What impressed Zezheng (Daniel) Jiang most about the wide range of companies the Syracuse student group visited during Spring Break in Silicon Valley (SBinSV) were the two attributes they all had in common—their diversity and enthusiasm. The entrepreneurs and employees came from all over the world and had varied academic backgrounds. “They said that diversity was essential to their strength,” Jiang says. “When people contribute from many different perspectives, together they can build the strongest products.” And, he says, they were all seeking the same quality in prospective employees. “They want people who are passionate about what they do. Passion means you care, and you are going to be motivated. You can learn how to do most jobs, but you can’t learn passion.”
These observations, and the revelations they have inspired, make SBinSV one of the most meaningful experiences of Jiang’s educational journey so far.
SBinSV, a for-credit course housed in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (iSchool), is a weeklong immersion program designed to give students the opportunity to study the Silicon Valley culture that has produced so many inventive ideas and businesses. The students spend five days visiting upward of 20 companies—some of them stalwarts, like Google and Cisco , others newly emergent, like Bugcrowd and Elevate—which offers a comprehensive vision of innovation and culture. They meet entrepreneurs and executives as well as venture capitalists and a group of their peers from Stanford University . In addition to the 100 contact hours during the trip itself, the students participate in pre-meetings and complete several writing assignments and a final presentation. Ultimately, the students’ goal is to synthesize what they learn into something of transferable value for a Syracuse-based company.
A Celebration of the Individual
SBinSV gave Jiang a new appreciation of his background. Now a senior majoring in information management and technology in the iSchool, Jiang was born in southern China to parents who were the first in their community to start businesses. Because of their busy schedule, Jiang was in boarding schools from age five onward. He moved to the United States when he was 17 to attend high school; at the time he knew no English. He credits his upbringing for his independence, his willingness to take risks and his ability to adapt to new locations and cultures. The appreciation of diversity in Silicon Valley helped Jiang see the inherent value of individual experience, he says, and that every life hones a unique perspective that can contribute to a diverse team.
The professional enthusiasm he experienced in Silicon Valley prompted Jiang to embrace his pursuits at Syracuse University. “I believe the most important thing I can do in college is find what motivates me—what I am passionate about,” he says. Right now, those eclectic interests include software development (he is working on a system that could help monitor depression in dogs), dancing (particularly bachata), peer mentoring and skateboarding.
The Value of Support
Jiang explained that the trip also brought into focus the importance of making a positive impact in others’ lives. He draws inspiration from his parents who, in their early years, rode bikes between towns to sell tofu and repair shoes and sometimes had to sleep on the streets, but now use their success to help others. Jiang feels a deep empathy for international students who seem withdrawn or self-conscious about their English. “I see myself in them. I remember what it was like to feel that way,” he says. In Silicon Valley he was able to help peers make connections, spark conversations and enjoy the trip. “I knew we all wanted to benefit as much as we could,” he says. “It means a lot to me to feel that I helped make it a better experience for my classmates.”
Jiang felt this same spirit of encouragement and camaraderie from the Syracuse University alumni he met. One of the goals of SBinSV, says John Liddy, adjunct professor in the iSchool and a lead developer of the University’s five immersion programs, is to allow students to experience the supportive alumni network. On this trip the students meet close to a hundred Syracuse University alumni now working in Silicon Valley (including three graduates of the SBinSV program, which launched in 2011). Many are high ranking executives or have founded businesses. Jiang was struck by how warm and approachable the alumni were. “I honestly didn’t expect people at that level of success to be so personable—they talked to us like we were friends,” he says.
SBinSV gave shape to Jiang’s post-graduation aspirations and it also clarified some next steps to get there. He plans to follow up with the alumni he met and to spend his remaining semester at Syracuse University exploring his interests and helping others. Because, as the SBinSV experience made clear, the experiences, perspectives and passions unique to him are key to his future success.