For Some Tech-Minded Students, Startups Provide an Alternative Path

Today’s exploding tech industry, with its 20-something-year-old CEOs and millionaire college dropouts, thrives on a philosophy of learning from real-world successes and failures, not textbooks. This raises an important question: Is an undergraduate degree necessary for professional success?

Even at Princeton, some students are itching to ditch coursework for hands-on work experience. Just ask Alice Zheng, originally a computer science major in the Class of 2013, who is taking time off to work at The Dentboard, a Princeton-based start-up.

“The way I see it, Princeton will always be waiting for me, and I have opportunities in front of me now that I want to grasp while I can,” Zheng said.

Those opportunities include working for a company that, according to Dentboard founder Caleb Bastian, plans to offer “a new IT infrastructure for the entire dental industry.” That goal is ambitious for a company with five employees, three of whom are Princeton undergraduates taking time off from school.

But Zheng is sure she is spending her time off well. She first left Princeton in June 2012 to work on her own start-up, but soon after began working for The Dentboard.

“When I first joined The Dentboard I was ready to go back to school as soon as possible and just wanted a temporary gig,” she said. “[But] I began to realize this startup had much greater growth potential than my previous one did, and that I wanted to be on the rocket when it took off.”

Bastian, also a Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics at Princeton, added that despite where they are in their education, co-workers like Zheng are an important resource.

“I view working with undergraduates as a great opportunity to get a different perspective on things,” Bastian said. “They know many of these [computer science] concepts well but it seems they don’t get as much exposure to practical applications.”

For Zheng, working at a startup has been a great way to get that practical experience. And she noted that she’s not the only one who has learned from executing, rather than being taught, engineering concepts. “Most of the best developers that I know never studied computer science in college,” she noted.

Pranav Badami, another Dentboard employee and former electrical engineering major in the Class of 2015, said he rarely feels out of his depth at work. “For the most part, everyone at the company is always learning. As such, I’ve never felt inexperienced,” he said. “I almost feel like I’ve grown alongside the company.”

Badami, like Zheng, will take at least one more year off from school, but finishing Princeton is not out of the question. Regarding a long-term position at the Dentboard versus returning to school, he said, “I don’t think those paths are mutually exclusive.”

For Zheng, the most difficult part of her time off has probably been reassuring her parents of her plans with each additional year she takes off from school.

“My parents value education a lot and perceived my decision to leave as a decision to throw away my Princeton education,” Zheng said. “However, I know that going back to Princeton is important to me, and that I’ll appreciate the opportunities that Princeton affords all the more after having experienced life outside of school.”

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