How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World

And why Harvard—Harvard!—is scrambling to catch up.

how mit became the most important university in the world

Romi Kadri, full-time MIT student and entrepreneurial jack of all trades. / Photo by Jesse Burke

That’s exactly what I did one afternoon this past August. Universities often feel deserted in the summer, but when I arrived at the Trust Center, the hub of MIT’s entrepreneurial efforts, I found the place crackling with life.

An independent entity within MIT, the center offers students from all parts of the Institute a wealth of resources: expert mentors, office space, classes on entrepreneurship, and networking opportunities with not only other students and faculty but also outside businesspeople and venture capitalists. Certain specialized programs—ones involving mentoring and grants, for example—require students to apply and be accepted, but any MIT student interested in entrepreneurship can register for classes, meet with experts about an idea for a company, or join one of the 14 student clubs dedicated to creating businesses. The center began in 1990 by offering one class, taught by an adjunct professor, but today has more than 30 courses, taught by 35 faculty members from all over MIT, and offers an MBA track with Sloan in entrepreneurship and innovation. And student interest has skyrocketed. In 1996 only 288 students took entrepreneurship courses. Now approximately 1,500 sign up for them every year.

From the outside, the center doesn’t look like much. It’s hidden inside a drab, unremarkable building on the MIT campus, known to all simply as E40. When you enter, though, you find yourself in a space that’s cheery, modern, and bright. Most walls are covered in whiteboard paint for students to scribble on as they work, and those that aren’t have been painted an intense shade of orange. At only 4,000 square feet, it’s a small space, long and narrow, but MIT has made the most of it, packing in open-air cubicles, a few phone-booth-size offices, some bigger glass-walled workrooms, a video-conference room, and a kitchenette filled with cases of free energy drinks and ramen noodles.

Most of the real work gets done in an open area at the rear of the suite. When I got there, I found clusters of students in T-shirts at a number of movable tables on wheels. In one corner, a small group wasdiscussing the development of solar panels designed to power cell phones. Several desks away, two women were working out the kinks in a plan to create an iTunes-like marketplace for photographs and paintings. A group of guys near them was talking through the design of a super-slippery plastic container that would make even honey and ketchup slide easily out of bottles, a high-tech bid to capture part of the $33-billion-a-year condiment industry. The space was buzzing with activity, and as I wandered around it was easy to believe that somewhere in the room with me might be the next Jobs or Zuckerberg.

Several days later, at a nearby coffee shop, I met Romi Kadri, a junior from Scotland. Tan, fit, and 21 years old, Kadri has a warm smile and the ceaseless energy of a Red Bull addict. He wrote his first business plan when he was nine. When he was 15, he introduced the owners of a mom-and-pop bicycle store in his hometown to the Internet and proceeded to transform their operation into an online powerhouse. Just another MIT geek, right? No. He grew up in Glasglow, where navigating the city’s notorious high school gang culture is a key aspect of teenage life. Kadri dropped out of high school when he was 16, taking a job at Rolls-Royce as an apprentice in the gas-turbine division. Two years later he came to MIT, where he is now a full-time student. He also works part time as a management associate for the legendary L.A. music company Interscope Records, and helps a Silicon Valley venture capital firm connect with promising young entrepreneurs at MIT. On top of it all, he’s developing a new business that he hopes will produce hybrid zero-emission drive systems for Jet Skis and motorbikes.

Kadri is precisely the kind of dynamic, unconventional student that Harvard would love to attract now that it’s finally gotten into the tech-entrepreneurship game. But like Ash Martin, he never considered the school. “Harvard may be the ultimate brand,” he told me, but “in a world that moves as fast as it does now, it’s important to be focused and goal-oriented, and not just learn a bunch of stuff for its own sake. MIT reflects that world perfectly. And for me, MIT was the only way to go.”

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  • omair

    “active companies created by its (MIT) alumni bring in a combined revenue today of as much as $2 trillion. That would make those companies the equivalent of the 11th-largest economy in the world” sums up the entire debate!!!

  • Adrian Meli

    It is pretty incredible how few schools have focused on entrepreneurship while so many have been focused on creating a well rounded liberal arts education. Maybe it is a sign of the times but I would guess these entrepreneurship programs will be long lasting. Working on creative enterprises can be incredible learning experience so nice to see the innovation in higher education.

  • Kwame

    I wish you showcase some hardworking and smart young ladies participating in this program.

    • http://www.brennanzelener.com Brennan Zelener

      Abso-freaking-lutely.

