Privilege at Princeton

If you’re looking for entrepreneurial tips, gleaned from the Princeton Entrepreneurs Network 16thannual reunions meeting today, look elsewhere. This is a riff on privilege.

The setting: PEN is a loose network of successful Princeton alums in various cities, and for reunions it planned an excellent day-long program in the e-quad’s Friend Center. Following a keynote from a successful entrepreneur were useful workshops, a lunch panel of other successful entrepreneurs, and an afternoon of biz pitches followed by the awards. I stayed through lunch and went back for wrapup. 
The University in general exudes “privilege” and especially in this setting.
“Everybody has a rich aunt or uncle” said Mayra Ceja (Tiger Cub Advisors) in her workshop “Pitch Clinic: Stop Pitching and Moaning and Start Converting Investors.” It was a casually dropped comment, and she was trying to prove the point that you shouldn’t ask for outside money until you had some skin in the game, and that you should approach friends and family before you asked outsiders to invest. But — 
In the general population of entrepreneurs not everyone does have a rich aunt.
“My father started a business at the same time I did,” said Ben Lerer, the engagingly modest founder of Thrillist.com, an ecommerce supplier and trend tracker for men and a venture capitalist with Lerer Ventures (photo above). Lerer, a self-labeled slacker who got through Wharton with B minuses, had a great idea: e-commerce for young men. (Young men’s magazines set trends but didn’t have local or timely action opportunities, and city magazines were actionable but not geared for the post college market.) Starting in 2005 he built the business from the ground up and revenues went from $3 million to $15 million in the past two years.
Upon questioning, it turns out his father partnered with Ariana Huffington to cofound the Huffington Post. Previously his father had built a successful corporate communications business that he sold (presumably to Time Warner because he ended up as EVP of AOL Time Warner). Surely the first $250,000 for Thrillist was not hard to come by.
In the general population of entrepreneurs not everyone’s father is a wealthy communications guru.
For example, the man who sat in front of me, a Princeton entrepreneur, has been building his company for 17 years. He agreed that the label “privilege” applies not just to money but also to advantages with contacts, expertise, dinner table conversation, and networking.
“My father was a jeweler,” he said. “He had no background in business.” Versus — what better background to lift a social media/ecommerce business off the ground than to be related to an executive at the Huffington Post? 
I’m not saying that privileged offspring don’t earn what they get. Goodness knows I know silver-spooned kids who loaf their lives away. I like Ben Lerer. He’s a cool guy with a cool business and savvy as well.

But as I was packing up, I checked my Twitter feed for #princetonreunions and what I saw stopped me cold. From a female black alumna: “So how come within first 30 minutes of my 35th, 2 women thought I was the ‘help.’”

In the general population of Princeton and Princeton University, not everyone acknowledges their inbred racism.
I do think we are all trying to do our best. I do think those careless women felt terrible about their gaffe. And just because someone comes from a background of privilege doesn’t discount their hard work and what they can accomplish with what they have.
Lerer said that when his father sold his second business, he (the son) realized that in his effort to make money he wasn’t appreciating the day-to-day. “It’s not about the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s about the tunnel.” That’s an inspiring thought. 
to be continued. 
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