The Next Zuckerberg: A Student’s Recap of Mark’s Visit to Harvard

11/9/11

There, sitting about 10 feet in front of me, was the ninth most powerful person in the world, according to Forbes.

Dressed in his signature t-shirt and jeans, you wouldn’t be able to tell Mark Zuckerberg apart from a random college student outside the lecture hall. As he took his seat and began speaking about the technical challenges he encountered at Facebook, the fun he had during his (short) time at Harvard, and his enthusiasm for recruiting people to join the company, I could tell he was at ease in front of this crowd of hand-picked computer science and engineering students. He even cracked programming jokes: “My roommate decided to learn how to program and bought a book about Perl. Who writes anything in Perl?” Mark laughed. The audience laughed. It was a truly inspiring homecoming for Harvard’s most recent entrepreneurial success.

His talk was infused with anecdotes about his time at Harvard. Mark originally thought he would be a Classics major before he decided to major in computer science. Dustin Moskovitz, Zuckerberg’s technical co-founder, learned how to program on the fly, having only taken the introductory computer science course at Harvard. He even used to sit in the quintessential Harvard pizza place, Pinocchio’s, to discuss the technology world with his friends.

Harvard today has support for entrepreneurs that Mark could never have imagined as a student back in 2004. The new Harvard Innovation Lab is bound to be where the next Facebook prospers, and students today mentor each other and forge connections like never before. (My own mentors, Peter Boyce ’13 and Andrew Rosenthal HBS ’12 probably know all of the Boston tech ecosystem between them.) Students simply have the resources to start the companies they want. Add that to the burgeoning Boston startup community, and you have an environment that even Mark admits would have kept him in Boston.

The entire experience was surreal for everybody in the room. For many people, including myself, Mark Zuckerberg was the reason we came to Harvard. The promise of being the next Zuckerberg or Gates was often too alluring to turn down. Having heard from many of my friends who also attended the talk, the general feeling is that Harvard will now have a second uptick in startup fever, after an initial excitement following the release of The Social Network.

Hamed, Zuckerberg, and Tivli founders Nicholas Krasney and Ho Tuan at the Harvard Innovation Lab

The irony is that part of Mark’s motivation to drop out came from a visit that Bill Gates made to Harvard when Mark was still a student here. “The advice Bill gave me when he came to Harvard was to take time off and build something,” he said. While Mark’s talk was billed as a recruiting talk, there was an undercurrent of the same advice: join us at Facebook for an amazing career, but don’t be afraid to make something cool on your own and run with it.

At the end of his talk, Mark made his way to the Harvard Innovation Lab for a surprise visit. He walked around the building with i-Lab Director Gordon Jones and i-Lab coordinator Neal Doyle, observing the huge new space that will foster innovation across Harvard University and the Boston community as a whole. He watched as Tivli founders Nicholas Krasney and Ho Tuan demoed their live TV streaming startup, built completely at Harvard.

“Wow,” Mark said. “This is actually pretty cool.”

It was a unique moment of one generation of entrepreneurs fostering and encouraging the next generation of startup founders. Indeed, the next Mark Zuckerberg may very well have been in the room Monday. Let’s just hope they don’t code their idea in Perl.

Zachary Hamed is a sophomore at Harvard College. Originally from New York City, he is the founder of Aid Aide, a website that helps students apply for financial aid, which recently merged efforts with financial aid startup Alltuition. Follow @

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