  • Tom Weingeist

    Copying is the strongest form of flattery. Good to have two such great institutions competing for the best – MIT and Harvard whatever the order…among the academic “swimsuit” competitions in ranking. Go Cambridge

  • SC

    I was an undergraduate at Harvard and I agree with this article’s claim that MIT is more culturally suited to and has a better track record in tech entrepreneurship than Harvard (and probably will hold this lead for the near future). However, the claim that this implies MIT is a more important university than Harvard represents a serious misunderstanding of these two universities. First, this article has essentially reduced the entire purpose and goal of a university to churning out new tech companies. Nowhere does it mention that the humanities, social sciences, arts, and professional schools have any bearing on the quality of a university. Unlike MIT, Harvard is not a technical institute and should not be judged as one. Second, this article mistakenly uses the number of new tech companies founded to gauge success in tech entrepreneurship. Given that Harvard students are far more likely than MIT students to pursue careers in government, law, business, and basically any non-engineering field, of course Harvard students will create fewer tech start-ups than their MIT peers. Nevertheless, Microsoft and Facebook attest to the success of those who do choose this route. Third, the article implies that Harvard’s inferior status in tech entrepreneurship relative to MIT represents a failed attempt to compete on this front. In truth, Harvard has historically made conscious decisions not to focus its endeavors on tech entrepreneurship, instead cultivating an incredible intellectual atmosphere where knowledge is sought for its own sake, not because it will lead to new companies. As someone familiar with the more pragmatic cultures at MIT and my current institution, Stanford, I can attest to the presence a far more vibrant, diverse, intellectually driven culture at Harvard. Given that Harvard’s endowment is more than triple that of MIT, if Harvard’s goal were to become an engineering and entrepreneurial university, it could, but this has never been and will never be its direction.

    • Bobyscus

      MIT – best in engineering. Harvard – best in medicine.

      Together – the sky is the limit.

  • Sid K

    This article is misguided on several fronts:
    First of all, an article about tech entrepreneurship with no mention of Stanford? I get the impression that far from researching the real “story” here, the author wanted to tell a particular MIT vs. Harvard story of his own, and that’s the one he told come rain or shine.

    Second: If you’re going to talk about competitors in high tech entrepreneurship, you should be comparing MIT to the leader in this area, Stanford ( http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/october/innovation-economic-impact-102412.html ) — not to Harvard which barely even has an engineering program, as other commentators have pointed out. The author presents it as if, somehow, Harvard and MIT are the only universities in the world and are therefore automatically competitors in all areas. The scope of human knowledge is vast — and certainly individual universities don’t focus on all aspects of it. That’s why you have Tech schools, liberal arts schools, law schools.

    And finally, the bottom line — do your research.

    • Ken K.

      I agree with you Sid. I am an MIT Alum but I’m quite shocked that Stanford was not mentioned at all in such an article about tech entrepreneurship. An article comparing MIT and Stanford on this topic would have been the best.

      • http://www.olivernewthgraphics.com/ Oliver

        It’s Boston magazine, of course it’s going to just discuss Harvard and MIT. They’re discussing the global position of these two local universities, which it is fair to say is top-of-the-league for both establishments. Of course you’re right – Stanford too is a leader – but in the context of this article’s audience it’s pretty much (though admittedly not completely) irrelevant.

        • Bradmeister007

          Let’s not forget the headline of the article, “How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World.” If we’re talking about “the world,” then it makes no sense for the article to have only compared two universities based in Cambridge, MA.

  • Adi Mittal

    I agree with Sid above, Stanford is totally leading both MIT and Harvard in terms of tech entrepreneurship.

    For Omair above, yes and Stanford alumni companies create a combined revenue of $3 trillion. Check out: http://www.stanford.edu/group/wellspring/ for companies started around Stanford in the Valley from Google, HP, Yahoo, to Cisco.

    Make a list of all your top tech companies and you’ll see.

  • peckave

    Sounds like some jealous people above. Get over it. MIT now is the place to be for the new century!

    No need to believe me or this article. Check out another link:
    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/qs-rankings-names-mit-number-one-0911.html

    • Sid K

      Us “jealous people” need no convincing — MIT has been an unbelievable place to be and will continue to be so in the future. But it’s misleading for the article to portray MIT and Harvard as apparently the only universities that matter, especially when it is a fact that Stanford leads both of these universities in the specific area being discussed. And that’s really the issue — universities aren’t just black and white better/not better than each other. Most universities tend to specialize in certain areas. No one would claim Georgia Tech or Michigan are the best liberal arts schools, for example, but they’re easily among the top engineering schools in the world. Similarly, making the case that MIT is “better” than Harvard should involve a lot more than a discussion about only tech entrepreneurship (which, certainly, is important. but it’s not all there is). And the case for MIT being the “most important university in the world” should involve more than tech entrepreneurship, where in that area alone it is indeed not the leader. I’m sure the case can be made — just not like this.

