a Harvard graduate and venture capitalist at Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston. He started a seed fund, called The Graduate Syndicate, specifically to invest in startups by recent Harvard graduates.

“I hope to find the next Zuckerberg,” Bussgang added.

Biotech hub

In 2010, Boston promoted a fast-developing seaport area – once a vast swath of parking lots – as its “Innovation District”. Thrilling business leaders, General Electric in 2016 relocated its headquarters there from Fairfield, Connecticut. Cambridge, the Boston suburb that is home to Harvard, is also a major centre for biotechnology, including the headquarters Genzyme and Biogen.

For its part, Harvard is celebrating Zuckerberg, without dwelling too heavily on his defection after leaving the school to live in Palo Alto, California, home of rival Stanford University. Sadly, for Harvard, that meant Facebook is based in nearby Menlo Park, not Cambridge.

“Zuckerberg originally intended to return to Harvard, but the immediate success of the enterprise led him to devote his full energy to the company,” the university said in a release announcing his naming as commencement speaker.

In a recent appearance on Bloomberg Television, Harvard President Drew Faust called Zuckerberg’s return “a great moment for everybody to celebrate him and to remind ourselves of the many ways in which we have been innovators and will continue to be innovators”.

Given Zuckerberg’s departure from Harvard, “we” might be a bit of a stretch. For its part, Harvard understands it could be more electrifying to the tech-minded. Harvard has opened three entrepreneur-focused centres in recent years, including the Innovation Lab, which is dedicated to student tech entrepreneurs. Zuckerberg was clearly in mind.

As I-Lab Managing Director Jodi Goldstein said in a 2015 interview with Quartz: “Students don’t need to drop out now.”

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