When asked to imagine an entrepreneur, most people will probably conjure up the image of a gray T-shirt wearing nonconformist college dropout. Hollywood says that to pursue entrepreneurship, one must be bold, take risks, and reject all traditional academic pathways. It would therefore seem strange that MIT, primarily an academic institution, would encourage its students to become entrepreneurs.
But it is. In fact, students are also invited to take an academic detour even before reporting to the Institute.
In the spring of high school, I decided to defer my enrollment at MIT for a year. I had always planned to take a gap year, but after receiving the silver tube in the mail and seeing all my friends at college planning their classes and decorating their dorm rooms, I got cold feet. Every time I mentioned my plans, I was asked questions like, “But what about school?” and “Is MIT cool with this?”
Yeah. MIT totally is. Rescheduling your MIT start date is as easy as clicking a checkbox.
Now, having completed my first year of classes, I am truly grateful that I stuck to my decision to delay MIT, because I have realized that having a full year of unstructured time is a gift. I could give free rein to my creativity. Choose hobbies to have fun. Doing cool things like working at an AI startup and teaching myself how to create latte art. However, my favorite part of the year was backpacking through Europe. I have traveled through Austria, Slovakia, Russia, Spain, France, United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, Germany, Poland, Romania and Hungary.
Plus, despite my fear of wasting a precious year, traveling turned out to be the most productive thing I could have done with my time. I was able to explore different cultures, meet new people from all over the world, and gain unique perspectives that I wouldn’t have been able to have otherwise. My travels across Europe have allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and broaden my understanding of the great human experience.
“In Iceland, there is less emphasis on hustle culture, and this relaxed approach to work-life balance ends up fostering creativity. It was a crazy revelation for a group of MIT students.
When I became a full-time student last fall, I realized that StartLabs, the first undergraduate entrepreneurship club on campus, offered MIT undergraduates a similar opportunity to broaden their horizons and to experience new things. I signed up immediately. At StartLabs, we host fireside chats and ideathons throughout the year. But our signature event is our annual TechTrek during spring break. In previous years, StartLabs has taken TechTrek trips to Germany, Switzerland and Israel. On these fully funded trips, StartLabs members visited and collaborated with industry leaders, incubators, startups, and academic institutions. They undertake these trips both to connect with the global startup sphere and to build closer relationships within the club itself.
But most importantly, the process of organizing the TechTrek itself constitutes an accelerated introduction to entrepreneurship. The trip is entirely planned by StartLabs members; we work out the logistics of the trip, find sponsors, and then figure out ways to maximize our funding.
In planning this year’s trip to Iceland, we had to learn to delegate roles to all the planners and keep morale high when making this trip a reality seemed like an impossible task. We woke up super early to take 6am calls with the Icelandic founders and sponsors. We offered options for different sponsorship levels, used pattern recognition to infer the email addresses of hundreds of potential contacts at the organizations we wanted to visit, and we all struggled to use our LinkedIn connections.
And like any good entrepreneur must do, we had to learn to be lean and maximize our resources. To stretch our food budget, we scheduled all our incubator and company visits around lunchtime in hopes of being fed, played human Tetris as we settled 16 people into a six-person Airbnb people and emailed grocery stores to get their nearly expired foods at a discounted price. . We even made a deal with the local bus company to give us free tickets in exchange for a story post on our Instagram account.
Despite all our planning, we still encountered challenges along the way. For one thing, our Airbnb’s Wi-Fi router only allowed four connections at a time. For a group of students working and in P configuration, this was not ideal. Unfortunately, some of us quickly discovered that if we unplugged the router, we could boot up the others and get priority access to the Internet. So we set up an Internet time sharing system. My slot was at 11 p.m.
The company visits proved extremely inspiring. We deliberately visited various businesses to match the diverse interests of our group. We learned about the prosthetics market in Össur, the mathematical intricacies of massively multiplayer online game design at CCP Games, and the incredibly impressive green energy efforts at Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national electricity company. Visiting incubators in Reykjavík also exposed us to a new approach to entrepreneurship. In Iceland, we found that there is less focus on the hustle and bustle culture. People often leave work early to spend time with family or enjoy nature. Rather than hindering productivity, this relaxed approach to work-life balance ends up fostering creativity. It was a crazy revelation for a group of MIT students.
Taking inspiration from the Icelanders, we too found time to commune with nature and agreed to trade comfort for adventure. Whether we were jumping into the Blue Lagoon hungry and tired after our red-eye flight or exploring the frigid glaciers with boots filled with freezing water, we found that discomfort made us appreciate the experiences much more.
My favorite adventure, however, was our high-speed car chase in search of the Northern Lights. With tickets for an official Northern Lights tour costing upwards of $40, we decided to send only our most communicative team members (those with the best cell roaming plans) on the official tour bus. The rest of us tried to follow them discreetly in our rental cars to the secret viewpoint. It was a crazy night, but it was definitely worth it.
All of these adventures, along with our shared meals, walks, and long bus rides, fostered new connections among team members. Being an entrepreneur is often a lonely endeavor, so building such a supportive community could prove invaluable later.
I’m grateful that MIT allows us to explore beyond the traditional academic pathway, from supporting gap years to forming groups of students who have the freedom to be adventurous and take risks. Rather than forcing students to choose between entrepreneurship and academic study, MIT offers us the opportunity to hone our entrepreneurial skills without abandoning our academic pursuits.
Sofia Pronina ’26 of Greenwich, Connecticut, plans to major in computer science, economics and data science (courses 6-14). Read a report from TechTrek 2022 in Germany here.