Jon Lai

How Boston can keep entrepreneurs

March 18, 2013: 1:55 PM ET

A current HBS student explains why his peers plan to leave Boston upon graduation.

By Jon Lai

bostonFORTUNE -- On the last day of my Launching Technology Ventures class at Harvard Business School, our professor asked why so few of us plan to stay in Boston and become entrepreneurs here. After all, Boston is cash-flushed with venture capitalists and a great talent pool from some of the world's top universities. Not to mention that it is significantly easier for HBS students to network with the local community compared to flying out to Silicon Valley or taking the bus down to NYC. So why not stay?

A few students tossed out some reasons that came to mind -- lack of good PR on companies in Boston, a perceived regional focus here on healthcare/telecom, bad weather, etc. At lunch after class, a few of us continued talking about this topic and a number of themes came up that were interesting.

1. It's a personal choice. It's not always about the career -- while Boston might be able to offer just as much career-wise in terms of resources and start-up opportunities, this is sometimes a secondary consideration in the minds of many HBS students. Students view location as a determinant of lifestyle. New York has a vibrant nightlife and a rich cultural scene that elevates it above Boston in the desirability meter for younger students for whom an active social life is the most important criteria. The Bay Area has great weather, a gorgeous outdoor scene, and a laid-back West Coast vibe. Students choose a location as much for the lifestyle as for the career opportunities.

2. FOMO (fear of missing out). One of the primary selling points of coming to HBS was making lifelong friends and staying in touch after graduation. And in terms of where our friends are going, New York and the Bay Area top the list. Simply put, we want to go where our friends are going, and since they all want to go to NYC and the Bay, that's where we are going too. It's herd mentality at its worst, but it's effective and leverages the FOMO mentality that HBS students are so susceptible to. It's also a vicious cycle -- as more graduates wind up in the Bay Area and start businesses there, more students will look at the alumni lists and conclude that's where they need to be in order to get in the middle of all the action.

3. Image matters. Each location has an image associated with it -- a stereotype of sorts. And unfortunately, the prevailing image of Boston is one of a non-progressive entrepreneurial community that has seen its heyday and is on the decline. Perhaps it's the talks we hear from VCs waxing poetic on the old "glory days" of Route 128 and the electronics companies of the 1980s-'90s. Today, there is a perception that the density of entrepreneurs in the Bay Area and NYC is significantly higher than that in Boston.

At the end of the day, location is an individual choice and determined by many factors. While career opportunities might be the most important factor for one student, an active social life might be more important for another student, and good weather might be the deal-breaker for another. Yet, while there's no one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting students to stay in Boston, I feel that there are a few actions that local leaders could take that could potentially move us in the right direction:

1. Give Boston a lifestyle identity. As discussed above, people think of Silicon Valley and New York City as lifestyles -- laid-back outdoorsy living in the heart of Napa or the glamour and glitz of party-going in the Manhattan concrete jungle. In contrast, Boston doesn't really have a lifestyle identity right now. It's kind of just a place where you go as a student, study hard for a number of years and then move on to the next big destination. What we need here is a model of living that distinguishes Boston from those other cities and a marketing platform to raise awareness of that model among students. We have so much raw material to work with -- Boston clam chowder, brownstone houses in Back Bay, walks around Walden pond, cannolis from the North End, whale watching in the Atlantic, sculling on the Charles River, etc. If we can package all those elements together into a lifestyle and market it to students as Boston living, I feel that many more students would stay.

2. Focus on the students. Students really are internal tourists. They come here and stay in Boston for years at a time, and it's a wonderful opportunity to sell them on Boston living. Yet in the six years that I've lived in Boston (four years of college and now two years of business school) I was never marketed to once. Until I tagged along with a posse of international students in Boston for the first time last year, I had never ventured off to do any of the touristy things like taking a Duck Tour or walking the Freedom Trail. And yes, students are busy, but we're never too busy to have fun. We just need to have the opportunities pushed at us, and yes we are more than willing to part with our meager savings and spend money doing touristy things. Treat students like tourists -- wine and dine them, show them the best that Boston can offer, and they will partake willingly.

3. Get small wins. In terms of attracting startups and businesses to Boston, I think it's tempting to look for the holy grail -- that one perfect solution that tilts the scale and magically gets everyone to stay here. In reality, I think Silicon Valley and NYC got to where they are on the scale of attractiveness through a series of small wins. Entrepreneur by entrepreneur, business by business, they got winners to stay in the community, and those winners attracted other winners, until a flywheel started that could just keep going by itself. We can do the same in Boston -- there are so many great entrepreneurs that move through Boston on their career path. Focus on getting individual startups and entrepreneurs to commit to Boston. Those individuals will grow to pockets, and gradually, those pockets will morph into communities. As the android David said in the movie Prometheus: "Big things have small beginnings."

Jon Lai (@Tocelot) is an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School and an aspiring entrepreneur/general manager. He previously worked in business development for Smith & Nephew and was an investment associate at Crosslink Capital.

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