Advice from Silicon Valley VC of the Year and WashU alum Gaurav Garg

We took School of Engineering & Applied Science alumnus Gaurav Garg back to his Washington University days and asked him for some advice for current students. Garg, a founding partner at Wing Venture Capital and 2014 Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist of the Year, was the keynote speaker at Startup Connection 2015, held at Washington University in St. Louis Nov. 18.

Gaurav Garg

How important is maximizing human potential in your everyday work?

Garg: It’s everything. It’s really satisfying watching people build things from nothing, and working with them keeps us young. These are people who stretch way beyond anything they could ever have imagined.

The opposite of winning is… failing?

Garg: That happens, too! If you don’t fail a few times, you’re not taking enough risk.

Failure is an essential part of the entrepreneurial process, but talking about it openly or embracing it, especially at an elite institution like WashU, is often difficult. How can students learn to accept seeming setbacks and see them as vital stepping stones to success?

Failure is not an end; it’s just part of the process. Tom Clayton (one of Garg’s former business partners) would say: ‘Can you take a punch and come back next day?’ That’s exactly what counts. All these startups have little failures along the way. What matters is how you cope with them and how fast you adapt.

You also talk a lot about redefining possible. What would you tell students when someone belittles their moonshot-type ambitions?

Garg: Well, there’s two parts to the answer. The first is: make sure your convictions are rooted in some level of reality. Illusion is not helpful. But at the same time, recognize that you probably know more about what you’re doing and that you can see across the landscape in a way that somebody doing something very narrow cannot.

The second part is to have enormous conviction. This comes from developing expertise and knowledge, and actually understanding what you’re doing in depth. That’s very powerful because most people aren’t going to bother to pay attention to your idea at an early stage. If you have deep knowledge and conviction, just forge ahead and don’t worry what people are going to say.

Would you say impatience is a virtue?

Garg: Directed appropriately, yes. It’s helpful if it makes you focus on what’s important.

What advice would you give yourself if you were a 22-year-old WashU student today?

Garg: Well, I’m scared of today’s 22-year-olds. They’re so smart, so aware of the world around them. If I had to compete in that world, it would be terrifying. If I were heading to grad school today, I would go find a professor who was recently tenured because then you know they’re going to endure and do something.

You’re talking about finding a mentor?

Garg: In grad school, you typically work with some faculty in a research-assistance type job. Find somebody who is doing interesting work. You might not know what interesting work is, but one useful indicator is the amount of research money associated with a project.

Which part of your entrepreneurial success do you attribute to WashU?

Garg: Well, just having a broad-based education here where you can do major research, take classes at other schools and get credit was very helpful. It just trains your mind to think outside the box in a very interdisciplinary fashion. I also benefited from working for Jon Turner (former WashU computer science professor), who had a large lab funded by the government and many companies. I got a job with one of those companies. I was able to work very closely with the founder of that business in a role that I would never have had if I hadn’t come through Jon Turner’s lab.

How do you get more young people to become interested in STEM, particularly degrees that teach programming like computer science, and how do you bridge the tech talent gap?

Garg: We’ve got to make geeks cool. That means overcoming cultural and other biases that deter people from entering STEM courses. There’s a real opportunity to get more women into STEM disciplines. Ideally you want to get to a point where around half of each graduating class in STEM degrees is female. And I’d like to see this change start all the way back at grade school and high school.

Gaurav Garg earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science as well as a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from WashU’s School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Learn more about Gaurav Garg in the fall 2013 edition of Engineering Momentum.