Mathematics and Entrepreneurship

One of the special things at Stanford is the so-called “entrepreneurial spirit,” well backed by an army of CS majors that comprise of 40% of the undergrad population. I like to think of the entrepreneurial spirit as euphemism for six-figure-salary opportunism that inevitably develops in a campus surrounded by tech giants but it is generally taboo to talk about this with Stanford students so I will save this for another post.

For those who may know me more personally, mathematics was my bread and butter in high school, so I’m not saying my appreciation for the subject isn’t biased by the fact it’s kind of the only thing I’m good at, or that the amount of time I’ve chipped into math probably outweighs the second most school subject ten to one.

It took me a while to justify why I want to spend a valuable Stanford education rather than networking with recruiters. Last quarter, my answer to this was that I had what it took to be a jack-of-all-trades student who can do both — some sort of machine learning / software engineer hybrid that big companies lust after for technical solution roles or R&D positions. This quarter, that answer hasn’t changed; it has rather been elaborated upon after more nights of self-doubt and self-justification.

Personally, everything seemed to “click” once I could reasonably justify why I think mathematics is more than the pain of every K-12 student in the public education system. I think it’s the one most entrepreneurial majors any student can study.

Let’s break this down conceptually.

Stories of entrepreneurship comes in all shapes and form. For my generation, it begins with circuit boards in a garage in Palo Alto to a nerd coding up most of your internet usage in a university dorm room. Yet, there’re many common threads to entrepreneurship. One of the most crucial ones is that good entrepreneurs have the unique ability to create value in places others can’t. Notice how I didn’t use the word “successful” because it’s true many of successful entrepreneurs also have the unique silver spoon in their mouth to create money with money that others don’t have. 

As much as entrepreneurship is about hustling — beer, caffeine, and Advil — it’s more about the ability to create value people want from few resources and the understanding of how these work — to create something from nothing. The understanding of how resources work comes with the ability to reason bottom-up with basic truths about technology limits, costs, market, people’s wants.

This is where mathematics comes in, because mathematics ultimately is about deriving something from nothing. Everything of relevance in mathematics, some practical, some elegant for their own sake, boil down to the fundamental system of assumptions better known as the logical axioms. The progress of the field is motivated by two main forces — the pursuance of its beauty and the applicability of its results — is very analogous to how building products/services is motivated by two main forces — the design of user experience and the solving of problems.

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