College dropouts who are running Philadelphia technology - Technical.ly Philly

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Jul. 1, 2013 12:30 pm

College dropouts who are running Philadelphia technology

Though there are surely more of those whose failure to get the degree kept doors from opening, it's clear that there are industries and moments in time when the right skills and independence change what a college degree means. These success stories, along with the rising cost of college tuition and high unemployment and a thirst for technical talent nationwide, raise the question: is college worth it for the enterprising technology set?

Tayyib Smith, the cofounder of Little Giant Media, dropped out of Temple and now runs technical and music events throughout Philadelphia, like the Future of Music event series during Philly Tech Week.

Full Disclosure: Technical.ly Philly editor Christopher Wink contributed to this report.
If you find yourself in a conversation about education with John Fazio, you’re going to find out he has some strong opinions on the matter.

The cofounder of Northern Liberties coworking space Devnuts and web development company Jarv.us never graduated from college. In truth, he never actually graduated from high school either — he was forced to get his GED after getting kicked out from Lower Moreland for, yes, hacking into the district’s computer system.

He’s at times sensitive about how his past might be perceived, but it’s cemented a worldview about education that has helped fuel the edtech focus of Jarv.us and its SLATE classroom management product.

He dropped out just one year into Drexel University, after receiving a 0 GPA his first semester. He raised that to a 4.0 the second semester, he said, but feeling unchallenged by his classes he left. He began Devnuts with Chris Alfano, a fellow Drexel dropout.

But in the Philadelphia technology community, their story is not necessarily unique.

  • Alex Hillman, another Drexel drop-out, cofounded Old City coworking stalwart Indy Hall.
  • Shawn Milochik, the software engineering vice president for clinical payment IT firm Greenphire, never finished his degree at DeVry University and was just called one of the region’s top IT innovators.
  • Vanessa Braxton-Veloski, the cofounder of digital marketing and video production shop Skout Media, is another in the cohort of those who left Drexel early.
  • Sean Dawes, a zoology major that dropped out from Delaware Valley College, co-founded Rocket Dove, a SEO company, after working for celebrated ecommerce company American Muscle.
  • Tayyib Smith dropped out of Temple University before starting the lifestyle publication two.one.five magazine and its parent company Little Giant Media.
  • Bob Moul, the CEO of Artisan Mobile and president of Philly Startup Leaders, never received a B.A., but rather a technology management certificate.
  • Adam Butler, an early 3D designer for Apple and Warner Bros. who is now a vice president at global IT strategy firm Bracket, dropped out of Temple in the 1990s.

Though there are surely more of those whose failure to get the degree kept doors from opening, it’s clear that there are industries and moments in time when the right skills and independence change what a college degree means.

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Their success stories, along with the rising cost of college tuition and high unemployment and a thirst for technical talent nationwide, raise the question: is college worth it for the enterprising technology set?

The very young team around Fazio at Jarv.us seem to adopt their founder’s perspective.

“I first thought of him as just a dropout with tons of ideas. I actually thought that Devnuts would never really play out,” Ali Wiest, a developer at Jarv.us, remembers. “But once I started co-oping [the internship-like program at Drexel] with him that quickly changed. John actually does follow through with his dreams.”

In an age when the cost to attend college has tripled since the 1980s and a college diploma in no way equates a job guarantee, those with the marketable technical skills are ducking out on college and finding success without the time or cost of higher ed. In 2011, a majority of Americans said college failed to provide a good value for the cost.

There are the famous stories of college dropouts who went on to make a global impact. The founders behind Apple, Twitter, Paypal, Dell and Microsoft all dropped out of college to pursue their own interests.

“I think that — and John has admitted there is some truth to this — that he went to college just to drop out. To be able to say that he did it. It’s almost like a badge honor to be up there with Bill Gates and all,” said Jack Fazio, John’s father, about John leaving school.

Bob Moul speaking at the Startup PHL announcement October 2012. Photo by Kait Privitera for City of Philadelphia

During a sweltering April afternoon outside of Cafe Ole in Old City, Bob Moul, the Artisan Mobile CEO and president of Philly Startup Leaders who exited Boomi to Dell, appeared unbothered by heat.

Wearing a pair of dark rinse jeans and a light red, blue and white checkered button-up, Moul, who never received a bachelor’s degree, looks comfortable in his own adopted neighborhood — though he lives in Berwyn, he’s become passionate about growing Artisan in Old City. (Editor’s Note: Read about why we think Moul should run for mayor.)

And it’s evident immediately that he is making this his neighborhood.

Before even sitting down, he’s stopped by two well-dressed gentlemen drinking a bright colored iced drink. One of them, sporting Raybans is Greg Osberg, CEO and founder of customer acquisition startup Revlyst and former Inquirer publisher, who stops Bob with a smile and a laugh to chat.

