Bilal Zuberi '98
Principal, General Catalyst Partners
Bilal Zuberi is adamant about who and what will rescue the United States from its financial doldrums: "Small companies and start‑ups have created 100 percent of the new jobs in the past 15 years. Large companies have only lost jobs."
And the prime players in start‑ups, he says, are people under the age of 30. "These are the people who are able to do things that some others might consider outlandish and crazy. But these are the people who will change the world."
Zuberi, a venture‑capitalist whose job is to scout for promising start‑ups and young entrepreneurs at universities, clearly illustrates the adage "It takes one to know one." Only a few years after receiving a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from MIT, he co‑founded a start‑up company that used a new material to reduce automobile emissions. The company he now works for, General Catalyst Partners, uses its two billion dollar fund to invest in approximately 75 companies that employ more than 12,000 people.
When Zuberi evaluates the viability of a promising technology or innovation, he applies a criterion that may sound odd to the layperson: Disruptive. "When an innovation—whether it relates to science or business—leads to a dramatic improvement in performance or a dramatic reduction in cost (ideally both), then it is disruptive. When something is not an incremental improvement, but is a dramatic step—then it is disruptive.
"In the field of innovation and entrepreneurship, disrupting the status quo is absolutely the most critical concept. If it's not disruptive, you aren't shooting high enough."
For example, General Catalyst Partners invested in a company that came from a young mechanical engineering professor at MIT who had lost both legs during a mountain climbing accident. He invented an inexpensive robotic prosthetic that allowed him to run and climb mountains. The problem he has solved is a very real one, says Zuberi, and the solution can easily be commercialized. "He is in active testing now with war veterans, and then he'll move on to helping people with natural defects."
When Zuberi evaluates his own personal success, he places Wooster high on his list of influences. He grew up studying in a British curriculum (which he describes as "quite the opposite of a liberal arts education"), knew he would eventually choose graduate school at a large research university, and was searching for a small college for undergraduate school. Wooster's outreach program and alumni base in south Asia was strong, he says. "The school had captured a reputation for being challenging and very friendly towards international students. It wasn't an unknown entity.
"Wooster exceeded any expectations I had. The place grew on me and ever since I've left I've realized more and more what its strengths were and how it contributed to my life. Wooster allowed me to be an entrepreneur¬—to go out and be independent. When you are an independent thinker, you're not caught in silos of thought, or in departmental boundaries, or in disciplines that others define for you. I've gone from being a chemist, to an environmental scientist, to a managing consultant, to an entrepreneur, to a financial investor. And all this has happened within 12 years of leaving Wooster.
"It wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Wooster giving me that space to really discover myself."