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.”