  • Janice

    @SC
    Despite its name, MIT is not merely a technical institute. It incidentally ranks #1 in overall social sciences in THE, has a top 5 business program, and excels in many areas outside of STEM. Of course, they do have a science oriented slant to them, cuz it’s you know MIT.

    Yeah, the article is narrow-minded. Seems like it’s saying that if you top Harvard in one way, you’re suddenly better than every other university in the world in every which way.

  • Jeanne Martin

    It seems like the Big New Thing is actually the Same Old Thing, but with better PR — a bunch of men pursuing technological innovation to line their own pockets. Though I commend the field for diversifying into men of color, I would bet good money that these new entrepreneurs are for the most part the children of privilege, who have the financial support and connections to attend MIT, make nice with VCs (usually white men).

    Show me a subset of these bright young things who are trying to recast the same old paradigm into something new, and I’ll eat my hat.

    • Jessica

      As a female alumna of MIT, I am very proud to say that its undergrad ratio of men to women is pretty much 50-50. The other good thing about MIT is that it has no preference for people with connections or “people of privilege”. There was a joke in my high school that anybody who applied to Stanford as a legacy got in (and in my three years at that high school, that was true); I don’t mean to bash Stanford, but that’s not the case at all at MIT. Granted, it’s an expensive school just like any other private institution, but the bulk of my friends there are from lower-income families.

      Also, MIT may not have as many social science programs as Harvard, but it does have some really excellent ones, especially philosophy, linguistics, and creative writing.

      Finally, there’s probably a simple explanation for leaving out Stanford. This article was written by Boston Magazine, so the author was likely just looking at the two local giants as they vy for the top spot on numerous rankings lists. No injury to remote giant Stanford intended.

    • http://mitcrimeclub.org James Herms, MIT ’87

      % Black or Hispanic:
      Stanford 23; MIT 22; Yale 16; Princeton 15; Harvard 14; Chicago 11.
      % Female:
      Harvard–Yale–Princeton–Stanford–Chicago 51–50–49–48–48; MIT 45.
      US Dept of Education (2012)

    • CKTC

      Having gone to MIT both undergrad and PhD, I can tell you that the vast majority of people come from poor and middle-class backgrounds. 90% of undergrads get financial aid (60-70% institutional, others federal/outside).

      Also, no child of privilege will do a science PhD.

  • Juris

    It is still to be seen whether MIT’s “push” strategy and “teaching” entrepreneurship is going to work (which world changing start-ups have come out of MIT as of late?) for something that is art more than science. As Paul Graham puts it here: http://paulgraham.com/startupideas.html “Entrepreneurship” is something you learn best by doing it.

    • John

      Nice article reference Juris. And to that point, Entrepreneurship is probably best taught by those that have been Entreprenuers (See Babson!).

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anne-Hunter/711262 Anne Hunter

      DropBox, just to mention one.

      • David

        There is nothing innovating or interesting about DropBox. This guy (Drew) will have to run this boring company for at least couple of years. Look at Youtube videos of their employees – in the videos they are doing all other things than sharing their passion to this boredom.

  • preferthetruth

    MIT is home to Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology Dr Richard Lindzen. He is a leading denier of global warming caused by man made effects. He is also a leading advocate promoting the idea that cigarette smoking does not cause lung cancer.

  • David

    Any idiot could be an entrepreneur. The best research occurs in Harvard. MIT is good, definitely better than Yale or Columbia University but not as good as Harvard.

  • Gurbachan

    I have regularly visited and interacted with Harvard and MIT but have no vested interest in either. MIT is open and interactive while Harvard is closed and aloof. Do a test yourself. Write to any professor in MIT and Harvard on any issue or idea and firstly see whether you get a reply and secondly judge on your experience you get in each case. The culture is so different.

  • AugustineThomas

    “And MIT kids are by far the best. They’re smart, articulate, covered in tattoos—they’re cool and hip and very different. Their clothes are edgy. And they’re all starting companies.”

    What a stupid line. This is exactly the type of attitude that makes you hate Harvard.

  • survivedyesterday

    And to hang out with people like you is the reason I go to Harvard. Right on!