How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World

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

MIT has long been the home of the nerd whose idea of fun is staying up late solving equations and writing code. But that’s changing fast. Droves of energetic young rebels, risk takers, and mavericks are now arriving at the university, hoping to make it big as tech entrepreneurs, and they’re transforming the spirit of the place. As improbable as it might seem, MIT has gone from geek to chic. “I lecture all around at different schools, like Babson, Emerson, BU, BC, Harvard, and MIT,” says Brian Patrick Halligan, a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the CEO and founder of the successful Cambridge-based marketing-software business HubSpot. “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.”

Ash Martin, in his second year at Sloan, is exactly the kind of student Halligan is talking about. A cofounder of Viztu Technologies, which creates software that allows anyone to take and print digital 3-D images, Martin is blonde and brawny, with chiseled movie-star looks—and yes, he has tattoos. He plays water polo. He looks like a rock-star surfer, not someone who’s been hunkered down for the past year in the technological trenches, making breakthroughs in 3-D technology.

Martin is at the vanguard of change. Traditional careers in banking, medicine, and the law, which once promised lavish salaries and long-term sustainability, no longer provide a guaranteed route to success. The American Bar Association announced in June, for instance, that in 2011 only 55 percent of the nation’s law school graduates had landed full-time jobs within nine months of graduation. Overall, there are fewer “forever” jobs. Thousands of talented young students who might previously have considered these traditional careers are now deciding to go it on their own as entrepreneurs—and they’re choosing colleges and universities accordingly.

Martin shatters the geek stereotype, yet he feels right at home at MIT. “It’s full of my people,” he says, “the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done people. This is where it’s at, and where I want to be.” Martin certainly never considered Harvard. Why would he? In his view, Harvard spits out CEOs, bankers, lawyers, and moneymen. That’s so 1990s. Like so many others in his generation, he doesn’t want to be just a businessman, or a tech geek who makes things work behind the scenes. He wants to be like Steve Jobs, an iconoclastic master of the universe, a tech wizard with culture-changing powers. He chose MIT specifically because, in the new global economy, it offered him the best chance to realize his dreams: to start a business and make a difference in the world, not to mention earn some serious cash. On all of those fronts, he’s well on his way. A few months ago, he and his partner sold Viztu Technologies for an undisclosed sum to an international outfit called 3D Systems.

“Tech entrepreneurship is becoming a profession akin to law or architecture,” says Noubar Afeyan, the CEO of the Cambridge-based venture capital firm Flagship Ventures. “And that’s increasingly causing people to say, ‘How do I prepare for this and arm myself to tip the odds in my favor?’” These days, for those lucky enough to get in, there’s a simple answer to that question.

Go to MIT.