Once at the outdoor table, Moul’s focus turns to his hatred for high school.

“We were still in rows of desks and you weren’t allowed to talk, and you had these boring teachers and these boring subjects droning on and on,” he said, speaking over passing SEPTA buses and cars,  “And I had to sit there for eight hours a day and not move and not talk and I wanted to poke my eyes out.”

Despite his hatred for school, even if he had wanted to attend college, his parents didn’t have the money to send him and he didn’t have the grades to get a scholarship. Instead, he opted to make money and start working full time.

After graduation, Bob began working at EDS, where he worked for 19 years, making his way up from the mailroom to senior management positions, all without a diploma. Eventually there came a point where his superiors told him he couldn’t advance without a degree. So, to prove a point more than gain the education, Bob skipped over his bachelor’s degree and petitioned to be accepted into University of Maryland’s masters program.

He was accepted, received the diploma, and has fast become a voicebox for Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial set. From EDS, Moul went on to such excursions as the president of SCT, where he lead the $650 million sale to SunGard.

No doubt part of Moul’s success is his chosen field of technology, which has had a resurgence in the last decade.

Today, graduates who received diplomas in areas such as computer science, science, or health are far more likely to be working in their area of interest than those in the liberal arts. It’s part of the degree mismatch in Philadelphia.

dawes

Sean Dawes

If Sean Dawes, the 29-year old co-founder of Rocket Dove, an SEO company located in Ardmore, had not left Delaware Valley College, he could have been a figure in the number of underemployed college graduates.

Dawes, passionate about animals since a young age, worked 40 hour weeks at Elmwood Zoo in Norristown while in high school. He followed his passion into a zoology major, interning at Elmwood, the Philadelphia Zoo and at the Camden Aquarium (he was the first at his school to do so.) However, as graduation crept closer he began to worry about his future.

“What kind of career options do I have?” he asked himself, “I did follow my passion but positions in the zoology field do not pay well…”

Out of fear of not getting a job and frustration, Dawes dropped out just six credits shy of graduation,  choosing to instead obtain a real estate license, a career which he knew he could make financial gains. Real estate led to a career in marketing at automobile ecommerce business American Muscle, where he worked for a year and a half before leaving with other team members to launch Rocket Dove.

Alex Hillman

Hillman, the Indy Hall cofounder, too, quit school when his career path took a different arc.

He first dropped out of Drexel after he fell in love with his second co-op job. However, he returned to Drexel at night a year later to participate in a program that was tech focused. Unfortunately, he found that the web development material was extremely outdated.

“I realized that institutions moved too slow for my pace of learning and I was wasting my money,” he said.

After dropping out a second time, Alex began doing freelance web development work and sought a community. It was through that search that he cofounded Indy Hall, one of the first workspaces like it in Philadelphia.

Tayyib Smith, cofounder of the lifestyle magazine two.one.five and the parent company and creative agency Little Giant Media, previously rented a space at Devnuts. Smith, a West Philly native, dropped out of Temple University after less than a year.

“My last day at Temple is actually a really funny story in retrospect,” he said.

On his last day at Temple, he was escorted out of the classroom by security after getting into an argument with his professor. Smith, who had spent the four years previous in the military, could not believe that a professor would speak in such a disrespectful way to one of his students and told him so. After being escorted out, he never went back, noting he never fit into the system and the our education system is outdated.

“The way that we teach and the way that we learn, something has to change,” he says quietly, feeling sick on this day “Technology moves so fucking fast that its impossible for academia to keep up.”

After leaving Temple, Smith spent a number of years in the restaurant business in Philadelphia, making connections like working at places such as Buddakan on Chestnut Street. In 2008, he used those relationships to launch with his partner Matthew Bacine the beautiful, if short-lived, print version of two.one.five magazine. He formed Little Giant not long after to serve as the parent company to two.one.five, which has become a web brand only. Today, the marketing company is known for successfully linking big name brands with the underground scene in Philly. Their clients include Red Bull, Adidas and Heineken.

While these dropouts may be the exception to the rule — the average American with a college degree outperform those without one in nearly every quantifiable way — they do magnify a growing issue in the country, the disparity between the cost and value of higher education. The need for technical talent just makes the issue bolder.

There are entire IT programs built around those without diplomas, like the ITWorks program from TechImpact (formerly NPower PA). The idea is technical skill is a way to focus education toward a goal — employment.

To be sure, there are those with a very different angle. Drexel senior Greg Lobanov chose to hire himself for his co-op program to effectively use his time in college to give entrepreneurship a try. The idea of using an undergraduate career as an incubator for technical startup efforts has an entire movement in Philadelphia.

But it’s hard to not track the anti-education sentiment among many in technology locally. At one time, all of these successful entrepreneurs were just kids, bored and unchallenged by their classes.

That may be the greatest challenge to what the country’s school system can and will be in the future.

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